Monday, September 23, 2013

Rise and Fall of the 1933 Washington Nationals

With the Nationals just eliminated from the wild card, it remains 80 years and counting since the last time a Washington team went to the World Series. From 1924 to 1933, for the first time in modern Washington baseball history, Our Nation's Capital was not the back end of the joke about being first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League, as the Nationals (also called the Senators) were overall the third most successful franchise in the league (after the Yankees and Athletics). This Baseball Historical Insight looks at the build-up to the Washington Nationals winning the 1933 A.L. pennant.

Rise and Fall of the 1933 Washington Nationals

An earlier post focused on the keys to success for the Washington Nationals winning back-to-back American League pennants in 1924 and 1925:  Although the core of the team remained substantially the same, the Nationals were not in the pennant hunt in any of the next three years as the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees dominated the league. Notwithstanding his managing the Nationals to pennants in each of his first two years at the helm, beginning at the age of 27 with all of four full seasons of big league experience playing second base, player-manager Bucky Harris was sent packing by Washington owner Clark Griffith after finishing fourth with a losing record in 1928. Griffith brought back Washington icon Walter Johnson, who had won 417 games pitching for the Nationals and retired in 1927 as arguably the greatest pitcher in the history of the game, to try to restore the team's fortunes--this time, as manager.

On the surface,the Big Train's first year at the helm in 1929 seemed less than a success as the Nationals fell to fifth in the AL.  His team was already 34-1/2 games out and 21 games below .500 with a 38-59 record on August 4 when, indicative of what was to come, the Nationals rallied to own the league's best record the rest of the way, playing .600 baseball with 33 wins and 22 losses.  The next three years under Walter Johnson, the Nationals were legitimate contenders--winning 94 and finishing second in 1930, 92 and third in 1931, and 93 and third again in 1932--except they weren't really contenders because the Philadelphia Athletics and New York Yankees were so dominant there was no contest for any of the three pennants. Despite his team coming off three consecutive 90-win seasons, averaging 93 victories a year, and the Nationals having the AL's best record at 19-7 in the final month of the season in 1932, Johnson was replaced as manager by his shortstop, Joe Cronin, and it would be he--Cronin, as player-manager--who had the distinction of leading the Nationals to the promised land of the World Series in 1933.

Clark Griffith was in love with Joe Cronin.  Well, his daughter was anyway; the boss's daughter married the star shortstop, not that that necessarily had anything to do with the managerial change. Griffith, remembering the instant success his team had with consecutive pennants immediately after naming young second baseman Bucky Harris as manager, was enamored by the possibility of another inspiring young on-the-field team leader doing the same.  And the same he did do.  The 1933 Nationals rode a stretch of 23 wins in 26 games between June 8 and July 9 into first place by four games over the Yankees, the only other team that figured in the pennant run that year.  Thirteen straight wins in August broke the race open, and Washington was 8-1/2 games up on New York going into September.  The Nationals ended up winning their third pennant in 10 years by seven games over the Yankees, but lost the World Series to the Giants in five.

It would not seem to have been a necessary move, replacing a Washington icon as manager with the team's star shortstop, especially when it would be dubious to argue that the Nationals could have done any better than they did under Johnson. The Athletics in 1930 and 1931, and the Yankees in 1932, were just too powerful.  They were two of the best teams in history, against which the Nationals were no match, player-for-player (see table at end of post).  Philadelphia's 1929 to 1931 championship teams featured Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, and Lefty Grove--Hall of Famers all, and at the peak of their careers; the Yankees had Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Babe Ruth, Earl Combs, Bill Dickey, Red Ruffing, and Lefty Gomez--Hall of Famers all, most at the top of their careers; and Washington's Hall of Fame players included Sam Rice, who was at the end of his career; Heinie Manush, whose best years had been in the 1920s, and Joe Cronin, who was the team's brightest star and the best all-around shortstop in the American League.

The Washington team Cronin inherited was solid and mature, but by no means great.  With the exception of Joe Kuhel at first base, only in his third year, Cronin had a veteran infield with Buddy Myer at second, himself at shortstop, and Ossie Bluege at third.  An off-season trade that brought back back former Nationals' star Goose Goslin, a key contributor to the 1924-25 pennants, helped strengthen the offense, particularly as he joined up with Heinie Manush in the outfield.  Cronin, Goslin, and Manush were three of the most dangerous hitters in the American League.  The trade acquisitions of catcher Luke Sewell, pitchers Earl Whitehead and Lefty Stewart to join Alvin "General" Crowder in the starting rotation, and Jack Russell to become relief ace strengthened the pitching.  And fortuitously for young (26 years old) first-time manager Cronin, the Yankees who had been so dominant in 1932 were vulnerable in 1933, mostly because age was catching up with key core players (notably Ruth, Combs, and Joe Sewell).  The Great Depression, meanwhile, was forcing Connie Mack to break up the core of his great Athletics team.  For the record: there is no reason to suppose, based on his record, that Walter Johnson could not have won the pennant with this team had he remained as manager, especially with the Yankees in decline and the Athletics splitting up.

By 1934, however, the mature pennant-winning Nationals of 1933 were decidedly older, as the Yankees had been, and beset by injuries to key players, notably Cronin and Kuhel.  Unlike the 1933 Yankees, the Nationals did not have the depth of talent to fall back on to prevent a catastrophic plunge from first to seventh.  The team that had been third in scoring and led the league in fewest runs allowed in 1933 fell to sixth in both runs scored and runs allowed in 1934.  The franchise would forever more be the back end of that old joke about Washington baseball, until moving to Minnesota in 1961 ended the pain, after which another AL team in Washington took up that particular mantle (until they moved to Texas).

(cumulative wins above replacement)
(starting position players + top 3 pitchers)

New York
Foxx                       22.1
Gehrig                 26.3
Judge/Kuhel                   6.6
Bishop                    13.8
Lazzeri              11.9   
Myer                              9.2
Boley/McNair           3.6
Lary/Crosetti         9.3
Cronin                          21.3  
Dykes                      6.9
Sewell                   6.2
Bluege                           7.7
Simmons                19.5
Ruth                    28.9
Manush                       10.4  
Miller/Cramer           7.8
Combs                 14.1
Rice/Reynolds               10.2
Haas                       6.7 
Chapman             13.0
West                            10.1
Cochrane               16.5
Dickey                 10.0
Spencer                         0.0
Grove                     28.6
Ruffing                  10.2
Crowder                        13.4
Walberg                10.5 
Gomez                   9.0
L.Brown                          9.5
Earnshaw              10.2
Pipgras/Allen          7.3
Marberry                         8.9

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