Think, for a moment, in terms of billboards. Think of marquees, flyers, handbills, throwaways and full-page ads. COMMAND PERFORMANCE: THE WASHINGTON SENATORS. MOST EXCITING TEAM IN BASEBALL. MUST ENTERTAINMENT. Or, LIMITED ENGAGEMENT, THROUGH WEDNESDAY: THE WASHINGTON SENATORS. BASEBALL'S MOST FASCINATING TEAM. What's that? The moribund Washington Senators "exciting"? The last-place Senators "fascinating"? Preposterous. All right, that too.
But no longer a team ignored. All those years—generations, it seems—are past when a writer only needed to summon up a word like "inconspicuous" ("rotten" might have been better) to characterize the Washington club. The Senators are not to be ignored anymore. They virtually thrust themselves onto the daily sports page, a delightful, unlikely medley under an unorthodox, enlightened leadership.
Observe the fascinating Senators as spring training games began in Florida last week. Their owner, who has been in the baseball business only three years, does so many things wrong that the writers in Washington cannot stop writing about him. His name is Bob Short and he traded half his infield against everybody's wishes for Denny McLain, and he is so sorry about what he did that he cannot stop grinning.
McLain is the Senators' new star pitcher. He was a notorious character twice suspended from baseball last year, but before that he was a 31-game winner for Detroit in 1968. There have been years when the entire Washington team had a very hard time being a 31-game winner.
March 15, 1971
Then there is the newly enrolled star outfielder who has a lawsuit pending that challenges the structure of baseball. His name is Curt Flood and he hit .293 in 12 years as a St. Louis Cardinal. When the Cardinals traded him, Flood refused to go, flouting the reserve clause, and sat out last season to cultivate, he says, a hate for the Cardinals. He has written a book on his travail and has passed out copies to his new teammates. Flood gets almost as much attention in Florida as McLain.
The incumbent attention-getter is Frank Howard. He wears size 13 shoes and weighed 297 pounds when he reported for duty in Pompano Beach three weeks ago. Howard became so big a star in the off season that his manager has told him he cannot play the outfield unless he lets some of himself go. When Howard is asked how much he weighs, he gets a pained look, as if his shoes have shrunk.
Howard's other position is first base, which he shares with Mike Epstein. Epstein is another of the interesting cases that have infiltrated the Senators. Epstein has been told again and again what a great potential he is, and on occasions in the past he has demonstrated that this is not idle flattery. Usually, however, Epstein has given management the impression that he will set a record for sulks and dudgeons before he ever leads the league in singles and doubles. He-has started off the spring in midseason form—his face a pantomime of indifference and boredom whenever he comes to bat. Indifference happens to be the one thing the team's manager cannot stand.
The manager's name is Ted Williams. Williams always begins the spring by confessing that he would rather be someplace fishing. This is a front Williams puts up, like a duck blind, to keep writers and the team's owner from getting too used to having him around. The fact is that Williams loves being one of the best managers in baseball and he has quit forecasting his imminent retreat to the front office. It is possible that for pure pleasure Williams would prefer more than anything else to be settled behind the batting cage at home plate, pointing out the inevitable flaws in his mediocre hitters. That or needling his second-string catcher.
The second-string catcher is Jim French. Ordinarily Jim French would be a Senator to be ignored, except that he represents a kind of synthesis of the team's fresh spirit. French is not big (5'7"), but at 182 pounds neither is he lithe. He hit .211 last year and one home run and did not steal a base. He is, however, the fastest tongue on the team and is irrepressible. He considered his terrible record and asked for a raise. For a time he was even a holdout. He told Williams a man's contribution can be measured in more ways than hitting and fielding. Williams agreed with him.
Last week Williams put French in left field for an intrasquad game. French made a spectacular catch of a routine fly ball, and when he came into the dugout he said, "Just like picking cherries out there." "Yeah," said Williams in mock anger. "Out there you better keep your helmet on. It could be dangerous for you."
Williams the manager is now 53 years old and he is almost twice the man he was when he played in Boston and wore a 32-inch belt. The wonderfully fluid Williams swing, however, remains intact, as though time-locked, and every now and then he puts it to use—instructing a player or impressing old friends like Phil Rizzuto on the importance of hip turn or the position of the wrists at impact.
When he could no longer resist the temptation this spring, he took a bat to the plate one afternoon and, on the sixth pitch from Coach Wayne Terwilliger, hoisted a ball down the line in right field and out of the park. The wind was helping, but the ball would have gone out anyway. Old men in starchy Bermuda shorts, sunning themselves in the green bleachers, rose to applaud him, an idol briefly come to life. Williams quit immediately and has not taken up a bat in earnest since. But what gives everybody the shivers when he does this sort of thing—once a year, on the average—is not so much the demonstration of that lovely swing but the nagging suspicion that, in a day of substandard hitting, he can still bat better than anybody else.
Owner Short, kibitzing behind the cage a few days later, offered Williams $10,000 to come out of retirement for one pinch hit during the regular season. "Just give me notice, so I can advertise," said Short. Williams said he would take the offer under advisement.
They remain, these two unlikely allies, close friends, despite what Short considers the attempts of others to wedge between him and Williams. (One man on the payroll was let go this year because Short resented his intrusions.) They are men of sharply contrasting styles. Short likes to make the scene; he has friends on Capitol Hill, he dresses smartly and does not hanker for the vast privacies of the outdoors as Williams does.
But they were debutants together three seasons ago when Short, in his first year as owner, talked Williams out of his eight-year exile. Short has "grown to love" Williams, and to indulge him when he does not show for the banquets and social functions where he is expected. He watches Williams and he is amazed. Williams, in his way, is equally as enthusiastic about Short. "Listen," he says, "I like the s.o.b."
"We are in many respects the same, though we appear to be so different," says Short. "He's basically a shy guy. He wouldn't want to go out there at all if he didn't have the uniform on. It's his ticket to get on the field. I don't need that, but I come on strong with a lot of bluster to hide the fact that I'm a shy guy, too. And, of course, we both like to have our way."
McLain represented box office, and Short's way to get him was through a trade. He could not reach Williams for the decision—"You know how he leaves the phone off the hook"—but he went ahead and agreed to all details of the deal at an airport on a now-or-never basis. Williams did not like the trade because he had to give up the entire left...side...of...the...infield, as those who knock Short's swap like to say in very measured tones. The implication is that the left side of the infield was the Great Wall of China. In fact, it still adds up to only two players, a shortstop named Brinkman (who hit .262) and a third baseman named Rodriguez (.249). Other players were thrown in on both sides, principally Infielder Don Wert and Utility Man Elliott Maddox from the Tigers, and Pitchers Joe Coleman and Jim Hannan to the Tigers.
Williams' concern was, principally, that the Senators would suffer on defense. "Good pitching is often good fielding," he says, "and good infielders are hard to come by just now. These things run in cycles. But Wert will help. I'll go with experience in the infield. If that doesn't work, we can bring up the young guys." One of the best of the youngsters is a shortstop named Toby Harrah. Among other things, he is taking readily to Williams' hitting instructions.
Short, as it happens, is a businessman with a high sensitivity for the art. In his native Minnesota he owns hotels and a trucking line, and likes to think he could have been governor. He resents any implication that he comes out of the Midwest using his sleeve to wipe the soup from his chin. He sets out to do what other people cannot do, and when he dragged Williams off the saltwater flats of the Florida Keys to be his manager, beating the odds and ignoring the eight-year-old echoes of "No, I'll never manage, I'll never manage," he feels he set a proper precedent.
Now he is engaged in a fight for life in Washington. He says the Senators lost $1.6 million those first two years, mainly because of his miscalculating expenses and the plunging economy. It is Short's style, however, not to fall back and consolidate at times like these, but, rather, to attack afresh. It probably is this characteristic that Williams finds most appealing.
Instead of cutting expenses, Short increased them with the addition of the high-salaried Flood and McLain, to go with the $120,000 Howard. McLain signed on and immediately was approving. "How many owners would take the time to make personal calls to your wife when you've got a problem?" he said. "He was interested. He cared. I was in Detroit seven years. I never got a call from Mr. Fetzer. I never knew him."
Short's aggressive style contrasts rather starkly with his poor-mouthing, of course. He recently bought two more hotels and now has half the rooms in St. Paul and a third of the rooms in Minneapolis, and the salaries he must pay his new superstars have not exactly gone unrecorded. But his intuitive sense for good value cannot be challenged. McLain—hat pulled cockily over his eyes, bulldog chin outthrust, every inch a living, breathing superstar—accounted for an average increase of 5,000 customers every time he pitched in Detroit for the three-year period of 1968-70. After his 31-game year in 1968 the figure was an astounding 30,000. Short did not know this at the time of the deal.
"He's a face, that's what I knew," says Short. "Howard's a face. Without Howard last year we wouldn't have drawn flies. Flood's a face." He did not say it, but he clearly implied that the average fan just does not break the gates down to see a Brinkman or a Rodriguez and, moreover, if you had to lose all three, McLain would be far tougher to replace than Brinkman and Rodriguez combined.
Williams now must do some of that replacing. He is learning to live with the trade. He has quit calling it "your trade" around Short and begun calling it "our trade." He has—at Short's request ("I was getting a little sensitive about it")—quit asking him in public: "Who you going to get to play shortstop?" Williams calls it "that other position." He has, furthermore, been impressed with McLain, both by his attitude ("He'll charm you, there's no doubt about that") and the fact that he has worked hard ("He's got some kind of style"). McLain has been eager to pitch and, starting against the Montreal Expos Saturday in Palm Beach, he went four easy innings, giving up five hits but only one run.
"It's a matter of pride," McLain had said one previous afternoon in Pompano. "I guarantee you this: there won't be any 14-game losing streaks around here [the Senators lost 14 straight in September last year]. My pride couldn't take it. I think I'd commit suicide if that happened. I'll tell you something else. This is no last-place club. There's too much talent here."
Williams continues to make liars out of those who said he could not stand the incompetence he would be surrounded with in Washington. His enthusiasm, if anything, has increased. His patience for those who fail but keep trying is genuine. Learning more about his job, he has borne down harder in areas where before, he thinks, he may have been lax. He has, for example, been tough on over-eaters; he has suggested that if the fat doesn't roll the head will. He also refused special consideration to players who wanted to move away from their hotel, except those whose wives came South.
Often enough the consummate student of the game that Ted Williams is cannot be contained, and he will bubble over. One afternoon he stood behind the cage watching the hitters flail ineffectively at Darold Knowles, his brilliant left-hand relief pitcher. Knowles was in exceptional form: his ball moved, it dipped; his slider, always alive, was murderous.
At first Williams began to laugh to himself, not aloud but way down so that it came out as more a wheeze than a laugh. His eyes actually teared with laughter, so impressed was he with the way Knowles was practicing his craft. Finally, he shouted, "Attababy, Darold," and broke out in a high "yip-yip-yip."
Certain Williams managerial tendencies can be charted. As a player, he was always eager; he could not wait to hit next. If he sees a lack there now, he reacts to it. One player last year talked about going to Hawaii and lying on the beach. He got traded to Minnesota instead. As a man who never made a big issue about contracts, Williams cannot abide the fanfare of extended negotiations. When Howard came in after another of his annual protracted discussions, Williams made it a point to leave the park before the scheduled press conference announcing Howard's capitulation.
Part of the unique ability he has to deal effectively with people becomes, boiled down, a matter of caring. He was impressed that Curt Flood made a bee-line to him after calisthenics his first day in camp. They talked. "I'm glad you're here," he told Flood, "but, more important, I'm glad you're back in baseball. This is where you should be." After that they were often seen head to head, at the batting cage, on the dugout steps, talking hitting, Flood asking questions, Williams volunteering information.
He continues, as well, to give the press those little lessons in deportment they have come to expect in Washington. "That's better, George," he says. "Always say, 'How are you this morning, Ted?' Show some interest. Be concerned. Why, the best I could get out of you guys the first two years was, 'Hi, Ted.' "
He can never quite resist applying the needle. One afternoon he was talking with a writer in his office before going out to where practice had already started, and for a time stood watching from the picture window. "Gee, I can see pretty good from here," he said.
"Yeah," said the writer. "You oughta try managing from the press box this year. Be surprised how much you can see from up there."
"You're probably right about that," said Williams, and then he smiled. "And think of the help I'd get."
Fascinating. Not to mention exciting. And preposterous.