Team of Destiny: Walter Johnson, Clark Griffith, Bucky Harris, and the 1924 Washington Senators

Image of Team of Destiny: Walter Johnson, Clark Griffith, Bucky Harris, and the 1924 Washington Senators
Release Date: 
February 20, 2024
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Reviewed by: 

“provid[es] a detailed record of the 1924 Washington Senators and the roles of Clark Griffith, Walter Johnson, and Bucky Harris in fulfilling its destiny.”

The 1924 Washington Senators of the American League was the second iteration of the team. The first was a member of the National League and went out of business in the late 1890s. The current Washington Nationals of the National League are the fourth iteration of a Washington baseball team, and the first Washington team to win a World Series since the 1924 Senators accomplished that. In fact, the Texas Rangers, last year’s World Champion is, in lineage, the third version of the Washington Senators. All of which is to say that failure has been a familiar resident in Washington baseball.

In each season from 1902 until 1912, the Washington Senators finished in seventh or eighth place. After Clark Griffith’s appointment as manager in 1912, they finished in the first division for the next four seasons. In 1916, the team slipped back into the second division and remained there until 1922 in all but two of those years. A fourth-place finish in 1923 seemed to have no particular significance, and experts thought they would move no higher than fourth in 1924. Some saw the Senators more likely to slip back into the second division. In popular parlance, Washington was described as: “First in War, First in Peace, and Last in the American League.”  

The best known and most popular member of the Washington Senators was their superb pitcher Walter Johnson, who would be a member of the first Baseball Hall of Fame class. Johnson was considered the best pitcher in baseball, and in 1924 at age 36, he was entering his 18th season with the Senators. He had let it be known that it would likely be his last.

Johnson had never been in a World Series, nonetheless he was regarded across baseball as a superstar. His career numbers are astounding. Johnson led the league in wins six times, was a 20-game winner 12 times, won over 30 games twice, and had a league leading 110 shutouts—all while playing for this perennial loser.

The other member of this Washington Senators trio was player-manager Bucky Harris, the Washington second baseman. When Clark Griffith elevated Harris to the managerial position at the beginning of the 1924 season, Harris had been a major league player for only four seasons. At the age of 27, Harris became the youngest player-manager in major league history. The press immediately tagged him “Griffith’s Folly.”

Having set this scene, Gary Sarnoff begins his account of this Team of Destiny. Sarnoff is a respected baseball writer with two previous team histories to his credit. In addition, as a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), Sarnoff has made major contributions to SABR projects and publications.

After a brief introduction, Sarnoff opens with a lyrical chapter describing Washington and the United States on New Year’s Eve of 1923. From here, he develops a portrait of America in 1924, noting the social, economic, and cultural life in the Roaring Twenties. Sarnoff then describes the process by which Clark Griffith made his decision to hire Bucky Harris as player-manager. Transitioning to spring training, Sarnoff paints a picture of spring camp in Tampa with a side trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas, capturing much of the atmosphere that has attracted baseball fans over the years.

From Opening Day with a record crowd in Washington, Sarnoff then works his way through the Senators 1924 schedule month by month, series by series and, at times, pitch by pitch. This may be more than some readers want to wade through, but it does offer a good sense of the ebb and flow of a season. Along the way, Sarnoff provides a number of profiles of Washington’s players and captures the drama that runs through a pennant race. Despite the book title, at no time does it seem that the championship is a foregone conclusion. This is a tribute to Sarnoff’s skill as a writer.

The climax comes with the World Series whose seven games offer more drama. The twists and turns of each game provide more of the sense of destiny surrounding the team. The pitching of Walter Johnson in his first World Series is one of the features of the climactic chapters. His final appearance in game seven brings the story to a near perfect end.

There are two points that need to be noted. The first is a technical error. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is identified in two places as the national anthem. It would not become so, officially, until 1931.

When discussing the Commissioner of Baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Sarnoff calls him “a highly respected federal judge.” This seems an odd claim for a judge whose arbitrary decisions were overturned at a very high rate by appeals courts and whose style was lampooned by comparing him to Judge Roy Bean, the Texas saloon keeper and justice of the peace. Landis seemed to have little regard for the U.S. Constitution.

On the whole Team of Destiny does what it sets out to do by providing a detailed record of the 1924 Washington Senators and the roles of Clark Griffith, Walter Johnson, and Bucky Harris in fulfilling its destiny. It is a treat for fans of the Washington Senators and a treat for baseball fanatics.