With the Yankees coming to town Friday night to start a series with the Nationals, the mind returns achingly to their last visit to play the Senators on Sept. 30, 1971 — truly a date that will live in local sporting infamy.
The so-called Bronx Bombers have faced the Nationals here before, losing two of three at RFK Stadium in June 2006, but each trip recalls that poignant Thursday evening when the nation’s capital bid farewell to major league baseball, and vice versa, for 33-plus years.
Personal note: I had been married for three weeks then. “Not to worry — Washington will get another team in a year or two,” I told my wife. This turned out to be a very bad guess, although one shared by many fans hereabouts. The nation’s capital without the national pastime? Unthinkable.
Many of us were sick of carpetbagging owner Bob Short and bad baseball. Only once in 11 seasons had the expansion Senators savored a winning season, an irrational 86-76 finish under rookie manager Ted Williams in 1969, but mediocrity swiftly returned after that. Despite two genuine stars in slugger Frank Howard and right-hander Dick Bosman, the club was 62-96 as it took the field in Washington for the last time.
Then it was that baseball bedlam ensued.
With the Senators leading 7-5 and two away in the top of the ninth, a buzz snaked through the stadium. (The announced attendance was 14,460, but actually, there were about 25,000 on hand because some security guards left early, allowing many to get in without paying.) One more out for relief pitcher Joe Grzenda would bring a welcome if meaningless victory over the hated Yankees.
Suddenly, an adolescent fan dashed onto the field and began shaking hands with players. He slid into second base, arose and headed for the outfield with remaining security personnel in pursuit.
Now dozens of spectators, mostly young, overran the field. They were followed by hundreds of others, then thousands. The players retreated to the dugouts and watched as the invaders tore up the bases, ripped out handfuls of grass and scooped up dirt. It was hopeless. After a short wait, the umpires were forced to award the Yankees a 9-0 forfeit victory — the major leagues’ first in 17 years.
“The Senators were finished even if the ballgame wasn’t,” veteran sports columnist Shirley Povich wrote in the Washington Post.
Anyone who was at RFK or in electronic attendance that muggy night remembers two things: the surreal ending and Howard’s home run. Everybody in the stadium wanted Hondo to hit one as sort of a fitting epitaph. “Everybody” included Mike Kekich, the Yankees pitcher, who became infamous the next year when he and teammate Fritz Peterson divorced their wives and married each other’s ex-spouses.
In the sixth inning, Kekich threw a medium fastball over the heart of the plate that Howard appreciatively blasted off the left-field wall above the visitors’ bullpen. It ignited a four-run rally that tied the game at 5-5, and the crowd erupted. Howard came out for a couple of curtain calls, blew kisses to the fans and later said, “This is Utopia. This is the greatest thrill of my life. Can you imagine a greater thrill than that?”
After Kekich was knocked out during the Senators’ big rally, a reporter for the Washington Star ventured down to the Yankees’ clubhouse on a hunch. The door was open, unprecedented during games, and Kekich sat alone in front of his locker. So I asked point-blank if he had grooved the pitch to Howard.
“Well … let’s just say I wasn’t trying too hard to get him out,” he replied with a sheepish grin.
Howard himself had no doubts. “Next time up, I told [catcher] Thurman Munson to thank Mike for the gift,” Hondo said later.
During the game, 74-year-old Bucky Harris, who managed the original Senators to their only World Series championship in 1924 as “the Boy Wonder,” sat quietly in the press box nipping at a cup of whiskey. Harris was in bad shape because of Parkinson’s disease, but when a reporter approached, he managed to whisper, “This is a sad day for Washington and for baseball.” No argument there.
While the finale unfolded, a sign hanging from the left-field mezzanine proclaimed, “Short Stinks!” The following season, as he watched his transplanted Texas Rangers play at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, a Capitol Hill bartender called Baseball Bill poured one for every Washington fan by dumping a cup of beer over Short’s head. Never, it seemed, was a cold one more welcome.
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