A Capital Forfeit

Washington, D.C. is a city often laced with discord, evidence by the combative nature of politics.  Baseball, too, is combative, but rarely on the level witnessed on September 30, 1971.

In the last game of the second incarnation of the Washington Senators, a melee erupted when the fan base, despite seeing the Senators leading the New York Yankees 7-5, manifested its displeasure at the team’s imminent transition to the Lone Star State and a new moniker—Texas Rangers.

It happened with one out remaining.  “The last out never came because the more frustrated spectators among the farewell crowd of 14,460, their emotions at a high pitch at the though of losing their team to Texas, swarmed onto the field,” wrote George Minot Jr. of the Washington Post.  “The souvenir hunters among them ripped up the bases and tore a few numbers from the scoreboard but, generally, the fans were well-behaved.”

Although the umpires declared a Senators forfeit, thereby awarding the Yankees a victory, the game’s records counted—excepting the affirmation of a winning and a losing pitcher because the Yankees trailed the Senators when forfeiture became official.  Thomas Rogers of the New York Times explained, “The umpires waited about three minutes while the mob tore out the bases and attacked the right-field scoreboard for souvenirs [sic].  Most of the light bulbs in the board were removed.

“As a crowd of several thousand stood shouting on the pitcher’s mound, the public address system announced said: ‘This game has been forfeited to New York.'”

Noting the intangible impact, or lack thereof, Minot cited Senators skipper Ted Williams, who expressed, “One more loss won’t affect our overall performance this year.”  Indeed, the Senators finished the ’71 season with a 63-96 record.  Washingtonians showcased decency toward the players, reserving their outrage for owner Robert Short, who spearheaded the move to Texas.  Legendary sports writer Shirley Povich of the Post wrote, “Those who were savoring this last, fond look at the Senators let it be known by their cheers that they absolved the athletes of all blame in the messy machinations that rooked the city of its major-league status.  Even the .190 hitters heard the hearty farewells, and in the case of big Frank Howard it was thunderous when he came to the plate.”

Moving a major league team was neither a new idea nor a shocking one by the time Short decided to uproot from the nation’s capital.  Boston, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee had lost teams; New York City lost two when the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants left for California after the 1957 season.

Washington completed its unfinished business in 2006, when the Yankees played their first game in the District of Columbia since the forfeit.  President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch with the same ball that the disturbance prevented Senators pitcher Joe Grzenda from using to pitch to Horace Clarke.  Richard Sandomir of the Times noted that the ball had been “preserved in an envelope inside a drawer in Grzenda’s house.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 15, 2016.

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