BILOXI -- In 1933, one of baseball's most hapless franchises, the Washington Senators, dethroned the mighty New York Yankees anchored by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, winning American League pennant by seven games over the Bronx Bombers.
Baseball historian Gary Sarnoff took the time Friday to discuss the interesting tale of the 1933 Senators and the franchise's decision to hold spring training in Biloxi from 1930-35. His speech was part of the "Our Love Affair with Baseball" exhibit at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum.
For most of their history, until they moved to Minnesota and became the Twins in 1961, the Senators battled for the bottom of the American League, collecting winning seasons only 14 times in their first 33 years and finishing sixth or worse in the eight-team league 15 times. Prior to 1933, Senators won the pennant only twice and finished second or third eight other times.
While spring training today takes place in Florida and Arizona, teams were more spread out early in Major League history. Sarnoff noted the 1920s and 30s saw New Orleans host the Cleveland Indians during the Spring and Mobile hosted the St. Louis Browns, another of baseball's worst franchises.
Biloxi wanted a team for itself. In the late 1920s Biloxi mayor John K. Kennedy and the Chamber of Commerce contacted every Major League team to see if they would spend their springs in Biloxi, with Tony Ragusin, Mr. Biloxi, lobbying teams in person. It wasn't until 1930, when Senators owner Clark Griffith tired of Tampa's poor field -- which was used for purposes other than baseball and was never in good shape -- and moved Washington's spring training to Biloxi.
The spring training stadium, which was taken over by the Air Force during World War II and incorporated into Keesler Air Force Base, was huge, with outfield walls over 500 feet from home plate. However, the field, Sarnoff said, was perfect, better than some Major League teams, a condition Griffith demanded if he was to move spring training to Biloxi.
And the cost was reasonable. Grandstand tickets went for $1 with general admission seats going for 50 cents. Children, Sarnoff said, could get in for 25 cents.
In 1932, Major League Baseball ended a rule prohibiting American League teams from playing each other in exhibition games and Cleveland made the trip to Biloxi to play the Senators.
Sarnoff, whose book "The Wrecking Crew of '33" recounts the Senators' rise to American League champions, said the Senators left camp in Biloxi that year determined to take the pennant.
"It was pennant or bust," Sarnoff said. In order to win, Griffith decided to bring in a number of veterans, particularly left-handed pitching. Former Alabama star Luke Sewell was brought in from Cleveland to catch. Fred Schulte and Goose Goslin, both from the St. Louis Browns, were brought in to play outfield. Only future Hall of Famer Heinie Manush was left over from the 1932 outfield. Pitcher Earl Whitehill came in from Detroit and pitcher Lefty Stewart was acquired in the middle of the 1932 season from the Browns.
Cast of characters
Most controversial, though, was the replacement of manager Walter Johnson, a pitching legend, with manager-shortstop Joe Cronin, then only 26.
"The Senators wanted a pennant," Sarnoff said. With memories of Bucky Harris, who guided the Senators to pennants in 1924 and 1925, and a World Series title in 1924 at the age of 27, Griffith decided to take a chance on Cronin, a future Hall of Famer, and released the popular Johnson.
"They thought they could do better," Sarnoff said of Griffith's decision to release Johnson as manager. Johnson would manage three years for Cleveland, but have only one winning season -- 1934 -- with the Indians.
"He was perhaps too nice," Sarnoff said of Johnson.
Despite standing 6-foot-6, with long arms, a side-arm delivery that made the ball appear to come from third base, and a fastball well over 90 mph, Johnson was known as a nice man.
Often he would let the opponent's worst hitters get a hit late in the game with an easy pitch. Sarnoff said in 1929, Johnson allowed Senator players to walk over him.
"He was too nice of a guy to get tough," Sarnoff said of Johnson. Instead of getting tough, Johnson, Sarnoff said, became sarcastic, causing problems with his players, particularly star second baseman Buddy Myer, who was from Ellisville. In 1935, Myer hit .349 to lead the American League in hitting. He is also one of the few players to have 100 RBIs while hitting fewer than 10 home runs, which Myer did in 1935 with five long balls.
After a big season in 1932, the 1933 Yankees scored just 927 runs as Ruth slumped to a .301 average with only 34 home runs and 104 RBIs.
In 1932, three Yankees drove in more than 110 runs and Ben Chapman drove in 107 RBIs. Only Gehrig had more RBIs in 1933 than Chapman recorded in 1932 and only three Yankees drove in more than 100 runs.
Additionally, the Philadelphia Athletics had a down year, giving Washington a chance at the pennant.
The Senators fell short in the World Series, losing in five games to the New York Giants.
The 1933 Senators had an interesting cast of characters, but none more so than Moe Berg, who spoke over seven languages, had a law degree from Columbia and was later became did reconnaissance work for the U.S. in 1934 on a trip to Japan.
Sarnoff also said he believed that Myer should be in the Hall of Fame, comparing him to contemporary second baseman Billy Herman.
"Their stats are almost identical," Sarnoff said.
Herman, who played 15 years, missing two years due to World War II, hit .304 with 2,345 hits. Myer, who played 17 years, mostly for the Senators, hit .303 with 2,131 career hits.
The major difference between the two, Sarnoff said, was that Myer went into business following his career with the Senators while Herman remained in baseball as a coach and manager after his career.
"He spent every day talking to the media," he said, saying voters remembered Herman, but forgot about the play of Myer.