Opening Day 1969 When ‘The Kid’ Returned

Opening Day 1969 When ‘The Kid’ Returned

By Joe Guzzardi

During the 1969 spring, spirits were high in the nation’s capital. The cherry trees along the Potomac River were in bloom. Cautious optimism prevailed that newly inaugurated President Richard Nixon would fulfill his campaign promise to end the Southeast Asian war. But more than anything for DC’s sports’ fans, legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi had agreed to assume the Washington Redskins general manager and head coach positions. And Hall of Fame great Ted Williams, “The Kid,” accepted owner Bob Short’s offer to manage the moribund Washington Senators. Baseball fans were shocked that Williams, nine years after he homered on his last at bat, agreed. Earlier, Williams had rejected Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey’s offer to manage Boston, spurned the Detroit Tigers’ offer, and once said that he considered managers the lowest form of human life.

Short, a trucking and hotel mogul, had previously owned basketball’s Minneapolis Lakers and moved the team to Los Angeles before selling the Lakers for $5.2 million, a $3 million profit. Among Short’s goals were to entice more Senators fans, turn a profit. To achieve those objectives, he wanted a big name to take the Senators’ helm.

The new owner’s first moves were to fire general manager George Selkirk, the New York Yankee outfielder who took Babe Ruth’s place in right field, and to boot pilot Jim Lemon, a one-time Senators’ slugger. Under consideration to replace Lemon were Jackie Robinson, Elston Howard, Maury Wills, Monte Irvin, and Williams who rejected Short’s first offer. Short had reveled in Teddy Ball Game’s 1938 Minneapolis Millers, AAA American Association career. Williams won the Triple Crown with a.366 batting average, 43 home runs, 142 runs batted in, thirty doubles, nine triples, and 114 walks. But then the persistent new owner solicited American League president Joe Cronin to persuade Williams to reconsider. Cronin and Williams spent several seasons together as Red Sox teammates.

Williams was certain that he could help the punchless Senators. When Short offered a five-year, $65,000 annual salary with perks that included a $15,000-a-year hotel suite, an unlimited expense account, a title as vice president and an option to buy 10 percent of the team for $900,000, Williams became the new Senators manager, and set out to prove that he had leadership skills.

The woebegone Senators that Williams inherited were mocked throughout baseball including in their home city. The 1968 Senators finished in 10th place, dead last, with baseball’s worst record, 65-96. The team also drew the fewest fans, 565,000, a 206,000 decrease from 1967.

The 1968 club had a .623 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, fourteen points below the league average. In 1969, Senators batters had a .708 OPS, eighteen points above the league’s .690. The Senators drew 630 walks in 1969, compared to 454 the previous season. Even with the rule changes that lowered the pitcher’s mound and tightened the strike zone, the Senators showed an astounding improvement of 176 free passes. Williams understood the age-old axiom that a walk is as good as a hit.

Pitchers also improved under rookie manager Williams. The hurlers listened to Williams’ daily spring-training sermons on hitting and how to exploit American League opponents. In 1968, the Senators ERA of 3.64 was sixty-six points above the league average, 2.98. The next season, Washington’s pitchers reduced their ERA to 3.49, 14 points below the rest of the AL, 3.63. Williams’ 1969 Senators won eighty-six games, a 21-game improvement over 1968 and the team’s best record since 1945.

Fans flocked to Robert F. Kennedy Stadium to watch the Senators; the team drew 900,000 paid admissions, and Williams won the Manager-of-Year Award. Unfortunately, the 1969 Senators proved to be a one-year wonder, returning in 1970 to their habitual doormat as “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” A 70-92 record landed the Senators in sixth and last place in the American League East

Despite high-profile trades, which brought Curt Flood and a washed-up Denny McLain to the Senators in 1971, the team declined to 63-96. The Cleveland Indians spared them last place in the American League East.

Short had raised ticket prices, and fans refused to pay more to watch a lousy team play in an unsafe neighborhood. Senators’ frustrated fans—14,500, about twice the daily 1971 attendance– saved their worst behavior for September 30, the final American League game played in Washington. When the fans destroyed the field, umpire James Honochick forfeited a Senators’ 7-5 lead to the visiting Yankees. The fall out: a long-anticipated September 1971 announcement that Short was moving the Senators to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, to the ingloriously named Turnpike Stadium. The Senators were renamed the Texas Rangers.

Williams befuddled the baseball world when he agreed to accompany the limping Senators to Texas. One disastrous year in Texas was enough for “The Kid.” The Rangers lost one hundred games, had a .217 team batting average, a 15-game losing streak, and finished 20-1/2 games behind the next to last California Angels. Williams retired, and headed home to Islamorada to pursue bonefish, a skill that gained him a place in the International Game Fishing Hall of Fame.

For more than three decades and through multiple league expansions, Washington unsuccessfully sought a major league team. Finally, in 2005, the Montreal Expos moved to D.C. to become the Washington Nationals, the 2019 World Series champions.

Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at The 2024 season’s opening day is today, March 28.

Opening Day 1969 When ‘The Kid’ Returned

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