The kind of success the Nationals are seeing this year isn’t even a once-in-a-generation thing. It’s more like several generations. A ballclub from the nation’s capital hasn’t contended for a title this late in the season since 1945, when a Senators team full of rookies, castoffs and even an amputee pitcher made an improbable run that went down to the last week of the season and ended all too early, literally.
If it wasn’t for Senators owner Clark Griffith, baseball might have been called off during World War II. But the “Old Fox” personally urged President Franklin Roosevelt to keep the major leagues alive, even as the game’s biggest stars headed off to serve overseas. Even with the Allies closing in on victory in 1945, the top players were still away, leaving youngsters and older players deemed unqualified for military duty to keep the game going.
The Senators, who had fallen from their 1920s and 1930s glory days, benefited from the wartime situation, with a roster of journeymen and recent minor leaguers. At age 36, knuckleballer Dutch Leonard led an aging starting staff that compiled 74 of the team’s 87 wins that season. A light-hitting order of players like 30-year-old rookie George “Bingo” Binks and 39-year-old Joe Kuhel, the last holdover from the 1933 pennant winners, would put just enough runs on the board to back them up.
The team struggled early on, but won 10 of 11 in early July to pull within three games of the Detroit Tigers and Hank Greenberg, the first big star to head off to war and the first to return. The Senators would hail the return of their own war hero, Buddy Lewis, who had flown more than 350 missions as a cargo pilot, and went on to become the team’s top hitter at .333.
Think Washington’s tradition of honoring wounded warriors at games is a recent one? Not only did Griffith pay tribute, he actually signed one and sent him to the mound. Bert Shepard was an aspiring pitcher who was shot down in Europe and lost a leg in a German POW camp. But wearing a prosthetic leg, he taught himself to throw again, and after returning to the U.S., impressed Griffith enough to be signed as a coach and added to the roster.
On Aug. 4, with the team playing the fourth of five consecutive doubleheaders, the starter and first reliever in Game 2 were getting rocked by the Boston Red Sox, 14-2 in the fourth inning. Manager Ossie Bluege brought in Shepard for his only big league appearance. He went on to toss 5 1/3 innings of three-hit ball, allowing just one run. Shepard received the Distinguished Flying Cross between games of a doubleheader later that month.
The Senators played their best ball late in the season, climbing 24 games over .500 at one point, but they could never catch the high-flying Tigers. They pulled within one game by winning their final contest on Sept. 23. But Griffith had rented out his stadium to the Redskins for the final week of the season, and they had to wait while Detroit played out its schedule. A week later, the Tigers clinched the pennant by beating the St. Louis Browns 6-3 on Greenberg’s ninth-inning grand slam.
Washingtonians had a lot to cheer about in 1945: The end of a war that had gripped the nation and the world for more than four years, and a surprising team that played right down to the wire. But it would be the last time they would witness winning baseball for 24 seasons, and the last time they would see a pennant race in 67 years.
Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’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 MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.