The Most Disappointing Season For…The Texas Rangers (nee Washington Senators)
The 1971 Washington Senators (Soon to be the Texas Rangers)
Record: 63-96 (5th in the AL East, 11th out of 12 in AL)
Pythagorean Record: 65-94
Runs Scored: 537 (10th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 660 (9th in the AL)
Prior Season Record: 70-92
Manager: Ted Williams
Hype: Forget 1970. This team was good enough to be over .500 in 1969, and Teddy Ballgame can definitely improve their hitting. Plus, we’ve got two new stars in Denny McLain and Curt Flood!
The Gory Details: When the Griffith family moved the Senators to Minneapolis (becoming the Twins) at the end of 1960, the AL decided to get another team in the Nation’s Capital tout suite, or their precious anti-trust exemption could go by the wayside. So the new Senators were a slap-dash affair with poor management, poor ownership, and no fan support.
Through 1968, the most games the Senators won in a season was 76. They drew 770,808 to the park in 1967. Of course, in ’68 they went 65-96 and drew 546,661 fans. So trucking magnate Bob Short bought the team, named himself GM (of course) and hired Ted Williams to manage.
In 1969, they struck gold. Williams got the team to 86 wins and they ALMOST drew a million to RFK Stadium. In 1970, though, the team skidded to 70 wins though attendance didn’t drop off too too much. Still, Short was *short* on cash as he borrowed almost all of the money used to buy the team.
Short, the GM, knew that he needed to do something to improve cash flow and his team. Baltimore was sucking up all of the fans in the suburbs, so he needed to give them a reason to come into the city.
The first thing he did for 1971 was trade his stellar (at least defensively stellar) left side of the infield – Aurelio Rodriguez and Ed Brinkman – to Detroit, along with young and sturdy pitcher Joe Coleman. The big haul was Denny McLain, the 31-game winner in 1968, a big name and hopefully still a big-time pitcher. His 1970 was basically lost, after a three-month suspension for bookmaking, then he was suspended for dumping water on sportswriters and carrying a gun onto a team flight. Nice guy, eh?
Still, Short hoped he’d get back to at least his 1969 form, where he won 24 games.
Then, for the 1971 season he brought back Curt Flood. Flood was property of the Phillies, and was so saddened by the trade from the Cardinals and his home and businesses to that declining team in a city that had a rep of not being so friendly to African-Americans that he filed a famous lawsuit regarding baseball’s anti-trust exemption and the reserve clause. He didn’t want to leave St. Louis, but in the eyes of baseball, he had no choice. So Flood quit. Yet he decided to give it one more chance (as long as it wouldn’t affect his suit) and Washington got him for almost nothing. Flood was just 33, but he hadn’t played in a year.
The Senators also drafted ex-Met Joe Foy in the Rule 5 draft. Foy was supposedly the star player in the deal that sent Amos Otis from New York to Kansas City, yet he was a disappointment, so much so they outrighted him at the end of the year. It was hoped Williams could unlock Foy’s potential that he showed from 1966-69.
Two late deals also changed the roster. Rick Reichardt was sent to the White Sox for young pitcher Gerry Janeski, who had a disappointing year as a 24-year old rookie, going 10-17 with a 4.77 ERA for an absolutely terrible team. Then, late in Spring Training, they acquired Tommy McCraw from the same White Sox. It was hoped McCraw would provide depth and bench strength, something sorely lacking in 1970.
Williams and the Senators looked forward to the 1971 season, providing players who slipped on offense in 1970 would rebound. Mike Epstein hit 30 home runs in 1969 and slipped to 20 in 1970. Del Unser’s 1970 paled to his breakout year in 1969. Flood and Foy could definitely help the team on offense as well. Elliot Maddox, acquired from Detroit with McLain, also looked to help the squad as he could run and play multiple positions.
As always, though, the anchor was Frank Howard. Hondo had hit 36, 44, 48 and 44 home runs for the Senators in one of the worst eras for hitters. He was 34, not much of a defender, but 30 – 40 bombs would be more than welcome.
Meanwhile, shortstop was handed to a raw rookie in Toby Harrah. The 22-year old had only one big league at bat to his credit, but showed enough in AA in 1970 to get the promotion. Pairing with him was Tim Cullen, who seemingly was one player that Williams could not help with his offense. Cullen, though, was part of a trivia question. In 1968 he was among a group of players traded to Chicago. Ron Hansen was part of a group of players that came to Washington in that deal. Midway through the 1968 season, Cullen and Hansen were traded back for each other. No one said “no backsies” I guess.
Pitching? Well, they had McLain. They had Dick Bosman, who had a 16-12 record despite the Senator’s woes in 1970. They had Janeski, who cost them Reichardt. Casey Cox had a down 1970, but he was a valuable swingman in 1969 and one of the better relievers for the team prior to that. Everyone else was a big ol’ question mark.
The team also was playing under another cloud. Short had basically been running the team on credit and handshakes. Well, both of those were in *short* supply, so he laid down the gauntlet. Someone buy this team for $12 million or I won’t renew the RFK lease and I’ll move. Mind you, the Yankees sold for only $8.8 million in 1973, so Short basically overpaid for a bad team and then tried to still sell it for probably twice its value.
McLain, despite the hype around him, didn’t start opening day. Bosman did. And he beat Vida Blue and Oakland 8-0 in front of 45,000+ at RFK. That started a decent month for Washington, as they were 12-10 and just a game behind. The crowds, though, weren’t so hot, and neither was the offense, as they were shut out four times in the month.
The other thing that wasn’t so hot was the retirement of Flood. After the hype of bringing him on and even after Williams gave him a vote of confidence, Flood retired in April after 35 at bats. He was a proud man, with many things on his mind, and basically his career was over thanks to the weight of his actions the year before. It was a sad ending for Flood, who changed baseball forever and was a heck of a player to boot.
That left the Senators’ outfield a little understaffed but Maddox was moved to more-or-less regular status, and youngster Dick Billings, who had converted to catcher in 1969, moved back to the outfield for the time being as a platoon player.
April turned to May. That’s when the troubles really began.
A stretch of 10 losses in 11 games put them in a hole in the AL East, as Baltimore was showing signs of running away with it all. After two straight wins, the Senators then plunged into an eight-game losing streak. The first three games of the streak, they scored 4, 3, and 3 runs. The last five games included three shutouts and two games where they got just one run. The last game was an 11-0 pasting by the Tigers.
During this time, Short and Williams made a move, getting rid of Epstein, who was still in a power slump, for well-traveled first baseman Don Mincher. They also exchanged bullpen lefties, with Washington grabbing Paul Lindblad.
With the team now mired in last place at 18-29, it seemed that this would be quite the disappointing season, but similar to 1970. Well, it got worse in June, and just not on the baseball front.
First, on May 27th, Foy was pulled from a game in the 7th against Boston, as Bernie Allen came in for him after Foy grounded out to short. He was sent down to Denver, and then released in July from that club. Foy admitted to smoking pot, and it was suspected that he was under the influence of other drugs. After his release from Denver, he never played pro ball again.
That meant Bernie Allen was pressed into third base duties. To replace other washouts, Larry Biittner was called up and became a platoon outfielder in the same mix with Maddox, McCraw and Billings. Howard spelled Mincher at first at times, and then Maddox played center with Unser going to right. It was an outfield go-round.
McLain was not what Short and the Senators expected, either. He won a 3-2 game against Detroit on May 14th and then lost nine straight starts. During that stretch, which saw his record drop to 4-14, he barely averaged six innings a start and compiled a 6.13 ERA while giving up 13 home runs and a slugging percentage of .573. Basically, he was getting pounded. He was also getting loaded on a regular basis.
In fact, Williams had objected to the trade in private, since he knew McLain was a hell raiser. Short was just concerned with the bottom line, and getting more fans in the stadium. But Williams knew they gave up way too much, a good young pitcher with a track record, and defensive aces at short and third, all to get a raconteur with a drinking and gambling problem.
It wasn’t going well on that front, either. They got 40,000+ on a Sunday when Vida Blue, then a rookie sensation, was facing McLain. But the day before, with Catfish Hunter facing Dick Bosman on a Saturday, only 6,221 showed up. Fans showed up in the low five figures on Sundays and holidays, but besides that they were just getting 8,000 or so a game.
That wasn’t helping Short’s cause to sell the team. Who would pay double market value for a team that was historically bad, getting worse, and basically had apathetic fans. The only ones that cared about the team, it seemed, were the politicians in Congress.
Williams had his hands full trying to manage the rotation. McLain was awful. Bosman was solid, but not up to his 1970 standards. Janeski got shelled with regularity. Williams had a lot of swingmen, like Cox, Jackie Brown and Jim Shellenback. Thing was, those pitchers were much better in relief than as a starter as a rule, but he needed them to start every fourth day. Someone had to start every fourth day.
Washington, though, saw that it was time to get some kids experience. Dave Nelson came up and shared third with Bernie Allen. Lenny Randle also emerged from the minors to take over second for Cullen. If Howard was playing first instead of Mincher, it was possible that everyone else was under 28, with Harrah, Randle, Maddox and Bittner 25 or younger.
The Senators held the #1 pick in the 1971 June draft. Righty Pete Broberg had been the second overall pick of the 1968 draft, but went to Dartmouth instead of signing with Oakland. Broberg was from Palm Beach, Florida, the son of a judge, and definitely didn’t NEED baseball. But he also threw a fastball that was almost as fast as Nolan Ryan’s and had an incredible college career. So, the Senators drafted Broberg #1, and knowing that he had the means and education to tell baseball to go to hell, they signed him and brought him right to the majors.
(Sounds familiar for Short, since he did the same thing to David Clyde in 1973. Clyde was just a high schooler, though, and I digress).
Broberg joined the rotation on June 20th and did well in his debut. Over 6 1/3 innings he limited Boston to three hits. He fanned seven but walked four (a problem that’d plague him for his entire career) and gave up two runs.
The next two starts didn’t go so well, giving up seven runs in two innings to the Yankees, and then six runs in six innings to the Red Sox again. The American League isn’t like facing the bottom of the order for Brown or Columbia. Broberg stayed in the majors all year, and pitched for several more organizations before retiring in 1978 and becoming an attorney.
All of this shuffling around resulted in a 9-18 record in June, and a 27-47 record when the calendar clicked to July 1. Short was still trying to sell the team, but there were rumors that a suburb in the Dallas / Fort Worth area was ready to give Short a sweetheart deal to move the team.
Meanwhile, back at the baseball ranch in RFK, Williams was not having a fun season. Prickly at best, he incurred the wrath of several of his players who bristled under his management. He hated pitchers, and was a perfectionist when it came to offense. But he knew that he needed to play the kids and try to win some games. So players like Allen had their roles reduced, and Maddox was shuffled off here, there and everywhere to fill in.
Allen, Maddox, McLain and a couple of other Senators were the ringleaders who got under Williams’ skin the most. They hated him, so much so that Williams declared them The Underminers Club. They loved that name so much that they threw a party and had a banner with that as a slogan.
Yet, Williams and the Senators had a good July. Bill Gogolewski was moved into the rotation as Janeski was sent down. Gogolewski excelled in this new role, and that left Cox and Shellenbeck in the pen where they were most effective. Those two, plus Lindblad and Joe Grzenda made for a very effective relief staff, which was needed especially when McLain pitched.
A winning July moved the Senators into fifth place. What it didn’t bring were more fans. From July 8th through the 22nd, they had a 11-game homestand (straddling the All-Star break). During peak baseball season, including two weekend dates, Washington drew only 88,283 fans total during that home stretch.
August wasn’t a successful month, either on or off the field. Playing the kids has its ups and downs, and Williams and the Senators had a losing record. Fortunately (?), Cleveland was having an even worse season, so they weren’t in the basement. McLain led the disappointment brigade, and he and the Underminders club all underperformed.
A 14-game 12-date homestand in mid-August probably ended any charade that Short could or would keep his club in Washington. The team went 7-7, but had a five game losing streak during the home stretch. What’s worse, in those 12 dates, only 79,540 fans paid for tickets. With Short leveraged to the hilt, negotiations going on with Arlington, Texas, and a team that seemed to be even worse than the previous editions of the club, it was almost a forgone conclusion.
The mayor of Arlington gave Short a huge down payment to help pay for renovations for a stadium that was already in Arlington. It was a 10,000 seat stadium, but could easily be converted to major league standards. That was it. He submitted the paperwork to the AL that allowed him to move the team, and by a 10-2 margin, they accepted it. That was September 21, 1971.
That day, Bosman and the Senators beat Cleveland 9-1, before a ‘crowd’ of 1,311. Fans were stunned, as were the players. Washington didn’t have many fans that went to games, but they had plenty of fans in the area. Of course that didn’t help Short pay the bills. Many of the players had put down ties to the Washington area. This wasn’t a situation like Brooklyn or the New York Giants, but it still was traumatic for many.
How do you show up for games, knowing that a team is going to move? It’s hard. Even in the minor leagues, teams that are moving usually have collapsing support. The day after the announcement, less than 1,500 saw them play Cleveland again. There was one more homestand, which would end the season. September 28-30 against the Yankees, a Tuesday through Thursday.
Tuesday, Washington beat New York 4-2 before 3,242. Gogolewski gave up just two runs in six innings. Grzenda took over and pitched three innings of one-hit ball, and won the game thanks to a double by Billings and a single by 20-year old rookie Jeff Burroughs.
On Wednesday, before 4,003 fans, the Yankees won 6-3. Harrah went 3-4 and Howard had two hits, but Shellenback had to make a spot start and gave up five runs in 4 1/3.
Thursday, September 30th. The final game in Washington for the forseeable future. There was no talk of Anti-Trust legislation or anything like that. The Senators were a money losing boondoggle for any ownership group. Nevertheless, 14,460 fans came to pay their respects.
There were banners all over the park, all anti-Short and very few family friendly. The security guards walked off the job early, and up to 10,000 more fans got in for free. It seemed no one cared they didn’t pay – these fans just wanted to see the last game in RFK, and / or raise some hell.
New York scored four runs early off of Bosman, and he left in the fifth trailing 5-1. But Washington came back in the sixth. Howard led off with a home run, and after two singles, Jack Aker came in for the Yankees. The bullpen for New York was a mess all year, and this outing was no exception. A run scored on a mishandled bunt, a grounder scored another run, and then Maddox hit a double that tied the game.
Lindblad shut down the Yankees in the 7th and 8th. In the Senators half of the 8th, two Yankees errors led to two unearned runs. McCraw was caught stealing to end the inning, and the game moved to the ninth.
Grzenda took the hill to close out the game. The stands were teeming. Fans were surging toward the front few rows. Some fans went out on the field and bugged Burroughs in right. An announcement was made about fans getting on the field, and that it could result in a forfeit. But the game started and Grzenda got two quick outs.
Horace Clark was due up, and Grzenda yelled for him to get into the box. He knew what was coming, but it was too late.
All of a sudden, the crowd surged onto the field. Players had to run for their lives as fans were grabbing for hats, bases, dirt, the mound, the pitching rubber, anything. Grzenda and the rest of the Senators ran for their lives. There was no way that the field could be cleared. There was NO security or cops. It was anarchy.
The umps quickly declared the game a forfeit. The teams were in the clubhouse. The fans were in control.
Texas got the Senators, and renamed themselves the Texas Rangers. Williams went with the team, but McLain didn’t. So much for undermining.
Short still didn’t make any money, and sold the team in 1974. Many of the young players like Harrah, Randle, and Burroughs, helped Texas through the 70’s, but it took Billy Martin to come in and make them winners.
The Senators were a bad idea gone wrong. It’s fitting their last game featured a forfeit, with the last out made by the team a caught stealing, and the game ended with disappointed fans taking their revenge on an owner who they thought did them wrong.
Chicken Wolf All-Stars: How bad was this team, really? Bill Gogolewski had the best WAR at 2.9. He pitched just 124 1/3 innings. They were good innings, but not many. Howard had 26 home runs, an OPS+ of 145 and a 2.7 WAR because he could NOT play defense at left or at first.
Honorable Mention Team: The 2001 teams deserves its own mini-essay, thanks to the A-Rod signing. Read it here.
Bad Blast from the Past: There was some hope in Washington in 1898. After Tom Brown took over as manager for Gus Schmelz, the Senators had a winning record. Well, that escalated quickly. Brown and THREE other managers only got a 51-101 record out of the squad that couldn’t hit pitch or field, and only stayed out of last place because the St. Louis squad gave up on life. After a similar 1899 where they could only place higher than the infamous 1899 Spiders, the owners gladly sold out to the NL when they decided to contract from 12 to eight teams.