October 31st, 2019

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That other time Washington baseball won it all

If you woke up this morning believing you've stumbled into some bizarre alternate universe, you have not. Washington is world champion of baseball. Actually. And it has nothing to do with Halloween. Today's Washington Post covers prove it:

The only other time D.C. claimed major league baseball supremacy, baseball fanatic Carole Lombard was around to experience it. That was in October 1924, soon after Jane Alice Peters, now at least professionally known as Lombard, had turned 16 and sought work in motion pictures.

Here's how the Post covered that triumph back in the day:

Of course, in October 1924, Carole, Jane, whatever you wanted to call her, was in Los Angeles. Chances are, however, she was rooting for Washington in the fall classic; nearly everyone was. There were several reasons. Washington's opponents, the National League champion New York Giants, were continuing Gotham's recent dominance of the World Series. They had faced the rival (and then-upstart) New York Yankees in the past three Series, beating them in 1921 and '22 before the Yankees -- formerly tenants of the Giants at the Polo Grounds -- at last won their first world title at their new home in the Bronx, Yankee Stadium. So people outside of NYC had tired of the town. (Things got even more lopsided from 1949 to 1956, when the Yankees, Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers won eight straight World Series among them, and neither non-NYC representative -- the 1950 Phillies and the 1954 Indians -- even won a game.)

Another reason: Walter Johnson, arguably the greatest pitcher in history.

Johnson debuted with the Senators in 1907, beloved by the baseball community, but his D.C. teams rarely contended. He won 23 games in 1924, and this seemingly was his lone chance at appearing in a World Series. Unfortunately, the Giants beat him in games 1 and 5 to take a 3-games-to-2 lead, as the teams went back to Griffith Stadium for games 6 and 7 (if necessary).

The Senators made game 7 necessary with a 2-1 triumph in game 6. Johnson didn't start the deciding game, but came on in the ninth with the score tied at 3. He went four scoreless innings, and Washington pushed across the winning run in the 12th. America celebrated.

How did Carole follow the Series? Radio was coming into its own by 1924, and the World Series was broadcast, but at the time coast-to-coast hookups weren't really possible, and networks hadn't been invented. Not until the mid-'30s did Los Angeles and Hollywood blossom into radio hubs.

It's possible she stood outside a newspaper office and watched play-by-play relayed onto a large board displaying the action. That's what happened in St. Paul, Minn., in 1914, when the Pioneer Press covered the Boston Braves' stunning upset of the Philadelphia Athletics:

So more than likely, Lombard followed the Series through newspapers -- and here's how the Los Angeles Times, the region's dominant paper, covered it. First, the front page:

Then, on the front of the sports section:

So did this mark the end of the baseball season? Well, maybe back east it did, but the mild western climate enabled the Pacific Coast League to play 200-game schedules lasting into November. The following page that day describes PCL action:

Of course, much more was going on -- after all, 1924 was an election year. Here's the latest on the race among Republican president Calvin Coolidge, Democrat compromise candidate John W. Davis and the Progressives' Wisconsin native Robert La Follette:

The Literary Digest poll was the fivethirtyeight.com of its day, followed and respected -- and promoted by the magazine:

In 1936, it predicted that the GOP's Alf Landon would defeat incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt, but instead FDR won in a landslide. That more or less doomed both the poll and the publication.

What was playing at the movies in October 1924? Let's take a look -- Harold Lloyd's out with his latest:

And the Times rotogravure page blends Hollywood with canines (remember, this was when Rin Tin Tin and his ilk were at their peak of popularity):

During the 33 years Washington was without baseball, I campaigned hard for that to change, despite the scores of naysayers who believed it could never thrive in that town. But in September 2004, the moribund Montreal Expos moved south for the 2005 season. I attended their first regular-season game, a road loss to the now arch-rival Phillies, their initial home game at RFK Stadium (a victory over Arizona) and the first-ever game at Nationals Park (won on a walk-off homer by Ryan Zimmerman, who homered in this year's Series).

If you're part of the D.C. diaspora as I am, or simply want to read more about the Nationals' incredible October -- a month that will forever change the perception of not only the franchise, but baseball in Washington -- here are some links:

* The game 7 story: https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2019/10/30/world-series-nationals-astros-game-seven/

* Columnist Barry Svrluga on the Nats' remarkable resiliency: https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/nationals/for-world-champion-nats-the-team-that-wouldnt-die-there-was-no-doubt-just-hope/2019/10/31/6a758d56-fb4b-11e9-8906-ab6b60de9124_story.html

* Renowned baseball writer Thomas Boswell wonders whether some of the Nats pulled a Joe Hardy to pull off this miracle: https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/nationals/nationals-magic-world-series-win/2019/10/31/67671ab2-fb4b-11e9-8906-ab6b60de9124_story.html

* The championship parade, Washington's second in as many years (the first was when the Capitals captured the Stanley Cup in June 2018) will take place Saturday: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/nationals-championship-parade-set-for-saturday-in-washington-dc/2019/10/31/476640d0-fba0-11e9-8190-6be4deb56e01_story.html

Enjoy, Washington. The fight is finished, and you're victorious.

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