The 1929 season was expected to be the latest installment of the New York Yankees’ ongoing dynasty. Gamblers and sportswriters alike agreed that the team would win its fourth straight American League pennant, and very likely its third consecutive World Series title.1 The real debate was over who would be runners-up, with the favorites being the Philadelphia Athletics, the St. Louis Browns, or the Washington Senators.
Babe Ruth, who foresaw his Yankees meeting up with the Chicago Cubs in the World Series, believed it would be the Browns, followed by the Detroit Tigers and then the A’s, who’d finished second to New York the previous two years, in fourth place.2
Philadelphia manager Connie Mack might not have given Ruth much of an argument. Heading into his 29th season shepherding the A’s, Mack declared himself “sick and disgusted” by his team’s spring training.3 Not only did the Athletics underperform against their National League opponents,4 as well as some of the college and minor-league teams they faced, but injuries and holdouts frustrated their manager.
Southpaw ace Lefty Grove, who’d led the AL in wins and strikeouts in 1928,5 lost a chunk of the fingernail on his middle finger, making gripping a baseball agony.6 He wasn’t available for the season opener, nor was outfielder Al Simmons, who’d come to camp without any traces of the rheumatism that plagued him the previous season, only to have a flare-up that sidelined him with a swollen ankle.7 Right-handed starter George Earnshaw sprained his back, shortstop Joe Boley came to camp with a weak throwing arm and struggled to make throws to first base, and Jimmy Dykes was spiked on the ring finger while tagging Lefty O’Doul in an exhibition game.8
Dykes manned second base in that game because regular second baseman Max Bishop held out much of spring training, demanding a bigger salary, and he wasn’t alone. Reigning AL MVP Mickey Cochrane also felt the contract offered to him failed to reflect his contributions to the team. Both settled before the season began.
The Senators’ spring training was much rosier. First-time manager Walter Johnson returned to the team a year after retiring from playing and led Washington to a 21-6-1 record in exhibition play, including 10 wins in 13 games against major-league teams. “I’m tickled with the way my boys have taken hold of things,” Johnson said of his team’s prospects for the 1929 season. “They will give any team a battle.”9
Mack was unwilling to go on the record about the outlook for his team, saying, “I think we will have a season of surprises.”10
The first surprise came on Opening Day, when the Senators’ and Athletics’ seasons didn’t open, but the skies did. In the early morning hours of April 16, a nor’easter blew in off the Atlantic Ocean and dumped a month’s worth of rain from New England to Virginia,11 causing flooding and postponing four of the eight games on the slate.12
By the following afternoon, the storm had moved north, allowing baseball season – and the accompanying ceremonies – to begin in DC.13 Gates opened at 11:30 in the morning for 25,000 fans to make their way in, including the newly inaugurated President Herbert Hoover and some of his cabinet. Vice President Charles Curtis arrived and made his way to the reserved section decked out in red, white, and blue, only to have an usher inform him that his tickets were for different seats, several sections away.
The confused Curtis, bundled up in a heavy coat, squeezed his way past crowds of likewise bulkily attired fans crowding the aisles and over several seated patrons to get to his seats, apologizing to those he jostled. Someone later realized the usher had misread the tickets and Curtis had to again shove his way back over the seated fans to rejoin the band of dignitaries chuckling at his expense.14
Curtis wasn’t the only one to have issues with seating. When American League President Ernest Barnard informed the Senators front office that he would be attending the game, team owner and president Clark Griffith was sent scrambling to find him a ticket. The league executive’s notice wasn’t given until after all box seats had been sold.15
Secretary of War James Good helped raise the American flag up the center-field flagpole with the assistance of Johnson and Griffith. President Hoover followed that by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to umpire crew chief George Hildebrand. The president’s toss zipped above the 5-foot-8 Hildebrand’s head and 6-foot-tall fellow umpire George Moriarty had to leap to snag the ball with a one-handed catch.
Senators fans might have wished Johnson had put Hoover and his lively arm on the mound instead of 16-year veteran Sad Sam Jones. The 36-year-old went to a full count before surrendering a single to Bishop, who moved to second on a bunt. Jones plunked Cochrane on the leg. Mule Haas rolled a groundball up the first-base line to Joe Judge, who stepped on the bag as both runners advanced.
Sammy Hale then looped a ball into right field that might have been an out if Red Barnes’s spikes weren’t sinking deeply into soft, muddy turf. Instead, it dropped for a single and both runners scored for a 2-0 Philadelphia lead.
With Grove out, there were conflicting reports of whether Rube Walberg, Jack Quinn, or Eddie Rommel would start the opener.16 Instead, Mack went with Carroll Yerkes, a 25-year-old lefty with fewer than 10 major-league innings to his credit.
Yerkes retired the first two batters he faced, but 1928 batting champion Goose Goslin laced a shot over the outstretched glove of second baseman Bishop. Barnes followed with a double down the left-field line, and Ossie Bluege drove both men home with a single to center to even the score.
The A’s kept hammering Jones in the second. Dykes got aboard with a single to left field, but was sent back to the dugout on a botched sacrifice attempt when Yerkes bunted straight up the middle to Jones, who threw to shortstop Joe Cronin for the force at second base. Bishop blooped a single that appeared to be hooking foul but fell just inside the right-field line. Homer Summa, an offseason pickup from the Cleveland Indians, belted a single to right field. Barnes plucked the ball from the wet grass and threw home, but failed to beat Yerkes to the plate and gave Bishop and Summa opportunity to advance. A hard grounder from Cochrane found third baseman Bluege’s glove, and Bishop was caught in a brief rundown that allowed Summa and Cochrane to take third and second, respectively. Both scored on a Haas double, making it a 5-2 game.
Carrying a three-run lead, Yerkes issued back-to-back one-out walks, and Mack pulled him in favor of Rommel. The knuckleballer immediately surrendered a two-run triple to Sam West on a long drive that hit high off the center-field wall. Another fly ball caught in left wasn’t deep enough for West to even the score, and a third fell into Summa’s glove in right to end both the inning and Washington’s run total for the day.
But Philadelphia kept plating runs. Johnson made a pitching change of his own, sending 1928 ERA leader Garland Braxton to the mound to start the third. Jimmie Foxx led off with a double, advanced on a wild pitch, then scored on a Dykes double. Dykes went on to score on a Summa double. Bishop drew a two-out walk and scored behind Summa on a Cochrane single, pushing the lead to 9-4.
Foxx smashed a two-run homer into the stands behind left fielder Goslin in the fourth. And in the fifth, Bishop and Haas each scored. Meanwhile, Rommel shut down the Washington bats, retiring 10 straight Senators after the opening triple. He gave up two singles in the sixth and again in the seventh but got out of both situations without allowing a run.
A lone bright spot for Washington came when Johnson sent Ad Liska on the mound to make his major-league debut in the sixth. The Senators acquired the young pitcher with an underhand delivery that looked as though he was “trying to take a sock at the third baseman,”17 from the Minneapolis Millers in the offseason, and Johnson had taken him under his wing during spring training.
The right-hander retired Dykes, Rommel, and Bishop in order. Washington fans gave the team a sarcastic cheer for holding the Athletics scoreless for the first time. Liska recorded another three-up-three-down inning in the seventh and finished the game without surrendering a hit,18 but the performance was too late to help the Senators.
The 13-4 victory set the tone for a Philadelphia team that went on to win 103 more games, taking the AL pennant by 18 games over the Yankees. The Athletics defeated the Cubs in a five-game World Series, then went on to win 102 and 107, respectively, in the following two seasons, becoming the first team to win 100 or more games in three consecutive seasons. They also won the 1930 World Series, making Mack the first manager to win back-to-back World Series twice.
This article was fact-checked by Mike Huber and copy-edited by Len Levin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author accessed Baseball-Reference.com, Stathead.com, Retrosheet.org, and The Sporting News via Paper of Record.
1 Dick Farrington, “Major League Writers Pick Yankees and Cubs to Win Pennants,” The Sporting News, April 11, 1929: 3; Thomas Holmes, “Outlook Bright for All-New York World Series,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 14, 1929: 6C; “Bettors Believe Yanks, Cubs Best,” Brooklyn Daily Times, March 11, 1929: 1A; John B. Keller, “Nationals Rated Runner-up Outfit,” Washington Evening Star, April 16, 1929: 33.
3 John B. Keller, “Nationals Ready; Macks Uncertain,” Washington Evening Star, April 15, 1929: 39.
4 Major-league rules at the time barred teams from playing exhibition games against teams in the same league. Thus, AL teams could only play NL teams in spring training, and vice versa.
5 Grove’s 1928 strikeout title was his fourth straight in a streak of seven straight seasons leading the AL in K’s.
6 Grove tried a grip that used his thumb, index finger, and ring finger, but instead had to shut down and heal.
7 Keller, “Nationals Ready; Macks Uncertain.” Mack had planned to bench Simmons until the team’s first long road trip, starting April 30. Simmons jumped up the timeline for his return by drawing a walk as pinch-hitter on April 23, then starting every subsequent game through August 20.
8 James C. Isaminger, “Connie Mack’s Men Not in Best Shape,” The Sporting News, March 21, 1929: 1.
9 Associated Press, “How Managers View Prospects,” Washington Evening Star, April 16, 1929: 33.
10 “How Managers View Prospects.”
11 Washington reported more than 1½ inches of rain in 24 hours, more than had fallen in all of April 1928. “Clearing Weather Is Expected Today,” Washington Evening Star, April 16, 1929: 1.
12 Other games affected were those in the Bronx, Philadelphia, and Boston. S.O. Grauley, “Nor’easter Washes Out Eastern Starts,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 17, 1929: 21. The Potomac River crested its banks in the District of Columbia and surrounding parts of Maryland and Virginia, leaving some streets flooded two feet deep and littered with inoperable cars. “Maryland Flood Tying up Traffic,” Washington Evening Star, April 16, 1929: 1.
13 The teams in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, however, would all have to wait until the 18th as the rain continued.
14 Associated Press, “Vice President Seated After Some Difficulty,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 18, 1929: 20.
15 James C. Isaminger, “Eddie Rommel Will Ascend Peak to Hurl Against Jones in Opener with Senators,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 16, 1929: 20; “No Seat for Barnard, Club Officers Ask Aid,” Washington Evening Star, April 15, 1929: 39.
16 John B. Keller, “Rain Forces Shift of Inaugural Tilt,” Washington Evening Star, April 16, 1929: 33; “Opening Game Off Until Tomorrow,” Washington Evening Star, April 16, 1929: 1; Keller, “Nationals Ready; Macks Uncertain”; Isaminger, “Eddie Rommel Will Ascend.”
17 “Old Master Holds Class,” The Sporting News, March 14, 1929: 1.
18 He walked one batter in each of the remaining innings, but faced only the minimum in the eighth courtesy of a double play.