By September 30, 1971, Washington had hosted American League baseball for 71 full years, the entire existence of the “junior circuit.” But that day would mark the end. The American League’s last game in the nation’s capital was played on this day in baseball history.

Bob Short, a Democrat politician from Minnesota, owned the Washington Senators. During the 1971 season, he gained permission to move the team to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In the previous decade, a different Senators franchise, the original one, had moved to the twin cities in Minnesota.

Baseball certainly wasn’t thriving in D.C. when Short decided to move the team. In 1971, just 655,000 people attended Senators home games. Only San Diego and Cleveland did worse.

But it’s unfair to look at the 1971 numbers because the D.C. fan base knew the team likely would be leaving. In 1970, the team drew 825,000 fans. Seven teams drew fewer.

And in 1969, when the team played better than .500 baseball for the first time in its history, attendance reached 918,000. This was higher than the American League median and only about 140,000 (around 2,000 fans per game) worse than the high-flying team up the road — the American League champion Baltimore Orioles.

There’s no point, though, in moaning about a decision made 50 years ago, or about the subsequent failures, for decades, to bring baseball back to D.C. Let’s talk about the farewell game.

It pitted the Senators against the New York Yankees. These were the fourth place (New York) and fifth place (Washington) teams in the six-team American League East. The Senators had nothing to play for, but a win for the Yankees would give the New York team a winning record. For die hard Senators fans, if not the players, denying the hated Yankees a plus-500 record would mean something.

The starting pitchers were Mike Kekich for the visitors and Dick Bosman for the home team. With the possible exception of rookie (and Dartmouth man) Pete Broberg, Bosman was the Senators’ best pitcher. He had been our ace since 1969 when he posted the lowest ERA in the American League.

Kekich is best remembered for swapping wives with teammate Fritz Peterson, but Kekich was still married to his first wife in 1971. That year, he was basically a .500 pitcher for a .500 team.

The Yankees jumped all over Bosman in the first two innings. In the top of the first, Rusty Torres homered. A Roy White double and a John Ellis single made it 2-0.

In the top of the second, Bobby Murcer, who was having a fabulous year, hit a two-run homer to up the lead to 4-0.

The Senators got a run back in the bottom of the second. It took a pair of errors by shortstop Frank (not Home Run) Baker to produce it. The only hit involved was a single by Dave Nelson.

Bosman got through the third and four innings okay. However, New York added a run in the top of the fifth on a home run by White. The Yankees now led 5-1 and they took that lead into the bottom of the sixth.

Would the Senators, with nothing to play for, roll over and play dead? Not on Frank Howard’s watch.

The big man led off the bottom of the sixth with a long home run. The crowd (14,460 strong, almost twice the season average) roared with appreciation as Howard waved his batting helmet in the air, blew kisses to the fans, and tossed his cap into the stands.

Howard says that when he crossed home plate he told Yankee catcher Thurman Munson, “thanks for the gift.” He believed Kekich had grooved one for the popular slugger. After the game, Kekich confirmed this view. “Let’s just say I tried to throw him a straight pitch,” the left-hander commented.

Howard would later call that home run “the greatest thrill of my life.” This from a man who homered in the 1963 World Series (for the Dodgers) and homered in the 1969 all-star game before the D.C. home crowd. (Howard also was a first-team all-American in basketball at Ohio State and set a Madison Square Garden record for rebounds in a single game, 32.)

Howard’s home run sparked the Senators. Dick Billings and rookie Jeff Burroughs followed with singles. That was it for Kekich.

On came Jack Aker, one of the better relievers of the era. Nelson greeted him with a bunt single which also produced a throwing error by Aker. Billings scored. Burroughs took third and scored on a ground out by Del Unser, on which Nelson moved to second.

After Tom Ragland struck out, Don Mincher pinch hit for relief pitcher Horacio Pina. He received an intentional walk.

Elliot Maddox followed with a double. Nelson scored the tying run but the slow-footed Mincher was thrown out at the plate.

This was now a tie game, and so it remained until the bottom of the eighth. In that frame, New York’s defense again let the team down.

Nelson, leading off, reached on an error by Gene (“Stick”) Michael who had just entered the game. Nelson stole second base — his 17th steal in just 85 games.

Unser struck out, but Ragland reached on another error, this one by veteran Ron Hansen who was playing third base. Nelson stayed at second.

With pitcher Paul Lindblad (who had given the Senators two scoreless innings) due up, manager Ted Williams sent Tommy McCraw to pinch hit. McCraw singled home Nelson with the go-ahead run.

Ragland stopped at third, but Maddox drove him home with a sacrifice fly. All of this was against Aker, pitching in his third inning of relief, whom Yankee manager Ralph Houk declined to pull. To be fair, Aker’s pitching was less of a problem than his defense and that of his team.

Now ahead 7-5, the Senators needed just three outs to win their D.C. finale. Joe Grzenda, a journeyman having a fine season, came on the close.

He retired pinch hitter Felipe Alou on a ground ball, after which the game was delayed because fans had come onto the field. When order was restored, Murcer ground out, pitcher to first.

Now the crowd was set to rush the field. As instructed by Williams, Grzenda paused to give the bullpens a chance to empty. The skipper had already removed Howard from the game.

Horace Clarke was next up. When he dithered in the on-deck circle, Grzenda, anticipating the invasion, yelled, “come on, let’s go.”

It was too late. Grzenda described what happened next:

They came over the fence, and there was actually dust flying. There were hundreds that came over the fence. It looked like a herd of cattle coming in those old movies, when they stampede.

There was no chance of finishing the game. The Senators would have to forfeit. The Yankees, declared 9-0 winners by rule, would have their winning season.

Fans pulled up bases, grass, pieces of the scoreboard, and even dirt. Broadcasting the game, Tony Roberts compared it on air to “an army of ants. . .going through the jungle. . .just chomping away at everything they can get their hands on.”

His broadcast partner, Ron Mencchine, summed up this way:

It’s a shame, that they couldn’t have waited for one more out. . .It’s a strange way to lose a ball game. It’s a strange way to wind up major league baseball in the nation’s capital. . .but I guess it’s been a topsy-turvy season. No one believed that there would not be major league baseball in the nation’s capital. But it’s sad to report there no longer is.

And wouldn’t be for more than 33 long years.

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