(Part 1 of a 3-part series)
Starved for a winner, Washington baseball fans went a little crazy when it looked like they might actually get one in 1969. Once the thrill of having Ted Williams on board as manager wore off, the team had to prove themselves in the standings.
After 16 years of losing baseball and having a promising team move to Minnesota and make the World Series five seasons later, fans needed proof that the 1969 club, predicted to be baseball’s worst, merited their affection.
Things started well. The Senators won 16 of their first 27 games, all against strong teams — Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, New York, and Cleveland (predicted, wrongly, to compete for the pennant). Fans remained skeptical. A rather sophisticated, well-educated lot, Washington fans don’t give their hearts away early.
Such doubts proved accurate when, after road and home series against the supposedly weaker West Division, the Nats dropped 15 of their next 19 games to crash to 20-26. The 15 losses included eight, in just nine games, against the two expansion teams in Seattle and Kansas City.
Fans and pundits alike scoffed: “Same old Senators, bound for the basement again.” Attention turned to predictions of when Ted Williams would bolt his sorry lot for his fishing boat. Bob Short started complaining again about lack of fan support, bad lighting in the RFK Stadium parking lots, cold hot dogs, and warm beer. Things looked bad.
The Senators, though, steadied, winning 11 of their next 20 games en route to a 31-35 mark. Not great, but a heck of a lot better than past seasons.
Nevertheless, the doubts remained because Washington now faced a gauntlet many writers and locals expected to break them — 16 of their next 20 games on the road with 16 games (four at home) against the American League’s elite — the defending champion Detroit Tigers, the locked-in-first-place Baltimore Orioles, and the talent-rich Boston Red Sox.
The series would take the Senators past the season’s halfway mark and, to most fans paying attention, down to their usual spot — last place.
It never happened. Instead, an unexpected wonderful performance only baseball can provide (remember June 2005 Nats’ fans?). The Senators began to win — three of four in Detroit, a dramatic win in Baltimore thanks to a Del Unser home run to avoid getting swept, three of four at home against the Red Sox, three of four in Cleveland.
On the final leg of the trip, a five game series at Fenway Park in Boston, the Senators and BoSox split the first four. The Senators amazing run of their 20-game gauntlet left them with a 43-42 record. Suddenly fans realized — Williams and his Senators were above .500 more than halfway through the season.
The Nats had the town’s attention now. In the final game of this long stretch, Dick Bosman rewarded them.
On July 6, 1969, the eventual AL ERA Champion pitched a complete game, seven hit shutout as the Senators routed the Red Sox, 5-0. In a long series of games expected to ruin their season, the Senators went 13-7. They achieved not ruin, but respectability. They gave fans hope that a winning season was indeed possible.
Imbued with hope for the first time in nearly two decades, Washington fans went a little crazy. They could contain their joy no longer. When they learned the Senators were returning home from Boston that July 6 evening at Friendship Airport (now BWI Thurgood Marshall) fans flocked there to await their new heroes’ arrival.
When the Senators descended from their plane, 1,700 fans welcomed them home. They cheered, whistled, clapped and shouted out their names. They carried signs proclaiming their love and their happiness. They clamored for autographs.
They chanted the players’ names, the loudest: “Hondo, Hondo, Hondo.” Even the adults acted like children. One old man said, “It’s the first time I’ve been really excited about them since the days of Walter Johnson and Joe Cronin.”
Many years later, the men of the 1969 Senators still fondly remembered the fans’ greeting at Friendship Airport.
Remember this story the next time someone tells you fans in Washington don’t care about baseball and that it just “isn’t a baseball town.” They do and it is.
Next: The unforgettable send-off after the last game of the 1969 season.
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.