Pitching legend Walter Johnson, in most folk’s books the most dominating pitcher in Major League history over the long haul, passed on to the Great Ballpark in the sky on December 10, 1946 at the age of only 59. Bad news for him, but good news for us in the bleak mid-winter, as poet Christina Rossetti once put it. It gives us an opportunity to bring the sunshine and green grass of America’s pastime to the gloaming days of the year.
Johnson was born on November 6, 1887 on his parent’s farm near Humboldt in southeastern Kansas. His mother, the former Minnie Olive Perry, was 20 years old and five years younger than her sodbuster husband at the time. She would go on to long outlive her illustrious son, dying in 1967 at the age of 100.
When the boy was 14 in 1902 the family relocated to Olinda, California, in the Orange County oil boom district. Johnson first picked up a baseball in local sand lot games. “From the first time I held a ball, it settled in the palm of my right hand as though it belonged there and, when I threw it, ball, hand and wrist, and arm and shoulder and back seemed to all work together,” he would later recall. He easily became a star of the Fullerton Union High School nine where he struck out 27 batters during a 15-inning game against Santa Ana High School, first attracting press note.
He was a tall, blond, gangly hayseed of a kid with impossibly long arms that dangled to his knees in and spindly fingers that engulf the horsehide. Had he been playing back east, he would have been snapped up by scouts. But California was practically off of the baseball horizon. Johnson seemed to have no hope of a professional career and worked with his father in the oil fields when not in school.
Then in 1906 Johnson was lured to Weiser in eastern Idaho to play ball and work for the local telephone company. He once pitched 84 consecutive scoreless innings and dominated the semi-pro Idaho State League. He caught the eye of a bush beating scout from the Washington Nationals and was signed inJuly 1907 at the age of nineteen.
The perpetually bottom dwelling Nats hustled him right into the rotation with not even a cup of coffee in the minors. His appearance, and a friendly, awe shucks demeanor did not exactly strike fear into his opponents. Ty Cobb, as mean as Johnson was gentle, and not one to cut any of his opponents any slack, described what would become the first of many encounters:
On August 2, 1907, I encountered the most threatening sight I ever saw in the ball field. He was a rookie, and we licked our lips as we warmed up for the first game of a doubleheader in Washington. Evidently, manager Pongo Joe Cantillon of the Nats had picked a rube out of the cornfields of the deepest bushes to pitch against us. ... He was a tall, shambling galoot of about twenty, with arms so long they hung far out of his sleeves, and with a sidearm delivery that looked unimpressive at first glance. ... One of the Tigers imitated a cow mooing, and we hollered at Cantillon: “Get the pitchfork ready, Joe—your hayseed’s on his way back to the barn.” ... The first time I faced him, I watched him take that easy windup. And then something went past me that made me flinch. The thing just hissed with danger. We couldn’t touch him. ... every one of us knew we’d met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ball park.
The Nats, more popularly known as the Senators, were the dregs of the new American League. Sportswriter Charley Dryden of the San Francisco Chronicle accurately described the team—“Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” The arrival of the lanky teenager gave the fans something to cheer about.
Take Labor Day Weekend of 1908 in Johnson’s sophomore year with the team and playing before some of the biggest crowds of the season. The kid started three consecutive games and shutout the New York Highlanders (soon to become the Yankees) in each giving up six, four and two hits respectively—a stunning display of power and endurance in any era.
Johnson began to collect nicknames as sportswriters fell all over themselves in praise of his blistering fastball and the unconventional side-arm delivery that mystified right handed batters. Despite his English family heritage, he was called the Big Swede because of his blond hair and Scandinavian sounding names. Others called him Barney after race car driver Barney Olefield. But the moniker that stuck was hung on him by the dean of sports writers, Grantland Rice—the Big Train because locomotives where then the fastest and most powerful thing on wheels.
In 1911 and ’12 Johnson racked up two consecutive 30 plus win seasons—33 games and 35 respectively, enough to lift the Senators into contention, respectability, and two second place finishes in the American League. The next year Johnson won the first of his two Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards.
After that notoriously penny pinching ownership failed to surround Johnson with first class players with offensive punch and defensive range. The team fell back to mediocrity and Johns lost games he should have won. But Johnson improved his effectiveness by developing a wicket curve ball to accompany his fast ball.
After ten years in the league, by which time he had probably lost a little zip, someone thought to bring Johnson into a a Bridgeport, Connecticut munitions laboratory which recorded Johnson’s fastball at 134 feet per second or 91.36 miles per hour. Many modern flamethrowers can routinely meet or surpass that speed, but it was completely unmatched in its day.
Despite Johnson’s superb control, such speed was intimidating. Fearing to be hit, most batters backed off the plate giving Johnson an advantage. But Ty Cobb realized that the notoriously soft hearted pitcher was terrified of hurting anyone. So he actually crowded the plate which did cause Johnson to throw wide and get the aggressive base runner with his sharpened spikes on base with walks if he couldn’t get a hit.
|Johnson in his World Series Season|
In 1920 a frustrated Clark Griffith, the Senator’s field skipper, scraped together the money to buy the franchise. He left the bench for the front office where he began to build a solid team around Johnson beginning with player/manager Bucky Harris and the offensive punch of Goose Goslin and Sam Rice. In 1924 the Senators captured their first American League pennant, two games ahead of Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees.
In their first World Series Washington faced John McGraw’s heavily favored New York Giants. Johnson had uncharacteristically lost both of his starts, but the Senators managed to force a game. With the game tied 3-3 in the 9th, Harris brought in Johnson in relief on just one day’s rest telling him, “You’re the best we got.” Johnson held the Giants for four innings until the Senators were finally able to put a run across the plate giving them their first—and only World Championship. Johnson took home his second MVP award for the season.
The Senators were back in the World Series in 1925 against the Pittsburg Pirates. This time Johnson won his first two outing but lost game seven.
After that Johnson went into a modest decline, and decided to retire after the 1927 season—a 21 year major league career.
In 1928 Johnson became the manager of the Newark Bears of the International League. After that Clark Griffith tapped him to manage his old team, which had fallen back into second division status. A lot of people thought he was too easy going to manage the rowdy ball players of the era. But Griffith began to find solid talent and the team responded to Johnson’s gentle touch. Unfortunately the American League also fielded the powerful Murder’s Row of the Yankees and the nearly as talented Philadelphia Athletics. Despite a strong run, Johnson and the Senators were only able to finish in third place in 1931 and ’32. Johnson, for the first time in his life was fired.
He bounced back as manager of the Cleveland Indians in from 1933 through ’35. He managed a mediocre team ending each season in the middle of the pack. He was replaced for 1936 just ahead of the arrival of another young phenom with a blazing fastball, Bob Feller, who would remind a lot of people of Johnson in his prime.
After spending a season as an announcer on the Senator’s radio broadcasts, Johnson retired to to Germantown, Maryland where he became a beloved civic leader and dabbled in Republican politics, including an unsuccessful 1940 run for Congress.
Johnson died of a brain tumor in Washington shortly after his 59th birthday, and was interred at Rockville Union Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland.
But you couldn’t bury Johnson’s accomplishments on the field. In 1936 he one of the first five players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame along with Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Honus Wagner—the Five Imortals. Here is why:
Johnson had twelve 20-win seasons in a 21-year career, including ten in a row from 1910-1919 including those two 30 years. He pitched Johnson's record includes 110 shutouts, the most in baseball history, had a 38–26 record in games decided by a 1–0 score, and lost lost 65 games because his teams failed to score a run.
Johnson won the triple crown for pitchers in 1913, 1918 and 1924, and two American League MVP awards Johnson twice won the American League Most Valuable Player Award, a feat accomplished since by only two other pitchers, Carl Hubbell in 1933 and 1936 and Hal Newhouser in 1944 and 1945.
His earned run average of 1.14 in 1913 was the fourth lowest ever at the time he recorded it; it remains the sixth-lowest today, despite having been surpassed by Bob Gibson in 1968 (1.12) for lowest ERA ever by a 300+ inning pitcher. For the decade from 1910-1919, Johnson averaged 26 wins per season and had an overall ERA of 1.59.
Johnson won 36 games in 1913, 40% of the team’s total wins for the season. In April and May, he pitched 55.2 consecutive scoreless innings, still the American League record and the third-longest streak in history. In May 1918, Johnson pitched 40 consecutive scoreless innings; he is the only pitcher with two such 40+ inning streaks.
There are slews of various records still on the books and various formulas concocted to compare pitchers of vastly different eras generally rank him as the best pitcher of all time. In 1999, The Sporting News ranked Johnson number 4 on its list of Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players, the highest-ranked pitcher. Later the same year, he was elected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.