Reviewing Hardball on the Hill, James C. Roberts’s history of baseball in (and under the jaundiced eye of) Washington before the Expos moved to become the Nationals, George F. Will observed, “Once upon a time, Washington had a baseball team, and it had a reputation: ‘Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League’.”
The taunt was first fashioned by San Francisco sportswriter Charles Dryden in 1909. The Washington Senators (whose official name was the Nationals from 1906 through the mid-1950s) weren’t exactly world beaters in their first nine years of life. Or, in their final nine years before moving to Minnesota for the 1961 season.
They finished sixth in 1901-1902 and then, in order: dead last, dead last, next to last, next to last, dead last, next to last, and last. They finished sixth in 1954, dead last in 1955, next to last in 1956, dead last from 1957-59, and fifth in 1950. In between, from 1910 through 1954, the hapless Nats (“The fans enjoy home runs, and we have assembled a pitching staff that is sure to please them,” longtime owner Clark Griffith is believed to have said some time in the 1940s) finished dead last—drumroll, please—three times.
In sixty seasons before moving out of town, the Original Nats had eight dead last finishes. Or, for those who understand baseball is percentage, only thirteen percent of the time they played in Washington did they finish in the American League’s basement. They had quite a passel of first-division finishes, and even won three pennants and a memorable (1924) World Series while they were at it.
The nation’s seat of government may have hosted an awful lot of modest baseball, but they have nothing on the home of the Continental Congress. The Philadelphia Athletics had several powerhouse teams and moved to Kansas City for 1954, but they also had twenty dead-last American League finishes between 1901 and 1960. (During the years they were suspected of being the Yankees’ AAAA farm team, the Kansas City Athletics finished sixth once and seventh three times, for those scoring at home.)
About the Phillies, we’ll be charitable and leave out their fortunes from their original National League entry in 1883 and keep it to 1901-1960, while mentioning that they did win a pair of pennants, in 1915 and 1950. The Phillies, too, had twenty dead-last finishes between 1901 and 1960. And you wonder why Philadelphia baseball fans are described as “cranky” when people wish to be polite?
They, too, had a legend of futility: some time during their darkest 1930s days, a disgruntled fan was said to have taken a paintbrush to a large team deodorant soap endorsement sign mounted on Baker Bowl’s high right field wall, leaving it to read: “The Phillies use Lifebuoy . . . and they STILL stink!”
What of the ancient and hapless St. Louis Browns, you ask? From their 1901 birth as the Milwaukee Brewers—they moved to St. Louis the following season—the Browns had only ten dead-last finishes to show for their futility. They managed to win one pennant, in 1944, only to lose the World Series to the likewise World War II-depleted Cardinals. Definitely not in Philadelphia’s league.
And what of the pre-Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers, reputed to be futile enough that a frustrated fan took ink to the Ebbets Field occupancy sign in the 1930s and made it read, “Occupation by more than 35,000 unlawful . . . and unlikely”? Dem Bums finished dead last only once between 1901 and their departure for Los Angeles. They finished as low as next-to-last only six times. They won three pennants pre-Robinson and, of course, six pennants and a World Series ring with him. Cartoonist Willard Mullin’s fabled Brooklyn Bum caricature, based on circus legend Emmett Kelly’s “Weary Willie” clown hobo, merely became only a slightly deceptive icon of futility.
Very well, I surrender. The Cubs. From 1901 forward it actually took them a full quarter century to experience their first dead-last finish, during which quarter century they actually won five pennants and two World Series. Since then, they’ve had only twelve dead-last finishes, and only five of them happened in the pre-divisional play era. They’ve had double-figure next-to-last finishes, but nothing along the line of Philadelphia’s historic futilities.
Yet it still didn’t take the Phillies as long to win a World Series the first time as it took the Cubs to win their third or the Red Sox to win their sixth. The Red Sox had a calamitous 1930s but their tally of dead-last finishes from 1901 through 1960 is ten. Since expansion and divisional play, the so-long-snakebitten Red Sox have come home dead last—wait for it!—three times. The Red Sox got snakebitten by way of getting to the mountaintop, seeing the Promised Land, and then getting surrealistically kicked to the rocks along the river bank below time and again until 2004; the Cubs were longtime awful and had only a couple of such kicks before they finally got back in 2016.
Good luck with “Philadelphia—First in freedom, first in peace, and last in the American and National Leagues.” It just doesn’t have the rockin’-in-rhythm of the taunt that taunted the Senators for decades. (Duke Ellington, native Washingtonian, one-time peanut sales lad at Senators games, used “Rockin’ in Rhythm” as the title of one of his earliest classics.) The taunt that might have been true enough at the time Dryden devised it, the taunt the Senators actually rendered false. Would that be the first time anything attached to or emanating from Washington proved false?
The Senators moving to Minnesota threw the proverbial monkey wrench into the American League’s expansion plan, which originally included new teams in Minneapolis (where the Giants abandoned their territorial rights after moving to San Francisco) and Los Angeles. So the league put a new franchise of Senators in place. And, as happens so often in the nation’s capital, that good deed didn’t go unpunished.
The good news: the Second Nats finished dead last only three times in their eleven Washington seasons. The bad news: They had two sixth-place finishes, two eight-place finishes, and a ninth-place finish otherwise, before the divisional play era began. In their three Washington seasons of division play, they finished, in order: fourth, sixth, and fifth. Then they, too, high tailed it out of town, this time to Arlington, Texas.
“We tend to remember beginnings and ends, and it’s certainly true that the American League’s first Washington baseball club had a lousy beginning and a lousy end,” wrote Rob Neyer in Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups. “But the middle lasted quite a lot of years, and it wasn’t so bad at all.”
The era of Washington baseball that began when the Expos were moved there to become the Nationals hasn’t exactly been a journey into Dante’s Inferno, either. Though if these Nats perfect their apparent impersonation of the 1990s-2000s Atlanta Braves (all those division titles and a measly five pennants and one World Series ring to show for them), their fans may yet begin chanting, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and stopped with the top of the National League East.”
This is the first of what I hope will be a continuing, periodic series of baseball mythbusting. It’s not that I’m the first guy to bust them, but even when they’ve been busted with evidence enough you can still find enough people practising one of America’s other national pastimes—refusing to let the truth get in the way of a pleasant myth. Or unpleasant myth, depending.
You’d think busting a myth was an affront to all that’s sacred in America, including baseball. But I believe you can debunk baseball bunk without eroding the joy and beauty of the game.