Washington Senators: The last game was a riot, a historic broadcast

RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., circa 1969. (Photo by Nate Fine/Getty Images)
RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., circa 1969. (Photo by Nate Fine/Getty Images) /
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Washington Senators: The Last Game Was a Riot

At last, the final Senators game arrived. Righthanded pitcher Dick Bosman for the Second Nats against lefthander Mike Kekich for the Yankees. To nobody’s surprise, perhaps, RFK Stadium was festooned liberally with protests against Short, most dominant among the signs being those bearing Short’s initials.

The Yankees themselves were in the middle of their own lost decade, that sad 1965-75 period in which the once-proud dominators were reduced to just another team whose glory years looked behind them forever. But on this night they showed flashes enough of that old Yankee power—including three home runs—to stake Kekich to a 5-1 lead entering the bottom of the sixth.

That’s when Frank Howard checked in at the plate to lead off. He was the most popular man ever to wear the Second Nats’ uniform, a genuinely gentle giant, whose 6’8” frame, overwhelming plate presence, and penchant for stratospheric home runs belied a friendly, accommodating, playful personality who turned early skepticism into a love affair between player and city.

Howard became a Senator after 1964 because the Los Angeles Dodgers had two pressing concerns equal to his for more playing time. They thought Howard was unlikely to work the bugs out of his game, most of which involved his inability to lay off pitches even he couldn’t hit. They also feared Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s freshly diagnosed arthritic pitching elbow would leave them too compromised for lefthanded pitching.

So the Dodgers dealt Howard, the National League’s 1960 Rookie of the Year, for lefthander Claude Osteen. By 1969, Howard finally found someone who convinced him to take pitches that looked suspect: Ted Williams. He simply asked if Howard could lay off pitches that didn’t come into or near his wheelhouse. When Howard said yes, Williams simply said, “Can you do that for me?”

The behemoth had never walked more than sixty times in any previous season. He walked over a hundred times in each of 1969 and 1970 and hit 92 bombs over those two seasons, including a league-leading 44 in 1970. (The Year of the Pitcher in 1968 didn’t faze him, either—Howard crashed a league-leading 44 then, too. In 1969 he hit 48 and finished second by one to Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew.)

Howard was 34 in 1971, and the years of rush-conditioning (he was never enthusiastic about spring training) began catching up to him. He entered the final game of the Second Nats with 25 homers. If he had one last wish before being forced to leave Washington he came to love, the Washington Monument (another of Howard’s nicknames, though broadcasters and teammates called him Hondo) wanted nothing more than to hit one more out.

You’ll hear it for yourself on the radio broadcast, but for those disinclined to pictureless baseball here’s Senators play-by-play announcer Ron Menchine calling it in the top of the sixth:

"Well, for the third time tonight, Frank Howard is getting a standing ovation from the crowd here at RFK Stadium . . . They’re seeing the big guy wearing a Senator uniform for the last time . . . Confetti is lining the field. Fans are tearing up scorecards and paper and tossing it out . . . and Hondo takes the first pitch from Kekich high and inside, ball one. Howard has 25 home runs this year. He has 82 runs batted in. The 1-0 coming—high, ball two. Tonight Hondo has walked and popped to short . . .  Two balls and no strikes on the big guy—swings and fouls it back, it’s two and one . . . The Senators trail five to one, but they have time to catch the Yankees–there’s a long drive to left field!—this one is going, going, it is gone!! Frank Howard has just hit home run number 26 and he gets a standing ovation! . . . (crowd noise) . . . and the cheering for Howard who waves his batting helmet . . . I just wish the owners of the American League could see this, the ones who voted ten to two to move this club out of Washington . . . He comes out again . . . Hondo threw his helmet into the stands, a souvenir of the big guy’s finest hour in Washington . . . The crowd screaming for Howard to come out again . . . and here he comes again!! . . . A tremendous display of the enthusiasm of Washington fans for Frank Howard. Hondo loves Washington as much as the fans love him. It’s 5-2 . . ."

It wasn’t a classic Howard blast, merely banging off the back wall of the left-field bullpen instead of traveling to the upper deck. But it was enough to put as much of a charge into the Senators as it did the fans. And a shake into the Yankees, who abetted what turned into a four-run, game-tying Second Nats inning with a pair of infield errors. Two innings later, two more Yankee errors, a run-scoring single, and a sacrifice fly put the Senators ahead 7-5.

Grzenda took his 1.93 ERA and went out to pitch the top of the ninth, trying to save it for Paul Lindblad, who’d turned in two spotless relief innings and became the pitcher of record when the Senators went ahead. Assorted fans began bounding on and off the field when the inning began. Then Williams made a big mistake.