The Griffith Dynasty, Part 4

David B Morris
19 min readMay 11, 2024

1925: How The Senators Won Their Second Straight Pennant And A Second Championship Slipped Through Walter Johnson’s Fingers

The ‘Curse of the Bambino’ has been that when Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919 the Red Sox, one of the most dominant teams in baseball collapsed and the Yankees became a great team. Frazee that spent the next decade selling all of the best Red Sox players to the Yankees which made them the team of the 1920s and by extension the greatest franchise in history on the back of Red Sox blood.

Jacob Ruppert did pillage the Red Sox of all of their best stars from 1919 to 1928 to the point that by 1923, eleven players of the 25 players on the roster were former Red Sox. And yes Babe Ruth became the greatest home run hitter and gate attraction the moment he went to New York. But the idea that the moment the Yankees gained Babe Ruth they became the unstoppable machine is less true and in fact even as more Red Sox joined the team in the early 1920s, it took a while for the dominance to become evident. In fact, it will probably shock the most devoted Yankee fans to know that it wasn’t until Ruth’s ninth season with the Yankee that he won as many World Series championships as he had in his first four seasons with the Red Sox.

In 1920 Babe Ruth broke every imaginable record when he hit 54 home runs in one of the greatest seasons a hitter has had (Ruth had many of them) Carl Mays, who’d been sold to the Yankees the summer before added 26 victories and the team contended for the American League pennant much of the year. But not even Ruth’s power could get them over the top and though they finished three games out by early September they were never in first place. Cleveland took its first American League Pennant that year.

In 1921, Waite Hoyt and catcher Wally Schang were purchased from the Sox. Ruth hit 59 home runs and broke the records he’d set the year before. Mays won 27 games and Hoyt won 19. The Yankees spent the entire season going back and forth with Cleveland for first place and they didn’t clinch the pennant until the final week, winning by 3 and a half games. They then lost to the New York Giants in the first Subway series.

In 1922, Babe Ruth was suspended five times during the season. By now Mays was in decline so the Yankees purchased Red Sox pitchers Joe Bush and Sam Jones from the team along with shortstop Everett Scott, who was in the middle of the longest consecutive games streak played. The Yankees still spent the entire season battling with the St. Louis Browns for the pennant and won it by one game. They were then swept by the Giants.

In 1923 Yankee Stadium opened and Babe Ruth homered on opening day, the start of a .393 season with 41 home runs and his only MVP. The Yankee’s completed their raid of the Red Sox pitching staff when they purchased Herb Pennock who gave them nineteen more wins. The Yankees won the American League Pennant in spectacular fashion, winning by fifteen games over Detroit and taking their first World Championship in six games over the Giants.

The Senators winning the pennant in 1924 therefore was a significant accomplishment but it helped matters that while Ruth was still superb on the field, the team around him was beginning to fray. Mays was traded to Cincinnati because of a poor season that year. Bush and Jones only won a few games more than they lost. Scott was getting old and he would retire soon. Most of the Yankees who had been with the team since Ruth joined were aging and would be gotten rid of soon. And the Red Sox franchise didn’t have any talent left to steal from.

During the offseason Johnson had been trying to purchase a Pacific Coast team, first the Oakland Oaks and then a club in Vernon. Due to many petty grievances both deals fell through. Finally in the spring of 1925 he signed a two-year contract with Washington, though he wouldn’t start in spring training until March 28th. By that point ‘the Bellyache heard round the world’ had hit baseball. Babe Ruth had undergone abdominal surgery and was going to be out for at least the first two months of the 1925 season. This opened a whole new world of possibilities for the American League — particularly the defending World Champions.

Griffith had made it clear he wasn’t standing pat. In the off-season he had picked up Stan Coveleski from Cleveland and Dutch Reuther from Brookyln. Coveleski, a future Hall-of-Famer, was one of the last pitchers in baseball still allowed to use a spitball. Between 1918 and 1921, he had won more than twenty games for Cleveland. In 1920, he’d won 24 games and three in their World Series victory over Brooklyn, the first pitcher to do so since Babe Adams had won 3 games for the Pirates in 1909. Reuther had won 19 games for the Reds in 1919 and 21 for the Dodgers in 1922. Both men would be vital to the Senators pitching staff in the year to come.

On April 22, Walter Johnson started in the home opener against the Senators. In it he earned his second win of the season as the Senators trounced the Yankees 10–1. In that game Johnson pitched against a right-fielder substituting for Ruth named Lou Gehrig.

Not even Gehrig admitted getting a hit off Walter Johnson.

“I was scared to death when I stepped in,” he recalled years later. “The first pitch of Walter’s was a fastball inside and I guess I jumped back 3 feet. Muddy Ruel was catching: ‘Stand up there kind. He won’t kill you. Only break a bone or two.” Walter struck me out that first time — and I was the easiest strikeout he ever got.

It was the only time that year faced Johnson. In the last two years in the league Gehrig had no more problem with him then he did most other pitchers. He went 10 for 20, with 4 home runs and a double. But that year the Yankees were not much of a problem for Washington — or anyone else. By the time Gehrig replaced Wally Pipp, the Yankees were heading for a seventh-place finish. Even Gehrig’s superb rookie year — he hit 20 home runs and batting .295 — could not turn the tide.

Very quickly the 1925 American League pennant race became a showdown between teams owned by two of the owners with the longest history in baseball: Griffith’s Senators and Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics.

After the A’s had been swept by the Boston Braves in the 1914 World Series Mack had broken up his championship team. They had finished dead last for seven consecutive seasons. Since 1922 they had been on an upward trajectory: seventh in 1922, sixth in 1923, fifth in 1924, By 1925 Mack had the foundation of what would be one of the greatest teams in baseball history. Three pitchers who were critical to the teams success were in the rotation: Rube Walberg, Eddie Rommel and a minor league sensation named Lefty Grove. Behind the plate was Mickey Cochrane who in his first full season hit an incredible .331.

But the hitter who was looking like he might be the scariest thing since Babe Ruth was in left field: Al Simmons. In his second full season, In just his second full season he demonstrate the fear he struck in pitchers across the league. He hit .384, drove in 129 runs and hit 24 home runs. That season he managed 253 base hits just four shy of the major league record that George Sisler had set just three years earlier. On May 7th the A’s moved into first for the first time in eleven years and would have an eight game lead at the end of the month over Washington.

But in late June the tone changed. On June 26th Walter Johnson would pitch against Lefty Grove who, after Johnson, would be considered the next candidate for the pitcher with the best fastball. Grove had grown up seeing Johnson pitch and thought he was the fastest ever. Johnson would pitch against him three times and beat him all three times. Johnson took the ball again three days later and shut the A’s out 7–0. It was the Senator’s fourth defeat of the A’s in five games and knocked them out of first place.

The Senators and the A’s would exchange the lead in the American League for much of the summer. They would trail them for a month before pulling on top for good on August 20th. In part this was because the A’s had not yet put everything together. They were an exceptional hitting team with a team batting average of .307 but their pitching was not solid. Grove led the American League in strikeouts (the first of seven consecutive years he would do so) but in his rookie year he was struggling with control and went 10–12 with a 4.75 ERA by far his worst year in the majors. Rube Walberg was similar plagued going 8–14. Slim Harris and Rommel could not carry the staff.

By contrast the Senators for the second straight year had the best pitching in the American League. Johnson was fading, in comparison to even the year before, but he was capable of going 20–7 with a 3.07 ERA. He finished second in the league in E.RA, winning percentage and strikeouts. Coveleski lead the American League in both of the former categories, also winning 20 games but only losing 5. Dutch Reuther went 18–7 and Firpo Mayberry led the American league with fifteen saves and fifty-five appearances.

Johnson was also able to contribute, surprisingly, with his bat. Never having hit. 300 for a season before, that year he hit.433, still the record for a pitcher even managing two pinch hits to win games for the Senators. With the exception of McNeely becoming the regular center field the Senator lineup was basically the same as 1924. Sam Rice and Goose Goslin were the biggest offensive contributors. Rice managed 227 hits, second in the league only to Simmons, hit .350 and stole 26 bases. Goslin hit .330, drove in 113 runs and stole 26 bases as well. Interestingly enough the American League MVP that year was a Senator but it was Roger Peckinpaugh the shortstop who was known for great defense but who hit .294 and drove in only 64 runs. It was the first — but far from the last — truly inexplicable choice for MVP in history. And given how the World Series turned out was an irony writ large.

Roger Peckinpaugh, when he was with the Yankees.

The Senators won the 1925 American League pennant far more easily than they had the year before, ultimately winning by eight games over the A’s.

The 1925 World Series would occur in the midst of a great loss that all of baseball would feel. Christy Mathewson the former Giant pitching ace had finally succumbed to the tuberculosis that had plagued him since being exposed to mustard gas during World War I on October 8th. Before Game 2 began, all of the players wore mourning armbands, the flag flew at half-staff and the band played ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ before play started. Among the many sentiments expressed was the true blue one that Johnson and Mathewson had never gotten a chance to face each other.

The winner of the 1925 National League Pennant was, for the first time since 1920, not a New York team. After four consecutive pennants the Giants had fallen to second place. Though no one knew it yet, this was the end of an era as well. Since McGraw had taken over the Giant in 1903, they had won ten pennants in 21 seasons. McGraw would manage the Giants for another seven years but not only would he never win another pennant, none of his teams would finish as high as second for the rest of his career. The game had changed and McGraw was left behind.

In its place were the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the first decade of the 20th century, the Pirates had been one of the most dominant teams in the National League, maybe of all time. They had dominated the League from 1901–1903 and had represented the National League in the first World Series. Along with McGraw’s Giants and Frank Chance’s Cubs, Fred Clarke’s Pirates were the most formidable force in the decade, winning four pennants and the World Series in 1909.

But in the 1910s as the team aged, they slowly dropped from the standings, not helped by the brief arrival of a Federal League Team there in 1914 and the aging of its stars. After a last place finish in 1917, owner Barney Dreyfus began the process of rebuilding and the team slowly rose in the standings.

Like Griffith Park, Forbes Field was not a great home run park so the 1925 Pirates would rely on high average hitters. As with the Senators, three vastly underrated Hall-Of-Famers were in their lineup.

Max Carey was the Pirates center fielder and was one of the better place hitters in baseball, managing 2665 hits. He was also the fastest baserunner in the National League. He led the league in stolen bases ten times, stealing 738 during his long career. He is second only to Ty Cobb with most steals of home, having done so 33 times. When he retired in 1929 he had broken the National League record and it would hold until 1974. It’s still the ninth highest in Major League history. He was 35 but still capable of leading both leagues with 46 stolen bases.

Kiki Cuyler.

Even more important was Kiki Cuyler, the Pirates right fielder. In what was only his second season as a regular, Cuyler had put together one of the most dominant seasons in the National League. He batted .357, drove in 102 runs and led the National League in runs scored, plate appearances and triples with an astonishing 26. He managed 220 hits and stole 41 bases, second only to Carey. He was at the start of an astonishing career in the National League in which he would manage a .321 batting average and play on five National League pennant winners.

Pie Traynor was about to rewrite all the rules of what a third baseman could be. Not a position known for offense, he would manage a .320 lifetime average, still the highest mark for any third baseman in history. He hit exactly .320, drive in 106 runs and score 114.

Nor was he the only player shattering expectations of what infielders could do. Shortstop Glenn Wright hit 18 home runs and drove in 121, finishing fourth in MVP voting. He also set the rookie record for assists by a shortstop and on May 7th 1925, recorded an unassisted triple play against the Cardinals.

Collectively the Pirates led the National League in runs scored, batting average, doubles, triples and stolen bases. Their pitching, while not as outstanding as Washington’s, was incredibly balanced with five pitchers each winning fifteen or more games. The Senators knew they were in for a fight.

On October 7th the series opened in Pittsburgh. Many of the old stars of the game were there, including Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb who had famously faced off when Pittsburgh had defeated Detroit in 7 games. With Babe Ruth in attendance three of the first five inductees into the Hall of Fame were present to watch the fourth pitching the opening game.

Johnson no doubt pitched better games than Game 1 of the World Series but not to those in attendance and the Pirates certainly didn’t think so. He gave up just five hits and a walk, while striking out ten. Cuyler, Wright and Barnhart went down twice. Muddy Ruel, who dropped twenty of Johnson’s pitches, claimed Johnson was so good “he made me look rotten.” He made up for it by picking off Carey in the first inning and Cuyler in the fourth. Pie Traynor’s home run was the only cause for excitement the Pirates had. After Sam Rice drove in two runs with the bases loaded in the fifth, Johnson had all the runs he needed for a 3–1 victory.

In the second game, Coveleski faced off against Vic Aldrige in a pitchers duel for eight innings. A home run by Joe Judge for the Senators and Glenn Wright for the Pirates accounted for all the scoring. Then in the bottom of the eighth, Cuyler homered with one on to put the Pirates up 3–1. The Senators loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the ninth but were only able to score a single run as Pittsburgh evened the series 1 game apiece.

After a rain delayed it Game 3 began in Washington and one of the most infamous catches in the history of the World Series — perhaps in all of the postseason — took place. The Senators were ahead 4–3 with two outs in the eighth when Pirate catcher Earl Smith drove a ball to right center field.

Rice raced after it into until running out of room at the temporary bleachers where he leaped high into the air — and fell into the crowded stands along with the ball. A few seconds later, he emerged holding the ball. The umpire called it an out.

Pirate manager Bill McKechnie charged out of the dugout, demanding to know how Rice knew it. The umpire didn’t go back on it and Commissioner Landis, in attendance, denied McKechnie’s protest. After the game Landis called for Rice and asked him: “Sam, did you catch the ball.”

“Judge,” Rice replied. “The umpire said I did.”

“That’s exactly what I wanted you to say!” Landis said approvingly, “and that’s the way I want you to answer anybody else asking the question.”

The controversy lasted the rest of Rice’s life. In 1965 he wrote a letter describing the exact details of the catch, sealed it in an envelope and gave it to president of the Hall of Fame Paul Kerr with instructions for it to be opened after his death. When he passed away nine years later, the seal was broken. “At no time did I lose possession of the ball,” the note read among other details. By that time, however, a change had been in the rules in which a fair batted ball that goes over the fence and into the stand shall count as a home run.

The next day Walter Johnson had his finest start in a World Series. Johnson threw a six hit shutout, even more remarkable because Johnson had injured his leg in the third trying to stretch a single into a double. Despite his trainers advice, he stayed in the game. In the third Goslin hit a three run home run to give Johnson all the runs he would need to win 4–0. The Senators now led the series 3 games to 1.

The Pirates were in dire straits. At that point, no team had ever come back from that great a deficit to win a World Series. And the Pirates looked beaten.

During the series, however, Bucky Harris made some strategic blunders. Because the Pirates were death on left-handers Dutch Ruether didn’t pitch at all and Tom Zachry, who’d been the hero of the previous year’s series, pitched in only one game. It hadn’t made a difference in the first four games. Starting in Game 5, the Senators began to feel the consequences.

Coveleski started Game 5 despite an aching back against Aldrige who to this point had the Pirates only victory. The score was deadlocked 2–2 going into the sixth. But in the seventh, the Pirates scored two runs off Coveleski to drive him from the game and two more of Zachry in relief. Worse Marberry, after pitching to two batters in the ninth, suffered a recurrence of the sore arm that had plagued him the last five weeks of the season and didn’t pitch again. Mayberry had saved the third game of the 1925 World Series and two the previous year. Suddenly the vaunted pitching of the Senators was very thin.

In Game 6 Alec Ferguson faced off against Ray Kremer, both on two days rest. In the third inning Roger Peckinpaugh fumbled a double play ball to let in two runs for the Pirates, nullifying Goslin’s home run to tie the game at 2 runs apiece. In the fifth inning second baseman Eddie Moore’s home run gave the Pirates a 3–2 lead. In the ninth inning Joe Harris would hit a ball that would have tied the game but a temporary screen turned his home run into a double. Kremer stayed calm and the Pirates won.

The series was now tied three games apiece. Bucky Harris, who’d been the batting star last year, now admitted he was becoming a liability. He had been spiked several weeks earlier and could barely grip the bat. “I shouldn’t have played in that series at all,” he admitted later. He sent Bobby Veach to pinch hit for him with the tying run on third and went 2 for 23.

Nevertheless the confidence of Senator’s fans was high. Johnson was going to pitch the seventh game, after all. No one knew that it would be the nadir of Johnson’s career — and one of the worst World Series games played in history.

It rained heavily on the 14th, giving Johnson an extra day of rest. On the morning of the 15th, the rain was still falling and Forbes Field was heavily soaked. Puddles were everywhere but by afternoon the rain had led up to a drizzle and Commissioner Landis decided to let the game be played. The Senators would have happier if he hadn’t.

Aldridge, who had pitched two complete game victories for the Pirates starting Game 7. He didn’t make it out of the first inning. Rice singled and went to second on a wild pitch. After Bucky Harris flied out, Goslin walked. Aldridge threw another wild pitch to advance both runners, Moon Harris walked and Aldridge was gone. Ossie Bluege singled to put the Senators on the board. Peckinpah grounded to short and on a tipped pitch another run scored. The Senators had scored 4 runs by the time the Pirates retired the side.

For the first two innings it looked like Pittsburgh was dead. But Johnson was having the same trouble on the mound as Pittsburgh’s pitchers, slipping on the mound, calling for towels in futile attempts to keep the ball dry. The Pirates scored 3 runs in the third to give their fans hope.

In the fourth Rice and Goslin singled before Harris doubled them in to make it 6–3. That same inning, Carey and Cuyler hit consecutive doubles to get the run back. By that point, it was pouring.

From the grandstand the outfielders were barely visible through the mist. Cigarettes lit the bleachers. The field was so soggy that Ring Lardner described it as “resembling nothing so much as chicken a la King.” Groundskeepers kept bringing sawdust for the infield and pitchers mound in a desperate attempt to soak up the water.

Landis wanted to call the series.

When the sixth inning ended Landis turned to Griffith and was willing to call the game. Incredibly Griffith talked him out of it. “Once you’ve started in the rain, you’ve got to finish it,” the soaked owner told the waterlogged commissioner. Griffith must have spent the rest of his life wishing he had listened to Landis.

Ray Kremer, who’d pitched two complete games in five days, came back after one day’s rest to pitch the fifth. For three innings he kept the Senators in check as Pittsburgh tied the score. Peckinpaugh dropped a fly ball to start the inning. Carey then shanked a Texas Leaguer that landed a foot foul — and then the umpire inexplicably called it fair. Carey got a double and the runner scored. With two outs Traynor hit a ball to the wall in right center field to tie to the game but was tagged out when he tried to make it an inside the park home run.

After seven errors Peckinpaugh seemed to change his luck when he hit a home run in the eighth to put Washington back in the lead. 7–6. In the bottom of the eighth, with two outs and two strikes on Earl Smith, he doubled. A pinch hitter hit a fly ball to the outfield that would have been an inning ended out on any other day. Sam Rice never saw it and the score was tied. Moore walked; the first walk Johnson had given in the entire series. Carey hit a routine grounder to Peckinpaugh…who played for the force at second where Harris was unprepared. It was Peckinpaugh’s eighth error of the series, a dubious mark that no one has ever come close to approaching since and it was by far the most costly.

The bases were loaded with Cuyler up. He worked the call to 2–2. Johnson then threw a pitch that split the heart of the plate waist high. Johnson and Ruel were so sure it was a strike they started to leave the field — but the umpire called it a ball. Cuyler then jumped on a shoulder-high pitch to the opposite field. It was initially ruled a grand-slam homer, but after discussion the umpires ruled that it had rolled under the grandstand for a double. The Pirates ‘only’ scored 2 runs. Johnson got the next batter but the damage was done. The last three Senators went down in order and Pittsburgh had won the game 9–7 and the World Series.

There was much second guessing as to why Harris had kept Johnson in the seventh game. Johnson had the dubious distinction of the worst complete game start by any pitching in a World Series: 9 runs, fifteen hits and 26 total bases. Many thought Harris had been plagued by sentimentality, afraid to take the greatest pitcher of all time out when he didn’t have his stuff.

Muddy Ruel disagreed: “We had confidence in (Johnson) and I feel that if any Senators pitcher could have come through with a victory, Johnson was the man. He pitched a truly remarkable game in spite of the wet and slippery condition of the ball and the unstable footing and but for some unusual and disheartening breaks he would have won. (He) deserved better than the fate which was dealt to him on that occasion…Pittsburgh players who took part in the game, I am sure, will readily testify with me to the splendid, though unsuccessful, battle which Walter Johnson waged that day and to the speed of his fastball throughout the contest.”

Johnson took the defeat philosophically “I gave them all I had but it wasn’t enough,” he told the writers before heading home. “I have no alibi to offer. All I have to say is the better team one.”

For Johnson it was as close as he would get to a series again. The following season he went 15–16 as the Senators finished fourth. He injured his ankle the next fall, tried to come back the next season but only managed to go 5–6 before admitting his time was over. He retired in 1927 with 417 wins, 110 shutouts and the all-time strike out leader until it would be broken 56 years later.

By that point, of course, the Yankees had rebuilt. In 1926, they eked out Cleveland by 3 games for the American League Pennant. In 1927, of course, they won 110 games. But the next year, though they managed a thirteen and a half game lead in August, Connie Mack’s A’s would chase them all the way end before the Yankees prevailed by 2 and a half games.

It was last pennant and World Series the Yankees would win under Miller Huggins tenure. Huggins passed away at the age of 52 in the middle of the 1929 season and the Yankees were about to have one of the most barren stretches in their history. Between 1929 and 1935, they won just a single American League Pennant. This gap in their fortunes would lead to opportunities for the rest of the American League — and the Senators themselves.

In the next article in this series I will deal with how the Senators managed to win the American League Pennant in 1933 and how many factors — including the Great Depression — led to their collapse as a franchise and eventually forced them to relocate to Minnesota.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.