Playing around on baseball-reference today — as, I think, we’ve all done — I noticed that today was the 92nd anniversary of Clark Griffith’s purchase of a controlling share in the Washington Senators in November 1919. Like Nolan Ryan, Griffith was a former star pitcher who purchased the team he played for at the very end of his career.
(Appropriately, the team Ryan bought began its life as the Washington Senators, though today’s Rangers were not Griffith’s Senators, which moved to Minnesota to become the Twins a year before the new Senators were created as an expansion team in 1961. Also, yes, I know that the word “bought” is a little imprecise; neither Ryan nor Griffith was the sole owner of the team, having other partners. But they were the public face of team ownership.)
Clark Griffith is essentially synonymous with winning baseball in Washington. First, he gave his name to the only stadium ever to have hosted a World Series game in the nation’s capital, Washington’s Griffith Stadium. (Griffith Stadium also hosted the Redskins and the Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues for a time, meaning that its grass was graced by Walter Johnson, Sammy Baugh, and Josh Gibson.)
Though three different franchises have played baseball in Washington during 78 of the past 111 seasons, the only success ever enjoyed by a DC team came during his 36 seasons as owner, from the 1920 season until his death in 1955. Last year’s third-place finish was the highest by a Washington team since 1945, when the Senators finished second.
While Griffith owned the team, they went 2677-2835 in the American League, a .486 winning percentage, earning three pennants and one World Series championship. During all other years of baseball in Washington from 1901 to 2011, teams have gone 2778-3701, a .429 winning percentage. No Washington team has ever finished first except under Griffith’s tenure, and only twice has a non-Griffith DC team even finished second, the 1912-1913 Senators, led by Big Train Walter Johnson. (Johnson is, of course, the namesake of Nolan Ryan’s nickname, “The Ryan Express.”)
Griffith was a pretty decent manager, serving as skipper for 20 seasons with the White Sox, Highlanders (now known as the Yankees), Reds, and finally the Senators; his last year managing was his first year owning, 1920. He only won one pennant as skipper, coming in his first season as a player-manager at age 31 with the Sox, but he finished second four other times.
Also, Chris Jaffe’s book “Evaluating Baseball’s Managers” notes that Griffith’s teams outperformed their Pythagenpat by a combined 200 games. Jaffe notes that Griffith was one of the game’s early champions of the bullpen, going to his pen far more often than his other peers as manager, as the team recorded far fewer complete games than their competitors. Moreover, while he was “one of the game’s most ejected managers… He had enough smarts to pull one of the game’s first known double switches in 1906.”
But his team’s greatest success came under “Boy Wonder” Bucky Harris, the team’s player-manager from 1924 to 1928, who brought home two pennants and one championship in that time. The team’s third and final pennant came under Joe Cronin; Cronin spent two years playing for and managing the Senators and before spending his next 13 years in Boston, where he made his enduring reputation. Those three pennants constituted the only defense against the ancient joke about Washington: “First in war, First in peace, Last in the American League.”
Along with Ban Johnson and Charles Comiskey, Griffith was one of the founding fathers of the American League, as the star pitcher of Comiskey’s White Sox. Griffith was one of the best pitchers in the league, winning at least 20 games six times in a row from 1894-1899 with the Cubs, and his hop to the Sox was a coup; promising greater salaries, he was able to persuade a number of other stars to follow suit. Griffith was known as “The Old Fox” for his guile as a pitcher; he claimed to have invented the screwball, and he reportedly learned to scuff the ball from no less than Charley “Old Hoss” Radbourn.
He came to Washington in 1912 after being promised a small stake in the team, and managed the team for the next nine seasons. Many in baseball wondered why he would want to come to such a hapless team, but his reason was simple: Johnson’s golden arm. He resolved to build the team around Walter Johnson, and that was the foundation of all the success that followed. During his first three years with the team, he was technically a player/manager, but, perhaps wisely knowing his own limitations, he only actually recorded one appearance each year.
During all his time with the team, Griffith’s Senators were always plagued by a lack of money, and following World War II he became an outspoken advocate for night baseball, which he’d previously opposed. His son Calvin inherited ownership of the team after he died, and several years after Griffith’s death Calvin moved the team to Minnesota.
Griffith’s legacy in baseball is long, in helping to establish the American League as a second major league to challenge the National and in bringing winning baseball to Washington. He persuaded President William Howard Taft to throw out the first pitch of the 1912 season, establishing a lasting presidential tradition. He attended every World Series from the inaugural one in 1903 until the year before his death. He was beloved by his players. Goose Goslin said, “He was a wonderful man, always helpful and kind… He wasn’t like a boss, more like a father.” And Bobo Newsom said, “He was the greatest humanitarian who ever lived and the greastest pillar of honesty baseball ever had. I never played for a better man, on the field or off.”
Ted Lerner may have his Walter Johnson in Stephen Strasburg, and he may have his Goose Goslin in Ryan Zimmerman, and Washington may soon again rise to challenge baseball’s best for supremacy — even though they aren’t Senators, and they aren’t in the American League. (Prior to 2005, the last time a team called the Washington Nationals had played in the National League, it was 1889, and they played in a stadium called the Swampoodle Grounds in a spot now occupied by Washington’s Union Station, a hub for Amtrak and commuter rail.) Even in 1924, a winning Senators team seemed like a historical anomaly. These days, nine decades later, it seems more like a miracle. But the Old Fox made it happen.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.