A Last Great Season: The Senators in 1945
By Rob Neyer
Prologue: In the spring of 1945, with the United States of America still fighting a global war in the South Pacific, China, Italy, Germany, and points in between, professional baseball was about to begin its fourth wartime season. The going hadn't been easy -- more than three-fourths of the pre-war major leaguers eventually entered military service. But baseball endured, thanks to rosters stocked with baby-faced rookies, grizzled old minor leaguers, and "4-F" ballplayers determined to be physically unfit for service.
The war was winding down in 1945. Hitler's armies were in full retreat and the Japanese were resorting to suicide tactics in the Pacific. In Washington, spirits were high with thoughts of peace.
But local baseball fans weren't quite so optimistic about the hometown club. Nobody expected the Washington Nationals (a.k.a. Senators) to challenge for anything better than fourth place.
It hadn't always been that way. After a number of seventh- and eighth-place finishes in the franchise's first eleven years -- during which vaudevillians described Washington as "First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League" -- the Senators broke through to finish second in 1912 and '13 (thanks largely to Walter "Big Train" Johnson, the greatest pitcher of his time). For the next decade, the Senators were generally respectable, if rarely good. And in 1924, under 27-year-old player-manager Bucky Harris, the Senators dethroned the Yankees as American League champions, then beat the New York Giants in a thrilling seven-game World Series. Washington repeated as pennant winners in 1925, but lost to Pittsburgh in the Series. Eight years later, led by another young player-manager (Joe Cronin), they won another pennant (before bowing to the Giants in the '33 World Series). But after 1933, the Nats had finished higher than fourth place just once; that was in 1943, when they finished a distant second, 13½ games behind the Yankees. As the 1945 season dawned, it had been a dozen years since the American capital's home team had contended for an American League pennant.
In '45, the Senators bucked that trend and made a run at the pennant. It was an odd, improbable year, full of storylines and developments unique in baseball history. Here's how it unfolded:
Tuesday, April 17: A hot start
The Senators' Dutch Leonard pitched a complete game, the first of 60 complete games tossed by Washington's knuckleball pitchers in 1945. Knuckleball pitchers, with an s?
Yes, pitchers. As the season opened, the Nationals' rotation included four knuckleballers: Leonard (36 years old), Johnny Niggeling (41), Mickey "Itsy Bitsy" Haefner (32) and Roger Wolff (34). Rounding out the rotation was Marino "Peewee" Pieretti, an Italian-born curveball artist who stood five-seven and weighed 160 pounds in his baseball spikes and a sweat-soaked flannel uniform, and had never pitched an inning in the major leagues.
Friday, June 1: Same old story, seven-and-a-half back
While seven-and-a-half games at the dawn of June isn't an unbridgeable gap, there was certainly no reason for optimism in the nation's capital. There was peace in Europe, and most Washingtonians figured that's about as much good news as they would get that summer.
Sunday, July 1: Greenberg's return
Friday, July 13: Clawing into contention and knuckleballs at night
Night baseball in the major leagues was still, in some quarters at least, a revolutionary and unwelcome idea. Three American League ballparks -- Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, and Tiger Stadium -- still didn't have lights, and as recently as 1940, Yankees general manager Ed Barrow had commented, "A club which can draw without night baseball is a sucker to go for the lights. You cannot make me believe that the kind of play you see under the lights, with its shadows and its exaggerations, is real baseball. I am afraid that the game under lights might turn out a passing fancy. It would be tough to invest $250,000 in lights and then discover that the fad had passed and you are stuck with a white elephant."
There was no bigger proponent of night baseball than Senators owner Clark Griffith, and no team played more games under the lights than the Senators. Griffith, in pleading for permission to schedule more games at night, argued that night baseball was patriotic, because it allowed more defense-related workers to enjoy The National Pastime.
As Shirley Povich later wrote in The Washington Senators, though, "Motivating him, too, and not quite so unselfishly, was the fact that he now had four knuckle-balling pitchers ... and their effectiveness at night was something special."
Prior to the 1944 season, Roger Wolff had commented, "The knuckler has the edge under the lights. Leonard and Niggeling and myself ought to do all right. I don't want to make any boasts, but I reckon the three of us ought to win 50 games for the club this season." That trio of knuckleballers actually won only 28 games in 1944; even if you throw in Mickey Haefner, the club's knuckler's accounted for only 40 wins. But in 1945, Washington's knuckleballers won 60 games, and many observers did credit the night games. But was that really the case? Did the poor lighting then the norm make it even tougher to hit knuckleballs than other sorts of pitches?
Maybe. In 1945, Washington's knuckleballers allowed 3.6 runs per nine innings in day games, but only 2.9 runs per nine innings in night games, a 19-percent difference. It should be noted, though, that the club's other pitchers also benefited from artificial light, as they allowed 14 percent fewer runs per nine innings at night.
The art of lighting huge stadiums was still in its relative infancy, and men like Ed Barrow had some grounds for their assertions that night baseball was in some respects a different game.
On July 12, the Senators beat the White Sox 4-2, thanks to Dutch Leonard's knuckle pitch fooling batters under the light. Friday night, the Senators beat the White Sox 3-2, thanks to Mickey Haefner's knuckler dancing under the lights. To the Sox, at least, night baseball certainly was a different game.
Friday, July 27: Buddy Lewis' landing
Lewis didn't collect any hits in his first game back, but he did draw two walks and scored a run as the Nats beat the Red Sox 2-1. Lewis had been a .300 hitter before the war, and the minute he returned to the club he became the best hitter on the war-ravaged Senators' roster, and batted .333 over the last two months of the season.
Saturday, August 4: A firestarting reliever and his one-legged replacement
For the second game, Bluege called on rookie Sandy Ullrich, a Cuban who had started only three games before, all three of them coming (as this one did) in the second game of a doubleheader. Ullrich got rocked early, and departed with one out in the top of the fourth and the Nats already trailing 6-2.
To replace Ullrich, Bluege summoned another rookie from the bullpen: Joe "Fire" Cleary, who had never pitched in a big-league game and proceeded to suffer through one of the ugliest debuts in major-league history. Cleary gave up a single, a walk, another single, another walk, and another single. He struck out Red Sox pitcher Boo Ferriss, but then came another single, another walk, and an RBI double that made the score 14-2.
With that, Nats manager Ossie Bluege didn't bother with a trip to the mound; instead, he simply motioned for Cleary to exit the field. Grudgingly, the pitcher took his seat in the dugout. And then, as Cleary later recalled, "I heard Bluege say, 'Pitcher, my f***ing ass!' and I yelled back at him, 'Go f*** yourself!' We went for each other, but the other players got between us and shoved me down the stairs into the dressing room."
The next day, Cleary was sent to Buffalo in the International League, and he never pitched in the majors again. And so among the thousands of pitchers who have retired at least one major-league hitter, Cleary owns the all-time highest ERA: 189.00.
Fire Cleary's adventure wasn't the biggest story of the day, however. Not even close. The biggest story was Cleary's replacement, Bert Shepard, who became the first one-legged player in major-league history.
Bert Shepard had pitched in the low minors in 1940 and '41, and then in May of 1942 he was drafted into the war. Despite never having been near an airplane, Shepard signed up for flight training, and two years later he was in Scotland, flying P-38 fighter planes in combat missions over Europe. And on May 21, 1944, Shepard's plane was shot down in Germany. When he woke up in a German hospital, he found that his left leg -- fortunately, not his "plant" leg -- had been amputated just below the knee.
After recovering from his wounds, Shepard landed in a prisoner-of-war camp, where a fellow prisoner crafted a crude artificial leg. Before long, Shepard was running around the camp, keeping his arm limber and making sure that he could field bunts with his new limb. That winter, the Red Cross identified Shepard as unable to take up arms again (military arms, that is), allowing him to be included in an exchange of POWs. And so, in February of 1945, after eight months in Stalag IX-C, Shepard sailed into New York harbor aboard a Swedish Red Cross ship.
Shepard reported to Walter Reed Hospital to get a new artificial leg, and while there he came into contact with Robert Patterson, a high-ranking official in the War Department. When Patterson asked Shepard what he wanted to do after the war, Shepard replied, "Well, if I can't fly combat, I'd like to play professional baseball."
Patterson contacted Clark Griffith, and before long Shepard had been hired as a batting-practice pitcher; later he was hired as a coach. On July 10, Shepard started an exhibition game against the Brooklyn Dodgers, and pitched three scoreless innings before allowing four hits and two runs in the fourth. Soon after that game, Shepard was placed on the active roster.
And on August 4, he finally got into a real game. He replaced Cleary and struck out the first hitter he faced, Catfish Metkovich, swinging on a full-count fastball. Shepard went on to finish the game (thus giving Bluege's staff a needed rest), going five-and-one-third innings and allowing just three hits and one run.
Shepard never pitched in the majors again, but his story was of great comfort to many thousands of soldiers and sailors who returned home with fewer limbs than they'd left with.
Sunday, August 5: A doubleheader sweep and a view of the penthouse
Those two victories made it nine wins in five days and, coupled with the first-place Tigers' two losses to the White Sox, left the Senators just a half-game behind first-place Detroit.
Friday, August 24: Feller's four-hitter
Friday, September 7: A rare home run
Kuhel's homer was certainly newsworthy as a game-winning hit that allowed the Nats to remain just 1½ games behind the first-place Tigers (who beat the Yankees with a four-hit shutout from Hal Newhouser). In retrospect, though, it's the uniqueness of Kuhel's home run that makes it noteworthy: it was the first, and, as it turned out, the only home run hit by a Washington player in his home ballpark in 1945.
The Senators didn't exactly feature a power-packed lineup anyway; in 1944 they'd totaled 33 home runs, with only nine of those coming at Griffith Stadium, one of the biggest ballparks in the major leagues. And of those 33 homers, 18 had been hit by Stan Spence, now doing his slugging for the U.S. Army.
The baseball wasn't helping any, either. During the four war years, a lower-quality ball was used, and home runs were down everywhere. In 1940 and '41, the two seasons before America's entry into the war, the average major-league game included 1.17 home runs per game. In 1946 and '47, the two seasons after the war, the average major-league game included 1.12 home runs per game. But during the war, the average game had only 0.81 home runs.
Sunday, September 23: Binks' blunder
Nats center fielder Bingo Binks was a colorful fellow who liked to call himself "The Magnificent Binks," but he wasn't magnificent enough to take Chapman's hint, and so he didn't take his own shades out to the garden for the bottom of the 12th. With two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the 12th, the score still tied, Philadelphia's Ernie Kish popped an easy fly in Binks' direction ... but Binks lost the ball in the sun, and Kish wound up on second base with a gift double. After an intentional walk, George Kell won the game with a single to right field, and the Nats had lost a heartbreaker.
The Senators won the second game of the twin bill, 4-3 behind Marino Pieretti, but an opportunity had passed. With the Tigers getting shut out by the Browns, a sweep by Washington would have pulled them into a first-place tie. Instead, they were still one game behind Detroit.
And though the baseball season wasn't finished, the Senators' season was. Owner Clark Griffith had rented out his ballpark to the Washington Redskins for the last week in September, and arranged his schedule to get in what would have been the last few home games earlier. This meant more doubleheaders and thus fewer games started by the Nats' best pitchers, and it also meant all they could do was wait. Down by one game in the standings, they could only hope that the Tigers would lose at least three of their remaining four games.
Sunday, September 30: Greenberg's Granny
It was raining in St. Louis for the 10th straight day, and if not for the pennant race it's unlikely that anybody would bother playing. The start of the opener was delayed while straw and newspaper was laid down to soak up standing water on the field.
They did eventually play. Virgil Trucks, just discharged from the Navy a few days earlier, started for the Tigers and pitched well, but the Browns took a 3-2 lead into the ninth inning. After a hit, an error, a sacrifice bunt and an intentional walk, Hank Greenberg stepped to the plate with the bases loaded. As Greenberg later recalled,
The rain continued to fall. I took the first pitch from Nelson Potter for a ball. As he wound up on the next pitch, I could read his grip on the ball and I could tell he was going to throw a screwball. I swung and hit a line drive toward the corner of the left-field bleachers. I stood at the plate and watched the ball for fear the umpire would call it foul. It landed a few feet inside the foul pole for a grand slam. We won the game, and the pennant, and all the players charged the field when I reached home plate and they pounded me on the back and carried on like I was a hero. There was almost nobody in the stands to pay attention, and there were few newspapermen. Just the ballplayers giving me a hero's welcome.In later years, it has often been written that Greenberg had "just" been discharged from the U.S. Army, when he had actually been in the lineup for three full months; his pennant-winning home run was his 13th of the season.
And the Tigers hadn't quite won the pennant yet, not officially. But a few minutes later, Al Benton retired Len Schulte to close out the Tigers' 6-3 victory. The pennant finally decided and the field close to unplayable, Detroit and St. Louis didn't bother with the second game of the doubleheader.
Greenberg's grand slam was dramatic, but it didn't ultimately have any real bearing on the pennant race. Even if the Tigers had lost that game, they still would have won the pennant, because the rain simply wouldn't have permitted a second game that day. And if the Tigers couldn't have played their 154th game on Sunday, they never would have played it, because at that time there was no rule stipulating that a team must complete its schedule, even if not doing so would impact the pennant race. Even if the Tigers had lost that first game against St. Louis, they'd have finished in first place, a half-game ahead of Washington.
So disappointed Senators fans had a number of scapegoats from which to choose. Bingo Binks. Hank Greenberg. The rains in St. Louis. Thanks to all of them, the Detroit Tigers, and not the Washington Senators, went on to meet (and defeat) the Chicago Cubs in the 1945 World Series.
Epilogue: Boosted by their second-place finish in 1945 and relative world peace, in 1946 the Senators drew more than a million paying customers for the first (and as it would turn out, only) time in franchise history. With a reconstructed lineup -- all the ballplayers back from the service resulted in a huge turnover from '45 -- the Senators slid to fourth place, 28 games behind the pennant-winning Red Sox. All four knuckleballers returned and they generally pitched well, but most of the other pitchers were subpar, and the new lineup didn't put nearly enough runs on the scoreboard.
The Washington Nationals would never again come so close to first place before moving to Minnesota 15 years later. Their successors, the expansion Washington Senators, spent 11 years in the capital before moving to Texas, and never finished higher than fourth place, or closer to first place than 15 games.
1945 wasn't perfect, but it was exciting, and over a span of nearly four decades, it was as good as Washington baseball got.
The author thanks David Smith and the other good people of Retrosheet for their valuable assistance. Other sources for this article include various editions of The Washington Post, David Pietrusza's Lights On! The Wild Century-Long Saga of Night Baseball (Scarecrow Press, 1997), Richard Tellis's Once Around the Bases: Bittersweet Memories of Only One Game in the Majors (Triumph Books, 1998), Shirley Povich's The Washington Senators (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1954), Tom Deveaux's The Washington Senators, 1901-1971 (McFarland & Co., Inc., 2001), Morris Bealle's The Washington Senators (Columbia Publishing Co., 1947), Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life (Times Books, 1989), and William Marshall's Baseball's Pivotal Era: 1945-1951 (University Press of Kentucky, 1999).