It's totally normal now that when we think of the Minnesota Twins, we think of them only as the Minnesota Twins and not anything of their past as the Washington Senators. The Twins organization has done a terrific job of cutting off every possible link to their roots in the national capitol. It's just as well, because there was a popular expression: Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League. The Senators were a bad team, and they did an even more thorough job cutting off that old link than even the Baltimore Orioles did to their past as the Saint Louis Browns, even though the old Senators actually have three Pennants and a World Series title to show for what they used to be.
The team actually began back in 1894. They were a Western League team called the Kansas City Blues. In 1900, Washington had a team in the National League, but they decided to abandon The District that year. So when the Western League changed its name to the American League and started operating as a major league in 1901, guess what vulnerable city was there waiting with open arms for a new franchise! The Blues were the team that moved to Washington, taking on the name of the older team: The Senators. It was very early in their history that the expression "Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League" was used to describe them. It was coined by a San Francisco Chronicle columnist named Charlie Dryden. The 1904 Senators lost 113 games, and the owners tried for a fresh start the following season by changing their name to the Washington Nationals. It's important to note that this was an official change. Although the name Washington Senators was used by virtually everyone, Nationals was the official name, and the two were commonly used interchangeably. The name Senators did make a comeback, but not until 1956. Normally I review using formal names; in this review, I'm going to stick with Senators so no one gets confused.
In 1902, the Senators managed to pick one of the era's best and brightest, Ed Delahanty, from the Philadelphia Phillies. Delahanty, however, was in love with the bottle, and one night while on the train between Buffalo, New York and Fort Erie, Ontario, Delahanty was talking tough, threatening passengers, and brandishing a razor. The conductors had no choice but to throw him off the train, and no one seems to know what happened after that. Well, in the grand scheme of things, we all know exactly what happened: Big Ed turned up dead the next morning, washing up somewhere in the Niagara River after being swept over the Falls. What I mean is that no one knows what happened to Delahanty that caused him to plunge over the International Railway Bridge, which Delahanty had tried to cross on foot after being thrown off the train. A drunken accident, a suicide, and a robbery murder have all been submitted as the culprits, but the one person who knows for an absolute fact what happened that night wasn't able to tell the tale the next morning.
In 1907, the Senators managed to get very, very lucky. They got a player who was worth watching, a 19-year-old pitcher by the name of Walter Johnson. For the next 21 years, Johnson was the one unquestionably great name on their roster. In 1910, Johnson struck out 313, won 25 games, and posted an ERA of an incredible 1.36. Over the course of a 21-year career with Washington, Johnson won 417 games, second in history only to Cy Young, and struck out 3509 batters, a record which ran for over 50 years. He was nicknamed Big Train.
In 1912, Clark Griffith had been a manager some some time. He had managed the Chicago White Sox and New York Highlanders, so that year he decided the next logical career move was to go to Washington and help the floundering franchise. Believe it or not, the Senators did manage to get better. Their pitchers led the league in ERA and strikeouts. Walter Johnson won 33 games, Bob Groom added 24, and the Senators finished in second place, behind the Boston Red Sox. 1913 saw them repeat that same spot in the standings, only this time it was behind the Philadelphia Athletics. They performed well the next two seasons too, but in 1916, back into mediocrity they returned, and in mediocrity they stayed. Griffith got pissed off at the owners because they were the penny-pinching types, stepped won as field manager in 1920, and concentrated on presidenting the team.
The Senators weren't good again until 1924, after Griffith named Bucky Harris, the team's second baseman, to be the manager. Led by Goose Goslin, Sam Rice, and the now-36-year-old Walter Johnson, the Senators managed to shed their loser reputation briefly when they won the Pennant by two games over Babe Ruth's New York Yankees. In the World Series, they faced the heavily favored New York Giants, and their center jewel pitcher (I of course refer to Johnson) didn't exactly rise to the occasion. He lost both of his two starts, but the Senators managed to stay in the series to drag it out to the full seven games. In game seven, the Senators trailed 3-1 in the eighth, when Bucky Harris hit a ground ball which took a bad hop over third base. Two runners scored on that play. With the game tied at 3-3, Johnson was called in on one day of rest after losing game five. This time, Big Train finally stepped up and held the Giants to no runs, taking the game into extra innings. In the 12 inning, Senator Muddy Ruel hit a high foul directly over home plate. Giants catcher Hank Gowdy dropped his mask to field the ball, but he overlooked one ket detail: He didn't throw it aside. As it sat right on the ground beside him, he stumbled over it, dropped the ball, and Ruel suddenly had a new life at the plate. He doubled, and a short time later, scored the winning run. The Washington Senators were World Series Champions, and Walter Johnson finally had a ring to show for his individual successes.
The Senators returned the the World Series in 1925, but lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Johnson retired in 1927, and the Senators started losing once again. Johnson was then hired to manage, and the team went back to contending, only to finish in third in 1931 and 1932. Normally, that wouldn't be a bad finish in those days, but Clark Griffith had high expectations for Walter Johnson as manager. Johnson was fired, and 26-year-old shortstop Joe Cronin took over. In 1933, the Senators won 99 games and their third Pennant, but came up short against the Giants. By 1934, they were back in the second division, where they remained for most of the next 25 years. Harris returned twice to manage two different stretches, without avail. The Senators briefly crawled out of their hole to contend in 1943 and 1945, but those were war years that tend to be frequently written off by the thin talent.
In 1954, a new star finally came out of Washington in Harmon Killebrew. He was a bonus baby who had to spend the whole season in Washington, after which he regularly jumped around between the Senators and their farm teams for the next few seasons before becoming their regular third baseman in 1959. He went on to become one of the greatest players in the history of the Senators and Twins.
Notice that "and" there. It was the 50's now, and baseball was starting to change, and the American landscape was also starting to change. the baby boom was happening, people were starting to move to other locales, and things were looking up, striding confidently, and whistling cheerful Disney tunes. A lot of baseball teams were moving every which way. Clark Griffith died in 1955, and the presidency of the Washington Senators was taken over by his nephew and adopted son Calvin. Calvin's major act: Selling the team's stadium to the city, then leasing it back. Since the Washington Senators weren't exactly a big draw, this led to speculating about a move. By then, the Boston Braves had turned into the Milwaukee Braves, the Philadelphia Athletics left their city to the Philadelphia Phillies and became the Kansas City Athletics, and the Saint Louis Browns made the most extreme move when they cut off their entire history to become the Baltimore Orioles. Calvin yapped it up with San Francisco for awhile, but by 1957 he switched to the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area in Minnesota. The process was prolonged, and he actually rejected their first offer, but eventually he agreed. The American League opposed the move at first, but they let it happen when they decided to place a new, expansion Washington Senators in The District by 1961. The Senators moved to Minneapolis, which has a nasty rivalry with cross-river Saint Paul which came to blows over sports in the past. It is still widely believed that the reason the NBA's Minneapolis Lakers had such low attendance - which forced their move to Los Angeles - was caused largely by Saint Paul not wanting to support them. Wanting to avoid bad blood, the team took the state name, then to honor both cities in the area, called itself the Twins, for the Twin Cities. Thus was born the Minnesota Twins. The old Senators were replaced, eventually relocated again, and the subject of a musical called Damn Yankees.
The Twins were embraced immediately. They also had talent: Harmon Killebrew was still the big name, of course, but they also had Bob Allison, Jim Kaat, and Earl Battey. In 1962, they won 91 games, their most since 1933. In 1965, they did even better, taking the Pennant with 102 victories only to lose the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games. The Dodgers had chosen that game to put Sandy Koufax on the mound, and he shut them out, having recorded one shutout in that same World Series already. It was a heartbreaker, but the thing about heartbreakers in sports is that they tend to cement fans' relationships to their teams. This team was clearly not the Washington Senators anymore after that. They were the Minnesota Twins, to such an extent that after the infamous move of the NFL's Cleveland Browns in the 1990's, the Twins fashioned a deal with MLB similar to the one the city of Cleveland had with the NFL: If the Twins ever leave Minnesota, the name, colors, and history of the Minnesota Twins is going to stay in the area for any expansion team to take should one be placed there.
The Twins were great throughout the 60's. In 1967, they were a major factor in one of the closest Pennant races in league history. In the final weekend that season, the Twins, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, and Detroit Tigers all had a legitimate chance to take home the Pennant that very weekend. Two games were left, and the Twins and Red Sox were one game apart. The two remaining games each team had to play also happened to be against each other. The Red Sox won both, and the Pennant. The Twins and Tigers tied for second, one game behind. The White Sox finished three games out, in third. In 1969, the Twins hired the volatile Billy Martin to manage. As Martin pressed aggression on the base paths, Rod Carew managed to steal home seven times that year. The Twins won the division, the first division title in the newly-realigned MLB. They also had the distinct displeasure of losing the first-ever playoff series to the Orioles.
The Twins started slipping after 1971. They went around the .500 mark for the decade. Harmon Killebrew retired in 1974, and Calvin Griffith didn't adjust very well to the idea of free agency. Other owners, you see, had made fortunes in other businesses, but Griffith was still running a family ship. Baseball was his only income, so his very livelihood depended on the team profiting. Two of the team's stars, Lyman Bostock and Larry Hisle, became free agents after the 1977 season, and Rod Carew was traded after the 1978 season. In 1982, the Twins were a fiasco, posting a 60-102 record which was their worst since their 38-113 season in 1904. Griffith finally decided he had to sell the team, which was bought by Minneapolis banker Carl Pohlad.
Pohlad had good fortune. Griffith left him with a nucleus of talented players like Gary Gaetti and Frank Viola. So the natural next step was to build, which the Twins did by getting Bert Blyleven by trade, Al Newman and Roy Smalley in free agency, and signing Kirby Puckett. The Twins were respectable by 1987. They won 85 games. The issue here is that the rest of the American League royally sucked, so the Twins were able to win the Pennant. In the World Series, they downed the Saint Louis Cardinals in seven games. The Twins' 85 wins set a record for the fewest number of wins by a team that won the World Series. Ironically, it was the Cardinals who broke that record in 2006, when they won the World Series after a regular season record of 83-79. Still, the 1987 Twins were a little bit odd because they were 56-25 at home, which was the best in MLB. That means that on the road, they were a putrid 29-52. Only nine of those road wins came in the second half of the season. In 1991, the Twins retired to the World Series and beat the Atlanta Braves. That was also a seven-game series. In both Series, the home team won every game.
The Twins slumped after that. For most of the 90's, they just weren't very good. Things started turning in 2001, and after that, the Twins compiled their longest string of winners since their move to Minnesota. They won the AL Central seemingly every year. In a lot of years, the division race came to a late wire between the Twins and the Chicago White Sox, resulting in a very heated rivalry. Although the White Sox haven't won as many division titles, they did take one in 2005, and they made it count when they eventually won the World Series. The Twins have rarely made it out of the ALDS. But their style of play resulted in White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen giving them a new nickname: The Piranhas, because of the way they keep biting away, or something. You get the idea. That's where the Minnesota Twins currently sit as I write this. They've been doing well most of the last decade, but they couldn't close when they needed to. Last year, they were among the worst teams in baseball.
The Senators and Twins both have four Hall of Famers who were given their jackets based solely on contributions to those teams: Goose Goslin, Bucky Harris, Sam Rice, and Walter Johnson for the Senators, and Bert Blyleven, Rod Carew, Harmon Killebrew, and Kirby Puckett for the Twins. The Senators also had Tris Speaker, George Sisler, Early Wynn, Lefty Gomez, and Whitey Herzog in their history, while the Twins had Steve Carlton, Paul Molitor, and Dave Winfield. Retired numbers include Harmon Killebrew, Tony Olivia, Tom Kelly, Kent Hrbek, Bert Blyleven, Rod Carew, and Kirby Puckett. You probably don't want to bring up Puckett's post-baseball life to a Twins fan. He's one of those people who turned out to be a bit of a douche. He was one of those guys who kept his nice guy attitude in public, but was privately not quite the nicest guy. He was charged with sexual misconduct and may or may not have attacked a woman. When placed in front of a jury, they found him not guilty. It seems possible his post-baseball indiscretions were a temporary meltdown, because plenty of people, including his fiancee, family, and friends had his back and still speak well of him despite his death in 2006. The team's current faces are Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.
The Twins' big rivals are still the Chicago White Sox. These two teams just don't like each other. Come a late-season division race, it's almost a guarantee that one will be standing in the other's way. 2008 was a particularly heated race. The Twins and White Sox were neck and neck with each other the whole season. The White Sox won three straight road games to close the year, which they needed to be tied with the Twins. The two of them then went head to head in a one-game playoff which decided the division title. The game was played in Chicago, and the White Sox called for a special promotion called the Blackout, encouraging everyone to wear black. Chicago won the game 1-0.
What else identifies the Twins? Well, they'll always be the team of Walter Johnson, about whom a great case can be made as the greatest pitcher in league history. There's also their inability to close, the Piranhas nickname…. The Twins are considered a small-time team. They've had their occasional moments of glory, with three World Series titles to show for it. Usually, though, being a fan can mean getting used to hating your favorite players, because they all eventually leave for big-market teams and World Series rings. Torii Hunter and Johan Santana did it, and you get the suspicion that Mauer and Morneau will be doing it one of these days. Hell, the Yankees will soon be on the market for a new catcher.
I wanted to rate the Twins higher, but the Senators are standing in the way. As with any other team in my Teams Series, you shouldn't let my grade stop you. The Twins do have a knowledgeable and devoted fanbase, no matter how small it is. At the very least, a small team like these guys at least keeps the fans free of any glory-seeking bandwagoners.