In "Damn Senators,"
has written a book that is at once a touching memoir of his grandfather, star first baseman for the old Washington Senators; a history of baseball in its golden age; and an exciting account of the Senators' 1924 World Series victory. As one advance reader says, "This book is not only for the dedicated fan but for anyone interested in human endurance and courage and the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."
For decades, the Senators were the doormat of the American league, a disappointment to the presidents and ordinary people who flocked to Griffith Stadium to watch Walter Johnson, arguably the best pitcher of all time, "Goose" Goslin, one of the most feared hitters in baseball and another future Hall of Famer, and other great players labor year after year in vain. But then in 1924 everything unexpectedly came together. Team owner Clark Griffith made shrewd off-season deals for journeyman players who would have their best years. The aging Johnson, whom some sportswriters said was finished, put together a final great season. Bucky Harris, the "Boy Wonder," managed with a shrewdness that confounded those who thought he was too young for the job. And the author's grandfather, Joe Judge, the best fielding first baseman in the league and a lifetime .300 hitter, anchored the team.
"Damn Senators" tells the dramatic story of how Washington managed to beat Babe Ruth and the Yankees, perennial champions of the American League, and then triumphed over the heavily favored New York Giants in what sports writers consider one of the most dramatic World Series in baseball history. In recreating this championship season, the author interweaves the story of Judge, son of an Irish immigrant who became a baseball legend not only for his steady play (he would eventually be inducted into RFK Stadium's Hall of Stars) but also because of what came after his retirement. In his later years, Judge was befriended by writer Douglas Wallop who made him the prototype for Joe Hardy, the lead character in his novel "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," later fabulously successful as a stage play and movie under the title "Damn Yankees."
Recalling "The Boys of Summer" and other classics, "Damn Senators" is filled with unforgettable portraits of baseball legends like the wily Griffith; the noble "Big Train" Johnson; Ty Cobb, the meanest player of the day; Al Schacht, "The Clown Prince of Baseball" whose comedy act played between innings; the Giants’ "Little Napoleon," John McGraw, and of course, the larger than life Babe Ruth.
returns us to a golden past. But with a new baseball franchise rumored to be on its way back to the nation's capitol, he may be taking us back to the future as well.
From where I was standing at Washington's Robert Francis Kennedy Stadium, it was hard to see my father, surrounded as he was by officials on the fifty-yard line. My mother and I and our relatives were stuck behind the end zone.
It was October 21, 1990, and my grandfather, Joe Judge, was being inducted into the stadium's Hall of Stars, a local Hall of Fame for Washington, D.C., athletes. Along with three other Washington greats—Redskins Joe Theisman and John Riggins, and former Washington Bullet Elvin Hayes—the name of Joe Judge was about to be added to a ring of names encircling the inner part of the stadium. The other inductees were there in person, but my grandfather had died in 1963, the year before I was born, and my father was representing him at the halftime ceremony. While I couldn't see Dad from where I stood in the bitter cold, I could hear RFK's public address announcer, as well as the anticipatory hum of the 55,000 fans in the stadium.
Washington has a reputation as city of transients who don't develop any attachment to the place: but that wasn't the town I knew. The city I grew up in was a place of local bars and rock bands, row houses, parks, rivers, diners and jazz clubs. And sports fans. Lots of them.
Indeed, Washington is a sports town with a long memory. It is also a place with baseball in its soul. The city has lost two versions of the Senators, one in 1960 and the other in 1971—two seasons of heartbreak. So today, bereft of a team, many fans make the trip down the Beltway to Baltimore; it is estimated that as many as a third of the Orioles fans come from Washington. But it's not the same.
The RFK announcer read my grandfather's statistics—his 19 years in major league baseball from 1915 to 1934, all but the last two spent in Washington; a .298 batting average; 2,352 hits; 433 doubles; 1,037 RBIs; 1500 double plays; 1,284 assists; a .993 fielding average, which was the standard for first basemen for 30 years; his leadership of the American League in fielding percentage six times—and the crowd began to cheer. When the announcer mentioned that Joe Judge had been part of the 1924 team, the only Washington Senators squad to win a World Series, the cheering swelled to a roar.
For our family, it was a moment of vindication. Joe Judge was one of the greatest baseball players of all time, yet today he is largely forgotten. He was not the kind of player, or the kind of man, who drew a lot of attention to himself. He exemplified virtues that seem in short supply today, both in athletics and in our larger culture. Family, friends, sportswriters all describe him the same way: polite, taciturn, unassuming. Baseball writer Huck Finnegan put it more elegantly when he called Granddad "intelligent, courageous, personable, industrious and sober." A 1925 article in Baseball magazine emphasized his steadiness when it called him "the sheet anchor of the Washington infield."
Relatives, players who knew him, journalists, everyone he came in contact with describes him in the same way: as a man who could not be ruffled. He coached at Georgetown University after he retired, and one of his former players once recalled that the most upset he had ever seen Joe get was when he bumped into a group of his players in a bar after a particularly embarrassing loss. "That was baseball that could bring tears to the eyes of a hobbyhorse," he said with evident emotion.
My aunt (Joe's daughter) had another telling story. Joe was at the house in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where he moved in the early 1930s. Busying himself for some guests in the kitchen, he dropped a bottle of milk. There was a loud crash of breaking glass. The visitors braced themselves for the vulgar tirade for which baseball players were notorious. But from the kitchen came more restrained sounds of complaint: "Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear . . . "
Yet Joe Judge was a man sometimes capable of mischief and even, on very rare occasions, angry eruptions—at least on the diamond. Somewhat reclusive off the field, he could come alive as a moral presence in this intensely competitive team sport. In 1928, the Senators slugger Goose Goslin was leading the league in hitting. On the last day of the season, he was just a fraction of a point ahead of Heinie Manush of the St. Louis Browns for the batting title. The Browns were in town for the last game, and when it came time for Goose's final turn at bat, Manush was at .378 and he was at .379. Senators manager Bucky Harris let Goose know that he didn't have to bat if he didn't want to. He decided not to. Then he heard a voice from the dugout.
"You better watch out," Joe Judge said, "or they'll call you yellow."
"What are you talking about?" Goose said.
Judge pointed to Heinie Manush in left field. "What do you think he'll figure if you win the title by sitting on the bench?"
Goslin batted, and after trying unsuccessfully to get thrown out of the game by arguing a pitch call, he got a hit and won the 1928 batting title fair and square.
After the announcer at RFK read off the statistics for all the Hall of Stars inductees, the tarpaulin covering their names was dropped.
Joe Judge was a star in Washington again. How he became one the first time, and helped bring a championship to his city, is one of the great stories in baseball.
Copyright © 2003 Mark Judge