A Review of Gary’s Sarnoff’s “Team of Destiny”

Gary Sarnoff remains faithful to the baseball, and opens up much more.

Imagine, I guess, that Xander Bogaerts became the Padres manager. Imagine that Rich Hill announced that the 2024 season would be his last, and then won 23 games, throwing 277 innings. Imagine that Jarren Duran led the league with 129 RBIs on his way to a World Series championship.

These are the sort of things that were possible in 1924, when the Washington Senators, who now ply their trade in Minnesota as the Twins, last won the World Series. 27-year-old Bucky Harris, a second baseman and trade candidate before the season started, served as player-manager, the youngest in the majors. An aging Walter Johnson, who had been an ace for countless losing Senators teams, summoned up a 23-7 season, a 2.72 ERA, and 158 strikeouts on the way to his second MVP award; his first had been 11 years earlier. And Goose Goslin, the future Hall-of-Famer who had been a good hitter for two years, took an astronomical step forward, slashing .344/.421/.516 with 12 home runs and 129 RBIs.

These things, 100 years later, feel like impossibilities of baseball history—quaint historical accomplishments now foreclosed by specialization, professionalization, and the growth of major league baseball into Major League Baseball. Consequently, reading about the 1924 Washington Senators feels like hearing accounts of, say, Babe Ruth’s diet. If those stories were true, then the window has long closed on their viability as an athletic strategy.

This presents a problem for a historian: in writing a history of the Senators, as Gary Sarnoff has done, one could easily fall into the trap of repeating folksy anecdote after folksy anecdote. Remember how things used to be? But Sarnoff’s book, out today and titled Team of Destiny: Walter Johnson, Clark Griffith, Bucky Harris and the 1924 Washington Senators, remains firmly on this side of myth and mysticism. Yes, there are entertaining stories; one of the best involves a genius-level, way-over-the-line practical joke played on the pitcher Al Schacht during Spring Training. But the majority of Sarnoff’s book is spent on careful descriptions of games, in meticulous analysis of sportswriting from the era, and on building out historical context.

We learn, for example, what an oddity Bucky Harris’ appointment to the player-manager role was, even at the time. Harris was 27, a good player but not a great one. He fully expected to be traded to the Yankees, who were in need of a second baseman, as the season started. When he received a telegram from the Senators owner, Clark Griffith, reading only “Congratulations,” Harris “began to think about packing and heading to the Yankees spring training camp in New Orleans” (11). But soon he was reading a letter from Griffith, who was offering him the managing job. Harris tried to call Griffith, but a faulty connection meant that Griffith couldn’t hear him loudly accepting the job. Instead, he ran down to a telegram office:

“Send this telegram right away and repeat it every hour for the next four hours,” he instructed the clerk while handing over a twenty-dollar bill. He then wrote his message on the telegram: I’ll take that job and win Washington’s first American League pennant (11).

It’s in moments like this where Sarnoff’s book is so valuable. It’s easy to think of baseball in the 1920s as a vaudeville act, full of now-indecipherable slang relayed in funny voices. But Sarnoff can convey something else about these players: their humanity. Bucky Harris had no agent. There were few negotiations about his contract. He simply got a letter, and was frantic to accept the offer it contained. (Harris was the highest-paid Senator that year, making $9,000.)

Money is a subject of the book, too, if only because Sarnoff’s subject—baseball in the early 20s—was at such a strange intersection between American pastime and American business. The 1919 Black Sox scandal, as Sarnoff notes, was still fresh in the minds of players and fans, and baseball’s first commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain-Landis, had been hired to try to effect some legitimacy and regulation. Joe Judge, the Senators first baseman in 1924, had heard from a fan in 1919 that the 1919 World Series would be fixed; but neither he nor his friend, Dodgers pitcher Rube Marquard, could believe it. Clark Griffith, the Senators owner, didn’t believe it either, when they told him. “You’re crazy, Joe,” Marquard told Judge. “There’s no way to fix a ballgame” (51). But there had been a way in 1919, and even five years later, Shoeless Joe Jackson was still suing the White Sox for back pay.

Sarnoff touches, too, on the similarities between 1924 and now—the season had 6 fewer games, but the travel was unbelievably punishing. (The 1924 Senators would regularly take train trips that exceeded 20 hours, playing cards and talking.) Still, Sarnoff’s Senators move in the same way modern teams do, loping across the country like a slow-moving circus. The main members of the 1924 entourage, though, are not advance scouts, TV broadcasters, or data analysts. Instead, there are packs and packs of sportswriters, which are to Sarnoff not only a valuable primary source but a kind of Greek chorus. Sarnoff is particularly adept at finding and using the best morsels the writers managed to extract from the team. These one-liners often conclude a chapter, which is a nice touch. Here’s a selection:

Walter Johnson on his long career: “What’s the secret of your success and the reason to your long service?” a sportswriter asked. “Temperate living, an easy delivery, and a fastball,
answered Johnson (43).

Harris realizing, in April, that the Senators were a contender: “The pennant bee was buzzing in my bonnet,” Harris would later say. “And it made a pleasant sound” (53).

A sportswriter on Walter Johnson’s miracle season“That grand old wreck, Walter Johnson, twirling another one of his wonderful games” (66).

The season itself was decided in mid-September. The Senators, somewhat surprisingly, had held on through a long season, trading first place in the American League with the Yankees. On September 8, they had a 2-game lead. After an important series sweep of the White Sox as the end of the month approached, their lead still stood at 2. There were four games to go. The Senators controlled their titular destiny. First, though, they had to take a 26-hour train ride from Chicago to Boston.

In Boston, Sarnoff notes, “thirteen thousand at Fenway Park rooted for the Senators throughout the game and cheered for five minutes for Harris when he stepped in for his first at bat” (139). They did the same for Johnson. But the Senators lost—plus Johnson snapped his streak of 13 straight wins. That the Senators recovered, won their three remaining, and clinched the pennant is still impressive 100 years later.

If you have enjoyed Sarnoff’s account of the 1924 regular season, and especially the game recaps, then his coverage of the World Series will be transcendent reading. And if the Senators looked all year like a team that might not quite get over the line, then in the World Series they were even more themselves. Johnson, the MVP, lost Games 1 and 5 to the Giants before earning the win in Game 7, which stretched across 12 innings and in which he pitched 4 scoreless frames, from the 9th onward. Washington won the World Series. It’s here that Sarnoff, so faithful to the baseball, ends his account.

But with Sarnoff, you want to know more. Walter Johnson pitched another three years in the majors, never as effectively. He later became the Senators’ manager, but despite a few good seasons could never get them another pennant. Meanwhile, the Senators won the pennant again under Harris in 1925, but lost in the World Series to the Pirates. Harris departed Washington in 1928, and had a reasonably successful managerial career, including another World Series win in 1947 with the Yankees. He also made history by promoting Boston’s first black player, Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, to the majors in 1959. Harris’ move made the Red Sox the last pre-expansion team to field a black player, a shocking 12 years after Jackie Robinson had made his debut for the Dodgers.

These things—these complicated, human, sometimes sad things—seem as interesting as anything about that 1924 season in Washington. But perhaps this is the gift that Sarnoff’s Team of Destiny, with its narrow focus, gives us: questions, curiosity, the feeling of pathways opening up. Sarnoff shows us that baseball, too, is worthy of real, careful history; that the game isn’t simply a distraction but a way that we have related to each other, and a way that we have told ourselves who we are.

Gary Sarnoff. Team of Destiny: Walter Johnson, Clark Griffith, Bucky Harris and the 1924 Washington Senators. 221 pp.

Paul Michaud

Paul Michaud's first memory is David Ortiz's walk-off homer in the 2004 ALCS. Nothing has topped that since. A Brown alum, he's also an editor and fiction writer.

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