The Nats’ late-season nightmares, 1955-1960

The original Washington American League franchise finished with a winning record for the last time — barely — in 1952. By winning on the last day of the season, it edged Boston for fifth place with a 78-76 record. Attendance at Griffith Stadium, with the league’s smallest capacity, was just shy of 700,000, but more than two other A.L. teams drew.

The 1953 team – 76-76 — avoided a losing record but failed to finish over .500 by losing five of its last six games. Washington again was in fifth place, but attendance dropped by more than 100,000 to less than 600,000. Only the soon-to-be relocated St. Louis Browns and Philadelphia Athletics sold fewer tickets. This should have been a red flag.

My 1959 Senators team card

When the Senators finished 66-88 in 1954, owner Clark Griffith fired Bucky Harris for the third time. Despite that record, Washington was just three games out of fourth place. Five of the eighth A. L. teams had losing records in 1954, thanks to Cleveland winning 111 and New York 103. (Third-place Chicago won 94.)  Attendance dropped again, barely topping 500,000 and outpacing only the last place Athletics, playing their last season in Philadelphia

Griffith was 85 years old in 1955 when he did something he had never done: He hired a manager with no previous ties to his Washington team. His choice, at the urging of nephew and informally adopted son, Calvin, was Chuck Dressen, former manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Dressen was not the answer. The team was limping along in seventh place in late August at 46-79. Then Washington suffered a September swoon, losing 22 of its last 29 games. That left the Senators in last place with a 100-loss season for just the second time in Griffith’s long tenure. He died a month after the season ended.

Attendance fell to just over 425,000, by far the worst in the league. Six of the seven other teams drew more than a million fans. The Orioles, seventh in attendance, drew 852,000.

Dressen’s squad did little better in 1956. Washington was 2.5 games out of sixth place on August 19 before dropping 21 of its last 26 games in September. The Senators avoided last place only because the Athletics lost 102 games. Yet Kansas City drew more than a million fans. Attendance at Griffith Stadium again was last in the league. Cleveland, seventh in attendance, still put twice as many fans in the seats than the Senators’ 431,000.

The 1957 season brought more of the same. Dressen was fired after a 5-16 start. (Baseball Reference list Dressen’s record as 4-16, but the game-by-game summaries differ.) The team played a bit better for successor Cookie Lavagetto – 45-62 – until another September free-fall. The Senators again lost 21 of their last 26 to finish with 99 losses. Even with a 26,000 increase in attendance Washington was far behind the seven other teams.

The Senators spent nearly all of 1958 mired in last place, but it looked like they might avoid 90 losses until a disastrous last couple of weeks. Washington ended its season with a 13-game losing streak. Faithful fans were willing to buy enough tickets to boost attendance by 28,000, but Washington still drew fewer than 500,000 for a fourth straight season. Calvin Griffith, who had inherited control of the team, was anxious to move the Senators elsewhere, but couldn’t get a majority of the owners to agree.

The last-place team in 1959 at least had four certified sluggers in Harmon Killebrew, Jim Lemon, Roy Sievers and Bob Allison, but Camilo Pascual’s emergence as a legitimate ace was not enough. At least the late September collapse was not as bad: The team lost seven of its last nine games. An attendance increase of 140,000 also was not enough to lift Washington out of eighth place, 270,000 fewer than the Orioles drew.

The 1960 team had a good chance of finishing with a winning record. On September 16, Washington’s record stood at 72-70 in fourth place. Again, even though the Senators climbed to fifth place, losing 11 of the last 12 games dashed all hopes of finishing over .500.  Even a substantial improvement in attendance — up 128,000 to 743,000 — could not keep Washington from trailing every other team, although Kansas City’s doomed franchise put just 32,000 more fans in the seats.

The 1950s are often viewed as a golden age for Major League Baseball, but Washington, with an aging stadium that held roughly 28,000, could not keep pace. The perennial doormats, the Browns and the Athletics, had moved to greener pastures. The writing was on the wall for Washington, unless the team could play winning baseball. From 1954 through 1960, it could not, but the sour taste of six consecutive late-season let-downs certainly did not help.      

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