The last time I delved into the Texas Rangers’ pre-Texas history as the Washington Senators, I focused on Darold Knowles incredible 2-14 season of 1970. Today we’ll go back all the way to the first season of the Washington Senators, 1961.
To do that, we need to go back a few more months to 1960, when the first MLB expansion draft took place on December 14th. The California Angels and Washington Senators were the first expansion teams in MLB history and they took turns drafting players from the other AL teams’ 40-man rosters. With one of the last picks, the Senators at #54 nabbed Dick Donovan from the Chicago White Sox.
Donovan had been a starter for the first five of his six years in Chicago, winning as many as 16 games for the Chisox in 1957. Despite pitching for the White Sox in the 1959 World Series, by 1960 Donovan’s luck had run out. In April and May of ’60, Donovan made six starts, never going longer than 6 2/3 innings and only once having what is considered today as a quality start. Once he failed to make it out of the first. Another time he only made it through two innings. After seven starts in which he miraculously managed five no decisions and a 1-1 record, Donovan was banished to the bullpen. As a starter in ’59, Donovan was 1-1 with a 6.61 ERA. He was better as a reliever, going 5-0 with three saves and a 4.50 ERA. Still, these were numbers that showed Donovan was totally expendable.
With a chance to get his career back on track, Donovan drew the honor of being the first starting pitcher in the new Washington Senators’ history. While he lost the game, Donovan showed signs of things to come, throwing a 99-pitch complete game against his old team, allowing six hits and four runs, only two of which were earned. He followed that up six days later with eight strong innings against the Indians in another loss. By the end of April, Donovan was 0-4, but had a sparkling 2.67 ERA, a good indication of how offensively challenged the ’61 Senators were.
Donovan apparantly went on the disabled list following his last April start, as he didn’t appear again for three weeks and made only two appearances in the month, the first being his only relief stint of the year.
June was a sign that Donovan was doing a good job of resurrecting his career. He earned wins in each of his first three starts in June, including a 10-inning, 6-hit shutout of, guess who, his former team the White Sox. At month’s end, Donovan stood at 3-8 albeit with a still sparkling 3.09 ERA.
If June was a sign, July was the proof Dick Donovan was back. In four July starts, Donovan was 4-0 and gave up only three earned runs in 36 innings. All of his July starts were complete games, including his second shutout of the season, a 4-hitter against the Orioles. With a 7-8 record and an ERA now at 2.39, Donovan was the Senators first representative in the All-Star game. Two All-Star games were played in 1961. Donovan appeared in the first one, pitching two scoreless innings for the AL squad.
Donovan’s August began the same way July went. He won his fifth and sixth consecutive starts on his fifth and sixth consecutive complete games to move to 9-8 on the season for the expansion team. Following an August 29th start against the Indians, Donovan apparently went on the DL for a second time, as he didn’t appear in a game again until September 24th. He closed out the season with a complete game win over the Twins, who had been the old Senators just the year before, and a loss to fellow expansionists the California Angels.
At season’s end, Dick Donovan had brought his career back to relevance. He actually received MVP votes, finishing 17th in the balloting. He also accomplished what no pitcher for an expansion team has ever done since: he won the American League’s ERA crown, finishing with a 2.40 ERA. While the stat wasn’t even known then, Donovan also led the league in WHIP (Walks + Hits per Inning Pitched) at 1.026.
Here’s something even more remarkable. Donovan pitched 168 2/3 innings for the Senators and only struck out 62 batters, an average of only 3.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
Sadly, after re-establishing his career, Donovan would pitch for the Senators no more. During the off-season, Washington shipped him off to Cleveland in exchange for Jimmy Piersall. Donovan would be a 20-game winner for the Tribe in 1962, while Piersall would only contribute a .244 average and 4 home runs in 515 at bats.