It took almost 34 years for a certain baseball to be pitched to home plate in RFK Stadium, Washington. And when it finally was thrown to the plate, it didn’t sail out of the hand of the pitcher who’d kept the ball all those years, despite having been invited to throw it.
The ball would have been thrown on 30 September 1971, by Washington Senators lefthanded pitcher Joe Grzenda, with two out in the top of the ninth and the Senators about to bank a season and Washington life-ending 7-5 win, assuming Grzenda could erase Yankee second baseman Horace Clarke.
Despite the invitation to throw it up to the plate when Washington re-entered the majors by way of the Montreal Expos moving to become the Nationals, Grzenda handed the honour instead to President George W. Bush, clad in a Nats jacket, who threw an admirable breaking ball to Nats catcher Brian Schneider.
Grzenda, who died 12 July at 82, two days after his 60th wedding anniversary, never got the chance to throw the ball on that surreal September 1971 afternoon. He ended up keeping the ball in a drawer in his Pennsylvania home, in an envelope marked, “Last baseball ever thrown as a Washington Senator, baseball club. Sept. 30, 1971. Murcer grounded out to me.”
That would be Bobby Murcer, Yankee outfielder, who grounded out to Grzenda for the second out of a save attempt that never got consummated thanks to a fan riot that kept Grzenda from pitching to Clarke.
Nicknamed Shaky Joe because of a few nervous habits he had on the mound, Grzenda became a Senator in 1970 after a trade from the Minnesota Twins, who’d been the original Senators until moving for 1961, which prompted the expansion birth of the second Senators in the first place.
Shaky Joe finished 1971 with a magnificent 1.92 earned run average, a 2.00 fielding-independent pitching rate, and a 1.01 walks/hits per inning pitched rate. He was a sharp middle-to-late relief pitcher finishing 46 games in 1971 and credited with five saves every one of which was two innings or more. In his next-to-last major league season, he averaged two innings per gig and was, arguably, the Senators’ most reliable relief pitcher.
Several hours before he erased Felipe Alou and Murcer on back-to-back ground outs, Grzenda sat in the RFK Stadium stands well before game time and reflected. “I don’t want to leave this place,” he said. “This year has been the best I’ve had. It’s been like a beginning for me.”
Major league baseball was leaving the capital again because Senators owner Bob Short decided he couldn’t make it work in D.C. any longer—after he’d done just about everything within his power to guarantee it wouldn’t work.
Short wouldn’t sell the team to local interests or at least to buyers willing to camp in Washington, either—unless they were willing to pony up a minimum of $12 million, that is. The Washington Post‘s almost mythological sportswriter, Shirley Povich, compared that to the guy who buys a $9000 car, abuses it, spends $3,000 to repair it, then claims he has a car worth $12,000. Is that so Washington, or what?
“His fellow club owners let go unrecognised Short’s continual mistakes that got him into the mess that, he says, threatened to bankrupt him,” Povich wrote 23 September 1971.
They paid scant heed to the fact that Short foolishly overborrowed to buy the team and then pleaded poverty, and to the stubborn refusal of this novice club owner to hire a general manager, and his record of wrecking the club with absurd deals . . . [T]he impoverished Senators were the only team in the league billed for the owner’s private jet, with co-pilots. The owners had ears only for his complaint that he couldn’t operate profitably in Washington.
Publicly and to his fellow American League owners, Short promised he hadn’t bought the Senators on shaky financial standing in order to move them. According to Tom Deveaux’s The Washington Senators, 1901-1971, Short indulged the nation’s other national pastime: litigation, threatening just that against his fellow owners unless they let him leave.
After authorising then president Joe Cronin to find a solution, the American League owners were stunned at Short’s admission he’d been talking to Texas and other areas. Short was also in hot water with the Armory Board, which owned RFK Stadium and to which the Senators owed six figures worth of back rent. That’s rather Washington, too.
When the Armory Board threatened to turn off the stadium lights, Short relished the feud. At first the board seemed to cave a bit, offering Short free rent for the first million admissions per season and the revenues from stadium billboard advertising. What the board wouldn’t do, however, was forgive the $178,000 back rent. Along came Washington’s city council to sue the Senators and the Armory Board, for failing to pay and collect rent.
That swung into action commissioner Bowie Kuhn, whose boyhood included working as a scoreboard operator at old Griffith Stadium. Kuhn ordered Short “to keep his yap shut,” Deveaux wrote, while hitting the road soliciting potential buyers for the Senators. It proved to be only slightly less futile a road trip than many taken by the Senators themselves.
The American League owners took a 21 September 1971 vote on whether to allow the Senators to move. They now feared the National League might move to town if the Senators moved out, giving the nearby Orioles heavier competition than the usually hapless Nats. Short needed 75 percent of the votes to get his wish.
At first, three clubs abstained while the Orioles and the White Sox voted no. World Airways magnate Ed Daly told Kuhn and Athletics owner Charlie Finley—one of the abstentions—he was willing to buy the Senators. The problem was Finley telling Daly the eleventh hour was upon them, and Daly telling Finley he couldn’t decide that fast. That’s so Washington, too.
Thus did Finley and Angels owner Gene Autry (originally a “no” vote, and acting through a representative since he was undergoing eye surgery) change to “yes” votes. Thus would the Senators begin 1972 as the Texas Rangers. And thus would the Senators meet the Yankees at RFK Stadium on 30 September 1971, an almost 20,000 strong crowd filling the joint, hoisting placards and banners zapping Short up one side and down the other—particularly those displaying his initials.
Grzenda wasn’t the only Senator who wasn’t anxious to leave Washington. The idea didn’t exactly thrill Frank Howard, their power hitting behemoth and star, either. Which didn’t stop the 6’8″ giant known as Capital Punishment for his glandular home runs to give those heartsick fans one final thrill, when he checked in at the plate to lead off the bottom of the sixth.
With the Senators down 5-1 and Howard being 0-for-1 with a walk thus far, he caught hold of a Mike Kekich fastball and drove it not too far from the upper deck, and the crowd went nuclear in its momentary joy. Nudged out of the dugout for a curtain call, Howard tipped his helmet to the crowd for the first time in his baseball life, blew them a couple of kisses, then wept, as much for sorrow as joy.
The blast started a four-run inning to tie the game at five, a tie broken in the bottom of the eight thanks to an RBI single (Tom McCraw) and a sacrifice fly. (Elliott Maddox.) Then Grzenda went out to try saving it for Paul Lindblad, whose two spotless relief innings put him in line to get credit for a win.
After Grzenda erased Alou and Murcer in the top of the ninth, fans began jumping on and off the field down the foul lines. It looked menacing enough for Senators manager Ted Williams (yes, children, that Ted Williams) to order his bullpen pitchers to beat it post haste. Except that the Splinter forgot to urge them to take the safe path to the clubhouse, under the RFK Stadium stands.
As Grzenda got ready to pitch to Yankee second baseman Horace Clarke, the relievers left the bullpen and headed down the field toward the dugout. Oops. “That’s when all hell broke loose,” Deveaux wrote. “The fans stormed back onto the field en masse, yanking up clumps of dirt and grass which might be kept as souvenirs of Washington Senators baseball.”
Howard playing first base had three fans climbing his back, which must have been something like three mice climbing a tree. Grzenda saw a rather large man heading his way appearing at first to have ideas about tackling the pitcher, which Grzenda eventually admitted gave him ideas about throwing his glove—which still had the ball in it—at the guy. But all Grzenda got for that was a pat on his shoulder.
Finally, as fans continued pillaging what they could, including bases, plus letters and numbers from the scoreboard, umpire Jim Honochick ruled the forfeit to the Yankees. By the time the fans got through with the place, RFK Stadium looked as though it was tattered and torched in a terrorist attack.
Grzenda drove home from the park with his wife, Ruth, and their two children, including his then-ten year old son Joe, Jr., who wept all the way home. The Grzendas met in 1956, when the lefthander was a Tigers prospect and the Birmingham Barons’s (AA) best pitcher, and she was sitting in the stands at Birmingham (AA).
He had a look at the comely brunette and handed the bat boy a note to give her. “I had come to the game with a girlfriend of mine who I worked with at the First National Bank, and her dad,” Mrs. Grzenda revealed after her husband was inducted into the Barons’ Hall of Fame five years ago.
“The bat boy brought a note over to me that said, ‘How would you like to meet Joe Grzenda?’ My girlfriend kept hitting me on my leg, saying you’ve got to meet him and her dad said that Joe was the star of the team,” she continued. “I didn’t know anything about baseball.”
The irony abounded when Bush—a former co-owner of the Rangers—threw that ceremonial first pitch with the Grzenda ball. Schneider, known as a memorabilia collector, had ideas about keeping the ball until Grzenda asked to have it back. Schneider obliged happily by all accounts. Grzenda loved two things primarily in his life, and baseball was the second of them.
They first met in Birmingham, he taking her out for hamburgers and shakes after the Barons bat boy handed her his note. They married a year later and stayed that way happily for sixty years and two days. For two thirds of their marriage, they lived and loved with the husband part of capital lore.
Maybe it wasn’t quite the way Grzenda would have preferred becoming such lore. But that, too, is so Washington.