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Damn Yankees! Rangers overcame hex to win pennant

In the Washington Senators' final game before leaving for Texas four decades ago, they had a 7-5 lead over the New York Yankees with two outs in the ninth inning. But the Senators never got that last out, as their fans stormed on to the field, and the game went down as a forfeit to the Yankees.

It may not rival the old Yankee "Curse of the Bambino" over the Boston Red Sox, but that missing final out seemed to hex the franchise that became the Texas Rangers. Before this year, the Rangers made the playoffs three times, and each time the Yankees knocked them out.

So it was fitting that the Rangers — led by a manager named Washington, no less — had to beat the Yankees to finally win a pennant. On Saturday night, the Rangers play their first home World Series game in franchise history, dating to their birth as the second Washington Senators franchise in 1961.

The Rangers took on the San Francisco Giants, down 2-0 in the Series.

Famed Senators slugger Frank Howard, who blew kisses to fans after hitting a home run in that final game in 1971 at RFK Stadium, sees a simpler explanation for New York's 1990s playoff victories over the Rangers.

"The Yankees probably had more depth to their ballclub — in other words, they had more good players than Texas did," Howard said in a telephone interview. "I don't think there's any kind of a curse."

But hey, maybe he was in on it — Howard worked for the Yankees for 12 years as a coach, scout and in player development.

There were actually two Washington Senators franchises in the 20th century. The original one, which played here from 1901-1960, left for Minnesota to become the Twins in 1961. Although the Twins have won World Series championships, they've never done so when the Yankees have stood in their way in the playoffs. New York has eliminated the Twins three times in the last eight years, including this season.

Supernatural forces are a big part of Yankees-Senators history. In the 1950s, the wealthy Yankees were so dominant, and the under-financed Senators so woeful, that Washington could only win the American League championship in the imagination of a novelist — and with help from the devil. Douglass Wallop's 1954 novel, "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," featured a middle-aged Washington fan who sells his soul, becomes a young slugger named Joe Hardy and leads the Senators to the pennant. It's more well-known in its theatrical version, "Damn Yankees."

Things weren't always so one-sided. In 1924, the Yankees and Senators battled for the pennant to the last week of the season. New York, led by Babe Ruth, had won three straight American League titles, but the underdog Senators were national sentimental favorites that year. Fans were especially pulling for Walter Johnson, by then 36 years old and at the end of his career, to finally make it to the World Series.

"There is more genuine interest in him than there is in a presidential election," wrote humorist Will Rogers.

Washington came out on top, clinching its first pennant at Fenway Park in Boston. Red Sox fans — with the extra delight of seeing their rival Yankees eliminated — rushed the field to celebrate the victory against their own team.

Washington faced the New York Giants in the World Series. After losing his first two starts, Johnson came out of the bullpen to win Game 7 in extra innings, giving the city its only series title.

The Senators repeated as pennant winners the following year, and grabbed another in 1933, again supplanting the Yankees as league champions. That season was marked by a Yankee-Senators brawl at old Griffith Stadium in Washington, which incited hundreds of angry Washingtonians to storm the field and join the melee. Police arrested five fans.

Those glory years proved short-lived. For much of the century, the old joke about Washington was apt: "First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League." The franchise that now plays in Texas had only one winning season in the 11 years it played in D.C., under rookie manager Ted Williams in 1969.

For their last game in Washington two years later, the Senators unloaded caps, shirts and copies of Williams' book, "My Turn at Bat." To the city's fans, the team's new home of Arlington, Texas, was "some jerk town with the single boast it is equidistant from Dallas and Fort Worth," wrote Shirley Povich in the next day's Washington Post.

When Howard crossed the plate after his sixth-inning home run, he told Yankees catcher Thurman Munson, "Thanks for the gift." Later, Williams removed the fan favorite from the game, sensing the pandemonium that was coming. When the levy broke and fans swarmed on to the field in the ninth inning, they pulled up chunks of grass, bases, numbers from the scoreboard and light bulbs.

Howard, known as the "The Capital Punisher," enjoyed his best years in Washington, hitting 44 home runs twice and 48 home runs once in a three-year period between 1968 and 1970. He played only part of the first season with Texas in 1972 before being shipped off to Detroit, and retired following the 1973 season.

"I found my home here in Washington, D.C.," said Howard, who still lives in the area. "I probably didn't make the adjustment (to Texas) as well as I should have. But the few people I met in that area, they were great to me. I just wish I'd have played a little better."

The ball that could have snagged that final out in 1971 instead was pocketed by Senators pitcher Joe Grzenda, who was on the mound as the game collapsed into chaos. He kept it in a drawer in his house for safekeeping. In 2005, when baseball returned to Washington with the Nationals, President George W. Bush used it to throw out the first pitch.

Jim Hannan, a former Senators pitcher who works as a stockbroker in Washington, said he's glad to see the Rangers finally make it to the World Series, but he doesn't really identify with the team. He does, however, see a chance for the old and new Washington franchises to come together.

"I think the Nationals will have a great club in two years," Hannan said, "and I think it would be great to have the Nationals play the Rangers in the World Series two or three years down the road."

The Nationals hope it won't take a deal with the devil to make that happen.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Frederic J. Frommer is the author of the book, "The Washington Nationals 1859 to Today: The Story of Baseball in the Nation's Capital," (2006, Taylor Trade).