In 1924, the Washington Senators won the city’s only World Series championship, when Walter Johnson came out of the bullpen in the ninth inning to win a 12-inning game against the New York Giants, after losing his two World Series starts.
Unfortunately the magic wore off the next year, in a mirror image for Johnson.
In the 1925 World Series, he won his first two first two starts against the Pirates but lost the seventh game in Pittsburgh, getting rocked for 15 hits and nine runs (five earned).
By now, most Nats fans are probably familiar with the celebrated ‘24 World Series finale, the high-water mark of Washington baseball. Game 7 of the ‘25 World Series, by contrast, is mostly forgotten today, but it was one of the most important and devastating games in DC baseball history.
Johnson – like the Nats’ starter tonight, Max Scherzer – was an ace pitcher north of 35 coming off an injury.
Scherzer, who turned 35 this season, missed his planned Game 5 World Series start because of neck spasms, but says he’s good to go tonight.
Johnson, 37, had strained his leg in his previous start, when he unsuccessfully tried to stretch a single into a double.
Like the Houston Astros, the Pirates were packed with a formidable lineup. They led the National League with a .307 batting average, and also paced the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and runs. Pittsburgh featured three future Hall of Famers – outfielder Kiki Cuyler, who led the team with a .357 batting average; third baseman Pie Traynor, who hit .320; and outfielder Max Carey, who hit .343 and led the league with forty-six stolen bases.
Washington took three of the first four games, but the Pirates won the next two to force a seventh game in Pittsburgh. After rain postponed the game, the two teams squared off on a cold, rainy afternoon, and a wet and muddy field.
A New York Times story described it as:
“... the wettest, weirdest, and wildest game that fifty years of baseball has ever seen … Water, mud, fog, mist, sawdust, fumbles, wild throws, wild pitches, one near fistfight, impossible rallies – these were mixed up to make the best and the worst game of baseball ever played in this century. Players wallowing ankle-deep in mud, pitchers slipping as they delivered the ball to the plate, athletes skidding and sloshing, falling full length, dropping soaked baseballs – there you have part of the picture that was unveiled on Forbes Field this dripping afternoon. It was a great day for water polo… But it was the last possible afternoon that you would pick out for a game of baseball on which hung the championship of the country.”
Nearly a century later, in another strange Fall Classic, the Nats and Astros will face off in “maybe the weirdest World Series imaginable,” as Ken Rosenthal wrote in The Athletic this morning.
Game 7 in 1925 turned out to be a microcosm of the series, with the Senators blowing a large early lead. Washington jumped ahead 4-0 in a wacky first inning that featured just two Senators hits. The Pirates did the rest with three walks, two errors, and a wild pitch, in a performance that set the stage for the slippery, sloppy showdown.
Pitching in ankle-deep mud and with a sore leg, Johnson couldn’t match his previous performance, when he had shut out the Pirates in Game 4. By the seventh inning, Washington clung to a 6-4 lead. The Senators sent their workhorse out for the bottom of the frame, but his defense let him down – as did his pitching.
The rally started when shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh, one of the heroes of the ’24 World Series and the winner of the 1925 American League MVP, committed a two-base error – the seventh of the World Series for the normally reliable fielder. The Pirates then tied the game on a double by Carey and a triple by Traynor, with both runs unearned.
Peckinpaugh, who had hit only four home runs in the regular season, briefly made amends for the miscue by slamming a homer into the left-field seats in the top of the eighth, giving Washington a 7–6 lead. But incredibly, he made yet another error in the bottom of the inning, and the Pirates scored three runs – two of them unearned – to take a 9-7 lead.
Pittsburgh reliever Red Oldman pitched a spotless top of the ninth, striking out Washington stars Sam Rice and Goose Goslin, to preserve the victory.
Like the Nats this year, the Senators had blown a two-game series lead, becoming the first team in history to lose the series after leading three games to one.
”Pittsburgh skies wept in sympathy for the lost hopes of Walter Johnson and Washington,” the Washington Post wrote.
After the series, American League president Ban Johnson criticized the Senators’ young player-manager, Bucky Harris, for using the aging Johnson in three games (which of course worked out well the previous year): “You sacrificed a World’s Championship for our league through your display of mawkish sentiment.”
The fiery Harris responded: “You run the American League, and I’ll manage the Washington baseball team.”
Frederic J. Frommer is the author of You Gotta Have Heart, a history of Washington baseball, from which some this story is based, and the head of Sports Public Relations at the Dewey Square Group, a Washington, D.C. communications firm. Twitter: @ffrommer.