When Clark Griffith was persuaded in the fall of 1911 to take charge of Washington’s American League franchise as manager and part owner, the team had never won more than 67 games or finished higher than sixth place. The Senators, as everybody called them despite attempts to jettison the name, had finished seventh in 1911 with 90 losses.
Attendance reflected the team’s lack of success. Although clearly, the young pitcher Walter Johnson was worth the price of admission, fans had little reason to suspect the 1912 team would turn things around.
Griffith was determined to change that. He got rid of veterans who had done little to help the team win and replaced them with eager younger players – mainly Eddie Foster, Ray Morgan and Howard Shanks. He acquired first baseman Chick Gandil in May. The immediate results weren’t evident, however. In late May, after seven losses in eight games, Washington stood at 17-21 in sixth place.
On the last day of a series in Boston on May 30 – the second game of a twin-bill — Johnson shut out the Red Sox on five hits, improving his record to 9-4. The Senators headed to St. Louis for a four-city swing through the Midwest.
Washington won the first three. On June 4 before a barely 1,000 fans, Johnson beat the last-place Browns 3-2 to complete a four-game sweep of St. Louis. The Senators were now a game over .500 and had slipped into fifth place.
In Chicago on June 5, Tom Hughes beat the then first-place White Sox, 8-4. Johnson followed with a three-hitter to beat Ed Walsh, 9-1. The next day, the Senators scored two in the seventh and two in the ninth to help Bob Groom beat the Sox again.
On June 8, Washington completed its second road sweep behind Johnson, who improved to 12-4. The Senators left Chicago in third place and the White Sox lead down to one game over Boston.
At this point, six Washington regulars were hitting .291 or better – seven if you count Johnson at .314.
On to Detroit, Washington hung on to third place with a 4-3 victory over fourth-place Tigers. It was the Senators’ 10th win in a row. The next day, Joe Engel, who would later become Griffith’s most trusted talent scout, was the winner as Washington won its 11th in a row, 7-3.
June 11 was Washington’s toughest test during their streak. By scoring three in the top of the ninth and with Johnson pitching in relief, the Senators prevailed, 3-2.
Despite having pitched an inning the day before, Johnson won his 13th game, stopping the Tigers on three-hits, 5-1. At this point, the Senators were just two and half games behind first-place Boston and a game and a half game back of the White Sox.
Washington ran its winning streak to 14 on June 13, beating Cleveland 6-2 behind Groom. The next day, the Senators won a slugfest with 20 hits, 13-8. The 16th win in a row – all on the road — was a come-from-behind victory, 6-5. The Nats were prevented from trying to make it 17 wins on their Western swing when rain postponed Sunday’s game in Cleveland.
A cheering crowd of thousands greeted the Senators at Union Station as the team returned on Tuesday, June 17, from its record-setting road trip. President William Howard Taft came out for the team’s first game back. On June 18, the president saw Washington win a see-saw game against the Athletics in what would now be called a walk-off with a run in the bottom of the ninth, 5-4.
Washington had reached unprecedented heights: tied with the White Sox for second place, one game out of first. No team before had won 16 consecutive games in other teams’ ballparks. The streak of 17 consecutive victories also was an A.L. record that stood until the 1953 Yankees won 18 in a row (15 on the road). The 1906 White Sox had been undefeated in 19 games, but had played a tie game after the first 11 wins during that streak.
The New York Giants had set the N.L. record of 18 straight in 1904, but just five of those wins came on the road. The Giants broke the Nats’ road record by winning 17 in a row away from home in 1916, but Washington’s 16 straight away win-streak remains the A.L. record.
The streak ended, however, as the team traveled to Philadelphia on June 19 for a six-game series. Johnson had to miss a start because of a bad cold. Still, the Senators came within one strike of winning their 18th in a row.
Tom Hughes was clinging to a 1-0 lead with two outs in the ninth. Frank “Home Run” Baker foul-tipped a two-strike pitch, but catcher John Henry couldn’t hold on. Living up to his nickname, Baker homered on the next pitch, and the A’s won it in the 10th, 2-1. Philadelphia won the second game of the double-header with a run in the bottom of the ninth. The next day, the A’s swept another double-header, dropping the Nats briefly into fourth place.
The team soon bounced back. On July 2, Washington began a 10-game winning streak. The Senators won 27 of their next 36 games. After pounding the White Sox, 10-1, on August 7, Washington’s record was 65-39, solidly in second place. The victory was Walter Johnson’s 24th.
The Red Sox won 105 games in 1912 and beat the Giants in the World Series. But the surprising Senators won 91 games and finished a game ahead of the powerful Athletics to hold on to second. Johnson (32-12) posted the first of two 30-win seasons and struck out a record 303 batters. Groom won 24 games. Center-fielder Clyde Milan hit .306 and led the league in steals with 88.
In an interesting bit of symmetry or pure coincidence, the 2012 Washington Nationals won the National League East, finishing above .500 for the first time. That began a run of eight winning seasons, culminating in a World Series victory in 2019.
A century earlier, the Nats – indeed, the team was officially the Washington Nationals — were on their way to another second-place finish in 1913 with 90 victories. The team finished third in 1914, fourth in 1915, third in ’18 and fourth again in ’21 and ’23. Other than a seventh-place finish in the war-shortened 1919 season, the teams Griffith managed were consistently competitive.
Then, with Griffith as the majority owner, Washington began its most successful stretch – its first pennant and only World Series win in 1924, another A.L. title in 1925 and four straight seasons of 92 or more wins, starting in 1930 and ending with a third A.L. pennant in 1933. It would be 33 years under Griffith before the Senators finished last – in 1944, deep into World War II and sandwiched between two seasons in second place.
Yet never again would the Senators approach the heady days of June 1912.