Plenty of Stars, But Few Cigars

This article was written by Francis Kinlaw

This article was published in the The National Pastime: Monumental Baseball (Washington, DC, 2009)


As the American League’s pecking order of the 1950s was established, the Washington Senators (or Nationals) suffered greatly from the lack of a strong beak. Even with the 1960 season—the final campaign of the original franchise—tossed in for good measure, teams from the nation’s capital consistently played in a manner that inspired ridicule in an enduring jingle (“First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League”), satire in a popular novel (Douglass Wallop’s The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant), and amusement on the stage and screen (Damn Yankees). Despite the club’s mediocrity during this period, the accomplishments of a number of Washington’s players should not be ignored. The presence of these men in Senators’ uniforms made baseball in the nation’s capital interesting in the latter part of the Truman administration and during the Eisenhower years, despite the absence of involvement in pennant race, and enabled otherwise frustrated fans to derive pleasure by focusing upon the achievements of these “gems in a bowl of rocks.”

Players of note can be considered chronologically by order of their appearances on American League All-Star teams, although the first two individuals mentioned under such an approach failed to gain the stature of other men who would later display their talents in Griffith Stadium.

Cass Michaels was the lone player from the fifth- place team of 1950 to be selected to appear in the Midsummer Classic. Because he had been traded to the Senators by the Chicago White Sox only six weeks before the All-Star Game was played in his former stomping ground (Comiskey Park), Michaels was actually rewarded for solid play while with the Pale Hose. His batting average had been .312 in 36 games with the Chisox but dropped to .250 at season’s end, after donning Washington flannels. Following a respectable but less-than-sensational season in 1951, he was traded to the St. Louis Browns in May of 1952.

Connie Marrero was the only representative of the Washington franchise in the 1951 game. Less than four months’ shy of thirty-nine years old when his career as a major-league pitcher began, the 5′ 7″, 165-pound right hander from Cuba pitched for the Senators from 1950 through 1954, but was most successful in 1951 and 1952. He posted a record of 1 —9 and an earned-run average of 3.90 in 1951 with a supporting cast that finished the season in seventh place, and then won 1 and lost 8 in 1952 with an ERA of 2.88. His best performance? On April 26, 1951, a fourth-inning home run by Barney McCosky of the Philadelphia Athletics was the only hit he allowed in a 2—1 Washington triumph.

Jackie Jensen and Eddie Yost were named to the 1952 team. The promising Jensen had begun the season with the Yankees but was traded to Washington on May 3.  He proceeded to steal 17 bases as a National (he had swiped one sack as a Bronx Bomber) and trailed only Minnie Minoso and Jim Rivera among American League base thieves. He hit at a .266 clip the following season and stole another 18 bases (again finishing third in that category behind Minoso and Rivera) before being dealt to Boston on December 9, 1953, in exchange for Mickey McDermott and Tommy Umphlett. (That trade did not turn out well for the Nats!)

Eddie Yost is much more prominent in Senators’ history than Michaels, Marrero, or Jensen. Yost played in 838 consecutive games from August 30, 1949, until he was sidelined on May 12, 1955, with tonsillitis, tied the American League with 36 doubles in 1951, and topped junior-circuit third basemen in putouts a record eight times. But, despite his durability and dependability, Yost became best known for an exceptional ability to draw bases-on-balls—a skill that earned him the nickname of “The Walking Man.” (While with the Nats, he led the league in free passes in 1950, 1952, 1953, and 1956 and, with Detroit, in 1959 and1960.) His phenomenal talent for reaching first base without putting a bat on the baseball disguised his effectiveness as an offensive influence: his on-base percentage peaked at .440 in 1950 and was impressive throughout his stay in Washington.

Yost was a star of considerable magnitude, but when he threw the ball across the infield from third base, the man who caught it had an even longer resume. When Mickey Vernon—who had been the American League’s batting champion in 1946 with a .353 average—became the only Nationals’ player to travel to Cincinnati for the 1953 All-Star game, he was in the middle of a season that would culminate in a second batting title (albeit a controversial one, due to questionable and perhaps intentional base-running lapses by teammates Mickey Grasso and Kite Thomas on the final day of the season). He also produced 1 5 RBIs in 1953, one of eleven years in which he knocked 80 or more runs across home plate.

Vernon was selected to six All-Star teams (1946, 1948, 1953, 1954, 1955, and 1956), and he led the league in doubles in 1946, 1953, and 1954. In 1953, he ranked third behind Al Rosen and Yogi Berra in voting by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) for the American League’s “Most Valuable Player” award.

Vernon’s most memorable moments on a baseball field may have occurred on the opening day of the 1954 season with President Dwight Eisenhower in attendance. Having been held hitless in four plate appearances, Vernon came to bat against Allie Reynolds in the bottom of the tenth inning with the Senators and Yankees tied, 3—3. (Yost was on first base after having received—what else?—a base-on-balls.) Vernon delivered a Washington victory with a home run that became memorable in the city’s baseball history and gave new life to a popular belief that Vernon was Ike’s favorite player.

Vernon was not one of baseball’s most prominent long-ball threats (he pounded 172 homers in his twenty-year major-league career), but his 20 round trippers in 1954 established a new club record for left-handed hitters. Fellow infielder Pete Runnels was on base when he hit several of those four-baggers, and the line-drive-hitting Runnels—who took advantage of Griffith Stadium’s generous dimensions in the power alleys to record 15 triples in 1954—was an important contributor to solid Washington infields in the first half of the 1950s.

Vernon was accompanied by pitchers Dean Stone and Bob Porterfield to the “clash of the leagues” in 1954, and developments in the final two innings of that contest in Cleveland would ensure Stone’s place in trivia books forever. The 6 4, 205-pound rookie left hander received credit for the pitching victory without officially facing a single batter. When Stone was brought into the game to relieve Bob Keegan, with two out in the eighth inning and Red Schoendienst on third base for the senior circuit, the National League had hopes of increasing its tenuous 9—8 lead. After Stone had thrown only two pitches (a ball and a strike) to Duke Snider, Schoendienst attempted to steal home. Stone nailed him at the plate with a throw to catcher Yogi Berra and then became the winning pitcher when his teammates for a day scored three runs in the bot- tom of the eighth inning.

With the Senators, Stone registered more victories in his initial major-league season of 1954 than in any other, although he started only 23 games that His record dropped off in 1955 to 6—13, but it should be noted that seven of those losses came in games in which a zero appeared next to the word “Washington” in the final score. But Dean Stone was not the only Senators pitcher to suffer the fate of losing seven shutouts during the decade, for Bob Porterfield had been linked to the same dubious distinction in 1952! Porterfield, a right hander, was nicknamed “Hard Luck Bob” for good reason. He posted a record of 13—14 in 1952 despite an earned-run average of 2.72 that was the seventh-best in the American League. He hurled three shutouts that season, but his offensive support was often absent: Porterfield was the victim of a no-hitter by Virgil Trucks, a one-hitter by Mickey McDermott, two-hitters by Allie Reynolds and Billy Pierce, and three-hitters by Mel Parnell, Pierce, and Eddie Lopat.

Porterfield’s luck and record improved drastically in 1953. He won 22 games while losing only 10, leading the league not only in victories but also with a very impressive total of 9 shutouts. (Casey Stengel was criticized in many quarters for failing to include Porterfield when he chose pitchers for the ’53 All-Star team.) He then tied with Bob Lemon for the American League lead in complete games in 1954 and finished that season with a 13—15 record. A review of Porterfield’s statistics reveals that, while he won more than 13 games in only one season, he was usually effective on the mound and maintained an earned-run average of 3.14 during a three-year period extending from 1952 through 1954.

Any listing of Washington’s greatest baseball stars must include a slugger who represented the franchise on All-Star teams in 1956, 1957, and 1959. Roy Sievers was obtained from the Baltimore Orioles on February 18, 1954, and wasted no time in becoming a favorite in the District of Columbia. He tagged 24home runs in 1954 to break the previous club record, and drove in 95 or more runs in each of his first five seasons in a Senators uniform.

Sievers led the American League with 42 homers in 1957 and, with 114 runs batted in, became the first Washington player to top all sluggers in RBIs since Goose Goslin in 1924. He blasted a ball over Griffith Stadium’s fence in six consecutive games during that ’57 season and the sixth (off of Al Aber of the Tigers) won a 17-inning game on August 3. At season’s end, he finished third—behind legends Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams—in voting by the BBWAA for the American League’s Most Valuable Player. He maintained a similar level of performance in 1958, hitting 39 home runs despite an early-season slump. He slammed a total of 180 homers in six years as a Senator.

The slow start in 1958 cost Sievers a place on the All-Star team, and Rocky Bridges—who was hitting approximately .300 when selections were made—received the honor. (Bridges would ultimately post an unremarkable batting average of .263 in his only full season as a Washington infielder.) A colorful and quotable player who always had a big wad of tobacco in his mouth, Bridges possessed, on the field, ordinary ability.

Yet another member of the Senators generated quite a stir and plenty of curiosity during the ’58 campaign. Albie Pearson, standing all of 5′ 5″ and weighing 140 pounds, had a batting average of .275 and received 14 of the24 votes in the polling of BBWAA members for the AL Rookie-of-the-Year Award. But, unfortunately, Pearson’s tenure in Washington was brief; his batting average had tailed off to .188 by May 26, 1959, when he was sent up the road to Baltimore.

After the number of annual major-league All-Star games was doubled in 1959 to generate additional revenue, Sievers and a young Harmon Killebrew represented the Senators in the meeting in Pittsburgh of baseball’s best. And, with expansion of rosters permit- ted for a second game in the Los Angeles Coliseum, they were joined in Southern California by Bob Allison, Camilo Pascual, and Pedro Ramos.

Killebrew had been the first bonus player signed by Clark Griffith’s club, having placed his signature on a Nationals’ contract in June of 1954, ten days before his eighteenth birthday. His progress and assignments within the organization were affected not only by his ability but also by rules applying to “Bonus Babies” of his era. By 1959, he was prepared for stardom. He secured his spot in the starting lineup by knocking two pitches by future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning into the bleachers of Briggs Stadium in Detroit on May 1, 1959. (The second home run came in the tenth inning and gave Washington a 4—3 victories.) The very next day, he tagged two more homers in a 15—3 rout of the Bengals. “The Killer” went on to brighten the ’59 season by rapping 42 round-trippers and driving in 105 runs for his cellar-dwelling team. He would continue to mature as a player and enjoy a truly great career in Minnesota in the 1960s and 1970s after the Senators franchise had moved to the upper Midwest.

Bob Allison’s career followed a similar course. The big outfielder contributed to a productive offense for the hapless ’59 club, tagging 30 home runs and succeeding Pearson as Rookie of the Year. He slumped slightly in his sophomore season of 1960 but, like Killebrew and catcher Earl Battey (who played one season in Washington after being acquired by the Senators from the White Sox on April 4, 1960), became a dependable force in the league after the franchise left town.

Camilo Pascual and Pedro Ramos served as the foundation upon which Senators pitching staffs were built in the mid and late 1950s. The two Cuban hurlers were linked in the minds of many baseball fans especially young ones who obtained baseball card number 291 in the 1959 Topps set, which featured them side by side and dubbed them “Pitching Partners.” Pascual led the Washington club in appearances in his rookie year of 1954 with 48 games, and Ramos later recalled that “Camilo was a tough pitcher. He had a good fastball and one of the best breaking balls I’ve ever seen.”

By 1959, when he had mastered control of his two basic pitches as well as a change-up, Pascual had become one of baseball’s best. He posted a 17—10 record that year despite occasional discomfort in his right arm and, on opening day of the 1960 season (April 18), fanned 15 Boston Red Sox batters and threw a three-hitter as the Senators romped, 10—1. In recognition of such achievements, he was selected to the American League’s roster for the “second” All-Star games in both 1959 and 1960.

Ramos relied on a fastball, a “Cuban palm ball” (which he later admitted was actually a spitball), a curveball, and a sinker. A workhorse on the mound during his prime, he started more games than any other pitcher in the junior circuit in 1958 and tied for the league lead in that category in 1960. Ramos pitched 767 innings from the spring of ’58 until the curtain closed for the original Senators franchise in September of 1960, but that level of activity carried a cost. He became unjustifiably identified with failure throughout his early career: Mickey Mantle ripped one of Pedro’s pitches off of the right-field façade in Yankee Stadium on May 30, 1956; Ramos surrendered league- high home-run totals of 43 in 1957 and 38 in 1958. He led the league in losses from 1958 through 1961.

Despite these unfavorable marks, Ramos’ skill and the fact that he was severely handicapped by poor support were obvious. He never reached the heights attained by Pascual in terms of respect from hitters, but he complemented Pascual very capably.

Pascual’s manager in ’68 was Jim Lemon, another former Senators star who had been an All-Star player eight years before. Lemon’s record as a slugger was thankfully much more impressive than his tenure in the dugout: the club he managed finished last in a ten-team league during modern America’s most torrid summer.

Lemon displayed power at the plate, speed on the bases, and a strong throwing arm during his All-Star year of1960. Although he struck out more times than any other American Leaguer for three consecutive sea- sons (1956—58), the aforementioned qualities enabled him to rank high among his peers from 1956 through 1960 in-home runs, runs batted in, slugging average, and total bases. The 6′ 4″ free-swinger tagged three homers in consecutive turns at bat against Whitey Ford on August 31, 1956, and had two round-trippers and six RBIs in the third inning of a game with the Red Sox on September 5, 1959. He posted an impressive total of 30 triples between 1956 and 1960 and, as an out- fielder, participated in six double plays in 1956.

To the chagrin of fans typified by the fictitious Joe Boyd in Damn Yankees, the Senators finished in the second division of the American League every year from 1950 through 1960, while placing last in four of those eleven seasons. However, despite the club’s consistent futility, the men previously mentioned as well as several others—outfielder Jim Busby (a smooth-fielding out- fielder with base-stealing ability), southpaw pitcher Chuck Stobbs (who lost his first 1decisions in 1957 on the way to an 8—20 record), and manager Charlie Dressen (who led Brooklyn Dodger flag-winners in 1952 and 1953 before posting a 1 7—212 mark in slightly more than two seasons at the helm of the Senators)—gave their losing teams a certain “star quality” and enabled the Senators to remain relevant in individual categories even as the club dropped precipitously in the standings. Furthermore, as this article concludes like one of relief pitcher Dick Hyde’s 18 saves of 1958, it should be emphasized that not one of these faces from the past sold his soul to the devil in the process! 

 

Sources

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Periodicals and Websites

1953 Washington Senators Yearbook

1955 Washington Senators Yearbook

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Retrosheet 

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The Sporting News

 

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