Thursday, February 22, 2024

Q&A with Gary Sarnoff




Gary Sarnoff is the author of the new book Team of Destiny: Walter Johnson, Clark Griffith, Bucky Harris, and the 1924 Washington Senators. It focuses on the team's World Series-winning season. Sarnoff's other books include The Wrecking Crew of '33.


Q: Why did you decide to write about the 1924 Washington Senators baseball team?


A: I think the 1924 Washington Senators' season is the most wonderful, heart-warming story in baseball history and is one that needed to be told.


Here was a baseball franchise that had a checkered history and never came close to winning a pennant. Heading into the 1924 season another losing campaign was expected for the Senators.


Then there was the hiring of Bucky Harris to manage the Washington baseball club before the '24 season. Harris, who was only 27 years old, was Washington's starting second baseman with only four full seasons of Major League playing experience, yet team president and co-owner Clark Griffith believed that Harris could lead the team.


Play-managers weren't uncommon in this era, but those who were play-managers were seasoned veterans who were 30 years or older, which is why most chuckled about the hiring of Harris. "Griffith's Folly" is what a sportswriter wrote about Griffith's decision.


But most of all, what made the 1924 Washington Senators season special was legendary pitcher Walter Johnson finally having the opportunity to pitch for a winner.


In 1924, Walter Johnson was 36 years old, was entering his 18th Major League season of his brilliant career, and at the end of his career. Before the season Johnson had informed Griffith through a letter that 1924 would be his last.


Walter Johnson, arguably the greatest pitcher ever, had pitched his entire career in Washington. Although the Senators did post a few winning records during Johnson's career, they never came close to winning a pennant.


"In my opinion Walter Johnson was the greatest pitcher who ever lived," said an opposing player. "If he ever had a good team behind him the records he would have set."


Johnson was loved and admired by baseball fans everywhere, for his greatness, sportsmanship, modesty, and his blazing fastball. And when it was learned that 1924 would be his final season, it was believed that he would go down in baseball history as the greatest player who never played in a World Series.


But then in 1924 it all came together for Johnson and the Senators, and as Washington battled the Yankees throughout the season for the American League pennant, the entire nation, hoping to see Walter Johnson on a pennant winner, cheered on the underdog. The Senators went on to win their first pennant in franchise history.


In 1924, Johnson won 23 games and the league's MVP Award, and finally lived his career-long dream of pitching for a first-place team. He also had one other dream: To pitch a win in a World Series game.    


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: My main source was the 1924 Washington newspapers. I also relied on a number of out-of-town newspapers from 1924 and referenced several books.  


Since I have read about the 1924 Senators since 1979, and since I read Bucky Harris's book, books about Walter Johnson, sportswriter Shirley Povich's book about the history of the Washington Senators, and other books about the Senators, I pretty much knew the story, so there were no surprises.


However, something that was new and surprised me was the Tampa Bay Hotel and the Senators’ Spring Training session in Tampa in 1924. I knew nothing about Tampa's Plant Field and the Tampa Bay Hotel, the hotel where the Senators quartered.


The Tampa Bay Hotel was one of the world's most prestigious hotels in the late 19th century. In 1898, Teddy Roosevelt and his famous Roughriders came to Tampa to train for combat in Cuba.


Roosevelt and the other high-ranking officers stayed at the Tampa Bay Hotel, and during the evenings they would sit in the rocking chairs on the hotel's porch and talk. A famous writer called this "The rocking chair campaign." During Spring Training in 1924, Harris, Griffith, and others sat in those same rocking chairs.


Before the Senators came to Tampa, the Boston Red Sox spent their springs in Tampa and had the world's best drawing card in Babe Ruth. While a member of the Red Sox in Tampa, Ruth hit one of the longest home runs in baseball history. Today a marker sits on the spot to note Ruth's tremendous clout in 1919. 


Q: The subtitle mentions Walter Johnson, Clark Griffith, and Bucky Harris--why did you choose to include those three?


A: The reason why Walter Johnson, Clark Griffith, and Bucky Harris are in the subtitle is because they are the three main characters of the book.


Walter Johnson was a great pitcher who won 23 games for the Senators and the American League's most valuable player award in 1924. In addition, he had a career-long dream of pitching for a pennant winner and pitching a win in a World Series game.


He lost his two starts in the 1924 World Series, and he was heartbroken after losing the second time. Then in Game 7, he received an unexpected third chance to pitch a win.


In that Game 7 the Senators rallied with two runs in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game, 3-3. In the top of the ninth, Walter Johnson came into the game as a relief pitcher. He pitched four scoreless innings, and the Senators scored one in the bottom of the 12th for a 4-3 win. Walter Johnson was the winning pitcher. He finally won to fulfill his career-long dream. 


Clark Griffith was the team president and co-owner. After a great pitching career, he became a successful manager. Wanting a successful manager to pilot the Washington Senators, the board of directors who comprised the ownership of the Senators hired Griffith as the team's manager in 1912, and his results were immediate. In 1912, Griffith's Senators won 90 games.


The team continued to win under Griffith, but later in the decade the Senators began to slip and finished seventh in 1919. By this time Griffith lost his respect for the board of directors and the board of directors were tired of Griffith.


Figuring that ownership was the only way to lead the Senators to the promise land of American League champions, Griffith, along with the help of a wealthy business partner, bought out the board of directors.


Now as the team's co-owner and president, Griffith managed the Senators for one more season before stepping down to focus on his job as team president and work on the team's day-to-day operations.


As team president, it was his job to hire the team's next manager. The result was he went through three managers in three years before deciding on Bucky Harris. 


Bucky Harris was only 27 years old and had only four full seasons of Major League playing experience when he was hired to manage the 1924 Washington Senators.


A hard-nosed player who led by example, it was his leadership and positive thinking that helped make the Washington Senators into a winning team almost overnight.     


Q: How would you compare the 1924 team to the 2019 World Series-winning Washington Nationals team?


A: The two teams and their seasons were very different; however, there were a few similarities. Like the 1924 Senators, the 2019 Nationals weren't expected to win the World Series. Unlike the 1924 Senators, the 2019 Nationals were expected to be good, had made four postseason appearances, and had won four division titles.


Another similarity was the disappointment over the hiring of the managers. In 1924, there was disappointment about Harris being appointed the managerial duties, because most believed he was too young and inexperienced.


Although Davey Martinez wasn't a rookie manager (he was hired in 2018 and had coaching experience), there was a feeling he was not the right man for the job. There was anger in Washington over the firing of Dusty Baker (after the 2017 season), and when the Nationals failed to make the playoffs in 2018, the feeling was they would fall short in 2019.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now I am getting ready to promote my book through radio interviews, social media, and live presentations.


As for my next book, I am thinking about my options. One possibility is a book about the 1925 Washington Senators.


My first book was about the 1933 Washington Senators. Team of Destiny is about the 1924 Senators. So if I elect to write about the 1925 Senators, I will be the first person to write a book about the three pennant winners of the Washington Senators.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: This is the third book I have authored. My first book was The Wrecking Crew of '33: The Washington Senators' last American League Pennant. My second book was The First Yankees Dynasty: Babe Ruth, Miller Huggins, and the Bronx Bombers of the 1920's. My new book is Team of Destiny: Walter Johnson, Clark Griffith, and the 1924 Washington Senators.


I have contributed a few chapters to other books, including The 1966 Green Bay Packers. I had the honor of writing the chapter about Vince Lombardi for that book.


I am an active member of Society of American Baseball Research and the Professional Football Research Association. I am a historian and have spoken about historical events.  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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