Prologue: The Washington Senators: 1961-71

This article was written by Joseph Wancho

This article was published in 1972 Texas Rangers essays

“I’d love to be the man going into Washington. I’ve always felt that city is one of the top two or three franchises in the nation.” – Frank Lane, general manager, Cleveland Indians1


October 26, 1960, started a new era of Washington Senators baseball. It began auspiciously enough. Senators’ president Calvin Griffith was relocating his team to Minnesota. The Senators had been an original franchise in the American League since its inception in 1901. But for years the son of Clark Griffith, a former Senators pitcher and the team’s owner since 1920, had been wanting to move his club. Washington won its last pennant in 1933. Except for second-place finishes in 1943 and 1945, the Senators were a second-division club in the junior circuit. Often they were battling it out with Philadelphia or St. Louis for last place. From 1955 to 1959, they finished in the cellar. When Charles Dryden penned the phrase “Washington – first in war, first in peace, last in the American League” in 1909, it was meant to be a humorous observation. But unfortunately for Washington fans, it became a reality most seasons. “I regret leaving Washington,” said Griffith, “but I just couldn’t turn down the Minneapolis deal. I think we’ll draw 1.3 million our first year there and we’ll average more per head than we did in Washington.”2

As part of the deal to assuage the Nats fans, an expansion team was granted to the nation’s capital beginning with the 1961 season. Both the American and National Leagues were expanding to 10 teams. The American League opened for business in Los Angeles and Washington. The senior circuit put down stakes in New York and Houston. Many fans had grown weary of Griffith, and were not terribly sorry to see him leave. They were getting a new franchise, a fresh start, and that was exciting. Not to mention that a new stadium would be christened in time for the 1962 season.

However, the short turnaround time for the expansion franchises would be a burden. Most knowledgeable baseball fans expected a couple of years of futility before progress was made. Elwood R. “Pete” Quesada was named the owner of the new franchise on November 17. Quesada was an administrator with the Federal Aviation Agency (as of 1967 the Federal Aviation Administration). Before that, he had a decorated career in military aviation. Quesada immediately made overtures to Cleveland general manager Frank Lane to come to Washington. Although Lane was intrigued by the idea, he knew a bad proposition when he saw one, and stayed put. Eventually Ed Doherty was named the GM and Mickey Vernon was hired to be the manager. Vernon was an icon in Washington, one of the few stars the franchise had in the 1940s and ’50s. However, over his 20 years as a major-league player, Vernon ranked third all-time in games played (2,409) without a playoff appearance. It was no fault of his own, as he owned a .286 lifetime batting average.

The expansion draft was held in Boston in AL President Joe Cronin’s office. A flip of the coin for the four categories (pitching, catching, infield, and outfield) determined whether the Senators or Angels would select first. The Angels won three of the four flips; the Senators were able to get only their first pick of outfielders. Each of the existing eight AL clubs was required to make a total of 15 players available, making 120 players eligible to be drafted. As in many expansion drafts in professional sports, the names were a jumble of have-nots, also-rans, and never-were ballplayers.

The highlight of the 1961 season may have been Opening Day. Although the Nats dropped a 4-3 decision to the White Sox, President John F. Kennedy was on hand to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. The paid attendance for the last home opener at Griffith Stadium was 26,275. That total was surpassed only twice during the season, and both times the Yankees were the visitor. Led by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, the M&M boys’ pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record was a boon to teams needing a boost in ticket sales.

Dick Donovan led the league with a 2.40 ERA. Gene Woodling was the only player to bat over .300 (.313), and catcher Gene Green also enjoyed a good season, batting .280, hitting 18 home runs, and driving in 62 runs. The club enjoyed a winning month in May (17-12), but not much else. The Senators finished tied with Kansas City for last place in the AL. The Senators had a 61-100 record, 47½ games behind New York.

The Senators looked to improve their offense, acquiring outfielder Jimmy Piersall from Cleveland for Donovan and Green. After batting .322 for the Tribe in 1961, Piersall slumped to .244 in 1962. Donovan was named The Sporting News American League Pitcher of the Year.

The 1962 season was a carbon copy of the previous year. Not one pitcher posted a winning record and the Nats finished in last place with a 60-101 record, 35½ games out of first place. After the season, Quesada sold the team to James H. Lemon, an investment banker in Washington. Lemon hired George Selkirk to replace Doherty as the general manager. Selkirk was probably best known for taking the place of Babe Ruth in 1934, but he carved out a good career in his own right. In his nine years with the Bombers, the Yanks won six pennants.

Forty games into the 1963 season, Vernon was let go as the Senators’ skipper. Piersall was traded to the New York Mets for Gil Hodges, with the understanding that Hodges would take over the reins of the club. His playing days were in the rear-view mirror. It was a curious move in that Hodges had never managed a baseball team, at any level. “He likes to work with young players, and he has the ability to teach them the things that made him a great hitter and a great defensive player,” said Mets manager Casey Stengel.3

The Senators finished in last again in 1963, but in 1964 they crawled out of the basement into ninth place. However, they still lost 100 games for the fourth straight season. One of the highlights in the 1964 season came when right fielder Jim King hit for the cycle on May 26. He was the only player of the “new” Senators to accomplish the feat.

After the 1964 season Selkirk made a deal that gave a face to the Senators franchise. In a six-player swap with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Frank Howard was bringing his big bat east. Howard had been the 1960 Rookie of the Year. Although like many power hitters he had a penchant for striking out, Howard could also hit for average.

The Senators posted their best post-Griffith record, 70-92, in 1965 and inched up in the standings to eighth place. But for the Washington fans, the real kick in the teeth came when the Minnesota Twins won the pennant. To make it worse, their core players (Earl Battey, Zoilo Versalles, Harmon Killebrew, Don Mincher, Bob Allison, Jim Kaat, and Camilo Pascual) were all on the Washington roster in 1960. A hard pill to swallow for Nats fans, to be sure.

The Senators went 71-88 in 1966, again finishing in eighth place. Sonny Siebert fired a no-hitter against Washington on August 10 at Cleveland.

The next four seasons could be termed the Frank Howard years. He was nicknamed the Washington Monument for his 6-foot-7 frame. Howard averaged 43 home runs and 108 RBIs from 1967 through 1970. His best season was 1970, when he smacked 46 round-trippers, drove in 126 runs, and drew 132 walks. All three categories led the American League.

Despite Howard’s offensive fireworks, changes were being made in the Capital City. Hodges did about as much as he could with talent he was given. He was traded back to the Mets for pitcher Bill Denehy and $100,000 on November 27, 1967. Jim Lemon (no relation to the Washington owner) took over the reins of the club. A former player for the Senators, Lemon had a solid career. He had one year of managerial experience, with York (Pennsylvania) of the Eastern League in 1964. Lemon was on the Twins coaching staff before joining the Senators. The Nats sank to the bottom of the American League standings in 1968.

Owner Lemon sold his interest in the club to Bob Short in the fall of 1968. Short, a trucking magnate from Minneapolis, had owned the Minneapolis Lakers of the NBA. He moved them to Los Angeles in 1957. He then sold the franchise to Jack Kent Cooke in 1965, making a profit of $5.2 million. Short outbid comedian Bob Hope for the majority rights to the Senators, and kept Lemon on as chairman of the board.

Would the Senators face the same fate as the Lakers? Short said all the right things when the announcement of his ownership was made. But two days later he remarked, “I am not committed to keep the team in Washington if D.C. Stadium is not made safe for the fans.”4 Selkirk was removed from his general-manager position, and Doherty was brought back into the fold, although his new responsibilities were not clearly defined. Short was his own general manager.

Jim Lemon the manager was also shown the door. Short tried to woo Kansas City manager Bob Kennedy to succeed Lemon. Kennedy wasn’t interested. Short then persuaded Ted Williams to take the post. Williams signed on for a sweetheart deal to pilot the Senators. Teddy Ballgame was given a five-year pact calling for $65,000 annually. Included was a $15,000-a-year apartment in Washington and an unlimited expense account. It was surely enough for the Splendid Splinter to abandon his tackle box and reel.

In 1969 both leagues expanded by two more teams and each went to a two-division format. This created a round of playoffs before the World Series. No longer was the team with the best regular-season record guaranteed a spot in the fall classic. Not that the Senators needed to be concerned with postseason play. However, under Williams, they finished in fourth place in the American League East Division in 1969 with a record of 86-76. Howard (48 HR, 111 RBIs) and first baseman Mike Epstein (30 HR, 85 RBIs) carried the offense, while pitcher Dick Bosman led the league with a 2.19 ERA and was 14-5. Williams was named American League Manager of the Year in 1969.

Meanwhile Hodges won a world championship with the Mets, who upended the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.

One of the more entertaining nights for Senators fans was the All-Star Game, which was held on July 23, 1969, at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. (Renamed from D.C. Stadium, it was commonly called RFK Stadium.) Although the National League won the contest, 9-3, Howard hit a second-inning home run to give the home crowd something to cheer about. The Senators topped the 900,000 mark in attendance for the season. There was no better advertising than a competitive team on the field.

Short saw no reason to have a general manager. He had no experience and it showed. He passed on offers to obtain Graig Nettles, instead bringing in Denny McLain and Curt Flood. Short really had no clue what he was doing. Ironically, if Bob Hope had been allowed to purchase the team they might have been less of a joke.

The Senators slumped to their old ways in 1970 and 1971. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who as a youth worked at Griffith Stadium, felt that it was important to keep a team in the nation’s capital. American League President Joe Cronin, himself a former Senator and a great one at that, felt likewise. Kuhn made last-ditch efforts to find a buyer for the flailing franchise.

Short was asking for $12 million for the franchise, or he would not renew the lease at RFK Stadium and move the team. Short set his sights on the Southwest. He received an offer to move his franchise to Arlington, Texas, a city between Dallas and Fort Worth. Part of the deal was a 10-year broadcasting contract that paid $7.5 million in advance. American League owners also realized that it was prudent to have a team presence in that burgeoning area of the country. The owners voted 10-2 in favor of Short relocating the team to Texas. On September 21, 1971, the news became final.

The Senators played their last game on September 30, 1971. A banner that read, “Goodbye Boob Short” hung in the ballpark. Another reading “Bob Short Fan Club” was draped over a completely empty section. Fans raced onto the field in the seventh and ninth innings, causing a forfeit to the New York Yankees. Howard stepped to the plate in the sixth inning with the bases empty and hit a home run off lefty Mike Kekich. The fans went berserk, clamoring for Howard to take a curtain call. “Next time up I told (Yankee catcher Thurman) Munson to thank Mike for the gift,” said Howard. “All I know is, he gave me a pitch I could hit.”5

JOSEPH WANCHO lives in Westlake, Ohio, and is a lifelong Cleveland Indians fan. He has been a SABR member since 2005 and serves as the chair of SABR’s Minor Leagues Research Committee. He was the editor of the book Pitching to the Pennant: The 1954 Cleveland Indians (University of Nebraska Press, 2014) and authored So You Think You’re a Cleveland Indians Fan? (Sports Publishing, 2018). In 2019, SABR will publish his book on the 1995 Cleveland Indians, The Sleeping Giant Awakes.



1 Burton Hawkins, “New Era for Baseball,” Washington Evening Star, October 27, 1960: A-15.

2 Burton Hawkins, “Baseball Gets New Start Here as Griffs Move,” Washington Evening Star, October, 27, 1960: A-15.

3 “Gil Has Ability to Become Successful Manager – Casey,” The Sporting News, June 1, 1963: 9.

4 “Short Changes Tune on Move,” Washington Evening Star, December 5, 1968: B-8.

5 Dick Heller, “Kekich’s Pitch to Howard: One for the Road Maybe?”, Washington Evening Star, October 1, 1971: E-2.