Long suffering? Washington overqualifies.

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Their host city hasn’t had a World Series title since before Calvin Coolidge earned his only elected term to the White House.

It seems a few people of my acquaintance were less than thrilled over my defense of Clayton Kershaw. Not that they disagreed with defending him but they disagreed with my assessment of Joe and Jane Dodger fan running Kershaw jerseys over in the parking lot after division series Game Five’s demolition.

As one replied to me elsewhere, those jerseys were their property and if they want to deface or damage them, that’s their right. And she was right. It’s also their and anyone else’s right to make asses of themselves if they choose. Fair is fair. But since fair is fair, not every Dodger fan made such asses of themselves Wednesday night. That, I could have made more clear.

And for not doing so, I offer Dodger fans a sincere apology. Nobody likes seeing their heroes go yet another year with nothing to show for a splendid season. The Dodgers didn’t expect to win seven straight National League Wests with nothing to show for them, and neither did their fans.

I’m not thrilled that the Mets of whom I’ve been a fan since the day they were born didn’t quite stay the season’s distance. But who the hell am I to complain?

I’ve seen the Mets win five pennants and two World Series in my lifetime. Dodger fans of my age can point to eleven pennants and five World Series conquests since I was hatched. I’d say twelve pennants and six World Series, but I was a month away from my hatching when the Boys of Summer finally made next year happen in 1955.

The Dodgers have a measly 31 years since their last World Series win. I don’t want to make Dodger fans feel any worse than they’ve felt this week, and even Dem Bums winning all those Brooklyn pennants from 1941 to 1953 only to get slapped back down by the Yankees didn’t hurt that badly.

But it probably hurt worse that it took until 1955 for the Dodgers to bring a World Series title to Brooklyn at all, the only one Brooklyn ever knew, when the Dodgers were in the National League since the presidency of Benjamin Harrison.

Nothing personal, Los Angeles Dodger fans, but you really haven’t suffered that long even if you have taken it on the chin, in the belly, and anyplace else you can think of for seven straight years. And you’ve only been barred from the Promised Land since the last year of the Reagan Administration. I can name you fans beyond the Brooklyn fans New York’s politicians forced the Dodgers to abandon who took it a lot longer.

You think the Dodgers got destroyed when Howie Kendrick hit the grand slam Wednesday night? Try the litany Peter Gammons, then of the Boston Globe, ran down after the Red Sox went from one strike away from the Promised Land to disaster in Game Six of the 1986 World Series:

[W]hen the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs, 41 years of Red Sox baseball flashed in front of my eyes. In that one moment, Johnny Pesky held the ball, Joe McCarthy lifted Ellis Kinder in Yankee Stadium, Luis Aparicio fell down rounding third, Bill Lee delivered his Leephus pitch to Tony Perez, Darrell Johnson hit for Jim Willoughby, Don Zimmer chose Bobby Sprowl over Luis Tiant, and Bucky (Bleeping) Dent hit the home run.

And there’d be fourteen more years to come, right up to the moments Grady Little read Pedro Martinez’s heart while ignoring his tank and Aaron Boone hit the home run that had the 2003 pennant attached.

Red Sox fans, among whom I’ve also been one since the 1967 pennant race, waited longer to get back to the Promised Land than Dem Bums waited to get there in the first place. They waited 86 years between Babe Ruth’s last World Series victory with them and the 2004 Idiots; they’ve had four World Series rings to celebrate this century. Red Sox Nation has no real reason to complain again. Yet.

Cub fans waited from the Roosevelt Administration (Theodore’s) to the last days of the Obama Administration for another return to the Promised Land. And from the day I was hatched until 2016, many were the Opening Days in Wrigley Field when the first pitch of the season was accompanied by a Cub fan holding up a sign saying one of two things: “Wait ’till next year!” Or, “This Year is Next Year.” (With or without “Alas” at the end.)

Thomas Boswell reminds us that since the turn of this century the Angels, the Cubs, the Red Sox, the White Sox, the Giants, and the Astros ended World Series droughts that add up to (wait for it) 434 years. America herself isn’t even close to that old yet. And the Angels and the Astros brought themselves their first trips to the Promised Land ever. Think about that.

Think, too, about the Indians, who’ve gone 72 years without another claim on the Promised Land and got their last one around the Berlin Airlift. Not to mention how close they got in 2016. Good to the last minute, practically. Think, further, about the Rangers, who haven’t reached the Promised Land in their entire franchise existence (59 years). Or the Padres, who haven’t reached it in fifty years.

Brave fans? They had eleven straight division championships and fourteen out of fifteen. They have five pennants and one World Series ring to show for it. They’ve had three division titles, four NLDS losses, and a wild card game loss since. That ain’t easy, Clyde. (Thank you, Phil Harris.) Neither was the ten-run beating they took in the first inning of the fifth game of their just-ended division series, either.

Ten straight divisions without seeing the Promised Land trumps seven straight most of the time. Those Braves won their World Series a year before. In franchise terms, they went 43 years between the Miracle Braves’ conquerors in 1914 and the Warren Spahn-Henry Aaron Braves in Milwaukee taking the Promised Land in 1957. I’ll leave it to Brave fan and Dodger fan to slug that one out for now.

But there’s a team that just won Game One of the National League Championship Series and hasn’t gotten to the Promised Land in their entire 49-year franchise history, either. Representing since 2005 a city that hasn’t seen the Promised Land since Calvin Coolidge was a month from winning his only elected term as an American president.

Oops. Better not lean on that too hard. The Nationals got to this NLCS by breaking the Dodgers’ backs. And if they overthrow the Cardinals for a date with either the St. Elsewhere Yankees or the Gray’s Anatomy Astros in the World Series and then overthrow one or the other of those bloodied-but-unbowed behemoths . . .

C’mon. There are and have been real baseball fans in Washington for eons, and only a nano-fraction of them carry government identification. And they’ve put up with at least as much crapola as any Cub, Red Sox, Phillie, White Sox, or Brooklyn Dodger fan in creation ever had to bear.

I don’t remember any Cub, Red Sox, Phillie, White Sox, or Bum fan hearing their heroes’ owners tell the world, “The fans like home runs, and we have assembled a pitching staff that is certain to please them.” Old Senators owner Clark Griffith is said to have come up with that in the 1940s.

I can’t think of any out-of-town observer hanging the Cubs, the Red Sox, or the old Brooks with a comparable observation that became a lifetime (and not even close to always accurate) watchword: “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”

Brooklyn was abandoned only once. Boston proved too much the seat of Red Sox Nation for the Braves to stay. St. Louis proved too much Cardinal Country’s capital for the decrepit Browns to even think about staying. The Mack family was too tapped to hold onto the Athletics before their successor owner moved them to Kansas City. (And, made them practically a 1950s Yankee finishing school while they were at it.)

But at least the City of Boo-therly Love (Those people would boo at a funeral—Bo Belinsky) still had the Phillies. (Who went 28 years between World Series titles, by the way, not to mention 97 years in the National League before winning their first.)

Do you remember how long Kansas City had to wait between their abandonment by the A’s and the birth of the Royals? Try two years. Do you remember how long Seattle had to wait between the Pilots’ heist to Milwaukee and the birth of the Mariners? (Who also haven’t seen, never mind won a World Series in half a century.) Seven.

Washington had it happen twice, when the original Senators moved to Minnesota for 1961 and the Second Nats’s own owner kidnapped them to Texas for 1972. Washington fans waited 33 years for the national pastime to return to the nation’s capital. Settling for rooting for the somewhat adjacent Orioles—who, by the way, haven’t seen the Promised Land since the first Reagan Administration.

Fine thing to happen to one of the American League’s charter cities.

But no Washington fan—ever—turned an outfield wall deodorant soap ad into a classic insult. That bright idea is said to have happened in Philadelphia: “The Phillies use Lifebuoy . . . and they STILL stink!

And no Washington fan ever painted an addendum on either Griffith Stadium’s or RFK Stadium’s occupancy advisory: “Occupancy by more than 35,000 unlawful. AND UNLIKELY.” A Dodger fan in Ebbets Field thought of that during the 1930s.

And no matter how they got it, no matter the shenanigans that brought the Montreal Expos to the Beltway, no matter the shenanigans of the nation’s largest organised crime family headquartered there, guess what happened when they returned.

Former Senator Joe Grzenda handed President George W. Bush a ball to throw for the ceremonial first pitch. The ball Grzenda wasn’t able to pitch to Yankee second baseman Horace Clarke at the Second Nats’ final home game ever, because heartsick fans lost it and stormed the field, forcing a forfeit.

And from there, “in that decrepit, rodent-infested RFK Stadium, the team drew 2,731,993 fans” (Boswell) in 2005. “Do you know the first year that the New York Yankees ever drew that many people? Try 1998.” It took them a mere seven years to get good. They’ve stayed that way ever since for the most part.

The Nats finished eleventh in National League attendance this season but they still drew 2,259,781 to Nationals Park. And they weren’t even close to being all or mostly bureaucrats, Congressmanpersons, or White House crawlers, either. Stephen Strasburg might have been just the most vocal Nat lamenting for more home game support, but the Nats aren’t bereft for love.

They’re just bereft of even one year’s lease for the Promised Land. Their home city’s been bereft of it for almost three times as long. And if you think Nationals Park will be devoid of a red, white, and blue racket audible from coast to coast when the NLCS moves there for Game Three, think again.

Washington’s put up with enough from its largest business. So has the country. It’s long past time that Washington and the country caught even a temporary break. Washington hasn’t seen the Promised Land in 95 years. That’s not as long as the Phillies and the Cubs were deprived. But for a baseball town, Bugs Bunny was wrong: 95 years does seem like forever.

Nothing personal, Yankees and Astros. You’ve been wonderfully deep and gutsy teams this year. You’ve earned the chance to determine which of you is going to win not just the American League championship trophy but possibly the Nobel Prize for Medicine. You’re fun to watch, you’re as admirable as the week is long, and you’re an example to us all of survival under attrition.

But you, Yankees, with your forty pennants and 27 World Series trophies. You don’t know the meaning of the word “suffering,” you and your fan base who seem to continue thinking you’re entitled to play in, never mind win, every World Series.

You, Astros? You’ve owned the American League West for a third year running and had a whale of a World Series win at the end of the first of those seasons. You’re too good and too smart to be deprived again any time soon.

Whichever one of you gets to the World Series, if the Nats get there (you, Cardinals, can just hurry up and wait, too, with your 23 pennants and eleven World Series triumphs), it will not be the end of life as you or we know it if they push, shove, nudge, bump, or bomb you to one side and themselves to the Promised Land. I promise.

Joe Grzenda, RIP: Holding a riot ball

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Joe Grzenda (right) with President George W. Bush, handing Bush the baseball Grzenda saved since the final, ill-fated Washington Senators game in 1971.

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 from giving 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.

Marberry fields forever

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Firpo Marberry, whose manager Bucky Harris saw the future in part through his eyes and arm in 1924 . . .

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.

Traded for Gil Hodges, then to hell and back for Bill Denehy

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“Met fans who remember me ask, ‘Oh, Bill Denehy. You’re the guy who was traded for Gil Hodges, aren’t you?’ ‘I am,’ I tell them with great pride.”—Bill Denehy.

With eleven games left in the 1967 season, Mets manager Wes Westrum, who’d succeeded Casey Stengel, resigned. Third base coach Salty Parker took the bridge to finish the season, but the Mets had a permanent candidate in mind.

They wanted Gil Hodges, the much-loved Brooklyn Dodgers icon, who finished his playing career as a knee-injured Original Met before becoming the manager of the expansion Washington Senators. But it would cost the Mets to get Hodges, since he’d signed a contract extension that would take him through the end of 1968.

So the Mets traded righthanded pitcher Bill Denehy—who shared a 1967 Topps rookie baseball card with future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver—to the Senators. If you ask Denehy today whether any Met fans who remember him ever suggested he could be called the man who really made the 1969 Miracle Mets possible, he says no . . . while laughing heartily.

Then, he tells the backstory, which begins with his having left an impression on the parent Senators when he pitched well against their minor league teams while rising through the Mets’ system. To get the Hodges deal done required a little Yankee panky—specifically, former 1930s teammates Johnny Murphy (relief pitcher) and George Selkirk (outfielder), now major league general managers.

“The Senators were trying to extract as much as they could for giving up Hodges,” Denehy says by telephone from his Florida home.

They got $100,000 in cash and they wanted a player. Johnny Murphy was then the general manager of the Mets, and George Selkirk was the general manager of the Senators, but they didn’t really like each other. Selkirk was pushing for the additional player. Mr. Murphy told me they offered three additional players to choose instead of me, but Selkirk insisted it be me. What the Mets didn’t tell them was that I hurt my arm in May and was sent to the minor leagues and got a couple of cortisone shots.

The injury in question occurred when Denehy threw a hard slider to Hall of Famer Willie Mays in his fourth major league start. “It felt like someone stuck a knife in my shoulder,” he once said. Back in the minors in Florida during ’67, he underwent a procedure to have a dye shot into his arm and shoulder and it showed the torn muscle. The Mets’ then-team physician, Dr. Peter LaMotte, didn’t affirm that diagnosis; the Mets also failed to pass the information to the Senators.

Going to the Senators for Hodges may have been the least among strange, sad deals Denehy has seen, handed himself, and been handed in the decades since.

Bill Denehy today is legally blind. It began when he awoke one morning in January 2005 unable to see through his right eye, thanks to what proved a torn retina. Caught frozen without medical insurance, since he was two weeks from beginning a new job after leaving his incumbent job, Denehy needed help from a church group to undergo the surgery at a University of Florida eye facility.

Surgery performed by the same doctor who operated on boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard’s torn retina proved unsuccessful. “He said my retina tear was worse than Sugar Ray’s was,” Denehy says, adding that he’s since incurred two more retina holes, a macular hole, and required a stent for his left eye.

Friendly and sounding far younger than his 73 years, Denehy believes up to 57 cortisone shots in 26 months that he was given as a young pitcher caused his eventual visual loss. As he wrote (with Peter Golenbock) in his memoir, Rage: The Legend of Baseball Bill Denehy (Central Recovery Press; 280p, $16.95), “I didn’t know any better.”

This was before the dangers of cortisone were made public. I knew Sandy Koufax was taking them for his arm, and Sandy was my hero, so I figured what was good for Sandy was good for me. I found out years later that nobody should take more than ten cortisone shots in a lifetime. I was later told that if you take more than ten shots in a lifetime, your corneas will go weak and you risk going blind. I wish someone had said something back then.

“I have my hand out in front of me a foot, and I can’t see my fingers,” Denehy says on the phone. “If I bring them in, if I stuck my thumb on my nose, and then just turn my hand where my palm is facing me, I can see my fingers there.

“But I can’t read or write,” he continues. “I’ve got the television on mute right now, and all I see is whiteness and black things moving. I don’t know whether it’s a person or it’s a game or whatever on there. I can’t go to the computer. I can’t read any type of thing. Telephone numbers are difficult for me. I used to have five by seven cards with big numbers written down for telephone numbers, but that’s gone by the wayside now. I’m in the final stages now of what we call in blindness—darkness.”

Administered to excess, cortisone is also linked to glaucoma, the disease that put paid to Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett’s playing career in 1996, ten years before his premature death from a stroke. Puckett isn’t known to have taken cortisone often if at all during his twelve-season career, but it was revealed that glaucoma ran in his family.

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Short-lived Senator Denehy, following The Trade.

Does Denehy think baseball’s medical personnel during his career simply didn’t know the full extent of cortisone’s potential dangers? Or does he think they saw players then as mere commodities to hustle back to the field posthaste, regardless of actual or long-term health? “Great question,” he replies. “I think it was a little of both.”

He once joined a 2004 legal action involving the cortisone issue, filed by former White Sox catcher Mike Colbern, who died in March. “Baseball gave us illegal drugs and too many cortisone shots,” Colbern told Douglas J. Gladstone for A Bitter Cup of Coffee, “but never kept medical records in order to keep us playing.”

Denehy is one of 634 still-living, short-career former major leaguers who were frozen out when a 1980 agreement between baseball government and the Major League Players Association re-aligned the game’s pension plan to vest health benefits after one day’s major league service time and a retirement allowance after 43 days’ major league time. The deal didn’t include players whose careers occurred between 1949 and 1980.

Colbern, one-time Met shortstop Al Moran, and former Houston second baseman Ernie Fazio (who died in 2017), the first signing by the Astros’ franchise (born as the Colt .45s), led a 2003 class action suit against baseball, after a 1997 agreement to provide $10,000 pensions to select former Negro Leagues players who saw some Show time but still didn’t qualify for the 1980 pension re-alignment.

The suit accused baseball of discrimination (Colbern stressed the players didn’t want to deny the Negro Leaguers) and also charged battery and negligence against baseball for allowing team doctors and trainers to administer multiple cortisone shots without informing players of cortisone’s risks. Several hundred players including Denehy joined the suit.

It lost on appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006. Baseball government, ESPN said at the time, “argued that the former players were essentially looking for a handout they didn’t deserve.”

Denehy still hopes to help change that for players such as himself. Players such as David Clyde, the mishandled Rangers pitching phenom of the 1970s. And, Jim Qualls, the Cub center fielder remembered if at all for busting Seaver’s bid for a perfect game in the ninth inning in 1969. And, Carmen Fanzone, a third baseman frozen behind Hall of Famer Ron Santo with the Cubs but who made a second career as an in-demand jazz trumpeter.

In 2011, then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-Players Association executive director Michael Weiner announced a re-alignment of the 1980 pension re-alignment: Players frozen out of the original re-alignment would get $625 for every 43 days major league time, with the 43 days representing a quarter and a limit of sixteen quarters, good for $10,000 before taxes. The bad news: If a player dies before collecting the last of those payments, the remaining payments can’t be passed on to their widows and children.

“My feeling is that we should get a pension that is indicative of the service time in the big leagues,” says Denehy of the pension re-alignment, for himself and for those among his 634 fellow former players frozen out of the deal. “We earned the time, okay? When they dropped it down to 43 days active service time, every one of us prior to 1980 that had more than 43 days should have gotten a pension.”

One possible reason for the pre-1980 players’ freeze-out? Stressing that it was strictly hearsay, Denehy spoke of a sense that many if not most of the players in question were merely September call-ups, with baseball and the players’ union believing they “didn’t really earn their way onto a major league roster.”

That might have been true for a few of the players but certainly not all of them. Denehy pitched in three major league seasons, for the Mets, the Senators, and the Tigers, and he made each of those teams directly out of spring training.

When he reported to the 1967 Mets’ spring camp, Denehy didn’t figure in their pitching plans until the day Jack Fisher, the one-time Orioles “Baby Birds” rotation member, had to miss a spring start when his little daughter was injured in a fall. Denehy got the start instead, zipping through three innings and posting a strong enough spring to go north with the Mets to open the season.

He got his first major league start on 16 April 1967, against the Phillies, striking out eight including the first Show batter he faced, Johnny Briggs. The eight punchouts matched Seaver for a Mets rookie record that stood until Matt Harvey broke it in 2012. Other than six walks against those eight strikeouts, Denehy’s only other blemish in the game came when Dick Allen blasted a two-run homer in the bottom of the fifth.

“That wasn’t a home run,” Denehy chuckles. “That was a moon drive.” The rising liner sailed until hitting a Coca-Cola sign atop Connie Mack Stadium’s second deck. Without the sign, Denehy says, “that ball would have landed in Delaware.”

Three starts later, facing Hall of Famer Juan Marichal and the Giants, Denehy threw the fateful slider to Mays. The knife in the shoulder the pain resembled would prove nothing compared to the one the quick-tempered, admittedly self-destructive, injury-plagued Denehy would stick into himself a few hundred times over.

The physical pain from his baseball injuries prodded him to more serious drinking plus marijuana and cocaine. Out of baseball, he tried real estate, insurance, and radio broadcasting, before becoming a pitching coach in the Red Sox system. (His charges included the young Roger Clemens.) By 1987, Denehy’s marriage collapsed, unable to bear the weight of his addictions and his furies any longer.

He was the University of Hartford’s baseball coach from 1984-1987. (One of his players was future Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell.) He rebuilt the team into a potential powerhouse before a bench-clearing brawl with the University of Connecticut brought out the worst of the inner clash between Denehy’s passion to win and his fear of failure, the clash that helped ruin him.

By his own admission a runaway train, Denehy remarked out of frustration after the brawl that he hoped a particular UConn assistant coach got car bombed—he swears he was trying to say he hoped the coach’s car would be blown up “like a balloon,” but he was cut off before he say that second part. After his firing, Denehy tried to pitch once more, in the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association in Florida in 1989.

But he failed a physical exam, and settled for becoming a colour commentator on league broadcasts, with Lou Palmer—the first on-air ESPN broadcaster—handling play-by-play. His eventual memoir collaborator, Peter Golenbock, in The Forever Boys, said Denehy’s in-game interview of former Mets Rookie of the Year Jon Matlack—pitching for the St. Petersburg Pelicans—drew a threat from former Tiger pitcher Milt Wilcox to slap Matlack with a kangaroo court fine.

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The rookie card, appraised by some collectors’ sites as worth up to $7,000 in mint condition.

Two subsequent road accidents caused Denehy injuries from a dislocated jaw and broken ankle to neck and back issues. He lapsed back into marijuana and cocaine until it throttled his plan to launch a national radio talk show discussing addiction and sports. He sobered up for good and  reconciled with his children and his parents.

“I haven’t really reconciled that well with my ex-wife,” he chuckles, “but my daughters and I, we talk all the time, and it’s really good.” More than good. When Denehy was bilked out of a reported $17,000 (he thinks it may have been as much as $30,000) by his now-former caretaker, Donna Sue Santella, one of his daughters worked with his bank to get the charges Santella’s accused of running up off his accounts.

It was easier facing Dick Allen and Willie Mays than facing the losses Santella admitted in an affidavit to inflicting on him. “Very simply, first of all I feel extremely violated that she worked for me for 25 months and we found out she was stealing for fifteen months,” Denehy says. He now has a new caretaker, thanks to Florida’s department of children and families who steered him toward an agency that bonds and vets its caretakers fully.

“I want to make sure that anyone who has a handicapped person or a senior citizen that’s in their family, or just a good friend, if they need assistance, they go through an agency that is bonded and vetted to make sure that person who’s going to assist them doesn’t have any kind of record or has done this before,” he says.

Denehy admits he’s had “a bad tendency” to trust the wrong people, from his pitching days to the Santella case. “And, again, my message is that you be very, very careful,” he says. “You can’t go on in life without being able to trust people. But, make sure that it’s done over time, and make sure that you can talk to other people, so that you don’t feel people are taking advantage of you.”

He still loves baseball deeply and pays close enough attention to the games and the issues around them. He’s interested especially in proposals to move the pitcher’s mound, an idea now under experiment in the independent Atlantic League. He thinks the mound should be moved back—but not quite in the way the ordinary fan or even the commissioner’s office think it should.

But he prefaces his theory with a challenge, saying that “if you ask a hundred people what’s the distance between the rubber and the plate,” they actually answer incorrectly.

The distance is 60 feet, six inches, right? Wrong, Denehy says. “It’s actually 59 feet and one inch from the pitching rubber to home plate. It’s sixty feet, six inches, to the back apex of home plate, where they’ve got a seventeen-inch square that’s cut off the corners to make the lines that go down to first and third base.”

And he would move the rubber back the length of the plate, to make the distance a true sixty feet, six inches. The reason? Not on behalf of more balls in play or artificial pace-of-game concerns—but safety.

If you’re someone like [Aroldis] Chapman for the New York Yankees, he throws over a hundred miles an hour. But—he has a seven-foot stride. So in fact when he’s releasing the ball, he’s not even fifty-nine feet, one inch from home plate, he’s fifty-two feet, one inch from home plate . . . Just look at the number of players over the last couple of years who’ve been hit in the wrist and everything, broke their wrists or broke their arms. Because they don’t have enough time to get out of the way of a pitched ball. 

And if a batter hits a 121 mph liner off a pitch thrown at 100 mph, Denehy says, “anyone who’s ever pitched and tries to throw as hard as you can, when you follow through your glove is at your side and your throwing arm is crossing your opposite hip. At 121 miles an hour, at fifty-two feet, one inch, you don’t have enough time to react to be able to get your glove up to [stop] a ball that’s hit at your face.”

The night before our conversation, the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo lined a base hit off the head of Pirates starting pitcher Jameson Tallion. “I’m fine,” Tallion said after the game. “I’m unlucky I got hit and lucky I seem to be OK coming out of it.” It wasn’t the first time Tallion was ever hit by a line drive on the mound.

“Either a batter or a pitcher is going to get killed,” Denehy says. “And that’s going to be too damn late for baseball to come in and make a reactionary change in something that doesn’t have anything to do with batting average or pitching statistics, it has to do completely with safety.”

Like many, Denehy casts an interested eye upon the current trend of teams opening their checkbooks for lucrative, somewhat long-term contract extensions for their best young players, forestalling their first free agency seasons by several years. He thinks the owners have their own pocketbooks in mind, of course, but the players signing such extensions—even if they could have bagged more on the open market—aren’t exactly “heading for the breadlines,” either.

Referring to Bryce Harper’s mammoth new contract with the Phillies, which wasn’t an extension but a free agency signing, Denehy is emphatic. “He wanted to play baseball,” Denehy says. “And not be involved in any more negotiations, no more opt-outs, no more bonuses, he wanted to sign a deal where for the rest of his career he could do the one thing he loved more than anything else, which wasn’t making money, he wants to play baseball, and I say good for him.”

Denehy also cautions against assuming that the highest-salaried player on a team will become the automatic team leader. Often as not, the lower salaried players prove to be the team’s true leaders, though Denehy likes to point to one well-paid Hall of Fame teammate who became a leader quietly but authoritatively—Al Kaline, who once turned a salary raise down because he believed he didn’t earn it.

Kaline was once the highest-paid Tiger and the first to sign a six-figure season’s contract. “Al Kaline was extremely soft spoken,” Denehy says. “Any time we had a team meeting, any time we had anything that, you know, caused the team to get together to give their opinion . . . Al would sit at his locker and vote just like he was—Bill Denehy. He wasn’t someone who would complain, he wasn’t someone who really wanted to put his opinion out there, he was the ultimate team player. But just because you get the most amount of money, doesn’t mean that you’re going to become the team leader in the clubhouse.”

But he hopes most to see baseball finally resolve the 1949-1980 players’ pension issue once and for all. “I don’t think any one of us are at a point where we’re asking for something that we haven’t earned.

“You know, I don’t think they owe me because of all the cortisone shots that they gave me, I don’t think that they owe me for the tear that I had in my shoulder,” Denehy continues. “All I’m asking for is what I earned, and that was the service time that I got in. If they do that, make me just a regular pension, I will continue to stay happy and promote this great game of baseball.”

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Denehy (left) with Seaver, spring 1967: “We were Prospect A and Prospect A-1. I’m not sure who was which.”

Regretting only that he didn’t think to get a second opinion about his original shoulder injury, Denehy refuses to allow his blindness to interfere with living.

“I’m Irish,” he says, laughing. “I have faith in a higher power. I’ve got some really good friends. I went back to my fiftieth high school reunion in 2014, I was absolutely amazed at the number of classmates who came up to me that weekend and said how proud they were of me, you know, being from our class and getting to the big leagues. And I still stay in touch with a good dozen of them, a couple of them almost every day a phone call to see what’s going on.”

The only other thing to sadden Denehy is the fate of Seaver, who’s retired from public activities following a diagnosis of dementia and isn’t likely to be part of this year’s fiftieth anniversary commemorations of the 1969 Mets. The two pitchers first met when pitching for the Mets’ then-AAA farm in Jacksonville, Florida, before both made the Mets in spring 1967.

“We went north, we were like Prospect A and Prospect A-1, I’m not sure who was which,” he continues. “Our lockers were next to each other in the clubhouse. I knew [Seaver’s wife] Nancy. Every time I was around Tom, he always treated me, while we were teammates, and even after I was out of the game, he treated me as a friend and a former teammate.”

When Denehy worked as a baseball reporter for Enterprise Radio in 1980, the network assigned him to cover Opening Day in Cincinnati, when Seaver was with the Reds. Knowing Seaver didn’t really like to talk on Opening Day, Denehy arrived a day early with an idea.

“They were having their practise,” Denehy says, “and I went up to him. We all called him Soup back then. I said, ‘Hey Soup, I need a favour from you.’ And he says, ‘What’s that?’ And I said, ‘I’m covering the game tomorrow for Opening Day, you know, for this network, it’s my first job, and I’d like to get an interview from you, but I realise you don’t do it tomorrow on your Opening Day, so maybe we could do it today.’

“And he put an arm around me and said, ‘Hey, listen. You’re a friend and a former teammate. Show up tomorrow at 10:30 in the clubhouse, here, and you and I will go underneath the stands and I’ll give you my comments on Opening Day.’ And he did that, and I was able to broadcast it.”

Denehy pauses a quick moment before finishing his thought. “That’s how much I think of that man,” he says. “I’m very sorry to hear about his illness.”