19 to 21
Baseball 2015

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  John Shiffert has been a sportswriter off-and-on since he was in the 11th grade at Germantown Friends School . . . which is longer ago than he cares to admit. A native Philadelphian currently living in exile outside of Atlanta, he is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, a true red Phillies fan who is still enjoying re-living the 2008 baseball season, a certifiable history nerd, and the author of three baseball history books, the most recent of which, "Base Ball in Philadelphia," is the story of the game in the City of Brotherly Love from 1831 to 1900. His fourth book, on that very same 2008 baseball season, "The Breaks Even Out and Midnight Comes Quickly for Cinderella," is now available. 

Contact John at jas2baseball@gmail.com

19 to 21... A Review of Baseball History
Volume 13, #19, September 30, 2015

The Curse of Freddie Lindstrom

  Over the past few decades baseball has developed a minor fascination with the supernatural, specifically with “curses.” The now-defunct Curse of the Bambino (on the Red Sox), and the Curse of the Black Sox (on the White Sox) and the still very live Billy Goat Curse (on the Cubs) are the most noted examples. But, have you ever heard of the Curse of Freddie Lindstrom?

  Probably not, because I just made it up. Still, it seems plausible that somebody or something has cursed baseball in our nation’s capitol for a very long time, and New York Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom is as good a candidate as any.

  There has to be some reasonable explanation for the stunning ineptitude of baseball teams named “Washington,” both the Senators/Nationals in the American League and the Nationals in the National League… why not attribute that to an interdiction by Lindstrom, who, as an 18-year-old playing in the seventh game of the 1924 World Series, saw not one, but two ground balls bounce over his head, thus giving Washington it’s ONLY World Series championship.

  Since that fateful day in October 1924 in Griffith Stadium, Washington has, in fact, won zero World Series and, over the course of the interceding (now) 92 years, has very little to cheer about while watching three different franchises, grandiosely called major league teams, stumble around on the field (and often bumble in the front office as well.) As you surely know, the 2015 season has only added to this tradition, in the current case with a team that everyone, I mean, everyone, picked to win the National League East, and many picked to actually win the World Series.

  Well, that’s certainly not going to happen. The current version of the Nationals will be lucky to finish above .500, and won't finish within sniffing distance of a Mets team that, prior to the season, basically stunk outside of a promising young rotation. (And you know what they say about young pitchers… they’ll break your heart. Just wait ‘till the post season.)

  Before returning the Mr. Lindstrom, who must have surely cursed the fates when the second bad-hop grounder cost the Giants the 1924 World Series, let us examine the history of baseball in Washington prior to The Curse.

  Following the end of the Civil War, National of Washington (that’s right, the name dates back 150 years) joined the NABBP and won three of five games, defeating the mighty Brooklyn Excelsior. In 1866, led by The Old War Horse, Sy Studley (now, would I make up a name like that?) they went 10-5, the sixth best record in the NABBP, which also featured the Washington Jefferson, Potomac and Union clubs; an impressive lineup, since the game was still dominated by New York and Philadelphia teams.

  National was just getting started. In 1867, they made the first trans-Allegheny baseball tour, to Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Missouri and Illinois, and went 29-7 overall. This tour was a “national” sensation, with the travelers running up scores like 90-10, 53-10 (this against Cincinnati, motivating Porkopolis to go pro and form the Red Stockings), 88-12, 82-21, 106-26 and 113-26. (Did their opponents consider holding the ball to keep National under 100?) Of course, having the best baseball-playing government clerk in n the world, George Wright (who they’d lured from New York) didn’t hurt.

  Their only loss on the tour was to Rockford, Illinois (29-23) and its kid pitcher Al Spalding, which caused another sensation. Only the fabled Athletic of Philadelphia had a better record, going 44-3, including a 35-12 thumping of National, thus giving more credence to the thought that Athletic ace Dick McBride was at least as good as Spalding.

  Perhaps the tour drained the treasury, or maybe everyone was too interested in Andy Johnson’s impeachment, but National only played 10 games in 1868, winning seven, although one loss was in their only trip out of the area, to Cincy to play the Red Stockings.

  Olympic and National both went pro in 1869, finishing 22-14 and 13-13 respectively.

  Clearly baseball was a big hit in DC by this point, although Olympic had taken over as the top team, also going 29-21 in 1870, to National’s 5-12. Maybe they couldn’t find enough hard-hitting government clerks because President Grant was too busy fiddling while investors burned in the gold futures market. Olympic continued on in the first year of the National Association, winning 15 games, although Washington generally did not have a major presence in the NA.

  Washington also did not have a major presence in the majors for the rest of the 19th Century, only fielding teams (named Nationals or Senators… how come they never went with Presidents or Representatives?) in the 1876 to 1899 era in 1884, 1886-1889, and 1891 to 1899. This latter team, part of the 12-team National League of that era, at least played regularly, although they never finished higher than sixth despite some decent players like Deacon McGuire, Bill Dinneen, Henry Larkin, Kip Selbach and Buck Freeman.

  With the contraction of the NL for the 1900 season, Washington was out again. However, Ban Johnson must have thought enough of the market’s potential to place team there in 1901 when the American League went big time. These were the Senators of “First in War, First in Peace, Last in the American League” infamy. However, that clever line wasn’t entirely accurate, at least not while Walter Johnson was pitching in DC. In fact, you can’t really say that a team with the greatest pitcher of all time was uniformly terrible, at least not when the Big Train was pitching.

  True, the Senators finished sixth, seventh or eighth through 1911, the last five of those years WITH Walter Johnson. However, from 1912 until the end of the Big Train’s career in 1927, they were actually pretty good. In addition to winning the 1924 and 1925 pennants, they finished in the first division nine other times.

  Still, that first pennant in 1924 was another sensation. As was the fabled seventh game, arguably the greatest game seven in World Series history. Down 3-1 in the bottom of the eighth, with two outs and the bases loaded, Senator player-manager Bucky Harris hit a routine grounder that bounced over Lindstrom’s head at third, tying the game at three.

  In came Johnson, who had already lost twice to the Giants in the Series, to pitch in the ninth. He battled New York for four innings, putting men on base in all four innings and twice striking out NL RBI leader Long George Kelly with men in scoring position.

  So, it was still 3-3 in the bottom of the 12th when DC catcher Muddy Ruel lifted a pop foul with one out… and Giant catcher Hank Gowdy stepped in his mask and dropped the second out. Ruel then doubled and, after Johnson was safe on an infield error (the potential third out of the inning), Earl McNeely hit another grounder, also right at Lindstrom, and this one jumped over the kid’s head, too, with Ruel scoring the walk-off Series-winning run.

  Well, if that wasn’t enough to occasion a curse, what would be?

  You had to wonder in 1925, when the Senators returned to the Series, and lost in seven games after leading three games to one. What was worse, game seven should never have been played, since it was raining so hard, and so foggy, that the people in the stands couldn’t see the outfielders. However, the most over-rated man in major league history, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, had decreed that the game would be played, even after a downpour in the fifth inning made for conditions better for water polo. Whatever else you can say about Landis, he never let logic take the place of his opinions.

  (Even Bud.com had enough sense to call off game five of the 2008 World Series halfway through the game due to similar conditions.)

  Thus, Johnson and the Senators lost 9-7, and except for quick, five game blow out by the Giants in 1933, Washington hasn’t seen the series since.

  And, they haven’t seen much else good, either. After the 1933 Series, the Senators had exactly four first division finishes before Calvin Griffith took them to Minnesota after the 1960 season, where they were never heard from again, except for the 1987 and 1991 seasons.

  (In all fairness to DC baseball, it should be noted that Washington for many years shared the Negro League Homestead Grays with Pittsburgh, and they were a team that could have easily won multiple pennants in the white major leagues. In fact, there was no little sentiment that the Expos should have been renamed the Washington Grays when they moved from Montreal to Washington. Wouldn't that have been cool?)

  In one of baseball’s stranger moments, as Griffith was leaving town, a new team of Washington Senators was being formed. They played in the AL from 1961 to 1971, lost in triple digits four straight years, and finished over .500 exactly once. And that isn’t even the height of futility for this iteration of the Senators. No, that came when owner Bob Short, on his own volition, traded half his infield and a good starting pitcher for a washed–up Denny McLain, who proceeded to lose 22 games in a season.

  That brings us to the current bunch of bums – even though they’ve never been to Brooklyn – who have managed to turn a potentially dynamite rotation, two All-Star closers, the league’s MVP and a lousy manager into a train wreck of a season that was just epitomized by the recent Papelbon/Harper one rounder. (Geez, they have two of the biggest yo-yos in MLB in the same dugout, should we have been surprised by this?)

  Of course, this team was mediocre from 2005 to 2011, twice losing more than 100 games. Since then, they’ve managed to lose twice in the division series, as place they won’t approach in 2015.

  Somewhere, Freddie Lindstrom is smiling, but, there is no joy in Foggy Bottom, mighty Brycey has struck out.