Posted Under: Baseball's Best Books
Written long before free agency, drug testing and around the clock reporting that characterizes baseball today The Washington Senators harkens back to a time when the game seemed less complicated. Originally published in 1954 this book was the final volume in a series that included all of the original Major League teams except the Philadelphia Athletics. Beginning in 2001 much of the series has been republished. This is the thirteenth of those reprints. In it author Shirley Povich provides a straightforward description of the Washington franchise from its inception through the early 1950s.
After a brief discussion about the origins of baseball in the nation’s capital, Povich begins his journey by describing the Washington Nationals 1867 western tour. He claims that at their own expense the club’s players “bravely struck out on the first western tour in the history of baseball” (p. 4). Of course since 1954 numerous scholars including most recently John Thorn (Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game) have more thoroughly evaluated the trip and its significance. Typically those scholars agree that the trip was a landmark event. They have also demonstrated that in fact the Nationals were not simply a group of altruistic amateurs on a two week tour but instead “there can be no doubt of their (the Nationals) uniformly professional status.” It is equally clear that the team was on a business trip to generate revenue. However, analysis aside Povich gracefully guides the reader from stop to stop along the sojourn. In so doing he also provides an initial example of the innocuous and somewhat nostalgic but always enjoyable reporting that follows throughout book.
Povich deftly skips through the travails of the early Washington teams. While minimally successful on the field the club was almost always a source of entertainment for eager supporters. Bouncing from one league to another, the Senators during the late 19th century had an ever changing roster and went through a succession of managers and playing fields. In 1898 alone four managers directed the club. Inclusion in Ban’s Johnson’s American League brought a bit of stability though it did little to improve the Senators record. During the Major League’s first decade the team regularly finished at the bottom of the American League. Povich implies that at least part of the problems stemmed from ownerships that were far more concerned about profit and loss than player talent. Fortunately the Washington teams usually remained profitable because of loyal fans.
Two events transformed the Senators into a competitive team. One was the discovery of young phenomenon, Walter Johnson, who became arguably the best pitcher in baseball history. The other was the addition of Clark Griffith as the Senator’s field manager and a minority owner. Povich is at his best as a story teller and a biographer. His accounts of both men’s background are particularly engaging. The portrayal of Johnson is consistent with other Johnson biographers including Henry W. Thomas’s Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train(University of Nebraska Press, 1995) for whom Povich provided the foreword. Both describe Johnson as a kind and gentle man with enormous talent. Even as the team’s manager during difficult times in the late 1920s and early 1930s Johnson remained a shining example of tolerance and self control.
The picture of Griffith is a far more complex. In fact, much of the book becomes an extension of Griffith’s own life’s story after he joined the Senators. In 1912, his first year at the helm, Griffith immediately steered his team, one that had never ended a season higher than seventh, to a second place finish. Twelve years later, though he was no longer the field manager, Griffith’s leadership throughout a thrilling pennant race that Reed Browning (Baseball’s Greatest Season: 1924, University of Massachusetts Press, 2003) argues was the most exciting ever, brought Washington its first world championship. Povich who began reporting sports for the Washington Postin 1924 clearly admires Griffith. The author describes the team as an extended family with the paternalistic and usually benevolent Griffith at its center. None of the squabbles Griffith had with his players found their way into the book. Neither did his confrontations with other baseball people. Instead Povich focuses on Griffith’s exceptional understanding of the game, eye for talent and his savvy to know how to get the most from his players whether it came on the field or through a trade. Griffith is also described as an innovator willing to experiment with ways to improve his team. Most notably, he was the first to bring Cuban players into the major leagues. Unfortunately as other franchises became more specialized and pragmatic Griffith clung to his own methods. For instance, he generally bypassed the expense of a minor league program in favor of a few trusted scouts looking for hidden talent. In the end, his rivals developed more modern and effective systems that he ignored. As a result Griffith’s Senators once again became a perennial cellar dweller.
While most of the material the author has chosen to include is completely understandable the one glaring absence is a discussion about race. At the time this book was written Jackie Robinson was at the peak of his career. Other black players including Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, and Don Newcombe were demonstrating how much better the game was becoming with the color line broken. Nevertheless, Povich sheds no light on Griffith’s controversial attitude about integrated play. Ted Leavengood in Clark Griffith: The Old Fox of Washington Baseball (McFarland Press, 2011) describes Griffith as at best exceedingly cautious about blacks and whites playing baseball on the same teams. Griffith was one of those who opposed Bill Veech when he signed Larry Doby and integrated the American League. Brad Snyder (Beyond the Shadow of the Senators: The Untold Story of the Homestead Grays, McGraw Hill, 2003) is far more critical of Griffith portraying him as essentially a passive racist who steadfastly abided by the flawed Plessey V. Ferguson edict of “separate but equal.” Though Povich did not set out to provide a probing analysis or social commentary, some minimal discussion of the Senators, and therefore Griffith’s, policies concerning black players seems appropriate.
In final analysis, if the reader is looking for a scholarly discussion about the Washington Senators, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, if the reader is looking for a pleasant, cursory account of the franchise written the way baseball used to be written then you will enjoy this book. It is the author’s sharp, clean prose and skill as a wordsmith that provides the most compelling reason to read this book.