Marty Niland: Remembering your grandfather’s Nats and the last time Washington led the majors

At 20 games over .500, the Nationals have hit their high-water mark since moving to Washington in 2005, and with the right combination of events this weekend, they could find themselves with the best record in baseball.

Think about that for a minute. Before this season, anyone who might even dare to form that combination of words would have been laughed out of town - just as the relocated Nats were regarded in many circles as the laughingstock of baseball

Such a statement was completely irrational during the 34 years when Washington languished without its own major league team, and in the years before the expansion Senators moved to Texas, they had only one winning season.

You have to go back to a different Senators franchise, the one that moved to Minnesota in 1961, and even a few decades before that, to find a Washington team that could lay claim to the best record in baseball at such a late date.

When was it? Your father, or grandfather, or anyone in their 80s might remember.

The year was 1933. With the nation in the grips of the Great Depression and prohibition on its way out, the Senators/Nationals (they were known by both nicknames in those days) were on their way to their last American League pennant at 99-53. They rose to the top of the majors at 58-33 on July 24 and held that spot through the end of the season.

The team was led by player-manager Joe Cronin, an All-Star shortstop who batted .309, slugging first baseman Joe Kuhel, who hit 11 homers and drove in 107 runs, and outfielder Goose Goslin, one of the stars of the back-to-back World Series teams of 1924 and 25. At 32, the future Hall-of-Famer had returned to Washington after a few years with the St. Louis Browns, and though he wasn’t the same player he was in his prime, was a solid veteran leader.

On the mound, right-hander Alvin “General” Crowder’s sneaky fastball and deft pickoff move helped him to a league-leading 24 wins. Lefty Earl Whitehill went 22-8 after spending a decade with the Detroit Tigers.

The team hovered above .500 early, chasing the New York Yankees, along with the Philadelphia Athletics, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox. But in early June, the Nats caught fire, winning 15 of 16 games and surging into first place.

By July, the Nats and Yankees were pulling away from the rest of the league, and in August, Washington rolled off 13 wins in a row to leave the Yanks in the dust. The Nats’ lead grew to as many as 10 games, and they finished seven games ahead.

The World Series was a rematch of 1924 with the New York Giants, but this time, it wasn’t nearly as close. Playing behind player-manager Bill Terry at first base and pitcher Carl Hubbell - both Hall of Famers - the Giants dispatched Washington in five games.

For Washington baseball fans, that was as good as it would get for a long time. Only once more - in 1945, when the Senators surged to second place while most of baseball’s top stars finished their service in World War II - would a Washington baseball team get to 20 games over .500, or come close to a division or league lead for years to come.

So grab your dad, or your granddad, or anyone who can appreciate baseball history in the making, and enjoy the 2012 Nationals. You’ll have some great stories to tell your own children.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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