Feb 25

Washington Senators Spring Training 1969: Ted (Finally) Gets His First Win

Part 2 of a Series

After the owners and players reached a deal that ended the spring strike of 1969, Senators’ players arrived in Pompano Beach to meet their new celebrity manager, Ted Williams.

Outside of Washington, where the common reaction was joy that Teddy Ballgame had joined Vince Lombardi in Washington, giving fans hope for their baseball and football franchises for the first time in years, the common reaction was that Williams would never last in Washington. Many expected the mercurial manager to bolt before the All-Star break, if not by the end of spring training.

Skeptics expected Washington’s terrible team to finish with the worst record in baseball, behind even the four expansion clubs slated to begin play in 1969 – the Seattle Pilots and Kansas City Royals in the American League and the San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos in the National. After all, the Nats were baseball’s worst team in 1968, their two best players, Camilo Pascual and Frank Howard, were also their oldest, and they would play 90 games against the AL’s top 5 teams in 1968 — Detroit, Baltimore, Boston, New York, and Cleveland — all lumped into the new East division. National sportswriters felt last place was foreordained for Washington.

Williams’ temperamental past, his outbursts, his problems dealing with the media, combined with the Senators’ futility would, many believed, drive him to distraction. Even if he held it together until September, how could he resist bolting a near-certain 100-loss team for the salmon fishing in Alaska and Canada? The thought of him inspiring the Senators to a winning season was foolish beyond comprehension. Anyone suggesting such nonsense was ridiculed.

Looking back, it seems absurd that so many people felt a man committed to helping children via the Jimmy Fund in Boston and who had served the Marines honorably in both World War II and Korea would bolt during the first year of a five-year contract. Part of the reaction may have been jealousy that a sports backwater like Washington, not New York, Chicago, or Boston, had landed baseball’s biggest name other than Joe DiMaggio, who, in 1969, served as a coach for the Oakland A’s.

The reaction also reflected the lowly place the Senators held in people’s minds (think the 2008-09 Nationals under Jim Bowden). The team was thought of as hopeless, beyond even the help of the Splendid Splinter.

The beginning of spring training games only reinforced those thoughts. The 1968 Grapefruit League Champs, the Senators’ one meager claim to fame, lost their first eight games. Game one was the worst. The New York Yankees pasted the Senators, 16-5. Despite the five runs, Williams’ charges managed only one hit — a 9th inning single by utility man Rich Billings. Pitchers from both teams struggled with the new, five inches lower mound. Walks abounded, but Teddy Ballgame’s team left the field an even bigger flop than expected.

The next seven games offered little hope. After each loss, the reporters goaded Williams, trying to get him to rip his new team of whom he had earlier said, “there is some talent here, but thinking in a baseball sense seems to be foreign to most of the Washington Senators.”

Williams didn’t bite. He said the same things managers say every spring: It’s early. These games don’t count. I’m not concerned.

Then, after the eighth consecutive loss, a sloppy, embarrassing effort against the lowly expansion Expos, Teddy Ballgame finally snapped. He yelled at a pitcher. He roared at reporters. He criticized the laziness and stupidity of his feeble, incompetent team. The pundits shook their heads knowingly. “These bums are already getting to him,” they probably thought to themselves, “there’s no way he lasts the whole season.”

The Senators’ losing binge certainly improved the negotiating leverage of holdout Frank Howard. While we will examine Hondo’s holdout later in this series, he and Bob Short did, of course, settle their impasse.

Once the Capital Punisher arrived, Williams inserted him in the line-up as the club’s designated pinch-hitter against the Atlanta Braves. As if on cue, the Senators routed the Braves, 18-5. It was March 15, 1969 and Ted Williams had his first win as manager of the Washington Senators.

A relieved Williams said, “I’m glad to break that losing, losing, losing habit.” No one imagined the wonderful days to come for Washington Senators baseball in 1969.

Next: Part 3 — Cap Peterson and the Friendly Winds of Pompano Beach

Click here to read Part 1 of a Five Part Series on 1969 Spring Training

Steve Walker is the author of the  book, “A Whole New Ballgame: The 1969 Washington Senators” available on Amazon: http://amzn.to/AzaNta or direct from the publisher, Pocol Press: http://bit.ly/y51taI