Saturday, April 27, 2013

Continuing Reflections on "42": Great Players Dominate Integration's First Generation

A postscript to the movie "42" could well have ended on the inspirational (and educational) point that the first (1950s) generation of black players in the major leagues spearheaded by Jackie Robinson included a disproportionate share of great players who otherwise would not have had the opportunity.  This Baseball Historical Insight looks at what their excellence meant in the process of integrating major league baseball.

Continuing Reflections on "42":  Great Players Dominate Integration's First Generation

Ten years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, 88 black players had donned a major league uniform.  Of those 88 who had major league experience by the end of the 1957 season, only 19--sixteen position players and three pitchers--could claim to have been a core regular on their team for at least five years by 1960.  (Five others would become established regulars in the 1960s.)  Eleven of those 19 were elite players--defined here as those who were among the ten best players in their league for the years they were regulars, based on the wins above replacement (WAR) metric of player value, or who had career arcs that led them ultimately to the Hall of Fame--including Roberto Clemente, who really did not reach elite status until the next decade.  Of the elite eleven, all but two are in the Hall of Fame, including Monte Irvin, who was elected for his career in the Negro Leagues.  And the two who are not?  Well, Minnie Minoso was good enough to be on the Veterans Committee ballot last year for reconsideration, and Don Newcombe, who also failed to be elected when he was on the Veteran Committee ballot in 2007, might well be enshrined in Cooperstown today had he not lost two years of his prime in the service during the Korean War.

That nearly 60 percent of the black players in the 1950s who were five-year regulars for their teams were far better than the average major league player is astounding when you consider that fewer than one in five of all major league players (regardless of race) who were core regulars for at least five years between 1947, Robinson's rookie season, and 1960 could be considered "elite." Quite clearly, the 11 elite black players--(in order of appearance: Jackie, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Newcombe, Irvin, Minoso, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Clemente, and Frank Robinson) --were too good to be denied.  What this speaks to is the lack of opportunity given to other black players with more ordinary major league-level talent to compete against whites with comparable ability for starting positions, which in turn was indicative of the continued resistance at the time by most major league owners to the idea of integration, even once Jackie Robinson's success ensured that would be no turning back to the days of whites-only big league ball.

It is also revealing that from 1947, when Robinson integrated major league baseball, to 1960, when there was no longer any doubt about the ability of blacks to play at the major league level, five of the top ten position players in the National League, based on their cumulative WAR for their five best consecutive years, were black, compared to only two of the top ten in the American League, which was by far the more resistant league to integration.  (See table at the end of this post.)  By 1959, when the major league's last holdout against integration--the Boston Red Sox--finally fielded a black player, 41 blacks had played in the American League, less than half the number (89) who had worn the uniforms of National League teams.  And only five of those 41, including Minoso and Doby (who both played for more enlightened AL franchises, at least where integration was concerned), were regulars on their team for as many as five seasons, compared to fourteen black five-year regulars in the National League.

Black players dominated the top half of the NL list, accounting for three of the league's four best position players and four of its top six.  All five had an average annual player value during their five best years well above the standard for All-Star quality performance of 5 wins above a replacement-level player, with Mays and Jackie Robinson playing at an MVP-level of 8 wins above replacement, and Banks and Aaron were just below.  Roy Campanella, meanwhile, was the NL's fourteenth best position player based on his best years from 1949 to 1953--far ahead of Cincinnati's Ed Bailey in player value as his league's best catcher during this time frame.

It was likely necessary that the majority of the first black players to become regulars on major league teams were exceptional ballplayers.  Given the opposition to integration by most club owners and their concern that it would destabilize the game, implicit quotas limiting the number of blacks on big league rosters to a handful well into the 1950s--accepted even by the enlightened teams at the forefront of integration (including the Brooklyn Dodgers)--put a premium on favoring elite black players for scarce big league jobs.  A key consideration for doing so was to avoid provoking any more clubhouse dissension than necessary among white players who were skeptical, wary, or downright hostile to the idea of black teammates.  For the great majority of (white) major league players at the time, for whom big league jobs were intensely competitive and tenuous, accepting a black teammate who played with much superior ability--like the Dodgers' big three (Robinson, Campanella, and Newcombe), Doby, Mays, Aaron, or Ernie Banks--was one thing, a hurdle that could be overcome in the beginning phases of integration because superior talent cannot be denied; having to compete for their positions with players of comparable ability, with the better player winning the job, was something else entirely--a far bigger obstacle to overcome.

Major league baseball would first have to accept black players as worthy of the big leagues before black players of more ordinary talent would be welcome.  Branch Rickey understood this dynamic.  He calculated that the social experiment he unleashed on major league baseball was most likely to be accepted sooner if there were no doubts about the major league ability of the black players presented at big league ballparks.  That integration's first generation of black players was so disproportionately weighted towards players with exceptional ability guaranteed there was no going back in time.  But for integration to take hold, it was still necessary for black players blessed with only average major league ability to be given the chance to compete for--and win--regular positions against white players of comparable, ordinary major-league ability.

Top 10 NL and AL Position Players, 1947-60: 
Most Wins Above Replacement By Position Players For Their Best Five Years

Top 10 NL Position Players                WAR          Top 10 AL Position Players                  WAR

Willie Mays, OF, 1954-58                 44.3            Mickey Mantle, OF, 1954-58                46.4
Stan Musial, OF/1B, 1948-52             43.1            Ted Williams, OF, 1947-51                  38.1
Jackie Robinson, 2B, 1949-53          40.5            Al Kaline, OF, 1955-59                        31.6
Ernie Banks, SS, 1955-59                37.8             Larry Doby, OF, 1950-54                   28.9
Duke Snider, OF, 1953-57                 37.7             Al Rosen, 3B, 1950-54                       28.8
Hank Aaron, OF, 1956-60                37.6             Minnie Minoso, OF, 1954-58             27.3
Eddie Mathews, 3B, 1953-57             35.3             Yogi Berra, C, 1952-56                       25.3
Ralph Kiner, OF, 1947-51                  34.5             Nellie Fox, 2B, 1955-59                      24.2
Richie Ashburn, OF,1954-58              30.7             Joe DiMaggio, OF, 1947-51                23.4
Frank Robinson, OF/1B,1956-60      28.2             Gil McDougald, IF, 1953-57                22.5
Black Players in bold face italics.

Monday, April 22, 2013

More Reflections on "42": The Moral Failure of AL Patriarchs

The movie "42" did not address the opposition to Branch Rickey's "great experiment" from his fellow major league executives.  The core group of highly influential American League owners--many of whom identified themselves with the traditions of America's "national pastime"--who resisted the idea of integration well into the 1950s could also make for an interesting, socially informative movie.  This Baseball Historical Insight looks at their rationales and the possible underlying cultural context.

More Reflections on "42":  The Moral Failure of AL Patriarchs

After Jackie Robinson's successful Rookie-of-the-Year debut in 1947, it was no longer unthinkable for other major league teams to buck the conservative instinct of the game's ownership-powers-that-be that the time was not right for integration.  But if it was no longer unthinkable, there was also no rush to follow the Dodgers' lead.  Later in the 1947 season, the St. Louis Browns became the second team to integrate black players into their starting line-up with Hank Thompson and Willard Brown, more in hopes of boosting their woeful attendance than for any higher moral purpose, but returned them to the Negro Leagues from whence they came after five weeks.  The Browns would not introduce another black player until new owner Bill Veeck brought on Satchel Paige in 1951.  It had been Veeck, then owner of the Cleveland Indians, who brought the first black player--Larry Doby--into the American League, two weeks before Thompson and Brown.  Doby started only one game in 1947, but the next year he was instrumental to the Indians winning their first pennant (in three-way pennant race that was ultimately decided in a one-game playoff against Boston) and World Series in 27 years (as was Paige, who made his big league debut in July of 1948).  Still, as late as five years after Robinson broke the color barrier, the Indians, Chicago White Sox (who introduced Minnie Minoso in 1951), and Browns (now run by Veeck) were the only American League teams to embrace integration.

The problem was the aging patriarchs of the American League.  AL club owners Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics, Clark Griffith (and his nephew, who was like a son) of the Washington Senators, Walter Briggs (and his son) of the Detroit Tigers, and Tom Yawkey of the Boston Red Sox, and the Yankee ownership group of Dan Topping, Del Webb, and Larry MacPhail were adamantly opposed to Branch Rickey’s great experiment and held out against integration of their own teams for as long as they could, or until the shame of doing so forced their hand.  By 1950, they must have recognized that the Dodgers’ and the Indians’ competitive success with black stars meant there was no going back to segregated major league baseball, but probably hoped to limit the cross-over of blacks into (formerly white) Organized Baseball.  They hedged their bets by signing black players for their minor league affiliates, but blacks did not grace the rosters of the Athletics (1953) until after Mack was forced to retire by his sons, or the Senators (1954) until after Griffith ceded operational control of his club, or the Tigers (1958) until well after Briggs had died.  Although signing black players to minor league contracts as early as 1949 and 1950, respectively, the Yankees and Red Sox refused to integrate at the major league level until their rationalizations about finding the “right Negro player” and their soap box "principled" stand about not being intimidated into integrating became untenable.
Mack, Griffith, Briggs, Yawkey, and MacPhail in particular saw themselves as major league baseball’s “godfathers,” defenders of the integrity of the traditions of the game.  Even as the Dodgers, Indians, Giants, Braves, and White Sox were promoting this brave new world of baseball integration—and reaping competitive benefits from doing so—they held to the notion that the purity of the game demanded segregation.  Major league baseball had always been segregated, and should remain so.  Moreover, blacks had their own “major leagues”—the Negro Leagues—which, in any event, according to them, were not really “major league” caliber.  They argued that segregation in major league baseball was a good thing because it protected the viability of the Negro Leagues, giving blacks the opportunity to play baseball for a decent living.  This, of course, was an insincere paternalistic plantation mentality that should have been long discredited since the Civil War.

While they likely harbored racist attitudes towards blacks as inferior to whites their mindset was consistent with the large segregationist sentiment in broader American society.  They probably gave little critical thought to the basis of their attitudes, however, which may have been a product more of acculturation and habit than any slave-holder mentality.  Either way, they feared the consequences of integration, and may genuinely have believed Rickey’s and Veeck’s social engineering contained the seeds of the game’s destruction.  

They may have opposed integrating major league baseball because they genuinely believed in segregation—separate but equal—between races, with its foundation prejudice of white superiority.  Or they may have been opposed to such a revolutionary change for practical and economic reasons, genuinely concerned that integration would undermine the structure of America’s “national pastime” by alienating players and especially a fan base that believed in a segregated society.  Or they may have been boxed in by decades of their own rhetoric to justify Organized Baseball’s no-blacks-allowed-policy and did not want to acknowledge—even to themselves—that they may have been wrong in asserting blacks could not play to major league standards.  For any of these reasons, following the lead of Rickey and Veeck would have forced them to confront the reality—worse, to publicly do so—that they had perpetrated both an evil and a fraud on the game by having so long denied blacks the opportunity, and the right, to play major league baseball.

These "guardians of the game's integrity" were enabled, of course, by the tremendous continuing success of the New York Yankees without an integrated roster. The Yankees' ownership was first opposed, then resistant, and ultimately very slow to embrace racial diversity.  They could afford to be, because of the depth of their "white" talent at both the major league and minor league levels. Despite having some talented black players in their system since the early 1950s, the Yankees were not integrated until Elston Howard made the roster in 1955 as a back-up catcher to Yogi Berra.

Fortunately for the legacy of major league baseball being ahead of the curve on the issue of racial equality in postwar America,the wisdom and righteousness of Branch Rickey’s cause was validated by the fact that every pennant-winning team in the National League between 1949 and 1960 except for one—the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies, a franchise whose attitudes towards blacks was as reprehensible as any in the American League—included multiple black players in starting roles and, moreover as the decade progressed, black players who did not have the superstar stature of Robinson, Campanella, Mays, and Aaron. Full integration, by which is meant blacks who had average major league ability being able to compete against whites for positions in the major leagues where the better player wins out, almost certainly would have been slower had the most successful National League teams in the 1950s been more like the New York Yankees.
The hard-headedness (and hard-heartedness) of the Athletics, the Senators, the Tigers, the Red Sox (who were hard-headed and hard-hearted longer than any other franchise), and especially the New York Yankees—the league’s flagship team—condemned the American League to being slower to accept blacks as bona fide major leaguers, to its shame . . . and its detriment, because black players helped make the National League the more exciting and dominant league over the next two decades, especially as measured by the outcome of annual All-Star Games.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Reflections on "42": Leo Durocher--Integration's Indispensable Manager

Casting the actor who plays Detective Stabler in TV's "Law and Order SVU" series to be Leo Durocher in the Jackie Robinson movie "42" was an inspired choice, since Durocher played a critical role in laying down "the law" with the southern contingent of the Brooklyn Dodgers who in spring training 1947 circulated a petition saying they refused to play with a black man on their team.  This Baseball Historical Insight looks at the importance of Durocher's role in the success of integration in the major leagues--and not just with Jackie Robinson.

Reflections on "42":  Leo Durocher--Integration's Indispensable Manager

Because integration was a revolutionary idea for major league baseball, its success was dependent not only on the talent, courage, and relentless will of the black players breaking the color barrier for the teams willing to make history, but also on the support of the manager.  The role of one manager in particular—Leo Durocher—should not be overlooked.  As Brooklyn manager, Durocher as early as 1942 had been called on the Commissioner’s carpet for insinuating that black players were being barred from major league baseball.  (It certainly didn’t help his case with Commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis that Durocher made his comments to a Communist Party newspaper, The Daily Worker, that like other New York City dailies at the time covered sports—particularly baseball—in addition to its focus on labor issues and politics.)  Though this was Branch Rickey’s initiative and he worked for Mr. Rickey (and, therefore, he could go along or move on along to somewhere else), Durocher genuinely recognized Robinson as an outstanding player who would help Brooklyn’s pennant chances.  It was Durocher who welcomed Jackie Robinson in the spring of 1947, and who in the strongest terms warned those Dodgers’ players who were threatening to refuse to play with a black man that if they didn’t like it, well then they were expendable.  

Contrast Durocher with the role of Muddy Ruel, manager of the St. Louis Browns, which became the third major league team to integrate in mid-July 1947 when they purchased the contracts of Negro League players Willard Brown and Hank Thompson from the Kansas City Monarchs in mid-July.  (Cleveland had brought Larry Doby on board less than two weeks earlier, but unlike Brown and Thompson, he was not put into the starting line-up.)  As was the case in the Brooklyn clubhouse when Robinson was breaking in, there was considerable hostility toward their new black teammates by the white Browns.  But Muddy Ruel was no Leo Durocher.  Instead of upbraiding Browns' players who objected to blacks on the team and making clear his full support for Thompson and Brown, as Durocher did to stymie the incipient rebellion in the Dodgers clubhouse that spring, Ruel did nothing but implicitly show his contempt for their presence by maintaining a studious  passivity, both in the clubhouse and with the media.  When Thompson (still a prospect) and Brown (a great player in the Negro Leagues) were released just five weeks later, Ruel said they had received a "fair trial" but lacked major league talent, while Browns General Manager Bill DeWitt proclaimed they "had failed to reach major league standards"--precisely the sentiment that most in organized (white) baseball were inclined to believe about black players and were not displeased to see seemingly validated.

Durocher did not get to manage Jackie in his rookie year because of his suspension by new Commissioner Happy Chandler for conduct detrimental to the best interests of baseball, but he stood by his beleaguered player when he returned in 1948 despite antagonizing Robinson by criticizing and hounding him for coming to spring training overweight and out of shape.  He also advocated for Roy Campanella to be Brooklyn’s catcher, inserting him into the starting line-up for good to replace sore-armed Bruce Edwards (who was shifted over to third) when Campy was recalled from Triple-A St. Paul in early July.  By mid-July, however, Durocher had worn out his welcome with Mr. Rickey, who arranged an offer for him to manage the arch-rival New York Giants, much to the amazement and chagrin of the Brooklyn faithful.

With the quite rational baseball philosophy of “as long as you can play good baseball, you can play for this team,” as he was quoted by Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, Durocher in 1949 helped ease the major league transitions of Hank Thompson, the same who had already failed his trial run with the St. Louis Browns, and Irvin, and in 1951 famously did so for Willie Mays.  Durocher, according to Irvin, made very clear during spring training that skin color made no difference to him.  Unlike Robinson, Campanella, and Irvin who were obviously great players from the Negro Leagues, Thompson’s prospects were uncertain when he and Irvin integrated the Giants on July 8, 1949, making them only the third major league team at the time--Brooklyn  and Cleveland were the others--to field black players. Durocher immediately made Thompson his second baseman, where he played in 69 of the Giants’ remaining 80 games of the season.  When the Giants traded for Braves’ second baseman Eddie Stanky in 1950, Durocher provided encouragement and support for Thompson to become the Giants’ regular third baseman—the position he held for most of the next six years, or until Durocher was gone as manager.  Thanks to Leo Durocher, Hank Thompson became the first black player who was not a potential superstar to become a long-term regular in the starting line-up of a major league team.  Willie Mays, meanwhile, of course had orders of magnitude more potential as an unproven player than Thompson, but it is conceivable that his resplendent career might never have taken off were it not for Durocher’s patience and refusal to give up on him when he was struggling badly after being called up as a 20-year old rookie in late May 1951.  The rest is history.

Thompson, given a second chance by Durocher (after failing under Ruel's rule) despite not being an elite player, and Mays, who Durocher carefully nurtured and protected through his early struggles, were excellent examples of the difference a supportive manager made to the success of black players coming into the historically closed society that was major league baseball.  Had Ruel and the Browns shown the patience and support for Willard Brown during his brief tenure in 1947 that Durocher and the Giants did when Mays struggled in his major league debut, he might have been as formidable a player in the major leagues as would have been possible for someone already at least 32 years old; Brown resumed a starring role in the Negro Leagues after his major league trial, winning a batting title in 1951.

So, call him a scoundrel, a rogue, unscrupulous, a cheat--whatever--Leo Durocher, who was a great baseball manager in any case, deserves recognition for his role in the success of Branch Rickey's great experiment of integrating major league baseball.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Dazzling Dazzy Vance in the K-Zone

The New York Times' national baseball correspondent Tyler Kepner wrote an article appearing on March 31 on strikeouts soared to record levels in 2012.  This Baseball Historical Insight looks at the 1924 season, when the strikeout ratio was the lowest in history, and the pitcher who dominated the "K-zone"--Dazzy Vance.

Dazzling Dazzy Vance in the K-Zone

In 1924, Babe Ruth led the major leagues with 46 home runs and 391 total bases.  Brooklyn first baseman Jack Fournier led the National League with 27 round-trippers.  In all, four in the NL and two in the AL hit more than 20 home runs, and there were an additional eight players with 15 or more triples--still long-ball currency in the big leagues.  In the midst of Ruth-instigated Lively Ball Era, the power numbers in 1924--896 home runs, 1,173 triples, and 25 percent of all hits going for extra-bases--although down somewhat from the previous three years, suggested that big league hitters were swinging away at the plate.  And yet, only 7 percent, or 6,643, of the 95,391 plate appearances in the major leagues in 1924 resulted in a walk back to the dugout as a strikeout victim.  Ruth K'd 81 times--by far the most in baseball.  The Cubs' George Grantham's 63 strikeouts, leading the National League, came closest to the Babe's mark, and only five players struck out as many as 60 times. As Tyler Kepner of The New York Times points out in his recent (March 31) article on strikeouts last year setting a record pace (notwithstanding power numbers tapering off), teams averaged a record low of 2.7 batters being rung up in 1924. (See interactive graphic

Only six pitchers struck out more than 100 batters in 1924, four in the American League.  Leading the AL was Washington's 36-year old Walter Johnson with 158 in 278 innings pitched, but he averaged only 5.1 Ks per nine innings.  This was the last of twelve seasons in which The Big Train led the league in strikeouts.  The preeminent strikeout pitcher of his era, Johnson had strikeout ratios of 7.6 and 7.4 in the two seasons he fanned 300 batters--1910 and 1912--when he was much younger at 22 and 24.  A distant second to Johnson in AL strikeouts in 1924 was Boston's Howard Ehmke with 119, and the Yankees' Bob Shawkey (114) and Herb Pennock (101) were third and fourth.

While Johnson's 158 Ks came in the twilight of his career, the premier strikeout pitcher in 1924 was Brooklyn's Dazzy Vance in his breakout season, who actually was not much younger at 33.  Long beset by arm problems, Vance had resurrected his career the two previous years with back-to-back 18-win seasons, leading the National League in strikeouts both times--with 134 and 197.  But in 1924, he went 28-6, led the league in wins, ERA (2.16), and in Ks with a phenomenal--for the time--262 in 308-1/3 innings pitched.  His strikeout ration of 7.6 per nine innings was nearly three times the major league average. Vance by himself accounted for nearly 8 percent of all punch outs by National League pitchers, and struck out 104 more batters--the equivalent of three complete games and 7-2/3 innings of a fourth--than the pitcher with the next most, Walter Johnson.  Second in the National League to Vance's 262 Ks in 1924 was his teammate Burleigh Grimes with 135 Grimes had the advantage of being grandfathered in as a practitioner of the spitball after that (and other) deviously treacherous pitches had been outlawed by major league baseball.  Third was Cincinnati's Dolf Luque with all of 86.

The fact that the Dodgers (who were mostly known at the time as the Robins, after their manager Wilbert Robinson) had their league's two top strikeout pitchers goes a long way to explaining how Brooklyn was suddenly competitive in 1924, finishing second with a 92-62 record, a game-and-a-half behind the New York Giants, after coming home sixth with a 76-78 record each of the two previous years.  Paced by 397 Ks by Vance and Grimes, Brooklyn's 638 strikeouts in 1924 accounted for 19 percent of the National League total.  The fourth-place Reds with 451 strikeouts, 187 shy of the Dodgers, were second in team Ks. Getting 15 percent of their outs by way of the K, compared to strikeout ratios of less than 10 percent for the seven other NL teams, meant needing fewer outs in the field--about two per game, on average--reducing the opportunities for both hits sneaking through or falling between fielders and defensive miscues.  This was important for Brooklyn because the Dodgers were not a good defensive team and had limited range:  their 197 errors were the third-most in the league, as was their fielding percentage, and their defensive efficiency percentage (.684) of making outs on balls put into play was below the league average (.687).

The 1924 Dodgers actually did not make a run to derail the Giants' quest for a fourth straight pennant until late in the season. Brooklyn was as far as 14 games off the pace on August 9, but finished the season with a 36-12 run to force their New York City rivals into a fierce fight. The Dodgers spent most of September in a virtual dead heat with the Giants, typically half-a-game to a game-and-a-half behind, including two days tied for first.  Brooklyn's late-season surge was powered by Dazzy Vance.  From the beginning of August till the end of the season, Vance made 14 starts, completed 12, won 11, and fanned 120 batters in 120-2/3 innings.  He also struck out six in a single four-inning relief appearance--his only time out of the bullpen that year--which he won.  All told, Vance struck out 26 percent of the batters he faced in the final two months of the season.  More significantly, Ks accounted for more than a third (33.7 percent) of his outs.

Dazzy Vance, who won the NL MVP award in 1924, led the league in strikeouts each of the next four years, three times striking out more than the American League's strikeout king for the season.  In 1930, at the age of 39, in his last outstanding season, Vance just missed the league lead--his 173 strikeouts four shy of the Cardinals' Wild Bill Hallahan.  But 1924--the year with the lowest strikeout ratio in modern major league history--was the season Vance was most outstanding.  His 262 Ks were two-thirds more than the pitcher closest to him--Walter Johnson--which is the largest difference in any season ever between baseball's strikeout king and the runner up.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The (AL) Nationals'1924-25 Capital Success

With the Washington Nationals widely expected to repeat as National League Eastern Division winners this season, the following Baseball Historical Insight looks at the keys to success the last time a major league baseball team in Our Nation's Capital won back-to-back titles:  the Washington Nationals (also known as the Senators) winning American League pennants in 1924 and 1925. 

The Nationals' 1924-25 Capital Success

As the 1924 season approached, there was little reason to expect the Washington Nationals to compete for the American League pennant.  The Yankees had won three straight to kickstart their dynasty, including a dominating performance in 1923 when they won the pennant by 16 games, while the Nationals had finished fourth, sixth, and fourth under three different managers since 1921. An original American League franchise, the Nationals with only six winning seasons in their first 23 years had mostly been either deadenders or the definition of mediocre.  But the Nationals had a nucleus of accomplished veterans 30 years or older in all-time pitching great Walter Johnson, southpaw George Mogridge, shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh, and right fielder Sam Rice; an eight-year veteran just under 30 in Joe Judge at first base; and young hustlers in Muddy Ruel behind the plate, second baseman Bucky Harris, third baseman Ossie Bluege, and left fielder Goose Goslin.  With this foundation, the Nationals surprised the baseball world by beating out the Yankees by two games to grab the 1924 title, and winning the World Series beside, and repeating in 1925 (except for the World Series part), taking the pennant by 8-1/2 games over second-place Philadelphia as the Yankees never recovered from not having Babe Ruth--out with a mysterious stomach ailment--for the first month-and-a-half of the season and finished seventh.

Three factors were key to Washington's unexpectedly Capital Success.  The first was Washington owner Clark Griffith's decision to change managers yet again, turning to his second baseman to take charge of the team after at first considering trading him for Eddie Collins so that Collins could be manager.  At 27 with only four major league seasons behind him as a player, Bucky Harris was younger than all but two of the Nationals' position regulars; only Goslin and Bluege--both 23--were younger than he.  Griffith, therefore, was careful to secure support for his decision to make Harris manager from Johnson and Rice, Washington's two biggest stars.  Harris proved a dynamic and an innovative leader, his innovation being introducing the concept of a dedicated relief ace to major league baseball.

That would be Firpo Marberry, the second key factor in the Nationals' success because they would not have won the 1924 pennant and might not have repeated in 1925 without him as their relief ace.  Not until the 1920s was the pitcher with the most saves typically a "genuine" relief pitcher, and they were not elite pitchers groomed for that role.  Being a "relief ace" was definitely not the road to career success, particularly at a time when most teams were still using established starting pitchers to come in from the bullpen to win or save close games that the day's starting pitcher could not himself close out.  Harris's insight was to dedicate a young pitcher with the potential to be a first-rate starter almost exclusively to relief.  (Marberry did start 14 games in 1924, along with 36 relief appearances, but was not used as a starting pitcher at all in 55 games in 1925.)  Marberry, much in the manner of closers today, not only threw hard--very hard--but displayed a fearsome, stalking, intimidating presence on the mound.  Harris made 273 pitching changes in his back-to-back pennant-winning seasons, using Marberry 91 times.  In almost exactly half of those games, Marberry got either the win (15) or the save (30).  He also was the losing pitcher 11 times, meaning Marberry figured directly in the game's outcome 62 percent of the time he was called in from the bullpen.

The decision to use Marberry's talent in the relief role was critical because Harris inherited a pitching staff whose two best pitchers--Walter Johnson and George Mogridge--were both 35 or older, and in 1925 Mogridge was replaced by 35-year old Stan Coveleski.  Having a pitcher as fine as Marberry to rely on in the bullpen allowed Harris to better pace his aging staff aces.  With the reliable Marberry as Washington's relief ace in the hole, the Nationals' old-guy starters benefited by not necessarily having to complete their own victories.  Marberry saved 11 of Johnson's 43 wins in 1924 and 1925, four of Mogridge's 16 wins in 1924, and four of Coveleski's 20 victories in 1925.

Marberry's role helped rejuvenate the twilight of Walter Johnson's career.  The Big Train had not won 20 games since 1919, but had nonetheless completed 70 percent of his starts and had also appeared in 27 games in relief.  With a pitcher of Marberry's excellence in the bullpen, Johnson no longer needed to make relief appearances to save wins for Washington and could be bailed out by Marberry in games he started.  The 36-year old Johnson was 23-7 in 1924, leading the league in wins, winning percentage, ERA, and strikeouts, and was the league's MVP.  In 1925 he went 20-7.  Johnson appeared only once in relief those two years, and completed 36 of his 67 starts--a more reasonable, given his age, 54 percent.

Thirty-five-year old Mogridge, meanwhile, went 16-11 in 1924, completing 13 of his 30 starts, after having completed 57 percentage of his starts in his three previous years in Washington.  And Coveleski, after a relatively mediocre season in 1924 with Cleveland that might have marked the beginning of the end of his great career, was 20-5 with the Nationals in 1925, leading the league in winning percentage and ERA (same as Johnson the previous year), but completing only 15 of his 32 starts.

The final key to Washington's success was decisively winning the season series against their principal rival for the pennant both years and playing well down the stretch to secure the American League flag. In 1924 the Nationals won 13 of their 22 games against the Yankees, including a four-game sweep in June at Yankee Stadium that thrust them into first place in the midst of a 10-game winning streak that began when they were in sixth.  The most pivotal games, however, were in the last days of August when Washington took three of four from the Yankees, again in the enemy's lair at Yankee Stadium, to take a game-and-a-half lead into September.  The Nationals remained in first place the rest of the season, but never by more than two games until clinching the pennant on the next to last day of the season.  Harris guided his team to an 18-7 record in the final month, including winning seven of the ten games they played in September with first place directly at stake--either tied for first, no more than a game ahead, or no more than a game behind--which proved absolutely necessary because the Yankees kept the pressure on Washington down the stretch with an 18-8 record of their own and owned a share of the top soil for three days in mid-September.  The Nationals went on to win a thrilling seven-game World Series against the New York Giants.

And in 1925, Washington was 13-7 against the Philadelphia Athletics, themselves making an improbable run for the pennant after years in the wilderness following owner-manager Connie Mack's break-up of his great 1910-14 team.  Although the Nationals won in the end by a blowout margin, it was a tight pennant race for most of the summer.  From July 15 until August 19, the Nationals were never alone in first place, mostly keeping pace in second, typically about two games behind the Athletics.  On August 27, Washington held a mere half-game lead after losing four in a row, but won nine of their next ten to open up a nine-game lead, while Philadelphia was mired in a 12-game losing streak. This time, the Nationals lost a thrilling seven-game World Series, to Pittsburgh.