The Yankees head to the nation’s capital this weekend to take on a resurgent Washington Nationals team that currently sits comfortably atop the N.L. East. With both teams residing in first place, the upcoming series would seem to be the perfect segue into a recollection of the many times the Yankees and Senators battled for the pennant. Unfortunately, despite spending 60 years together in the American League, that was seldom the case.
Although Washington was famously lampooned for being “first in war, first in peace and last in the American League”, the Senators did have a few stretches when the team was very good. In the early 1910s, Clark Griffith’s Nationals (as they were officially called from 1905 to 1955) strung together four consecutive winning seasons, a franchise record until the team moved to Minnesota that was matched on only two other occasions: 1924-1927 and 1930-1933. During those two periods, the Senators won three pennants and one World Series, but as fate would have it, seldom had to battle the Yankees for the top spot.
Note: Yellow data points represent first place finishes.
The only time the Yankees and Senators finished within seven games of each other while battling for a pennant was in 1924. That year, the Yankees were coming off their first World Series title and third consecutive pennant, but began the season with a bit of a hangover. The Bronx Bombers lost four of their five games, including two against the Senators. Those early defeats probably seemed meaningless at the time, but when the season was over, they would make all the difference.
Led by player-manager Bucky Harris, the Senators weren’t expected to win the pennant in 1924. Aside from future Hall of Famer Goose Goslin, who was then only 23, Washington simply didn’t have the bats to outslug the Bronx Bombers, but the team did have an ace in the hole. In fact, in Walter Johnson, they probably had the greatest ace of all-time. That season, the Big Train went 23-7, but the team also benefited from standout performances down the line. In addition to Johnson, veterans like Tom Zachary and Firpo Marberry joined upstarts like Curly Ogden (whom Harris used in the World Series to outsmart Giants’ manager John McGraw) to form a pitching staff that posted the lowest ERA in the American League. Much like today’s Nationals, the Senators’ success was built upon their superior pitching, which more than made up for the team’s lackluster offense.
The world champion Yankees after apparently being off on a winning spurt are again haunted by the spectre of a Washington team which seems insistent to achieve that final honor of being first in the American League.” – AP, August 25, 1924
After the Yankees slow start, they reeled off eight consecutive wins to catapult them back into first place. However, unlike the previous season, they weren’t able to break away from the pack. One of the teams that kept nipping at their heels was the Senators, who rebounded from their own slow start in May to win 17 of 19 at the end of June. The hot streak put the Senators out in front by three games on July 2, but the race was far from over. Heading into August, the Yankees, Senators and Tigers took turns occupying the top spot, but down the stretch it became a two-team race. The Yankees closed out the season winning 18 of 26, but the Senators played one game better. That was just enough for Washington to win the flag by two games and claim victory in their only toe-to-toe battle with the Yankees.
Note: Vertical axis represents games over. 500.
The schedule makers must not have anticipated a pennant race between the two teams because their last meeting took place on August 31. Down one-half game heading into a four game series at Yankee Stadium, the Senators wrestled first place away by winning three of four and never gave it back. In the series opener, Washington overcame a 6-3 deficit, and two Babe Ruth homers, by rallying for eight runs in the eighth inning. During the frame, the Senators were aided by the glaring sun, which blinded Yankees’ centerfielder Whitey Witt on a pop-up by Goslin that, if caught, would have helped the Bombers escape from a bases loaded jam. Instead, the ball landed cleanly and all three runners scored. Was that an omen? In any event, the Senators were in first place to stay.
The teams split the next two games, with Johnson winning his 18th for the Senators and Waite Hoyt winning his 17th for the Yankees. In the finale, the Bronx Bombers had a chance to reclaim first place, but the Senators rallied to win 4-2 in the tenth inning. Had the series been played at the end of September instead of August, it might be better remembered today, but regardless of the importance history places upon it, those four games proved to be pivotal. Faced with the the unenviable task of having to beat the champions in their own ballpark in front of crowds as large as 45,000, the Senators rose to the occasion, just as they had all season against the Yankees, winning 13 of the 22 matchups, including seven of the last eight in the Bronx.
After holding off the Yankees, the Senators won their first World Series by besting another New York team. Over the previous three seasons, October baseball had been the exclusive domain of the Yankees and Giants, but in an exciting seven-game series, the Senators finally crashed the party. In 1925, Washington repeated as A.L. champs, but couldn’t defend its title against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Meanwhile, for the Yankees, 1924 and 1925 represented just a quick detour on their road to countless championships and pennants. Eighty-eight years later, the two cities finally meet again on the diamond with first place at stake. Granted, the Yankees and Nationals are no longer battling for the same pennant, and this weekend’s series probably won’t be the defining moment for either team, but, it just might be a World Series preview.