The Washington Senators of ancient times, you may know, had a slightly exaggerated image, thanks to a San Francisco writer: “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” Then, in 1924, they did what people who buy the legend might consider impossible. They won the pennant. And the World Series.
And those Senators, with a stacked six-man starting rotation led by Hall of Famer Walter Johnson, won that Series with what we’d call today—wait for it!—bullpenning.
Remember: these were the Good Old Days of the Grand Old Game. When men were men, pitchers pitched until their arms looked as though they’d self-amputate, and managers wouldn’t even joke about having regular bullpens except as the holding area for the starters who couldn’t cut the mustard in the first place or the washed-up just hanging on a little longer. Right?
But 1924 was also when the Senators’ “Boy Wonder” shortstop/manager, Bucky Harris, basically said he wasn’t going to wait for self-amputation. He couldn’t quite grok why he shouldn’t have good pitchers in his bullpen in the event that, you know, the games at hand required him to reach for a stopper or close enough to one.
If anyone howled over it during the season, they must have quit laughing for awhile after Game Seven of that Series 95 years ago. But only for awhile. “The Senators,” wrote Brian Kenny in Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution, “had given the rest of the league a template to winning baseball. It responded by ignoring it.” For a long enough while.
Harris’s Game Seven starter Curly Ogden, a righthander, didn’t get hurt or shellacked right out of the chute. His arm wasn’t even thinking about a self-amputation. He struck out Hall of Famer Freddie Lindstrom and walked Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch to open. No big deal. Pitchers can and often do shake such walks off and escape unscathed otherwise.
Except that Ogden knew going in that he wouldn’t get the chance. Ogden and Harris knew bloody well that Harris sent him out to deke New York Giants Hall of Fame manager John McGraw into loading his lineup with lefthanded hitters, giving Harris the raison d’etre to reach for lefthander George Mogridge that soon. You think today’s managers are too obsessed with “matchups” to just let the boys pitch? The 1924 World Series-winning manager thought about the matchups in the earliest hour of the biggest game in his and his team’s life to that point.
And until the top of the sixth, Harris looked like a genius. Thanks to Harris’s own fourth-inning home run and Mogridge’s stout pitching, the Senators led 1-0. Then Mogridge ran into trouble in the top of the sixth, walking Hall of Famer Ross Youngs and feeding Hall of Famer High Pockets Kelly a base hit with room enough for Youngs to take third. Exit Mogridge, enter Firpo Marberry, who in 1924 blew the prevailing traditional observations about relief pitching right out of the Potomac.
The 1924 American League batted a collective .290; Marberry kept hitters to a .263 collective hitting average whether he was a starter or a reliever. The 1924 American League delivered a cumulative 4.23 ERA and 4.14 fielding-independent pitching rate; Marberry had a cumulative 3.09 ERA and 3.76 FIP. His starting ERA: 3.66; his relief ERA: 2.82. (Complete games were falling around the Show: 48 percent of pitching starts went the distance; a decade earlier, it was 55 percent; a decade later, it would be 43 percent.)
He threw a live fastball but relied on contact and his defense, and he knew what he was doing on the mound. He was probably the Old Nats’ not-so-secret weapon that season.
Before Game Seven, Marberry worked in relief in Game Two (retroactive save), started Game Three (charged with the loss despite surrendering only one earned run in three innings), and threw the final two innings in Game Four. (Retroactive save.) Now he was in Game Seven with a World Series on the line and a 1-0 lead to work with.
It cost Marberry a run to get the first out: pinch hitter Irish Meusel flied out to right deep enough to let Youngs tag and score the first Giants run. (The sacrifice fly didn’t become a rule until 1954.) But then, after Hall of Famer Hack Wilson singled Kelly to third, Marberry was betrayed by his defenders: first baseman Joe Judge fumbled Travis Jackson’s hard grounder, and Ossie Bluege—spelling Harris at shortstop—let a hard shot by Hank Gowdy get through his legs. The errors allowed two unearned Giants runs home.
Marberry retired the next two hitters to keep the damage at 3-1, Giants. The bad news is that his fielders’ mistakes hung a retroactive blown save on Marberry, making you wish there could be some way to award the equivalent of a blown save to errant defenders. (Mets reliever Jeurys Familia would learn the hard way about defenders blowing your saves for you in the 2015 World Series.)
But Marberry pitched a scoreless seventh and eighth, the former inning disrupted only by a walk and the latter only by another infield error. In the bottom of the eighth Harris hit the to-be-fabled bad-hop high bouncer that eluded Lindstrom at third base to tie the game at three and cause President Calvin Coolidge attending the game to drop his cigar.
“What happened next,” wrote Judge’s grandson, Mark Gauvreau Judge, in Damn Senators, “would have been rejected by Hollywood producers as too shamelessly contrived.” (It’s possible that the younger Judge never saw the film version of The Natural.) Harris brought in Johnson for the top of the ninth.
“I saw men crying unashamed, and men and women praying aloud,” Johnson’s wife, Hazel, would remember. Baseball men might have been crying, too, including Johnson’s fellow Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson in the press box: “Poor old Walter, it’s a shame to send him in.” Johnson had looked tired earlier in the Series and some thought he still might be.
But except for second and third in the ninth (Frisch tripled with one out) and a man on second in the eleventh, Johnson pitched as well as he could be expected to go at that point in his career, walking three but striking out five and scattering three hits over his four innings’ work.
It took a staggering stretch play by Judge at first to pick off a wide throw from third to end the ninth inning threat. Judge opened the bottom with a base hit and took third on Bluege’s infield hit, but Judge was stranded on an inning-ending double play. It took Gowdy catching his foot in his discarded mask in the bottom of the twelfth, on Muddy Ruel’s foul pop, to keep Ruel alive long enough to double down the left field line. Then Johnson himself beat out an infield hit, before Earl McNeely whacked a high hopper up the third base line.
Once again, the ball sailed over Lindstrom’s head. This time it enabled Ruel, normally a slow runner, to score the Series-winning run, thanks also in part to Meusel not charging toward the infield when he expected Lindstrom to field the ball.
If you believe Baseball as I Have Known It author Frederick Lieb, no less than commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis asked aloud whether the ’24 Series was “the zenith of baseball.” Of course it wasn’t. Landis wasn’t that visionary. Even if he didn’t see it, someone else showed baseball the future, even if baseball would still have to be dragged kicking and screaming toward it.
“Even with the Senators’ success,” Kenny wrote, “credit went to the Big Train and the rest of the starting staff. No other club felt compelled to jump on board and create their own Firpo Marberry.” Not, perhaps, until Harris himself and then Casey Stengel (with Joe Page) in 1947 and 1949 with the Yankees; and, Eddie Sawyer (with Jim Konstanty) in 1950 with the Phillies.
With his season-long deployments of Marberry, his clever deke of McGraw, Marberry holding up despite the Game Seven lead-losing fielding miscues, and Johnson coming out of the pen delivering whatever he had left, Bucky Harris looked into the future. And what he saw gave his Senators their best chance to win.
It didn’t make him want to run home to Mommy. Or to seek absolution in the places where old ballplayers thundered about how much better it was in their days. It let his team’s fans crow, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in the American League.”
1924. The year in which Lenin died; Rhapsody in Blue premiered; Coolidge became America’s first radio president; Hitler got five years for the Munich beer hall putsch; Mercedes-Benz and Sarah Vaughan were born; and Kafka, Puccini, and Woodrow Wilson died. And, in which bullpenning pulled the corks on the only World Series-winning champagne Washington has yet tasted.