Marty Niland: The spirit of 1969 and Washington’s last winning season

Of all the milestones the Nationals have passed in this special season, none means more so far to their long-suffering fans than Monday’s 2-1 win over the Chicago Cubs. The Nats’ 82nd win of 2012 guaranteed their first winning season since moving to Washington. That’s a treasure for the fans who stuck with the team through its lean years since 2005 and those who remember the expansion Senators.

To quote the Eagles, “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.”

That was the last time fans in Washington could cheer for a winning baseball team, and it was a long time in coming. Rookie manager Ted Williams’ band of overachievers scored the only winning season in the team’s 10-year stay in Washington and the city’s first since 1952, when the old Senators went 78-76.
They did it with a cast of characters that included a bruising bomber who hit moon shots into the upper deck of RFK Stadium, a pitcher who came out of nowhere to win the American League ERA title and a castoff from a last-place team who proved he wasn’t washed up by hitting the decisive home run of the season. Behind it all was Williams, who was coaxed out of retirement as a ballplayer to manage the team, using his encyclopedic knowledge of the game to improve everyone’s play.

Any discussion of the expansion Senators begins with Frank Howard. The “Capital Punisher” was known for his mammoth home runs into the top-tier seats. One thing he wasn’t known for was patience, but Williams changed that. He turned the slugger’s hitting philosophy upside down, teaching him to take pitches. In 1969, Howard not only hit a career-high 48 homers, he nearly doubled his 1968 walk total from 54 to 102 and struck out only 96 times, the only time he had fewer than 100 strikeouts in a full season.

The Senators had several surprising pitching performances in 1969, including one from a guy the team’s own publicity staff had never heard of. The opening day program listed 25-year-old right-hander Dick Bosman as Dave Bosman. And who would have known him? Let go by both the Pittsburgh and San Francisco
organizations, he went 2-9 in his first full season in 1968. But Williams taught Bosman how hitters think, and how to outsmart them. His breakout performance came in a May 2 one-hitter against Cleveland. He finished strong, too, going 8-0 in his last 13 starts, including a two-hit shutout of the Yankees where he took a no-hitter into the eighth. He finished 14-5 with a 2.19 ERA, beating out Jim Palmer (2.34) and Mike Cuellar (2.38) of the pennant-winning Orioles for the title.

The man who hit the team’s defining home run of 1969 wasn’t even a Senator when the season began. The Cleveland Indians traded 34-year-old Arthur Lee Maye to Washington in June, believing he had nothing left. Maye broke into the majors in 1959 with the Milwaukee Braves, where he roomed with and learned to hit from Hank Aaron. In 13 seasons, mostly as a platoon player, the left-handed hitter batted .277. He did better than that in 71 games in Washington, hitting .280 with nine home runs, The biggest came on Sept. 23, against former Cleveland teammate Stan Williams with the bases loaded. Maye hit one over the right field fence to give Washington a 4-0 lead, and it held up as Joe Coleman pitched a complete game and the Senators won 4-1 for their 82nd victory.

The Senators would win four more games that miracle season to go 86-76, and though they finished 23 games out of first place, their fans had the joy of seeing winning baseball for the first time in 17 years. Now Nats fans know that joy as well.

Many thanks to my friend, Stephen Walker, for providing the facts behind this story in his book, “A Whole New Ballgame: The 1969 Washington Senators,” which is now out on Kindle. You can buy it here.

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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