One hundred years ago, in January 1912, the Washington Nationals were owned by the principal publisher of the Washington Star, Tom Noyes. Noyes has assumed ownership of Washington’s new American League team in 1904, but had despaired of ever seeing a winner in D.C. after a decade of cellar-dwelling teams. Then, in November 1911, serendipity linked Noyes with a giant of the game, Clark Griffith. Known as “The Old Fox,” Griffith saw in Washington a unique opportunity and took the managerial job in early December 1911, bent on using his cunning to build the first winner in D.C.
In the second decade of the 20th century, there were no general managers, no directors of minor league operations or directors of scouting. There were just veterans of the baseball wars, men like John McGraw, Connie Mack and Griffith, who managed a complex baseball operation from the dugout. They were one-man operations that could be labeled a cult of personality without repercussion.
With the 1912 season looming, Griffith began a process of remaking the Nationals into a competitor. It was a daunting task. In the decade after the founding of the American League in 1901, the Nationals had finished with remarkable consistency at the bottom of the league. They were eighth in an eight-team league four times, seventh four times and rose as high as sixth place only twice. The team was known as a last stop for veteran players before they hung up their spikes for good.
Griffith announced on Dec. 9, 1911 in The Washington Post, “If anybody has any young ball players to dispose of, whose record makes them look like men with a chance to prove of value ...I will be prepared to talk business.” True to his word, Griffith quickly dispatched the veterans to quiet pastures and called up young players. He had a star in Clyde Milan in center field, but added two rookies, Howie Shanks - only 21 - and Danny Moeller, 27, to the corner outfield spots.
He had veteran George McBride at shortstop, whom he made his team captain. But the rest of the infielders were all new and were an average age of only 24. Chick Gandil at first base and Eddie Foster at third were probably the best of the new players, but together they fashioned a smart, fast baseball nine that played good defense and generally quick, efficient baseball.
Of course, there was Walter Johnson and it is easy to focus on the star of the team, although the Big Train would have never allowed it back in the day. Ever the modest giant among his peers, Johnson’s career would take off with a new team playing behind him. The 1912 season was really his breakout and from then, he frequently led the league in ERA, wins, strikeouts and numerous other categories.
Would he have prospered without Griffith? Like any academic question, the answer is complicated, but after nullifying his jump to the Federal League in 1915, Johnson gave credit to Griffin as his mentor and the two men reunited to remain the stalwarts of Washington baseball for two decades. And what a time it was in Washington.
In 1912, Griffith’s first year, the newly formed Nationals finished second in the American League, spending the year in the pennant race until the final month. Their 91-61 record is difficult for current Washington fans to imagine. If Davey Johnson can pilot the Nationals to 91 wins in 2012, he will be carried off the field on the shoulders of the team at the last game.
Griffith’s new lineup finished in second place again in 1913 - just to prove it was no fluke, and 1913 was Walter Johnson’s best year as a pitcher and player. For the next dozen years, the team was in the first division consistently and dropped to seventh only twice.
The remaking of the Nationals 100 years ago was largely accomplished through the vision and hard work of a single man, Griffith. Ultimately, he remade his original lineup - keeping Walter Johnson at its core - into the 1924 World Series winners (D.C. area fans can and should go online with their local libraries and use ProQuest to examine the history of that year’s series triumph in The Washington Post).
Baseball changed dramatically during Griffith’s era. Men like Babe Ruth and Branch Rickey rewrote the history of the game and painted men like Griffith, who refused to change, into a corner. But for two decades - from 1912 until 1933 - Griffith won three American League pennants and a World Series title. From 1923 to 1933, the greatest decade for baseball in D.C., the Nationals finished fifth once but were otherwise in the pennant race every year.
Today the mantle of Clark Griffith is worn by Mike Rizzo, the GM, and Davey Johnson, the dugout manager. Like Griffith, Rizzo is remaking the 2012 Nationals. He began the process several years ago, but recently added one of his final pieces in Gio Gonzalez. The young left-hander gives the Nationals one of the most competitive pitching rotations in the National League.
In January 1912, Clark Griffith needed a left-hander much the way Rizzo did 100 years later. Griffith found Carl Cashion among players who had signed off the sandlots and brought in a promising young pitcher named Joe Engel. They filled out the back end of a Nationals rotation that pitched to a league-leading ERA of 2.69.
Rizzo will be working throughout the rest of the winter, adding the pieces to create a winning team for 2012. If history is truly our best guide to the future, Stephen Strasburg, like Walter Johnson, will improve dramatically in 2012 and could be on the verge of establishing himself as one of the dominant forces in the game.
Is it truly 1912 all over again? Are the Nationals poised to repeat that watershed performance and turn a historic corner in their baseball history? Only time will tell. But Davey Johnson and Mike Rizzo have the ghost of Clark Griffith behind them for inspiration. There is no better way to mark the centennial year of Clark Griffith’s first year in Washington than to make 2012 the same kind of winning season as The Old Fox first had back in 1912. Thirty games over .500? You can bet that somewhere Griff is rooting for the Nationals to do just that.
Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. Their December guest was Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond. His work appears on here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome the differing viewpoints of guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.