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Whose Franchise Is It Anyway?

Our all-time favorite American League team since the other night [1], the Texas Rangers, will be making its first League Championship Series appearance in its 39 years of existence.

Just wanted to get that on the record — and let the second edition of the Washington Senators off the hook.

(Oh, the things one thinks about when one’s favorite National League team hasn’t played in twelve days.)

I’ve seen it asserted (by nimrods [2] as well as decent people) that the Texas Rangers franchise has waited 50 years for this moment, but I don’t think that’s practically accurate or exactly fair. It’s not completely wrong to say it; it may even be technically right. Yet it doesn’t quite ring true.

The Washington Senators were refounded in 1961 as a sop to politicians who might have otherwise stripped away baseball’s antitrust exemption once the previous Washington Senators (1901-1960) were permitted to transplant their operations and assets — most notably young Harmon Killebrew and Jim Kaat — in Minnesota. While they and a few other promising players would go on to blossom in Bloomington, the second Senators were left to fend for themselves as expansioneers, one year ahead of the Mets.

Those Senators never blossomed. They barely filibustered. Eleven seasons of Senators II yielded no more than 86 wins in any one year — 1969, their only winning campaign — and not a single finish in what we used to call the first division. They didn’t win, they didn’t draw (never attracting as many as a million fans in a season to D.C./RFK Stadium) and they didn’t stay in Washington. In 1972, they became the Texas Rangers and ceased to be the Washington Senators.

Or did they? Well, yes…the uniforms and the locale said they were no longer the Washington Senators. That was the whole idea of moving. Owner Bob Short, not a glorious figure by any means, said he couldn’t make a go of baseball in the nation’s capital and resettled in Arlington, Texas. But the Texas Rangers — like the Minnesota Twins — didn’t materialize from thin air. They came from somewhere.

So at what point is a franchise that leaves a town and a name behind no longer that franchise? Is it that franchise into perpetuity? If the second Senators didn’t simply trail off into the ether but rather assumed a new identity, were they and are they not, on some level, still that Senators franchise?

On some level, yes. On a tangible level, no, not really.

My bible when it comes to such philosophical questions is the 2005 volume Total Ballclubs [3] by Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella, an indispensable history of every single franchise that has ever been tabbed as major league: National and American as well as four defunct circuits: American Association, Union Association, Players League and Federal League. It is Total Ballclubs’ contention that once a team leaves its immediate geography, it’s not the team it used to be.

[A]nyone who holds that the Brooklyn Dodgers-Los Angeles Dodgers or Seattle Pilots-Milwaukee Brewers constitute the same club has not talked to a native of Brooklyn or Seattle.

I buy that reasoning more than I don’t. When a franchise maintains at least the same name and makes an ongoing effort to keep its chronology intact, it’s a nice gesture toward history. Walter O’Malley hauled the Dodgers to L.A. — not the shell of a failed franchise, but a brand brimming with equity, something that would attract Southern Californians beyond the mere concept of a blank slate baseball team. On the other hand, he killed the Brooklyn Dodgers. The aftermath couldn’t help but yield a substantially new entity.

Ditto for the Dodgers’ ancient rivals. You’ll hear much in the coming days that the Giants haven’t won a World Series since 1954. I’d counter that the San Francisco Giants have never won a World Series, but that the New York Giants won five, the last of them in 1954, three years before their colors and heritage were dragged ignominiously across the country by Horace Stoneham.

Yet I can see where some would see that differently. If they’re the Giants now, they’re directly traceable to the Giants then, whatever coast they’re nearest. The Giants, like the Dodgers, celebrate their past and never explicitly disavowed it. That should be worth something if not everything.

The Rangers, however, shed their Washington baggage as soon as they could. As Total Ballclubs points out, the two most saleable individuals Short brought to Arlington were manager Ted Williams and slugger Frank Howard.  Williams led the Senators to that one winning season in ’69, and Howard — New York Met manager for 116 games in 1983 [4], in case you’ve forgotten — hit 136 home runs from 1968 through 1970. Yet both were gone from Texas before 1973 began. The Rangers, for better, worse or primarily the same, were intent on ditching their Dick Whitmanesque past in Arlington (also, Short didn’t want to keep paying Williams and Howard).

The Texas Rangers weren’t automatically 25 Don Drapers just because they changed their name. They didn’t win very much for a very long time, but they elected to proceed as an essentially new franchise. View it within the realm of what the Rangers had been before 1972: a United States senator’s term in office is six years; the only Senator to serve that long, in uninterrupted fashion, in Texas, was Toby Harrah. He stayed a Ranger through 1978 and returned for a House of Representatives-length stint in 1985 and ’86. That put Harrah, a four-time All-Star, in the same trivial conversation with 1970s Mets Willie Mays and Bob Aspromonte. They were, respectively, the last active New York Giant and Brooklyn Dodger to play in the bigs, just as Harrah was the final Washington Senator. Jim Kaat, should you be wondering, was the last pre-Twin Senator on whom the gavel came down — Kitty came up in 1959 and hung on until 1983. Toby, though, finished up a Ranger, saying goodbye to America in a way Mays, Aspromonte, Kaat didn’t do with their once-transient franchises.

Last Harrahs not withstanding, it can’t be said Washington became a distant memory in Arlington, because Arlington had no reason to remember Washington in the first place. The Rangers were a new concern in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex; the Senators of 1961-1971 never happened for them, except, perhaps, at the bottom of the American League standings, assuming anybody in the area was looking for them. They didn’t use the Senators as a platform for growth as L.A. did with the Dodgers or San Fran sort of did with the Giants. What got shipped to Texas was indeed the shell of a failed franchise. The shell would be filled with more failure across most of the next four decades, but it was Texas-bred failure.

Now flip the coin: If the Washington Senators didn’t matter much to Texas fans, did the Texas Rangers merit sentimental attachment back in Washington?

Though they were jilted en masse by their franchise’s owners, handfuls of Dodger and Giant loyalists persevere to this day in our Metropolitan midst, never taking the opportunity to get on board the Amazin’ express, not in 1962, not ever. Some of those who hang in there gamely grew up with the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, and some inherited the gene. The New York Mets fan in me finds living in New York while rooting for a California club kind of crazy, but the New York Giants fan I profess to have been [5] in another life sort of understands it. There was a long and hallowed history there, and as one of my Giants friends once told me, he was a Giants fan as long as he could remember, long before 1958…why should he quit on them just because they quit on him?

But the Washington Senators? The Senators of 1961 to 1971, specifically? The Senators who couldn’t rise above fourth place and exceeded .500 only once? Did they inspire any residual hometown allegiance once they filed a change-of-address card? Could there possibly still be Texas Rangers fans in Washington, D.C., even now, 39 years after the Senators left and going on six years since the Nationals arrived?

Anything is possible, but somehow I doubt it. Some folks in Washington cling tightly [6] to their memories of both versions of the departed Senators (each of whom the ex-Expos acknowledge [7] as municipal and spiritual forebears), but Texas was Texas, and the Rangers were quickly something else altogether. Perhaps it’s best to defer to the great Tom Boswell on this matter:

Washington baseball fans have had prickly Ranger feelings for ages. They, and especially under-financed, incompetent owner Bob Short, who moved the Senators to Texas after the ’71 season, are a primary reason the town went without a team for so long.

Boswell, for so long a bard of baseball in a town that lacked a team, betrays no latent attachment to the Senators Emeriti, even if he thinks it’s fine they’ve reached their heretofore unreachable star. “Good for the Texas Rangers,” he wrote in Thursday’s [8]Washington Post [8]. “They suffered long enough. At last, they’ve won their first postseason series. It took 39 seasons. […] To me, 39 seasons is just about right for stealing my childhood team and damaging Washington’s reputation so much the town did not get a club for decades. See, I’m not the type to hold a grudge.”

Tom Boswell says the Texas Rangers required 39 years before making it to an LCS — 39, not 50. Long enough for Tom, long enough for Texas, good enough for me.

Now on to winning their first American League pennant.