WASHINGTON, March 30, 2013 — The wonderful world of baseball never ceases to amaze fans, but call the Washington team the Senators or the Nationals, they have contributed more than their share of quirky historic baseball moments.
1. In 1962 and 63, the nation’s capital boasted two John Kennedys.
On a cold April day, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy attended the first opening game of the new franchise of the Washington Senators ballclub. In keeping with the president’s motto, the public address system dubbed the home team “the New Frontier Senators.” (See video below)
Despite suffering chronic back pain, President Kennedy, hatless and coatless, tossed out the traditional ceremonial ball to launch a new season of baseball. There were two prominent John Kennedys in Washington that year and the next. One was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the president. The other was a senator: John Edward Kennedy, third-baseman for the Washington Senators ballclub.
2. The Washington Senators farm team signed up a teenage pitcher after an exhibition game.
The Chattanooga Tennessee Lookouts (a team with a record six sets of double letters) played an exhibition game against the Yankees, as the New Yorkers made their way home from spring training. In the first inning, a teenager named “Jackie” Mitchell took the mound and struck out the first two batters up.
If that’s not impressive enough, what if you learned that those two batters were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig? And that the young southpaw pitcher benched both legendary hitters in just seven pitches?
The Lookouts were the Class AA farm team of the Washington Senators and on that April 2 day in 1931, a contract was drawn up for Mitchell after the game and signed by the 17-year-old hurler. But a few days later, Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis tore up the contract. He said that a young girl traveling the country with a bunch of rowdy men wouldn’t set a wise precedent for the game. Yet, the young girl, who was the pitcher and named Virnett Beatrice Mitchell, nickname “Jackie,” went on to play professional baseball and pitch for the Chattanooga Lookout Juniors, and no “mountain” could stop her.
3. Babe Ruth played his last game in Yankee pinstripes at Washington’s Griffith Stadium.
The previous day, the Babe had collected his final homer as a Yankee from Senators hurler Sid Cohen. Now, on September 30, 1934, before no fewer than 12,000 fans, he collected gifts stacked high at home plate. He also received a plaque commemorating his peerless baseball career. Through all of that, the “Sultan of Swat” managed to keep his emotions in check. But tears filled his eyes when he heard the music, provided by the Saint Mary’s Industrial School band, the closest thing the Babe could claim as an alma mater.
4. The oldest player to hit a home run at JFK Stadium was 75.
Luke Appling, the renowned shortstop of the Chicago White Sox, came to Washington’s RFK Stadium on July 19, 1982, for the Cracker Jack Classic. As it turned out, the Hall of Famer stole the show by hitting a home run. What made it “the talk of the town” was that this was an “old-timers game,” and Mr. Appling was the oldest player taking part in the Classic. Appling was 75 years old. Yet, in the first inning, he hit this 250-foot homer off Warren Spahn. After the game he said, “I hit only 45 homers my whole career and I had to wait 32 years to hit my 46th.” He added the reason he did this: “I didn’t want to have to run around all those bases.” This way he could jog.
5. The Washington ballclub logged baseball’s first “Relief Pitcher.”
How do you spell “Relief”? You spell it “F-i-r-p-o.” Frederick “Firpo” Marberry was, in reality, baseball’s first “relief pitcher.” Of course, there was no official term at the time, but that’s what it amounted to.
In 1924 alone, Marberry was involved in pitching some portion of 50 games. That’s the year Washington won its first, and only, World Series Championship. Firpo was credited with 15 saves that year. And just two years later, he set a major-league record with his 22 saves.
Did you say, “More”?
These are just five things you may not have known, at least in such detail, about Washington baseball. If you enjoyed these, watch for my upcoming column, “Five More Things You Don’t Know About Washington Baseball.”
Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as the legendary Paul Harvey, White House speechwriter/columnist William Safire, and Mr. Shirley Povich, dean of American sportswriters.
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