Wednesday, February 7, 2018

42 Homers Make the Phils Difference

TRIVIA QUESTION:   Before coming to the Phillies, Pancho Herrera played for what team in the Negro Leagues?  

The Chicago White Sox pitcher who won 29 games in 1919 and was portrayed in the film "Field of Dreams" was Eddie Cicotte. Reportedly Cicotte had a claus in his contract that if he won 30 games he'd get a huge bonus. He claimed the team held him back at the behest of team owner Charlie Comiskey as they had the pennant wrapped up and he didn't want to pay the bonus. This supposedly led to Cicotte's anger and helped him decide to join the conspirators in throwing the series for money. The following year he won 21 games and then was banned from baseball for life. He won 28 in 1917. Cicotte won his 29th game on September 19, 1919. However, he did get two more starts in the last seven games. On the 25th he went seven and got a no decision but to lend some credence to the theory of being held back, in his start on the 28th, he went only two innings giving up one run before being pulled. The Sox would go on to lose 10-9 but Cicotte was gone long before the game was decided.

Can 42 home runs in a season really make a difference? It seems so. The 1961 Philadelphia Phillies were a sorry lot. The likes of Pancho Herrera, Charley Smith and Ken Walters were just not enough for the '61 Phils to win more than 47 games. Finishing 47-107 it was the last year for long time ace Robin Roberts in a Philadelphia uniform. He went 1-10 in 1961 and after six 20-win seasons was sold to the Yankees. Before his career ended in 1966 he had been sold or traded and released by the Astros, Cubs and Orioles. He still won 52 games after the Phils let him go.

The rest of the 1961 pitching staff fared poorly as well. Art Mahaffey went 11-19, John Buzhardt 6-18,  Frank Sullivan 3-16 and even youngster Chris Short was 6-12. In all two others lost at least 10 games and no starter had close to a .500 record. 

At the plate the Phillie sluggers were the Phillie softies. The team leader in homers was Don Demeter with 20, but Tony Gonzalez with 12 and Herrera with 13 were the only players in double figures. Batting averages were soft as well. Gonzalez was the highest hitting starter at .277. 

Perhaps it was the youth factor. Aside from 40 year-old Elmer Valo the team average was 25 years, with four of the starters at 25 or younger. Four of the 13 pitchers were over 30 led by Roberts, 34. 

Somehow Gene Mauch turned his club around the following year winning 81 games and finishing in 7th place. Strangely enough the team got older, now over 27 years of age with the addition of Roy Sievers who banged 21 home runs, Frank Torre who hit .310 in a part time role and the improved Tony Taylor who led the team with 20 steals and came to the plate over 700 times. 

The homers went up. Demeter slapped 29, Gonzales hit 20 and Johnny Callison was an emerging star with 23. Both, along with Demeter batted over .300. In 1962 the team hit 42 more home runs than the previous season. It probably made the difference. They went from 7th in the league in homers to 4th in 1962.

The pitching showed improvement with the hitting as Mahaffey won 19, 36 year-old Cal McLish picked up 11, Jack Baldschun and Short won 23 between them. Interestingly enough, they committed about the same amount of errors in the two seasons.  

Herrera, the first Afro-Latino player for the Phils was prone to strike out way too much and commit too many errors. He was shipped off to Pittsburgh for Ted Savage and Don Hoak but was out of baseball before ever playing for Pittsburgh. Charley Smith was sent to the White Sox for Sievers and Buzhardt in a good trade. Smith bounced around the rest of the decade. Walters was sold to the Reds.

It wouldn't be long before Mauch had them contending and in 1964 they almost captured the NL title, only to fail miserably down the stretch and lost out to St. Louis.

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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

When the Owner Screws Up

TRIVIA QUESTION:   Who was the Chicago White Sox pitcher who won 29 games in 1919 and was portrayed in the film "Field of Dreams?"  

The 1968 All-Star Game ended with a 1-0 score with MVP Willie Mays scoring the only run of the game in the first inning. It was the year of the pitcher and while Don Drysdale was the winning pitcher, a HOF outfielder was the man who became the MVP.

In the classic baseball film "Field of Dreams" Shoeless Joe Jackson tells Ray Kinsella in response to the farmer's reasoning for adding lights to baseball fields; the owners thought it would bring in more fans and more money if they could play games at night. Jackson (played by Ray Liotta) answers back "phh, owners." He did it with a dismissive response, basically saying owners can do more to wreck the game than anyone else.

Such was the case with a rising star in Kansas City, who fell to earth way before he should have. Manny Jimenez was an outstanding hitter in the minor leagues and upon making his debut in 1962, he seemed to be on track for stardom. Jimenez batted .301 with 11 homers for the Kansas City A's.

In his first game on April 11, 1962 in front of only 4,064 fans in Kansas City, he faced the Twins Camilo Pascual and got three of the teams four hits off the all-star pitcher. It seemed he was well on his way. It should be noted the next night he did not even start. It was okay as only 854 fans remember it. That was the total attendance at game three of the 1962 season.
It was another week before Jimenez appeared again and he got a pinch hit in his only at bat. The season went on in strange fashion. When the dust settled on the A's season, they finished in 9th place out of 10 and won only 72 games while losing 90. Jimenez on the other hand capped an outstanding rookie season.

Not only did he bat .301, but slugged 11 homers and 24 doubles but he drove in 69 runs. Then in the off season owner Charlie O. Finley pulled Manny aside. He instructed him to stop trying to hit for average (he'd batted .340 in one minor league season) and to go for power. He wanted more home runs, like the Yankees asked Roger Maris to do after he was traded by the A's to New York. While Maris responded with 100 dingers over the next two years, Manny hit 12 over the next three years.

Not surprisingly, in his second year, the year after he debuted with 11 homers, he hit zero - none- nada! In addition, his average fell to .280, .225 and then .114. He was shipped off to Pittsburgh where he served as a pinch hitter and was out of baseball by the end of the 1969 season.

To take a rookie who could have been rookie of the year and turn him completely around, Finley later admitted what he did probably hurt the player more than helped. The proof was in the pudding.

Despite his devastating exit from MLB Jimenez did have some  highlights. He had three 4-hit games, including 3 home runs and 5 runs batted in vs. the Baltimore Orioles (July 4, 1964), ten 3-hit games, hit a combined .492 (32-for-65) against All-Stars Eddie Fisher, Sam Jones, Ken McBride, Camilo Pascual, and Juan Pizarro and hit a combined .429 (24-for-56) against Hall of Famers Whitey Ford, Ferguson Jenkins, Robin Roberts, Don Sutton, and Early Wynn.

Take it from Shoeless Joe; "phh owners."
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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Worst All-Star Game Ever

TRIVIA QUESTION:   While the 1968 All-Star Game in Houston was a washout when it came to excitement the highlight of game was not. In the year of the pitcher, who was named MVP of the game?  

In 1969 Jim Wynn, the Toy Cannon, whiffed and walked a lot. He walked 148 and struck out 142 times which means he came to the plate 290 times and did not put the ball in play. That is a season for most players today. 

If there was ever a year fans would vote an all-star game as the worst, it would have to be the 1968 game played in Houston. It not only was the year of the pitcher and the game proved the fact, it almost cost one of the great Hall of Fame players the rest of his career.

In 1968 pitching was king. Bob Gibson broke out with a new best ERA (1.12) not seen since the days of Grover Cleveland Alexander, 1.22 in 1915, and Denny McLain won 31 games for Detroit. The first time in 34 years a pitcher broke the 30 win mark (Dizzy Dean in 1934). It hasn't been done since and probably never will be seen again. It was also the year Don Drysdale pitched 58 consecutive scoreless innings.

The batting title in the American League was won by Carl Yastrzemski at .301. Make no mistake about it, pitching was king. So much so, the following year the mound was actually lowered to give hitters an added advantage and we've never seen a year off the mound like 1968 again.

When it came to voting for the mid-summer classic the line-up was filled by favorites of the fans, not the best players in the game. To prove a point; Harmon Killebrew was barely batting over .200 at the break and was named as the AL first baseman. It almost doomed his career.

Willie Mays was a last minute substitute to the starting line-up and was inserted into the lead off position. Mays was definitely at the end of his career and while he did hang on for a couple more seasons, his best was behind him at 37.

The game for the NL squad started off with Mays hitting a single to left off starter Luis Tiant. When Tiant tried to pick Mays off first base, Killebrew couldn't get to it and Mays ended up on second. When Tiant uncorked a wild pitch to Curt Flood, Mays took third. Flood eventually walked and Willie McCovey banged into a double play which scored Mays. 

That was it. It was the only time during the game a runner would cross home plate. NL wins it 1-0. The National Leaguers only had five hits,  the AL only three. Drysdale pitched three hitless innings to start it off. Drysdale got the win, Tiant the loss and to show you how weak the hitting was; No earned runs came across the plate. The only run was scored because of two errors and a double play ball. Now that's boring. Batters struck out a combined 20 times.

The other problem was Killebrew. In the third inning he stretched for a throw and tore  his hamstring and missed the next two months of the season. He did rebound the following year and was named MVP. But in 1968 he finished with .210 and 17 home runs.

The game featured many quirks including Pete Rose breaking his thumb in pre-game warm ups which is why Mays was inserted in the lead-off spot, Brooks Robinson injuring his back and lots of other stuff. Perhaps the most unusual thing was the ticket for the first All-Star Game in the Astrodome. The ticket was marked with a "Rain Check." Not likely it was going to be rained out, inside the Dome.

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Houston We Have a Problem

TRIVIA QUESTION:   When the dust settled on the 1969 Astros season one of their players came to bat 290 times and never hit a ball in fair territory . Who was that player? 

Rocky Colavito led the 1961 Tigers with 45 home runs, but he'd already crossed the 40 homer mark twice in his career before that. In 1958 he hit 41 and the following year he led the AL with 42, both with Cleveland. He finished his career with 374 homers over 14 years. In all, he belted 40 or more three times and at least 30 on four other occasions. 

It took Major League Baseball to completely revamp it's alignment to give the Houston Astro's the teams first shot at finishing with at least a .500 record. In 1969, after an existence of never winning half their games, the club which redefined what a modern stadium should be, finally did win 81 while losing 81 in a season.

Starting out in Colt Stadium, the team would eventually move into the spacious and modern Astrodome. Maybe Colt .45 signified the old west and the Texas persona but the Astrodome gave the club something else. It was now Houston; the home of NASA, spaceflight, reaching for the stars and the Astrodome did that. It was huge and it was above all else; indoors. Mosquitoes were not allowed. 

When the team closed out the 1964 season as the Colt .45's they only saw 715,000 fans come through the turnstiles. When they debuted in 1965 as the Houston Astros in the new stadium, attendance about tripled to 2.1 million. 

It didn't make much difference on the field however. They actually lost one more game than the previous year. Every year from 1962-1968 the club finished either in 8th, 9th or 10th place. When the decade came to a close they finished in 5th. Of course there were only six teams in their division. 

So what was it about this 1969 club which brought them to the brink of winning baseball? Fan Favorite Rusty Staub was gone to Montreal in the infamous Donn Clendenon trade. Shortstop Sonny Jackson was sent packing to Atlanta after the 1967 season, and a young Joe Morgan was bursting onto the scene. Ace Mike Cuellar was Traded with Tom Johnson and Enzo Hernandez to the Baltimore Orioles for John Mason and Curt Blefary. Cuellar would go onto win at least 20 games for the O's in four different seasons and 18 games twice. Blefary batted .253 in his only season with Houston before going onto the Mets.

Dave Giusti was traded to St. Louis and after one season onto Pittsburgh where he became a dominant closer in the NL. Larry Dierker did improve and won 20, while Don Wilson won 16. The team was steady with six of the starters appearing in nearly 150 games but none of them hit over .269 and Jim Wynn (the Toy Cannon) led the team by far with 33 homers. Morgan was second with 15.

So when did Harry Walker's club lock in that magical 81st win? With three games left in the season the Astros went to Los Angeles. On Tuesday, September 30th in front of 11,000 fans at Dodgers Stadium, they faced future Hall of Fame pitcher, Don Sutton. They needed to win at least one of the remaining three games to lock in that elusive .500.

In the third, after Blefary drove in a run, former Dodger Tommy Davis belted a two run homer to make the score 3-0 Houston. The Astros would go on to beat the Dodgers 6-3 but that all important fourth run in the game was driven in by none other than starting pitcher Denny Lemaster. Lemaster not only keyed the winning rally but he tossed a gem. 

Lemaster pitched a four-hitter, walking two and striking out 11, giving up only two earned runs. It was his 13th win of the season against 17 losses and assured his club a non-losing season. It would be three more years before Houston would finish above .500 and complete it's first winning season in club history.  

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Friday, January 12, 2018

The Rare Breakout Season

TRIVIA QUESTION:   When Norm Cash hit 41 homers in 1961 for Detroit, teammate Rocky Colavito led the Tigers with 45. Cash only eclipsed the 40 homer mark once. How many times did Colavito crack the 40 home run barrier? 

When the Yankees sent Roger Maris to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1966 they got little in return for the man who broke Babe Ruth's single season home run record only five years earlier. The Cardinals shipped third baseman Charlie Smith to New York for Maris. Maris went on to help the Cards win two NL pennants and a World Series. Smith was little help to the rebuilding New Yorkers . 

There are times when a great player has a good season and then there are times when a good player has a great season. Such was the 1961 season for the Detroit Tigers slugging first baseman, Norm Cash. He had a true break out year in 1961 but never again reached anywhere near the level of that wonderful season.

Cash came up with the Chicago White Sox in 1958 and only played in a few games. In 1959 he showed only a little promise in 58 games by batting .240 and hitting only four homers, so the Sox shipped him to the Indians along with Bubba Phillips and John Romano for Dick Brown, Don Ferrarese, Minnie Minoso and Jake Striker. Cleveland didn't think enough of Cash to keep him at the start of the 1960 season sent him to the Tigers for Steve Demeter.

He immediately showed promise in 1960 with the Tigers in tiny Tiger's Stadium where he batted .286 and belted 18 home runs. Stormin' Norman was off to a good start. He was also one of the more fun players to be around according to teammates.

As the Tigers prepared for the 1961 season, they were retooling. They added Billy Bruton from the Braves and brought up some young players who helped out including Jake Wood who starred and led the league in triples with 14. Also a couple of youngsters made their debuts and they would become Tiger stalwarts over the years. Dick McAuliffe and Bill Freehan were introduced to the fans in 1961.

Steve Boros was going strong in 1961 and with Rocky Colavito (2.90 45 HR) and Al Kaline (.324 19 HR) manning the outfield, all the Tigers needed was an improved effort from their first baseman. And boy, did they ever get it.

Cash didn't get his first home run until game five of the 1961 season when he belted a deep drive off Gary Bell, but it wasn't long before he was rivaling Colavito for the long ball and swinging past Kaline in the hit parade.

When the dust had settled on the 1961 season Cash led the league with an amazing .361 average (and he didn't get leg hits), he belted 41 homers, led the league in hits with 193, Intentional walks 19, OPS 1.148 and On Base Percentage .487 while slugging .662. He scored 119 and drove in 132 RBI. Now that's a season to remember.

The Tigers finished in second place winning 98 games and it was thought they were on their way. But that is where Cash's string ended. It wasn't that his career was a bad one. He just never came close to those numbers again. He averaged 24 home runs the rest of his career but never hit over .280, most of the time lingering around .260 in an era where batting average meant a lot more than it does today.

Norm Cash left us too soon. He was killed when he slipped and fell near Lake Michigan at age 51. 

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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Dismal New York Yankee Years

TRIVIA QUESTION:   When Roger Maris was sent to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1966, who did the Yankees get in return for the man who hit 61 homers in 1961? 

Gil Hodges took over as manager of the Washington Senators in 1963, following two others who came before him that season. In five seasons with the Sens his clubs never finished near the .500 mark and lost 100 games in 1964. He did lead them to a sixth place finish in his final season, 1967. He of course went on to lead the 1969 New York Mets to their first World Series Title.

After losing the 1964 World Series no one expected the Bronx Bombers to begin a slide which was one of the worst in team history. After all, New York had finished in first place every year from 1960-1964. They won two World Championships and basically had the same players who made the "64 season a success. 

But Father Time was catching up to the Yanks. Over the season the team would employ 13 players who were at least 29 years old and only three of them were not at least 30. The average age of the team was 28. Aging starters were very much on the down side.

Elston Howard at 36 hit .233 with nine home runs, Mickey Mantle batted .255 with 19 homers and Roger Maris at .239 with eight home runs in only 46 games.  The subs were not counted on either. Johnny Blanchard, often a long ball hero, batted only 42 times and hit .147. The pitchers who were getting long in the tooth included Whitey Ford, who at 36 still managed 16 wins and 244 innings. Thirty year olds Steve Hamilton and Pete Ramos both had good years.

Other players on their final run were Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek and Hector Lopez. 

The good news however was the Yankees were a team in transition. It was just Yankee fans were not at all used to seeing their team "in transition." It would take a few years for them to develop and while they were making progress it was still a struggle.

The 1964 season saw manager Johnny Keane employ these youthful players; Joe Pepitone 24 with 19 homers, Tom Tresh 26 and 26 home runs to lead the team, Roger Repoz 24, Horace Clarke 25, Roy White 21, Bobby Murcer 19, Jake Gibbs 26, Mel Stottlemyre 23 (20 win season), Al Downing 24 and a bevy of guys in the 26-28 year old range. It was a wild mix of guys who would go on to have decent careers and guys who had a major league cup of coffee.

New York finished under .500 with 77 wins and fans were screaming for something to be done. Some of the faithful were saying wait until "the kids mature." They didn't mature fast enough. It got so bad, the following year they fell into last place. After a 4-16 start General Manager Ralph Houk fired Keane and went back into the dugout himself. Salvaging a 10th place finish in a 10 team league was not to Houk's liking. 

The last time the club finished in last place was when they were the New York Highlanders in 1912, losing 102 games the same year the Titanic went down.  They were led by Birdie Cree .332, Hippo Vaughn, Iron Davis and Russ Ford who lost 21 games. No relation to Whitey by the way.

Stottlemyre lost 20 in 1966, Mantle rebounded to hit 23 homers and bat .288 but was limited to 108 games as his faltering body was so banged up everyone wondered how long he could play center field. It would be the following year, 1967 when he was moved to first base permanently.  There he ended up playing 144 games while still giving the fans a thrill 22 times with home runs. The "66 season also saw the debut of pitcher Fritz Peterson into the starting rotation.  

Clarke and White became regulars and showed some promise but fans were not amused. Pepitone led the team in home runs with 31 and RBI with 83. It's hard to drive in big runs when there is nobody getting on base in front of you. 

When 1967 rolled around White fell off while Clarke began to shine. Pepitone was on his way out failing to hit even close to 20 homers and batting only .251. Whitey Ford was limited to seven starts and a 2-4 record and the team was again a mix of undeveloped youth and aging utility players.  Elston Howard was shipped off to the hated Red Sox. Houk's ninth place finish was enough to keep him in the manager's chair in 1968.

More of the same but the team improved slightly in 1968 finishing fifth with an 82-80 record. This was despite the fact three regular starting players batted no better than .229 with Tresh well below the Mendoza line at .195.  Stottlemyre really rebounded winning 21 games and Stan Bahnsen picked up 17. To show what kind of team this was, the highlight of the year had to be Rocky Colavito, the long-time and former Detroit and Cleveland slugger, coming in during one game to pitch for New York. In two and two-thirds innings the Rock faced 11 batters, walked two of them, struck out one, gave up one hit and picked up the win! Now that's bizarre.

It also marked the quiet end to Mantle's career. The Mick put on his spikes for a final time. It was supposed to be Bobby Murcer's time, but Murcer went to right while a bizarre cache of players patrolled center including Ron Woods and Jim Lyttle.  
The team closed out the decade back in fifth place at 80-81 with Houk still at the helm. Pepitone banged 27 homers, White hit .290 while Stottlemyre again won 20 and they debuted a young catcher by the name of Thurman Munson. It seemed New York was back on track. It was true. They started the era of the 70's by finishing in second place in the new AL East and the track was set to get them going again. Fans? They were relieved.

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Thursday, December 28, 2017

The American League Mets

TRIVIA QUESTION:   Which one of the original New York Mets went on to manage the Washington Senators finishing a five season run without a winning record? 

In 1964 when the Cardinals won the pennant, Ken Boyer drive in 119 runs to lead the league in RBI. It was his second straight 100-plus RBI year, clocking 111 in 1963. A clutch hitter, in six other years he drove in at least 90 runs, twice putting up 98 RBI in a season. In a 15 year career he drove in 1141 runs or 76 per season.

When expansion came to the major leagues at the start of the 1960's most of the focus was on the National League where the New York Mets debuted and would go on to become the losing-est team in major league history. While the Mets were floundering in the NL, over in the AL the team representing the nation's capitol was holding court with equal risk. 

The Washington Senators proved to be as inept as their counterparts in government. While the Senators on Capitol Hill were struggling with a changing population and an explosion of an advancing America, the Senators on the ball field were just trying to find a way to win a game. 

In an unusual situation the two leagues expanded in consecutive years. The Senators opened their franchise playing in 1961. New York would have to wait until 1962 to see the Mets try to replace the NL Giants and Dodgers who had moved on four years earlier. 
While the Mets would lose 120 games under Casey Stengel in the first season, the Senators would lose 100 under Mickey Vernon. New York was saddled with players who would never reach the plateau they so wanted in the bigs. Names such as Elio Chacon, Charlie Neal, Rod Kanehl and Choo-Choo Coleman would send as much fear into the opposing pitching staff as would the Senators Gene Green, Coot Veal, Willie Tasby and Billy Klaus.

Each team had it's fading stars. Gil Hodges, Richie Ashburn, Frank Thomas, Roger Craig and Clem Labine were big time players in the 1950's. So were Dale Long, Danny O'Connell, Dick Donovan and Mike Garcia who twice won 20 games with Cleveland. 

The fact would remain of the young players on those two rosters only two players, one from each team, would have much of a future as it were after the 1962 season. The Mets Ed Kranepool, a top and highly touted signee would only play in 17 games in the clubs inaugural season and bat .167. He would be a member of the 1969 Amazing Mets World Series winning team. Big Ed would hit .261 in parts of 18 seasons and drive 118 of his hits into the bleachers. 

On the AL side, the Senators had a 21 year-old left-hander named Claude Osteen. Osteen only pitched 18 innings, starting three games and splitting two decisions. His ERA was 4.91 but he showed promise. Signed by the Reds in 1957 he was traded in September of 1961 to Washington for Dave Sisler. He would pitch well enough for the cellar dwelling Washington club but he was a key figure in a much bigger trade in 1964.  

The Senators sent him along with John Kennedy and $100,000 to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a player to be named later, Frank Howard, Ken McMullen, Phil Ortega and Pete Richert. The Dodgers sent Dick Nen (December 15, 1964) back to Washington to complete the trade. 

Osteen would go on to win in double figures nine times for the Dodgers, twice winning 20 (1969 ad 1972) and won a total of 196 games. He was a much better pitcher than his 195 losses would indicate. In the World Series he fashioned a five-hit shutout against the Twins in Game 3 of the 1965 classic.

When the dust had settled on those first seasons few players would stick around. Garcia who won 142 games in his career failed to win even one for Washington and retired after the season. Gene Woodling, Washington's best hitter at .313, was sold to the Mets halfway through the 1962 season. After the season Washington's home run leader with 18, Gene Green was traded to Cleveland in a four player deal for Jimmy Piersall. 

In New York, while Jay Hook lost 19 games, Al Jackson and Roger Craig both lost 20. Craig dropped 24, Jackson lost 20. Not to feel too bad about the opening season, Craig hung around and lost 22 the following year. Jackson would wait until 1965 to duplicate the same season with a record again of 8-20.

Mets Slugger Frank Thomas had his second highest homer total with 34, one shy of his final year in Pittsburgh in 1958. He hung around a couple more seasons while Ashburn's only season with the Mets was his last one and a good one at that. The former Phillie Wiz Kid batted .306, retired and later became a broadcaster. He even stole 12 bases at age 35. 

Through the clubs first four years the Mets would drop 452 games. The Senators during the first four years lost 407. Such ineptness may never be seen again. By the time the 1972 season rolled around the Senators would leave Washington for the friendly confines of Arlington, Texas, having never won more than 86 games. They closed out the decade in 1969 with the clubs only season where they won more than they lost, finishing with a .531 winning percentage.  
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