1949 Nats set record, winning nine in a row but finishing last

Until 1949, no Washington team since Clark Griffith’s arrival in 1912 had ever lost 100 games. Managed by Joe Kuhel, the ’49 Senators[1] finished at 50-104, despite being in fourth place, a game over .500 on June 12.

A May 1949 winning streak also would become, at season’s end, the record for consecutive wins by a team that ended up in last place in the eight-team American League. These ’49ers reeled off nine wins in a row, beginning in Chicago on May 3. Washington won, 14-12, in 10 innings.[2]

Washington fans were so giddy at the team’s sudden turn-around that a large crowd greeted the team as it returned to Union Station after the winning streak. The players were paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue with an estimated 10,000 people on hand. A photo of Kuhel hoisted on the shoulders of admirers appeared in The Sporting News.

Before divisional play began in 1969, the only other team to finish last but win nine in a row was the 1907 St. Louis Cardinals in the N.L. Since 1969, two teams that finished last in their division had 11-game winning streaks, while two others last in a division won 10 in a row. But of those four, only the 1976 White Sox, who lost 97 games, actually had the worst record in the league.

On May 1, 1949, after losing both ends of a double-header in Philadelphia, the Nats had been in last place with a 3-11 record. Thanks to the winning steak, the Nats were 18-10 in May. By June 3, Washington had climbed to five games over .500 at 24-19 – in second place, 5.5 games out of first. As late as June 21, Washington was still .500 at 29-29.

Soon, the bottom fell out. The Nats went 5-23 in July and 6-25 in August.[3]

Starting with being swept in a July 4 double-header, Washington lost 42 of 50 games through August 27, the day the Nats fell into the cellar. That stretch included a pair of 11-game losing streaks (July 16-26 and August 12-21) and a seven-game skid (August 1-7).   

The rest of the way, the Nats were 8-21. A loss at home to the Yankees in the second game of a Sept. 23 double-header was no. 100.

Weirdly, 1949 was the only year the original Senators led the league in home runs hit on the road with 61. Little good it did them.

A weak pitching staff and a thin bench helped doom the 1949 team. The mound staff’s ERA was 5.10, next to last in the league. Appendix surgery limited Walt Masterson, counted on for the starting rotation, to 10 games. Third baseman Eddie Yost missed 30 games with an ankle sprain. No adequate replacement was available. Griffith, in a fit of anger, dumped lefty starter Mickey Haefner. Future Hall of Famer Early Wynn had been traded to Cleveland in the off-season.

The second-half collapse marked the end of Kuhel’s two dreadful years managing the Senators. He was the seventh former Nats’ player Griffith had hired as the field boss, and the least successful.[4] His team lost 97 games in 1948, avoiding last place because the White Sox lost 101.[5]

Griffith brought back Bucky Harris for his third tenure in D.C. in 1950. The Nats won 17 more games and climbed to fifth place. Harris managed the last Senators’ team to finish over .500 (78-76) in 1952, but in 1955, Washington again lost 100+ games and finished last under Charlie Dressen. Griffith died that October.  

[1] Commonly called the “Senators,” if not the “Griffmen,” in newspapers, the Washington team officially became the Nationals in 1905 and stayed that way through 1956 when Calvin Griffith finally gave in and deemed the team the Senators. Shirley Povich’s 1954 team history, instructively, is titled “The Washington Senators.”  Yet “Nats” fit nicely in newspaper headlines, so it remained the shorthand nickname for both versions of the Senators and for today’s Nationals.

[2] The 14 runs against Chicago was the most the 1949 team scored in a game. The most scored against them came in New York on Sept. 11 when the Yankees won, 20-5. Senators’ pitchers gave up a record 11 base on balls in the third inning of that game. See Sept. 11, 1949: Nats pitchers set dubious record. This was the seventh and final time the 1949 Nats lost by 10 runs or more.

[3] The first half of the 1949 season, Washington was 33-42, .440; The second half: 17-62, .215.

[4] Clark Griffith relinquished his role as field manager after he became controlling owner of the team. From 1921 through 1954, Griffith employed seven different current or former players as manager: George McBride in 1921, Clyde Milan in 1922, Donie Bush in 1923, Bucky Harris from 1924 to ’28, Walter Johnson from 1929 to ’33, Joe Cronin in 1934 and ’35, Harris again from 1935 to ’42, Ossie Bluege from 1943 to ’47, Kuhel in 1948 and ’49, and Harris a third time from 1950 to ’54.

[5] Kuhel’s 1948 team actually lost 18 games in a row from Sept. 3-18, but it’s not a league or MLB record.

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