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Historical Hot Stove
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

Washington's Final Game - 2001

A full three decades have passed since a major league team moved from one city to another. The last time it happened, it prompted one of the most memorable, strange, and surreal evenings in major league history. It was September 30, 1971, when the Washington Senators prepared to play their final game before picking up the entire franchise and making a move to the South.

Only 10 days earlier, Senators owner Bob Short had received permission from American League owners to relocate his franchise to Arlington, Texas. For several years, Short had complained about declining profits caused by a lack of civic support. On more than one occasion, he had threatened to move the team, with Dallas-Ft. Worth often the rumored destination.

Senators fans responded to the impending move by criticizing Short for failing to improve the team during his tenure as owner. Writers pointed to the ill-fated Denny McLain trade with the Detroit Tigers as a primary reason for the ballclub's downfall in 1971, coming on the heels of a promising 86-76 campaign just two seasons earlier. In that deal, the Senators had surrendered two promising infielders, Aurelio Rodriguez and Eddie Brinkman (who comprised half of Washington's starting infield), and productive pitcher Joe Coleman in exchange for a washed-up McLain and three other players, none of whom would contribute significantly to Washington's cause. Critics of Short would forever link the decline of the Senators with this disastrous deal.

In anticipation of potential fan unruliness-and perhaps outright violence-at the final game in franchise history, the city of Washington paid for 50 extra police officers to patrol Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. The city's fears were justified. A crowd of 14,460 fans paid their way into RFK Stadium, but an additional 4,000 fans barged through the turnstiles without tickets in order to bear witness to the Senators' final game. Some fans carried large "anti-Short" banners, some of which contained profane language and were later removed by police officers. One particularly large banner, featuring the words, "Bob Short Stinks," hung vertically from the outfield rafters. Shortly after security demanded the banner be taken down, a group of fans hastily prepared another handwritten banner that declared, "Bob Short Still Stinks." The second banner drew roars of approval from the fans at RFK. Another group of fans went a step further, constructing a stuffed dummy that bore a likeness to Short. The angry Senators' fans proudly hung Short in effigy over a stadium railing. Their periodic outbursts against Short threatened to halt the game prematurely.

Short, most likely out of fear for his own safety, did not attend the final game. Neither did team vice president Joe Burke, who was busy conducting business in Texas. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and American League president Joe Cronin also decided against putting in appearances at RFK Stadium. One of the few notable baseball celebrities who did decide to attend the game was Hall of Famer Bucky Harris, a member of the Senators' all-time team.

In contrast to the anger of the fans, most of the Senators' younger players expressed indifference over the forthcoming move to Arlington. One player, however, was particularly upset over the decision to shift the franchise. Frank "Hondo" Howard, the Senators' most popular player at the time (in fact, the most popular player during the Senators' second incarnation from 1961 to 1971), had told reporters in recent days that he did not want to leave Washington to play in Texas. Howard expressed a wish to be traded. "I'm sure Dallas deserves a team," Howard said, "but I'm sorry it had to be ours." Of all of the Senators' players, the prospects of playing the final game at RFK Stadium hit Hondo the hardest.

Howard and the rest of the Senators watched Rusty Torres, Bobby Murcer, and Roy White hit home runs for the Yankees, giving New York a 5-1 lead heading into the bottom of the sixth inning. Howard prepared to face Yankee left-hander Mike Kekich. Fans cheered wildly for Hondo, who had earned another nickname, "The Capitol Punisher," for the way he "punished" fastballs that captured too much of the slugger's strike zone. Kekich threw fastball after fastball during the confrontation, until the southpaw finally delivered a hittable pitch, which Howard crushed on a line into the left field stands. As Howard circled the bases for his 26th home run of the season, the onlookers at RFK responded with a standing ovation that lasted several thundering minutes. Fans repeatedly called for Howard to make a curtain call, which he finally delivered at the behest of several of his teammates and his manager, Ted Williams. In his first curtain call, Hondo provided one fan with a lasting souvenir when he tossed his helmet liner into the stands. During his second curtain call, the six-foot, nine-inch gentle giant blew the Senator faithful an appreciative kiss. In one of the rarest on-field displays in the game's history, Howard openly cried as he stepped back into the Senator dugout. The moments surrounding Hondo's home run represented the high point of an evening otherwise filled with anger, disgust, and violence "Utopia," Howard exclaimed after the game, when asked to describe his feelings upon blasting the Kekich fastball into the left field stands. "It's the biggest thrill I've ever had, and anything else I'll ever do in baseball will be anticlimactic," Howard declared. "I've hit a home run in the World Series, but nothing will ever top this. I'll take it to my grave."

Curiously, the Yankees may have helped Howard hit the dramatic home run by altering Kekich's pitching pattern. Throughout most of his career, breaking pitches had troubled the big-swinging Howard. Yet, Yankee catcher Thurman Munson continually called for Kekich to throw fastballs during the sequence of pitches to Howard, instead of having him throw curve balls or change-ups. Hondo reportedly thanked Munson for the "favor," to which Munson responded: "You still had to hit it."

Aided or not, Howard's home run launched a four-run Senator rally, which tied the game at 5-5. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Dave Nelson and Tom Ragland reached on Yankee errors, and came around to score on a single by Howard's replacement at first base, Tom McCraw, and a sac fly from Elliott Maddox.

Thanks to the two-run rally, the Senators carried a 7-5 lead into the ninth inning. With two outs, Washington left-hander Joe Grzenda prepared to face Yankee second baseman Horace Clarke. With the Senators seemingly moments away from a victory in their final game, hordes of fans began vaulting over the retaining walls and proceeded to swarm the playing field. As Yankee and Senator players fled for cover, some fans ran directly toward the bases, pulling them out of the ground, spikes and all. Others tore home plate from its sockets. Another group of fans climbed the bullpen roof and removed lights and letters from the scoreboard. Hundreds of fans ripped out sods of grass from the RFK playing field. Throughout the ballpark, the intruders sought special mementos that would remind them of the final game in the history of Senator baseball.

The storming of the field by hundreds of fans came as no surprise to the Senators' players. After the eighth inning, Washington's relief corps had cleared the bullpen and made for the runway leading to the clubhouse. "I was in the clubhouse," recalled Frank Howard, who had been replaced by Tom McCraw in the eighth inning. "We could see it coming. It was an emotional moment... We didn't have a lot of fans, but the ones we did [have] were very faithful. To see those people pour their hearts out..."

With the playing surface reduced to shambles and players fearing for their safety, the umpires, headed up by crew chief Jim Honochick, decided to call the game a forfeit and awarded the Yankees a 9-0 victory. As part of baseball rules, all statistics from the game counted in the official day-by-day records, but neither a winning nor a losing pitcher was officially designated.

Much to his credit, Yankees team president and part-owner Michael Burke had decided make the trip to Washington and attend the final game at RFK. In one of the more sportsmanlike gestures of the last 25 years, Burke asked the umpires to overturn the forfeit and award the Senators a win in their final game. Honochick asked Joe Cronin to decide the matter, but the league president said the forfeit-and the Yankees' 9-0 win-would stand. The Senators' last game, in all too typical fashion, had ended in a loss.

And what about the principal players in the Senators' final game? Where are they now? From the Yankees, Mike Kekich, who served up Frank Howard's home run pitch, became involved in a famous wife-swapping episode with teammate Fritz Peterson. In 1973, the two left-handers traded wives-along with their children and family dogs-but within a year, Kekich divorced from the former Mrs. Peterson. Kekich, now out of baseball, remains reluctant to talk about the incident. Thurman Munson, who allegedly aided Howard's home run bid, went on to lead the Yankees to three American League pennants and two World Series titles. Munson, the captain of the Yankees throughout their glory years of the 1970s, died in the crash of his private plane on August 2, 1979.

On the Washington side, Frank Howard has served managerial stints with the San Diego Padres and New York Mets. Hondo has also worked as a coach with numerous teams, including the Yankees, the team the Senators played on their final day of existence. Dick Bosman, the starting pitcher for the Senators in their final game, has toiled in recent years as a pitching coach for the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers-the team that the Senators became beginning in 1972.

And what of the disliked owner, the man responsible for taking professional baseball away from the shadows of the White House? Two years after moving the team to Texas, Bob Short sold the team to Brad Corbett and removed himself completely from the baseball hierarchy. Short reportedly made attempts to buy the Minnesota Twins and San Francisco Giants in the mid-1970s, but both deals fell through. In 1982, Short died of cancer, at the age of 65. While he lived, Short succeeded in making himself, by his own admission, "probably the most unpopular man in Washington."

To this day, the Capitol City still feels the effects of Short's move. Washington has not hosted a professional baseball franchise of any kind-minor league or major league-since September 30, 1971, when the Senators played for the final time.


by Bruce Markusen

 

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