The 2023 Nationals are bad. But are they the worst D.C. baseball team?

The 2023 Nationals are bad. But are they the worst D.C. baseball team?

With the Washington Senators in the midst of a nine-game losing streak in June 1904, The Washington Post published a couple of baseball writer and humorist Charles Dryden’s musings about the team.

“Defeat to them is the same as death and taxes to other people,” Dryden said, according to The Post’s semiregular “Baseball Notes” column. “Washington — First in war, first in peace, last in the American League, rah, rah, rah.”

The latter zinger, which Shirley Povich would describe in his 1954 history of the franchise as “the most-heard vaudeville gag of the early years of the century,” was especially apt in 1904, when the Senators managed only 38 wins in 157 games. The team’s 113 losses, to go with six ties, remain the most in a season in D.C. baseball history, though this year’s rebuilding Nationals, coming off a 107-loss campaign, could threaten the mark.

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Here’s a look back at the Senators’ historic 1904 season, the highlight of which may have been avoiding an embarrassing defeat in an exhibition game against an all-star team of local amateurs.

‘This may be a sign of future luck’

Washington finished 43-94-3 under Manager Tom Loftus in 1903, the franchise’s third season in the eight-team American League. It was a trying year that included the mysterious midseason death of future Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty, whose body was found at the bottom of Niagara Falls two weeks after he was kicked off a train in Fort Erie, Ontario, for getting into a drunken altercation with the conductor.

In early 1904, AL President Ban Johnson made multiple trips to Washington in an attempt to interest local businessmen in purchasing the league-controlled Senators. In mid-March, Johnson turned the club over to a group that included former Associated Press reporter William Dwyer and Thomas C. Noyes, who was the editor of Washington’s largest paper, the Evening Star.

The new owners fired Loftus and named Washington catcher Malachi Kittridge the team’s player-manager as they waited for Patsy Donovan to get his release from the St. Louis Cardinals. They also insisted that the team relocate its ballpark from the southeastern section of D.C.’s Trinidad neighborhood, which offered inadequate public transportation, to the grounds at Boundary Field in Northwest Washington, which had been deserted when the National League dumped the Senators in 1899.

Washington opened the season at home against the Philadelphia Athletics on April 14, with first pitch scheduled for 4:45 p.m. to allow government employees to attend. Carpenters had worked day and night to dismantle and rebuild the stands in time for Opening Day; The Post reported they were “still driving nails on the runway to the grandstand while other stands were entirely uncovered” when the umpire shouted, “Play ball!”

The 50-cent pavilion seats and bleachers were packed. A special ground rule was established for batted balls that landed or rolled among the overflow crowd, because some spectators were forced to stand in the outfield grass.

“The Senators knocked over an old custom yesterday when they broke into the new grounds,” The Post reported after Washington’s 8-3 loss. “They lost the opening game of the season, and this may be a sign of future luck. Scarcely ever such a large number of people witnessed a ball game in Washington and seldom, if ever, has there been displayed such enthusiasm over the sport in the National Capital.”

Unlike the Athletics, who had been training together for weeks, the Senators, because of the uncertainty concerning club ownership, weren’t sure they would have enough players to field a roster before Opening Day. The team’s preparation was limited to a couple of games against Georgetown.

Washington and Philadelphia played to a 6-6 tie the next day in a game called on account of darkness after 10 innings. The Athletics routed the Senators, 12-2, in the series finale, which marked the first of 12 consecutive losses for the D.C. nine.

“Jack Townsend, the Delaware Peach, was about as easily plucked as the mellow fruit in the autumn,” The Post wrote of Washington’s starting pitcher. “Probably feeling that they needed extra exertion to keep the blood circulating, the Athletics smashed Townsend’s speed and curves to all sections of the park.”

The season was only three days old, but Washington was already a punching bag for local scribes.

“The Senators had about as little voice in the proceedings as a new Representative in the halls of Congress,” The Post reported. “They helped to make up the quorum, but that was all.”

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Washington fell to 0-5-1 after being swept in a doubleheader at Boston on April 19, with Cy Young outdueling Casey Patten in the second game. A 4-3, five-inning loss to Boston on April 29 dropped the Senators to 0-9-1.

“No baseball club ever won public favor or a pennant with a batting average of six hits a game and with less than two runs,” The Post reported after Washington’s 10th loss the next day. “That’s the kind of work the Senators are doing and the kind they will continue to do unless some men can be picked up who are capable of hitting the ball oftener than the present outfit. As the team stands it is a minor league one.”

On May 3, Washington fell to 0-12-1 after committing six errors in an 8-2 loss to the New York Highlanders, who were led by future Senators player-manager Clark Griffith.

“Someone in this bunch must have committed murder,” Washington second baseman Barry McCormick told reporters. “I never saw things break worse for a team than it has for us. Tomorrow is the 13th game, and I have a hunch that we are going to win.”

McCormick’s hunch was no better than his .218 batting average, and the Senators lost, 6-3, falling to 0-13-1.

Washington finally ended the streak with a 9-4 win at New York on May 5.

“SENATORS WIN A GAME,” The Post declared. The Washington Times had some fun with the news.

“No, gentle reader, you are not asleep,” its game story began. “Nobody put the dream drops in your glass. You have not been operated on for appendicitis. You are not ‘It’ in a tag game with an express train. Of course, you feel that way, but none of these things has happened to you. That peculiar mental condition arises solely from the shock of learning that Washington won a game! When the tidings were flashed over the wire, it is said that half the operators along the line broke in to tell the New York office to ‘stop kidding.’ ”

The Senators followed their first win with three straight losses at Philadelphia by a combined score of 33-13. Embarrassed, the team voted to take a later train home to D.C. in hopes of avoiding public scrutiny under the cover of darkness.

“By sneaking out of the depot one at a time with their collars turned up, the Senators escaped recognition and managed to reach home without injury at the hands of infuriated fanatics,” the Times reported.

Donovan’s arrival and installation as manager in May did little to change Washington’s fortunes. Dwyer left the franchise later that month, leaving the vice president position open. Lacking stability in the front office and skill on the field, the Senators were 10-45-3 at the end of June.

Amateurs get a crack at Senators

Firmly entrenched in the basement of the AL at 17-62-4 in late July, the Senators arranged an exhibition game on a day off against an all-star team from the local Sunday School League.

“The amateurs are anxious to get a crack at the Senators,” The Post reported. “Numerous loyal amateur fans select the picked team to win, and it would be a huge joke on the professionals if they did — but most of those who have followed the fortunes of both aggregations expect to see the amateurs make a tight contest with Manager Donovan’s men.”

The Senators took a 3-0 lead in the first inning on five hits and a wild pitch en route to a 17-0 win before more than 5,000 fans, which marked the largest crowd since Opening Day.

“A great many people believed the amateurs had a chance to win, while others expected them to hold the Senators to a smaller score,” The Post reported. “As a compliment to the members of the picked team, it may be stated that the Senators expected to score more runs than they did. It was not a bad game the youngsters played, and considering the strain they worked under before so many of their anxious friends, they did remarkably well. The four errors charged against them were made trying to head off the speedy professionals, but at no time did they lose their heads.”

One of the amateurs, Lefty Herring of the Mount Pleasant Congregational Church team, appeared in 15 games for the Senators in 1904. American League umpire Frank Dwyer worked the game free, and 25 percent of the gate, which came out to roughly $300, was given to the Sunday School League.

The Senators won three straight games at St. Louis in August, after which The Post reported the team “is now going faster than any time this season, and for next season, promises well.”

Washington lost 1o of its next 11 games.

A new name for a brighter future

The Senators were a downright respectable 4-6-1 in October, including a season-ending win over the Athletics.

During that game, Philadelphia star pitcher Rube Waddell presented Donovan with a tattered American flag wrapped in newspaper. Donovan doffed his cap and accepted the gift, which Waddell said was the emblem of Washington’s second straight “cellar championship.”

Washington finished 55½ games out of first place. Its .252 winning percentage remains the fourth worst in a season since 1900. First baseman Jake Stahl led the team in home runs (three) and RBI (50) while hitting .262, and he was named the manager for 1905. Patten finished 14-23 with a team-best 3.07 ERA. Townsend, the Delaware Peach, went 5-26.

In January 1905, Noyes accepted the presidency of the club and held a contest to select a new name for the team. Among the nearly 3,000 suggestions from fans: Rough Riders, Capitalists, Noysey Boys, Americans, Columbians, Ponies, Aspirants, Invaders, Stickers, Willing Workers, Youngsters and Lions.

Nationals, which had been used by several of D.C.’s pro baseball teams in the previous century, was declared the winner.

“Hail to the Nationals!” The Post wrote March 26, 1905. “The death knell sounded yesterday on the old hoodoo sobriquet Senators, under which the Washington baseball clubs for years past have tried to make honorable history of themselves. … Nationals had the strongest following, and it was decided to return to the old name under which former teams brought baseball glory to Washington. It is believed that Nationals will arouse a great deal of sentiment among the old school of fans who gave the teams of the ’80s and ’90s their earnest support, and at the same time create a healthy interest among the younger generation of baseball enthusiasts.”

Most fans and newspapers continued referring to the team as the Senators. By any name, the team stunk for the next seven years, finishing seventh or eighth in the AL every season.

“The folks in the theater, the man in the street, and the children in school knew that Washington was first in peace, first in war, and last in the American League,” Povich wrote in 1954. “If vaudeville couldn’t survive under the incessant impact of that type of humor, the Washington Senators succeeded nevertheless in going on to acclaim. Their early failures produced hardy fans in the nation’s capital. They had to be of Spartan stuff or become extinct, the victims of almost continual heartbreak, knowing no triumph until Clark Griffith came along in 1912.”

Griffith managed Washington to five winning seasons from 1912 to 1920, and he was the team’s owner when the franchise won its first World Series title in 1924. Twenty years earlier, he was on the losing end of the lowly Senators’ first win in a historically bad season.

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