Professional baseball needs one thing to reclaim its former glory: the Washington Senators.
By Steve Kluger
October 11, 2004
In 1955, a quartet of ballplayers with names like Smokey and Sohovik and Rocky and Van Buren faced a standing-room-only crowd of cheering fans and gave America one of its most enduring anthems.
No, it wasn’t an All-Star Game and the players weren’t even real. The occasion was the opening night of Damn Yankees, and the song—”You’ve Gotta Have Heart”—landed the way it did because the team singing it was pro baseball’s Washington Senators.
For the pure in spirit who remember when God was in His heaven and Mickey Mantle ruled everything else, the announcement that Major League Baseball would be returning to Washington for the first time in 33 years was the nostalgic equivalent to five sevens across the center line. Jackpot.
That is, as long as the uniforms still identify these Boys of Summers as “Senators.” Because the magic we’ve got a shot at rekindling isn’t just about baseball.
Unlike the Boston Red Sox or the Chicago Cubs, either of whose victory in a World Series could only be interpreted as a green light for the Apocalypse, the Washington Senators lived under no curse, offended no goats and never got rid of Babe Ruth. What they had going for them was pure luck—and most of it lousy.
Heading toward their first-ever pennant in 1903 behind the intrepid bat of slugger Ed Delahanty, they were forced to rewrite their own destiny when Delahanty fell off a train into Niagara Falls. When they won the World Series in 1924, it was only because Giants catcher Hank Gowdy tripped over his mask and dropped a foul ball on his feet. That was the Washington Senators.
But what they also had was talent, and plenty of it. They produced Walter Johnson, who—along with Christy Mathewson—was one of the two greatest pitchers who ever lived; Hall-of-Famer Heinie Manush (“The Hitting Machine”), who should have been inducted on the strength of his name alone; and Goose Goslin, whose batting average was .334. On a bad day. That was the Senators, too.
So when the team threatened to go the distance, you believed they had a chance. But you REALLY believed. They didn’t own the keys to the city, the hearts of the town for nothing. Which is a pretty daunting responsibility when the town in question is the nation’s capital.
The ties between baseball and American history are well-known and well-proven: Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey anticipated Rosa Parks and the Montgomery, Alabama, bus system by eight years. The 1978 Yankees warned us about the corporate greed that’s since turned every American city into the same generic mall. And anyone who can’t see the parallels between the besieged troops at Valley Forge in 1777 and the besieged Mets at Shea Stadium in 1969 needs to re-visit the American Revolution.
Baseball reflects our culture and our society the same way a rearview mirror lets you know what’s sneaking up behind you. What we’ve forgotten how to do is change lanes before it’s too late.
And that’s why we need the Washington Senators—who once taught us what it meant to be gifted enough to win it all, humble enough to make mistakes, and wise enough to know the difference.
Of course, we’ve had a few presidents along the way who learned the same lessons—but none of them could turn a triple play the way the Senators could.
Now we live in a time when steroid use grabs more headlines than Roger Maris once did, when lower-income parents and their children have been priced out of even the cheapest bleacher seats, and when the rules of play are downgraded so routinely that you half-expect somebody to invent a Designated Pitcher so that even dead guys like Cy Young can win their next 11 starts.
Meanwhile, evocative stadium names such as Candlestick and Three Rivers have been pasted over by product logos, leading to the inevitable day when the Cincinnati Reds will be playing baseball at Porta Potty Park.
There’s only one way this game is going to survive, and that’s by giving it back what it lost: the Washington Senators.
Because you’ve gotta have heart.