Apr 29

The Joyful Sendoff of 1969

The Passion of Washington Baseball Fans Part 2: The Joyful Sendoff of 1969

After their triumphant return home from the late June into early July road trip that left them with a winning record, the 1969 Senators stumbled into the All-Star break with a 51-50 record.

Still, all baseball marveled at the makeover Ted Williams had engineered out of his rag-tag band. As baseball dignitaries gathered in Washington, D.C. for the All-Star Game and the three-day celebration of baseball’s centennial, few expected to see a Senators’ team with a winning record 101 games into the season.

The All-Star festivities included the naming of the all-time best living player at each position and the award of “baseball’s greatest living player.” While Williams made the all-time team as its left fielder, his arch rival, Joe DiMaggio took the honor for top living player.

Legend has it that the Splendid Splinter, in a snit over DiMaggio beating him yet again, decided to snub the gala dinner where commissioner Bowie Kuhn honored the awardees, Williams and Joltin’ Joe included. While Williams did indeed skip the festivities, his then-wife Dolores chalked it up to his trademark reclusiveness. She told the Washington Post, “He just doesn’t go to these sorts of things. It’s part of his image.”

After a Wednesday afternoon All-Star game (a torrential downpour cancelled the traditional Tuesday evening game), a 9-3 National League victory that included a titanic Frank Howard home run, the Senators resumed their season. They continued to tread water, never falling below a game under .500 or rising more than four games above.

With 20 games to go, the Senators record was 72-70. Would Williams’ overachievers give D.C. its first winning baseball season since 1952? It could go either way. The Senators injected their fans with hope, winning four in a row to go 76-70, then lost three of four to drop to 77-74.

A 5-6 mark over their last seven games would do the trick. Those 11 games included five with Cleveland and three with the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers were hopelessly behind the first-place Baltimore Orioles, but still boasted a strong team with pitching stars Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich.

The Senators split the first two with the Indians, then swept the Tigers in Detroit, including wins by Jim Hannan and Dennis Higgins over the Bengals two aces. With six home games to go, three versus Cleveland and a season-ending three game set with the Boston Red Sox, the Senators stood one game away from that blessed winning season. Their record: 81-75.

Even so close, Senators’ fans fretted. The expansion Nats had dashed their followers’ hopes after a strong start in their first season, 1961, and an August collapse in 1967, when they remained, until those dog days, on the fringe of the pennant race under manager Gil Hodges. It’s a safe bet that most Washington fans wanted their team to end the suspense right away.

The first home game, Friday night, September 26, pitted Nats’ workhorse Joe Coleman against the Indians’  swing man Stan Williams. Through 4 2/3 innings, the game remained scoreless and the Senators had one hit, a Del Unser double.

With two out and Ed Brinkman on first, Coleman engaged in a long battle with counterpart Williams. He fouled off 13 pitches and eventually worked a walk. A frustrated Williams then walked Unser to load the bases.

Up strode Arthur Lee Maye, acquired from these same Indians, on June 20. Often confused with Cincinnati and Baltimore slugger Lee May, Washington’s Maye was a fine player himself. In 13 seasons, Maye garnered 1,109 hits. Not too many major leaguers are good enough to get 1,000 hits.

One of Maye’s 1,109 will be forever savored and remembered by long-time Washington baseball fans. This night, September 26, 1969, Maye swung and lined a pitch over the right field fence for a grand slam.

The crowd of 6,727 roared as Brinkman,  Coleman, Unser, and Maye circled the bases. Coleman did the rest. He pitched a complete game, 6-hitter, for a 4-1 Senators’ victory, his 11th and his team’s 82nd.

The Senators’ winning season was secure.

But the club did not stop there. They swept the Indians and won the first match with Boston for an 85-75 record. With two games left, the Senators need to win both to best Boston for 3rd place. Unfortunately, they lost the penultimate game, 7-2.

One game remained in the Nats’ magical 1969 season. Frank Howard, battling Harmon Killebrew, the original massive Washington slugger for the American League home run title, batted leadoff. Joe Coleman faced Red Sox’ rookie Ken Brett.

Almost all the action took place in the first inning. Carl Yastremski hit a solo homer, but Washington first baseman Mike Epstein countered with a 3-run blast of his own, his 30th of the season.

Joe Coleman again went the distance and preserved the lead. With two out in the top of the 9th, Washington led 3-2 . Rico Petrocelli was the Boston batter. He grounded to Brinkman, who threw to Epstein for the last out of the game and Washington’s season, the club’s 86th win.

The Senators had given Washington more than just a winning season. They finished 10 games over .500 and made baseball fun again in the nation’s capital.

After the last out, the crowd 17,500 strong, showed their appreciation. They stood and cheered as one, sending their heroes into the offseason with a sustained standing ovation. The outpouring of affection went on and on, the crowd realizing that, the moment they stopped applauding, this wonderful, completely unexpected season would come to an end. No one wanted that to happen.

Eventually, Williams waved and departed and, gradually, RFK Stadium grew silent as players, sportswriters, broadcasters, and fans alike now faced a long Fall and Winter without baseball.

Though no one wanted it, the 1969 season had to end. However, the fans who fell in love with Ted Williams’ Washington club never forgot them. The affection lasted 30 years and beyond.

The proof? Well, that will be the subject of the third and final part of this series on the 1969 Senators.

To read part one click here.

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.