Ninety years ago, Senators conquered the field

Joe Judge (right) sliding into third base in Game Seven, 1924 World Series---he'd be stranded and the game went to extra innings and mythology . . .

Joe Judge (right) sliding into third base in Game Seven, 1924 World Series—he’d be stranded and the game went to extra innings and mythology . . .

So you think the Kansas City Royals won a wild card game the weird way? How about a team winning a World Series by way of a Hall of Fame starting pitcher throwing four shutout relief innings into the extra innings and the Series-winning run scoring when an infield grounder took a high bad hop over a third baseman’s head?

Yes, it really has been ninety years since Washington’s only known World Series championship. The one secured on Walter Johnson’s arm out of the bullpen and Earl McNeely’s hop several feet over Freddie Lindstrom’s crown. Now the Washington Nationals have a reasonable chance of returning the nation’s capital to glory of the kind that doesn’t require bombs, bullets, or blood.

“Washington,” wrote the journalist and critic Mark Gauvreau Judge, “has a reputation as a city of transients who don’t develop any attachment to the place. A place of local bars and rock bands, row houses, parks, rivers, diners, and jazz clubs. And sports fans. Lots of sports fans . . . It is also a city with baseball in its soul.”

In the twentieth century, Washington had a baseball team and an image that evoked far less mischief than the city’s normal image normally evokes. (Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.) Covering two franchises over 71 years, the Washington Senators were preponderantly dismal and periodically uproarious. (They also finished dead last, in fact, fourteen times.)

But for one incandescent season Washington was first in war, first in peace, and first in the major leagues. You can look it up. Or, you can smoke out a copy of Mark Gauvreau Judge’s Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington’s Only World Series Championship, published ten years ago. (Encounter Books, $14.28 in paperback on Amazon.) The definitive book about the 1924 Senators is yet to be written, so far as I know. But Damn Senators was a pleasant addition to the spare literature about one of baseball’s less hagiographed franchises.

The grandfather of the subtitle was Joe Judge, the longtime Senators first baseman, a consistent hitter and solid defensive first baseman who may have been the model for Douglas Wallop to create Joe Hardy, the devil-dealing protagonist of The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant—shaped in due course into Damn Yankees, of course. ‘

The day Judge arrived in the majors he delayed the start of the game by twenty minutes. He had led the International League in hitting. His arrival had been trumpeted in the press, and a good crowd was on hand to see him, but his train was late and at game time he wasn’t at the park. The umpire held up the start of the game until Judge arrived.

Bill James, in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.

Unlike poor Joe Hardy, Judge and his mates required no barter with Beelzebub to bump the real Damn Yankees to one side. The 1924 Senators accomplished that all by their own stout selves.

Judge's bench was first base . . .

Judge’s bench was first base . . .

“Stout” was one way to describe Judge, in fact. He was the eldest son of an Irish farmer who’d emigrated from somewhat-parched Eire to bristling Brooklyn in 1883, exchanging plowshares for Edison Electric Company work soon enough. When Judge began playing semipro baseball (where New York Giants manager John McGraw told him he was too small to play first base), his father moved the family to “a cramped, Lower East Side neighbourhood of Jews, Italians, Hungarians, and Irish” known as Yorkville.

In his boyhood Judge resisted the time’s disquieting bias against lefthandedness, “considered,” his grandson wrote, “a moral as well as a physical problem in parenting manuals of the day.” When he wasn’t playing baseball, he was learning to swim at the end of a rope his mother tied around him to lower him into the East River. “Although I assume she did it in shallow water, near the shore,” writes the grandson, “my mental picture of this is always of a small boy struggling in rough, stormy waters.”

The future first baseman found those soon enough, sort of. With two buddies, he once swam out to Riker’s Island, where the jail guards denied the trio safe landing, the guards’ drawn guns the exclamation point. One of the trio drowned on the return swim.

Surely Judge was building the fortitude necessary for life with a baseball basket case. But the Senators he joined seemed underwritten as much by stark tragedy as larking calamity. Their earliest star, Ed Delahanty, either walked or was thrown off a New York-bound train before falling to his death from a bridge. Their greatest star, Walter Johnson, was bereaved of his father during and his two-year-old daughter following the 1921 season. And Sam Rice, who joined the Senators in the same season as Judge (1915), had earlier lost his wife and children in a furious tornado while he was trying out for a tough minor league club.

Judge had shown enough in a twelve-game cup of 1915 coffee that Senators manager-turned-owner Clark Griffith decided it was time to deal away his veteran first baseman—future Black Sox mastermind Chick Gandil. Over the next several seasons, Griffith brought aboard several keys to the Senators’ coming revival: infielders Ossie Bluege and Roger Peckinpaugh; outfielders Goose Goslin and Nemo Liebold; catcher Muddy Ruel; pitchers Tom Zachary, George Mogridge, and Fred (Firpo) Marberry.

Another addition, second baseman Bucky Harris, would be named the Senators’ player-manager . . . at age 27. He’d also be named “Griffith’s Folly” by enough writers covering the club.

A cultural and baseball examination by the grandson he never knew . . .

A cultural and baseball examination by the grandson he never knew . . .

Judge’s Washington itself was a teeming culture stew in the 1920s, if not quite so noticeable as the one in New York. Given his grandson’s professional metier as a cultural critic, it isn’t surprising to have discovered that to be Damn Senators‘ stronger side. Actually, enough of New York’s spice in those years had Washington roots or cultivation, from poet Langston Hughes and novelist Jean Toomer to the Washington butler/blueprinter’s son who once sold hot dogs at Senators games and had baseball dreams before music became his mistress: Duke Ellington.

Not quite of the deep South, Washington yet bore a peculiar balance toward its black population, and Griffith Stadium happened to sit in the black neighbourhood known later as Shaw. “(P)roud and defensive . . . Whites came to Shaw looking for blood . . . but found resistance,” Judge’s grandson writes matter-of-factly, “when they were met by a group of two thousand armed black men carrying weapons distributed to them on the corner of Seventh and U, right next to the ball park.”

There were those in the 1920s who saw the Senators themselves as one of the few Washington outlets where interracial contact wasn’t formally or officially repulsed. “The coloured citizens,” wrote Howard University sociologist William H. Jones, in a passage cited in Damn Senators as a backhanded compliment, “devoutly rally to the American League club. Here, as in no other place of their recreational life, contacts between the races suffer less restrictions.”

Not as many less as you might think, alas. Jones and a co-author, in a later passage also cited in this book, also accused Senators’ management “of making it harder for black fans to get tickets through the mail for the World Series. This . . . kept from the games many Negroes, who say they have been veteran supporters of the club–some ever since those days when it was scarcely more than a ‘sand-lot’ team, and when Walter Johnson’s balls did not quite have so much smoke’.”

Judge himself once organised a 1920 exhibition game, a club of Senators and minor leaguers playing against the Brooklyn Royal Giants, a black team. The game was soiled by a near-riot, when a white outfielder decked the black home plate umpire over a close call. Judge’s grandson believes Clark Griffth wasn’t a racist but was habit- and business-constrained.

Griffith may well have resisted integrating the Senators before 1947 not because of racial prejudice but because he actually earned more from the legendary Homestead Grays playing their home games in Griffith Stadium than he did with the Senators. Unfortunately, part of the reason was Griffith stubbornly refusing to build a substantial Senators farm system.

So long as Kenesaw Mountain Landis ran baseball it may not have mattered, but Griffith really did believe that signing Negro League players—such as Josh Gibson, who starred with the Grays—would destroy the Negro Leagues, which were hugely profitable to him. Griffith was, of course, exactly right, but it still begs the question as to why he didn’t think about scouting and signing black talent that wasn’t tied yet to the Negro Leagues.

Mark Judge didn’t think it his place to re-arrange Washington’s and black baseball’s history, and he was probably right not to think so. His focus was his grandfather and the Senators. The team might not have been so deep a miracle club as the 1914 Boston Braves, the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies, the 1967 Boston Red Sox, the 1969 New York Mets, or even the 2013 Red Sox, but they were a miracle team regardless.

The 1924 American League pennant race was a no-questions thriller. The Detroit Tigers staked a claim on the pennant until their almost mid-September mathematical elimination, leaving the Senators—which much of the nation on their side—to go down the stretch and right to the wire against You Know Whom. The Senators took a tenuous enough two-game lead into the season’s final weekend. Babe Ruth and company lost to the Philadelphia Athletics while the Senators held fort against the Red Sox, Washington pitching stranding the Red Sox twice with the bases loaded, and the clinching game ending with a double play throw from The Folly into Joe Judge’s mitt.

Armistice in 1917 didn’t provoke half the racket the Senators’ first American League pennant provoked. Or, half the silliness. A pre-planned victory parade down Pennsylvania Avenue provoked temperance-minded bigwigs to ban personal flasks from a celebration banquet, with one of them said to huff, “The World Series will not be lost here tonight!”

The Big Train (right) stood by his man on Joe Judge Day in Washington . . .

The Big Train (right) stood by his man on Joe Judge Day in Washington . . .

The Senators squared off against the New York Giants. Judge’s first-game, tenth-inning spear of a Bill Terry smash saved a pair of runs before Wilson flied out with the bases loaded to end the half inning. Judge also scored the Game Two-winning run in the bottom of the ninth. He drove in two with a fourth inning double to keep the Senators alive in Game Three; he scored one of a pair of insurance runs on a Bluege single to win the Series-tying Game Four.

He tried to start a Game Seven-winning stand with a one-out single and a grind to third on an infield hit. But Ralph Miller hit into the double play that sent the game to extra innings. And, into mythology.

“Imagine that,” the little big man would remember toward the end of his fine career. “I was only 90 lousy feet from the championship and couldn’t score.”

He also, inadvertently, speeded the end of Walter Johnson’s pitching career. In spring training 1927, with Johnson in camp hoping to have one more good season left, the Big Train pitched a little batting practice. Judge ripped a liner right back to the mound and the ball caught Johnson’s ankle and broke it. He wired Johnson from a spring road trip apologising profusely.

Later, when Johnson got a shot at managing the Senators, he had the unenviable job of sitting Judge in favor of bringing up Joe Kuhel. Close friends for years, the move reputedly caused a lifelong rift between Judge and Johnson. “[I]f so,” Judge’s grandson wrote, “they had a funny way of showing it: in the off season, they appeared at a courthouse in Maryland together, applying for hunting licenses.” Judge eventually delivered one of the eulogies at Johnson’s funeral.

The aging Judge was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers for 1933 and the Boston Red Sox for 1934. Hired as player-manager of the International League’s Baltimore Orioles, Judge decided to leave after eight days. In retirement Judge was a devoted husband, father, and family man, a restauranteur after his playing days who found a concurrent niche coaching baseball at Georgetown University without a losing season. He still loved the game and followed his beloved Senators until his death in 1963. He remained a Washington icon, inducted into the RFK Stadium Ring of Stars in 1990.

Judge’s status in Washington wasn’t always held easily by his family; his grandson noted baseball was discussed rarely in his grandmother’s home while he was growing up. “I always got the sense,” the grandson wrote, “that my dad and grandmother felt it was tasteless to brag about a famous relative. There was no shrine to Joe Judge in the house on Tennyson Street–only a few pictures, and rumours of a Senators uniform and baseballs signed by Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth tucked away in an upstairs closet. That was it.”

That was it. Three words that could be a capsule five star review of Judge’s life and his grandson’s book. Judge was a modest, likeable man with a modest, likeable family about whom we see not enough written. And if Damn Senators is as much a cultural as a baseball book, the first baseman who helped anchor the Senators’ only World Series winner may never get a more gracious telling than the one he was afforded by the grandson who never met him face to face.

In different form, this essay was first published by Mudville in 2004.

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