Young player-manager led DC to last pennant in '33
The Washington Nationals ended a long drought for the nation's capital Thursday night by clinching a playoff spot, returning the District of Columbia to baseball's postseason for the first time in nearly 80 years. But back then, the only postseason was the World Series. There were no wild card teams and no playoffs. The Washington Senators - also known as the Nationals - had to beat out seven other teams in the American League standings to win the 1933 pennant.
THEN: The old Senators, original members of the American League, went 99-53 in 1933, a .651 winning percentage, and finished seven games ahead of the second-place New York Yankees. Joe Cronin, the team's 27-year-old player-manager, hit .309 as the team's shortstop with a team-high 118 RBIs, despite hitting just five home runs. Cronin was one of three future Hall-of-Famers, along with outfielders Heinie Manush (who hit .336 with 17 triples) and Goose Goslin (.297 with 10 triples and 10 home runs). First baseman Joe Kuhel hit .322 with 107 RBIs. The pitching staff was anchored by Alvin ''General'' Crowder (24 wins) and Earl Whitehill (22 wins). The Senators lost the World Series to the New York Giants in five games, nine years after beating the Giants to win Washington's only championship.
NOW: The Nationals have put together their first winning season since coming to Washington in 2005. Their manager is 69-year-old Davey Johnson, but there's plenty of youth on the team. Going into Friday night's game, Bryce Harper, a 19-year-old phenom, had hit 19 home runs. The deep lineup also features third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, shortstop Ian Desmond, outfielder Jayson Werth, and first baseman Adam LaRoche, who leads the team with 30 home runs and is closing in on 100 RBIs. The team has several excellent pitchers, including 19-game-winner Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, who was shut down a few weeks ago to limit his load in his first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery. The Nats lead the second-place Atlanta Braves in the National League East.
THEN: After the Senators clinched the 1933 pennant, Cronin was ''besieged in the clubhouse by a hero-worshiping throng of thousands of fans of both sexes gone mildly mad,'' according to a Sept. 22, 1933, Washington Post story. He slipped out of the clubhouse onto the field, where ''shrieking women'' ran after him, and the young player-manager had to sprint to escape them, the Post reported.
NOW: The Nationals had a champagne toast in the clubhouse after clinching a playoff berth, but both the manager and players emphasized this was only the first step. Many fans stayed around for a while, as ''Nats Clinch'' flashed on the scoreboard. A bigger celebration is likely if the team clinches the NL East title.
THEN: The Senators played at old Griffith Stadium, named for the team's owner and former manager. Fans could get to the ballpark in Northwest Washington by trolley. Although the dimensions changed over time, it was usually 400 feet or more down the left field line. A large oak tree just beyond the center field wall was a popular meeting spot for fans.
NOW: Nationals Park opened in 2008, and it has more standard dimensions than the old ballpark. The stadium is located in Southeast Washington, and some fans can see the Capitol from their seats.
THEN: The Senators drew only 437,533 fans in 1933 - an average of less than 6,000 per game. But it was the Great Depression, and attendance was down across baseball. The team was actually second in attendance in the American League that year.
NOW: The Nationals have drawn 2,135,498 fans this year, about 29,000 a game, according to the team.
THEN: The Senators began play in the American League in 1901, and didn't have a winning season until 1912. The team moved to Minnesota in 1961 to become the Twins, and a new Washington Senators team took its place. But the second team left to become the Texas Rangers in 1972, leaving the nation's capital without baseball for more than three decades. Before this year, the last Washington team with a winning record was the 1969 Senators, managed by Ted Williams.
NOW: The Nationals started out as the Montreal Expos that same season of 1969. Major League Baseball originally tried to eliminate the Expos. When that plan fell through, the team moved to Washington for the 2005 season, starting out with a promising .500 record. But the club followed that with six straight losing seasons through last year.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Frederic J. Frommer is the author of the book, ''The Washington Nationals 1859 to Today: The Story of Baseball in the Nation's Capital,'' (2006, Taylor Trade). Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ffrommer