Almost like baseball

Sept. 04, 1961
Sept. 04, 1961

Table of Contents
Sept. 4, 1961

Pennant Race
Solvent Vikings
Strokes And Style
Double Play
Horse Racing
C. V. Whitney
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Pat On The Back

Almost like baseball

Seventh place is seventh heaven in Washington, where Senators' fans never had it so good

The Washington Senator fan, like the torch singer, makes a career of suffering. The team has gone 27 years without a pennant, and it is 14 years since it finished in the first division. "We've put up with an awful lot of bum teams," said a 31-year rooter. He sounded complacent, as though it would be sordid to support a team that merely played well. At the start of this season the Senators' prospects were dismal enough to thrill the most insatiable masochist. Calvin Griffith had taken the old team to Minnesota as the Twins, and all the local heroes were gone; Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, Camilo Pascual, Cookie Lavagetto. The new Washington Senators, created under the baseball expansion system at a cost of more than $2 million, looked partly like an elephants' graveyard, partly like an experiment in group therapy: a basic squad of 28, the great majority either has-beens or might-bes. The entire pitching staff had a total of three complete major league games among them in 1960. The starting outfield could scrape together a record of 22 home runs, and the infielders were known, if at all, as players who could neither field nor hit.

This is an article from the Sept. 4, 1961 issue Original Layout

But for much of the season the Senators have hovered about seventh place, rising at one time as high as fourth. In Washington, seventh place is seventh heaven. The fans actually resemble fans now—shouting, cheering, clapping and booing the opposition. In the past, except when Killebrew appeared, they looked like hired mourners. Attendance is up from last year though not very much (below). The WTOP play-by-play radio broadcast audience has increased, at times double what it was last year.

A wistful hope is stirring, an affection for the team that for once is based on reality, or at least possibility, though a touch of the old neurosis remains. The team is an underdog, but it shows its teeth and growls once in a while. "The new Washington Senators were like orphans you took into your home," says Bob Addie, Washington Post columnist. "And you don't kick orphans in the seat of the pants."

"Washington knew that it would never have a decent team as long as Calvin Griffith was around," says Morrie Siegel of the Washington News, "and the fans were ready to support anybody else."

Washington sportswriters occasionally warn the local citizens to support the team if they want to keep a franchise in Washington, but no one pays them any mind. Congressmen threaten an investigation of baseball whenever the franchise appears in danger.

Through Manager Mickey Vernon the team enjoys popularity by association. Washington fans still remember his easy grace at first base and his batting championships in the horrid years before there even was a Harmon Killebrew to cheer.

Serenity, at least on the surface, characterizes the soft-spoken Vernon. "Only player I ever saw to compare with him in that quality is Yogi Berra," says Bob Addie. At 43, Vernon looks slim enough and young enough to play. He is also modest—a novel quality in Washington. "When I make a move and it works, I'm a good manager," he says. The players say, "Vernon still knows what it is like to be a player." They find him tough but like him because he saves his scoldings for the privacy of the office.

In the field the Senators owe their mild success to a delicate selection of the limited skills available under the expansion plan. General Manager Ed Doherty, president of the American Association for seven years and a veteran of baseball front-office management for 20 years, Mickey Vernon with 22 years as a player, and Hal Keller, farm manager, concentrate on pitching rather than hitting. Griffith Stadium is not a hitter's park, with the left-field line 388 feet and right field 320 with a 31-foot wall. The new D.C. Stadium, home for the Senators in 1962, offers no substantial betterment for hitters. "I agree with Connie Mack—pitching is 75% to 80% of the game," says Vernon, a handsome opinion for a onetime first baseman.

The new Senators' top pick was Dick Donovan from the Chicago White Sox, now 33 years old but still a starter on any team in the majors. For the Senators, Donovan is the top winner (eight games). His earned run average is close to the best in the American League.

Another helpful pitching recruit is Joe McClain. After six years in the minors, the 28-year-old McClain was ready to quit baseball if he did not make a major league team. Doherty remembered McClain's statistics at Charleston, 33 walks in 223 innings and a better-than-average assortment of pitches. Ed Hobaugh from the Chicago Sox and Bennie Daniels, picked up in a trade with the Pirates, also are starting pitchers. Marty Kutyna, a castoff from the Kansas City club, is a starter at times. "For me the hardest part of managing is handling the pitchers," says Vernon. With his limited bullpen resources this aspect of Vernon's management is critical, and thus far he has handled the problem deftly.

Handling the outfielders has also been a touchy problem because no one of them combines both good fielding and crisp hitting. Gene Woodling, for example, began the season in left field but after turning a few fly balls into doubles he was given an easier assignment in right. Marty Keough started out strong in spring training, then slumped when the season opened. He was benched until Center Fielder Willie Tasby declined to play one night because of a lightning storm. By getting several hits that night, Keough was able to get back into the lineup—temporarily.

In left field now is Charlie Hinton, whose lively hitting makes up for his defensive shortcomings. The right-field job, which Woodling held for a time, has been given to Jim King.

There has been experimenting at first base, too. Dale Long began the year there. He didn't last. A big newcomer named Bud Zipfel was brought up from the minors and given the job.

The shifting of the infielders has been almost as effective as it has been constant. Chuck Cottier, obtained in a trade with Detroit, and Bob Johnson, called up from Rochester, have strengthened the infield. Cottier, an exceptional fielder, has taken over at second base, and Johnson has succeeded where others have failed at shortstop. Danny O'Connell is now at third.

Gene Green, an outfielder and reluctant catcher with the Cardinals years ago, is now, at the age of 38, a more enthusiastic pupil of catching under Coach Rollie Hemsley. His strength, though, is at the plate, not behind it.

The enthusiasm of the fans permits them to make allowances for Senatorial lapses. When Center Fielder Tasby recently paused long enough to triangulate the course, of a fly ball, thereby giving the hitter a triple, Willie was not booed; later, when he fanned twice in a row with men on base, the Senator fans showed almost inhuman restraint. Their boisterous displeasure is reserved only for the Minnesota Twins, regarded as deserters now and most satisfactorily defeated six out of seven games at Griffith Stadium.

The one really new personality connected with the new Washington team is the organization president, General Elwood (Pete) Quesada. Known to all connected with the team simply as the general, Pete Quesada grew up near Griffith Stadium (in 1912, at age 8, he helped turn in the fire alarm when the old stadium burned down). Quesada enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1924 and rose to lieutenant general, picking up an impressive war record and the reputation of a hard but fair man.

As the first head of the Federal Aviation Agency, Quesada incurred the displeasure of almost every interested party. "A whited sepulcher," cried one opponent. "I am not bothered by the vociferous pressures of private interests, so long as I am concerned with the public interest," Quesada says to critics in the starchy rhetoric he uses both for formal statements and casual conversation.

Millions for defense, offense

A lifelong unabashed fan, Quesada organized the syndicate that was selected over two other entries to replace Calvin Griffith's team. So far the group is committed to an investment of $4½ million; the board of directors reads like a directory of elite Washington, with a large segment of support connected with the influential Washington Post, Agnes Meyer and Mrs. Philip Graham both being stockholders, and John Sweeter-man, Post vice-president and Mrs. Graham sitting on the team's board.

Unlike Calvin Griffith, the general has no fondness for the status quo. "Baseball needs stimulants and I'm against anything that's static. That doesn't mean scoreboards with dynamite in them. I don't believe in any practice that could be construed as humiliating the visiting team. I am against the bonus system. It is harmful, ridiculous, a reflection on our intelligence and should be stopped forthwith.

"I favor interleague play. It would be a shot in the arm for baseball. I find it difficult to understand the failure to seize such opportunities to stimulate the game. It is unfortunate that some people in baseball are extremely conservative."

In his office is a framed certificate attesting that "The Senators Inc." hold membership in the American League of Professional Baseball Clubs. The office also displays several models of jet aircraft, the David Schilling Award for Distinguished Service for Flight, and a trophy awarded to the general as Salesman of the Year 1960 by the Sales Executive Club of Washington. Quesada's aim now is to live up to that award by selling the Senators as an attraction in the District of Columbia and beyond.

Next year the Senators move to the new D.C. Stadium, a concrete bowl that will offer 43,500 seats, all providing complete visibility, and 12,500 parking spaces. Griffith Stadium has 27,500 seats but third base is invisible even from some of the boxes. It has almost no parking space and seems to have been designed to keep spectators away.

With Middlesboro in the Appalachian League and Pensacola in the Alabama-Florida League, the Senators control two Class-D teams. By next season they hope to pick up a Triple-A team. Several bonus players have been signed in spite of the general's feelings on this source.

The general expresses no public dissatisfaction with the record of the team. "On the whole we've given the fans more than they had a right to expect. Brinkmanship, winning games by one run as we've done in 12 out of 17 one-run games at home, has been exciting. Both the press and the fans have been wonderful." Privately, he is somewhat less forgiving. He sometimes sounds downright sore.

In his office at Griffith Stadium every morning at 9, the general usually stays to see a game unless he has other business (he is also on the board of directors of American Airlines and the D.C. Transit Co.). He smiles easily, but nobody would regard him as soft.

The major fear of some Washingtonians is that the general might attempt to substitute his own baseball enthusiasm for the knowledge and experience of baseball men such as Doherty and Vernon. Whatever his internal role with the Senators, it is a fair guess that, with his connections in the Government, the general will make himself heard in the councils of the American League.

The current team is not a particularly young one, and obviously has limited skills. "We engage in wishful thinking, of course," says the general, "but my practical sense tells me we won't finish in the first division this year." While seventh heaven appears the possible condition for the Senators this year it is not a state intended for life on the baseball earth. A first-division finish in the next year or two is called for; even an orphan can expect a spanking once he has been adopted.