A half-century ago, the lights went out on baseball in Washington

Fifty years ago, on Sept. 30, 1971, Dick Bosman took the mound to preside over a wake.

Washington baseball fans had gathered at RFK Stadium to say their goodbyes to the second incarnation of the dying Senators, who would be resurrected the following year in a Texas cowtown called Arlington — a suburb of the bigger cowtown of Dallas.

For some local fans, Moscow would have been an easier pill to swallow than seeing their beloved team transplanted to the backyard of their football team’s hated rival.

Then again, it probably didn’t matter much where they went. For Washington baseball followers, the Texas Rangers might as well have been zombies — the walking dead.

“We didn’t know what to expect going out there,” Bosman said. “We knew what fans we had weren’t happy with the move. We weren’t happy with the move, those of us who had history there, like me and Hondo (Frank Howard), probably a few others. It was my first big league club and I had some good things happen there.”

Bosman, then 27 (he’s now 77) faced the New York Yankees in front of 15,000 sad and angry fans, many carrying signs expressing their disgust towards owner Bob Short. Unlike the last time a team had left, when the original Senators moved to Minneapolis in 1960, this time there would be no promise of an expansion team to replace the team leaving.

Neither version of the Senators delivered glorious memories of years of pennants. 

Just the opposite. Sportswriter Charles Dryden uttered the words, “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League” in 1904, and save for the occasional winning season — and a World Series championship in 1925 — Washington embraced that identity.

Still, as the saying goes, “the next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing.” Fans had learned to live with the losing and love the game and the players anyway.

Bosman, who had gone 14-5 in 1969 and led the American League with a 2.19 ERA, wanted to give those fans a performance to remember. 

But on that day in 1971, he was caught up in the moment. He gave up five runs on eight hits (three home runs, by Rusty Torres, Bobby Murcer and Roy White) over five innings, as New York took a 5-1 lead.

“I was disappointed that I didn’t pitch better,” Bosman said. “I hadn’t really learned to separate my emotions from my job at hand, which I did learn to do later on, thankfully. But at that time, during that ballgame, there were too many distractions, and I didn’t pitch well.”

It may not have mattered much to those in attendance. 

Loss was the theme of the day — the loss of a baseball team, the loss of a city still struggling in the aftermath of the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the loss, like many cities in America, of a population leaving for the suburbs.

Once the Senators left, all Washington would have on its sports resume was its NFL franchise — a team that offered some sense of salvation with the arrival of coach George Allen and winning football. 

They started the 1971 season 5-0, and, after a 20-0 shutout win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Oct. 17 — three weeks after the Senators left town — Mayor Walter Washington told the team how important they had become to the city.

“We’re going through a tough time in the city right now,” he said. “We’re out of money. I can’t pay people. The city is divided along economic and racial lines. We have a drug problem. We are facing a worker’s strike. But you know what? You guys are making my job easier. Every Monday morning, instead of talking about the problems in the city, people are talking about the Redskins.”

There were no uplifting speeches for the Senators, especially at that last game.

“It was chaos from the get-go,” Bosman said, recalling that final game. “There wasn’t enough security in the place.”

“People wanted souvenirs. We had some people on the field with one out and it took forever to get them off. Then I think Bobby Murcer grounded back to (Washington reliever Joe) Grzenda and by the time he threw to first, there was probably a couple of thousand people on the field. They couldn’t get them off.”

The players retreated to the clubhouse, waiting for word of what was next. Umpire Jim Odom came in and told them it was a forfeit — a Yankees win. Ironic, since Washington had fought back and held a 7-5 lead behind a sixth-inning home run by Howard.

Bosman, Howard and Don Mincher sat in the clubhouse, drinking National Bohemian and saying goodbye to teammates. Pretty soon there was no one left. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Well, boys, I think it’s time to shut the lights out,’” Bosman said.

They didn’t come back on for baseball in Washington until 2005. But back on they came.

Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

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