ANNAPOLIS – This year will be forever known as the season of resurgence for Washington and Baltimore baseball, as the Nationals and Orioles are both headed for the playoffs.
Not since 1969 had baseball teams from the two cities — back then it was the Orioles and Senators — both finished with a winning record. The 1969 Orioles went 109-53; the Senators 86-76.
“I’m not much of a history buff,” said Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson, thinking back to his playing days in 1969 with the Baltimore Orioles. “I know it was a great year for Baltimore, even though we lost.”
Johnson, who played for the Orioles from 1965 to 1972, should know.
“I made the last out (in the World Series),” quipped Johnson, whose Birds lost to the New York Mets in the Fall Classic.
The 1969 Mets were managed by Gil Hodges, who had previously managed the Senators.
It’s all but certain that fans have forgiven the 69-year-old former second baseman for ending the series against the Miracle Mets. After all, he’s worked hard to redeem himself.
Last month, under Johnson’s guidance, the Nationals clinched Washington’s first playoff berth since 1933. And the last time the Orioles had a winning team was 1997, when Johnson won Manager of the Year as their skipper.
Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, Johnson’s teammate with the Orioles in 1969, can’t help but speak highly of that team.
“‘Pretty good?’ We were really good!” he said proudly.
Palmer finished 16-4 that year on a staff that featured pitchers Mike Cuellar (23-11) and Dave McNally (20-7).
The starters were so good and went deep into games, allowing the team to carry fewer relievers.
“We had a limited bullpen,” Palmer said. “We had all kinds of great depth on our bench because of not having to carry that many pitchers.”
Hall of Fame Baltimore manager Earl Weaver called the shots in 1969.
“Earl felt that we had a really good ball club,” said Palmer, who now calls games for the Orioles broadcast network, MASN. “And it was such a tough division.”
Palmer and Johnson were teammates for large portions of both their careers, and the pitcher compares Johnson as a manager favorably to the legendary Weaver.
While the Orioles were once a dominant franchise, the Nationals, and Senators before them, were hardly ever in contention.
William Gildea covered sports for The Washington Post for 40 years and recalls the Senators as a faltering franchise. He said the buzz around the 2012 Nationals easily surpasses any year for its D.C. predecessor.
“There’s just more interest in baseball in Washington now than there was when the Senators were here,” he said.
In their last Washington incarnation, the Senators played in town from 1961 to 1971.
In 1969, in a last-ditch effort to gain more support, Senators’ owner Bob Short hired Ted Williams to manage the club. Williams had ended his historic playing career nine years earlier, and was admittedly out of touch with the game.
“Short wanted a big name to manage,” Gildea said. “He persuaded Williams to come out of retirement.”
Gildea visited the former Red Sox great at his home in Florida before the season.
“I can remember him asking me if the Senators had a good pitching staff,” he said, laughing. “He didn’t really follow the game, and knew little about the American League.
“He was more interested in fishing.”
It may have been one of the franchise’s best years with Williams at the helm, though speculation was that he wasn’t the cause of the success.
“(Third base coach Wayne) Terwilliger did an awful lot of the managing in ’69. He’s probably the unsung hero of that club,” Gildea said.
But what Williams lacked in managerial experience, he made up for in enthusiasm. He turned into more of a hitting coach, instilling the type of knowledge that could only come from one of history’s greatest hitters, into the minds of some struggling Senators, Gildea said.
Lifelong Washington sports fan Andy Freeman, who grew up in Chevy Chase, knew the importance of having Williams in the dugout.
Micromanaging the entire game was one thing, but Williams’ hitting techniques had an instant impact on the team.
“For one, (Ed) Brinkman’s average went up about 100 points,” Freeman said. “Ted Williams changed the culture of that team.”
Freeman remembers the 1969 season as less than stellar for D.C.
“Well, between Baltimore and Washington, we were always the lower team,” Freeman said. “Baltimore was the big brother. It was a one-sided rivalry.”
Sluggers like Boog Powell seemed to bring a little extra when the Senators were in the opposing dugout. Freeman remembers Powell hitting three opposite field home runs in one game at RFK. Years later, Freeman didn’t forget.
“I once confronted Boog about it and said, ‘you’re the reason the Senators left Washington,'” Freeman said.
Powell, now known for the barbecue restaurant whose aroma wafts through the stands of Camden Yards, laughed off the accusation.
The Orioles play their first playoff game in Texas Friday, while the Nationals await the winner of the National League wild card game.