The 1945 A.L. pennant race

March 26, 2019:

Even as the war in Europe was nearing its end, major league rosters in 1945 were stocked with players too old for the draft – or the big leagues, under normal circumstances – or otherwise medical unfit.  The St. Louis Browns of 1944 had reached the World Series for the first time with 18 players who were 4-F. In 1945, the Senators featured four knuckleball starters who were ineligible for the draft.

The ’45 team had 39-year-old Joe Kuhel at first. Rich Farrell, also 39, was the primary catcher. Two reserve outfielder were Mike Kreevich, 37, and Jake Powell, 36.

The Senators had finished second in 1943, albeit 13 games behind  the Joe Kuhel_NEWYankees and never really in the race. The next season was unkind to Washington, a pre-season pick as a contender. For the first time in Clark Griffith tenure as manager and then majority owner, the Nats finished last. So the bounce-back in 1945 had to be unexpected.

Season previews from three wire services — the Associated Press, United Press and Newspaper Enterprise Association — were overwhelmingly dismissive of the Senators’ chances in 1945.

“Nobody is kidding himself about the chances of the Washington Senators…. Perhaps the most the Senators can hope for is to get out of the cellar,” wrote the AP. Washington “lacks the hitting to become a contender,” the UP predicted. “Ossie Bleuge knows Washington is not equipped to challenge…. His aim is to hang a vacancy on that cellar door,” according to the NEA’s reporter. Indeed, much as expected, the Senators were in sixth place as late as June 22.

The ’45 Senators used five regular starters in their rotation. Four of the five by most measures had career years. The knuckleballers were Roger Wolff (20-10, 2.12), Dutch Leonard (17-7, 2.13), Mickey Haefner (16-14, 3.47) and Johnny Niggeling (7-12, 3.16). The only one who didn’t throw a knuckler was Marino Pieretti (14-13, 3.32). Haefner, 32, stood 5-8. Pieretti, 24, was just 5-7. They were the youngsters. Niggeling was 41, Leonard was 36 and Wolff was 34. The Nats’ staff got a September boost when Walt Masterson, a future all-star, and Pete Appleton, 41 by then, returned from the service. Masterson threw a shutout, Appleton started two games and saved another. The Washington pitching staff threw 19 shutouts in 1945.

The Nats spent the last three months of the season nipping at the heels of the Detroit Tigers, who were in first place every day from June 12 until the season ended. The Tigers got a big boost in their lineup when Hank Greenberg returned from his military service on July 1. The Senators got outfielder Buddy Lewis, a solid hitter, back about the same time. The Yankees were in first through June 10, with Washington three games under .500 in seventh place. New York climbed back into a tie with the Tigers for a day on June 27, after Washington reached .500 by beating Detroit.

Griffith’s reliance on stadium rentals for revenue might have contributed to Washington missing out on the pennant. He had agreed to have the Senators end their home season on Sept. 18 so the Redskins could use the field for a Sept. 23 exhibition game. The need to complete the home schedule that early forced Washington to load up on double-headers. The team played a major-league-high 44 twin bills that season, including 10 games in five day early in August.

The Senators — the team was officially the “Nationals,” but few people aside from Griffith called them that — won 22 of 30 games starting Aug. 1 to keep pace. Washington went 35-18 from Aug. 1 to Sept. 10. The hot stretch started with and ended with seven-game win streaks, the two longest of the season. Unfortunately, the Tigers over the same stretch played almost as well. From July 27, the first of six wins in a row, to Sept. 15, the Tigers were 37-23. On Aug. 1, the Tigers led the Nats and the Yankees, who were tied, by five games. The Yanks soon fell out of the race. By Aug. 5, however, the Nats had climbed for the first time to within a half a game of Detroit. Washington stayed no more than two and half games in back of the Tigers the rest of the way.

After beating Cleveland, 6-5, at Griffith Stadium Friday afternoon, Sept. 14, Washington (83-61) was half a game behind Detroit (82-59). Losing 5-0 through the sixth, the Nats scored three in the seventh and three in the bottom of the ninth to pull it out. George Case drew a bases-loaded walk with two outs for the win. At 22 games over .500, this was the high point of Washington’s season. It was also the last of several times the Senators pulled to within half a game of Detroit. After a day in first place in mid-April, the Nats were never able to pass the Tigers.

The next day, Sept. 15, Detroit swept a doubleheader in Washington to take a two-and-a-half game lead. The Nats had come back from four runs down in the first game, only to see the Tigers score three in the seventh to win, 7-4. The second game was tied 3-3 in the eighth when the Tigers pushed across the go-ahead run. Three more in the top of the ninth put the game away.

Wolff bested Hal Newhouser on Sunday, 3-2, in the first game of yet another doubleheader, but the Tigers held on the win the second game, 5-4, despite the Nats scoring two in the eighth and two more in the ninth. Kreevich grounded out with the tying run on third to end the game.

The Senators ended the season on Sept. 23 when Washington split the last of nine double-headers in three weeks, this one with the Athletics in Philadelphia. The Nats might have swept the A’s, if eighth-inning errors by Buddy Lewis and Cecil Travis hadn’t wiped out a 3-0 lead  and if center fielder George “Bingo” Binks hadn’t lost a fly ball in the sun in the 12th.

Masterson was about to complete his fourth shutout inning in relief in the day’s first game, which was tied 3-3 in the bottom of the 12th. With two outs and the bases empty, Binks couldn’t locate a routine fly that fell for a double. Even though A’s outfielder Sam Chapman had called time the previous inning to get his sunglasses when the clouds cleared, “Binks never took the hint that the sun was now present,” Shirley Povich wrote in his 1954 team history. After George Kell singled in the winning run, “there were threats to deprive Binks of his World Series or second-place share.”

The Senators had only been able to tread water in the twin bills, splitting the 18 games. That left them at 87-67, a game and half behind the first-place Tigers, 86-64 with four games left.

The Tigers shut out Cleveland in the first game of a double-header on Sept. 26 but lost the second game and still needed one win to clinch the pennant. If the Tigers dropped their final two games, Washington and Detroit would be tied. Rain in St. Louis kept the Tigers idle for three days. On Sept. 30, because of the importance of the outcome, the first game of a scheduled doubleheader was played despite even more rain. Newhouser, in relief, won the clincher when Greenberg’s ninth-inning grand slam beat the Browns, 6-3.  There was no need to play another game. The Griffith-era Senators never again would come as close.

Despite his sunglasses blunder, Binks, a 30-year-old rookie, lead the Nats in RBIs and was second in the league with 32 doubles.  A forgiving Griffith sent Binks a $1,000 bonus that fall.

Weirdly, not a single member of the 1945 Senators hit a ball over the outfield fences at Griffith Stadium. The only home run hit by the home team that season was an inside-the-parker in August by the 39-year-old Kuhel, no less. Griffith was no fan of home runs. In the early 1920s, no doubt influenced by the cavernous dimensions of his home park, he had campaigned to change the rules so that balls hit over fences of less than a certain distance would not count as homers. All of which makes the oft-repeated quip attributed to him so out of character: “Fans like home runs, and we’ve assembled a pitching staff to please our fans.” No one seems to recall exactly when he said this, although supposedly it was after he watched his team take a beating.

Despite having Hall-of-Fame caliber Negro League stars playing for the Homestead Grays in his stadium and a black-fan base to support them, Griffith declined to break baseball’s color barrier. Imagine, for example, how much better Josh Gibson or Buck Leonard could have made the Nats of those years?

The ’45 team did feature Bert Shepard, who had lost part of his right leg when his fighter plane was shot down over Germany in 1944. Shepard was determined to resume his pitching career and impressed Griffith enough to be given a chance. Shepard pitched batting practice during the season and acquitted himself well in two exhibition games.

With the Nats being blow out by Boston on August 4, the lefty Shepard was brought in to pitch with the bases load. He struck out the first man he faced to end an inning in which the Red Sox had scored 12 runs. Then, he stayed in five more innings to finish the game. He yielded a run and three hits with two Ks. Had Washington not been in a pennant race with the Tigers, Shepard likely would have been given another opportunity. As it is, he achieved his goal of pitching in the majors and served as an inspiration for other amputee veterans.

Being part of a pennant race in 1945 produced the second highest attendance to that point in Washington history – 652,660 — despite 27 doubleheaders (all single admission in those days, of course). That meant the Nats played just 50 home dates. Five of the doubleheaders came on consecutive days: Aug. 1 to Aug. 5. The players clearly could have used a union!

Washington’s attendance was fourth highest in the league, just 5,000 fewer than third-place Chicago. The best was still a season away, however. With the war ended and demobilization proceeding slowly, 1,027,026 fans attended games at Griffith Stadium in 1946. That turned out to be the only season either of the two Washington A.L. teams would top one million.

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