Saturday, July 19, 2014

Players I Love More Than I Should: Pitcher Walter Johnson

More than 18,000 players have appeared in Major League Baseball games since the start of the league.  Some players have short careers that last one at bat or one appearance in the field.  Others have 20+ year careers.  As I read more and more about baseball history there are certain players I find myself enjoying reading about more than others.  It is obviously illogical since many of them retired, or in some cases passed away, long before I was even born.  I have no first hand experience in watching some of them play but for whatever reason their personalities and perseverance strikes me above and beyond the other players I read about.  Over the next few weeks I will be giving you short biographical histories*of some of these players.  Some of them will be Hall of Fame players.  Some of them will be players only casual fans may know.  Regardless, I chose one player from each position for this series to explore.  This week we will explore one of the Pitchers I chose for the series: Walter Johnson.

Growing Up in Smallville and The Move West
The ancestors of Walter Johnson arrived in America in the mid 1600's and were typical Americans every step of the way.  Farmers, volunteer soldiers, patriots.  The lineage served in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.  Johnson's  maternal grandfather served in the 4th Pennsylvania cavalry regiment in the Civil War.  The regiment was formed at the start of the war in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.  They fought at all of the major battles including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.  The regiment also took place in the ill planned Mud March in the spring of 1863 as well as the battle of Brandy Station that finally put a taint on the legend of J.E.B. Stuart.

Following the war the Johnson's moved west to Missouri and eventually to Kansas during troubling times on the border states, the family set up stakes on the Kansas plains and worked a farm in Humboldt.  It was here that Walter was born on November 6, 1887.  The story of young Clark Kent growing up on a farm and learning to use his strengths while becoming a likable, young man could have been Johnson's story.  He loved to play baseball but likely had little to no knowledge of the Major Leagues.  There were, of course, minor league teams all over the country but between working on the farm and school there was little time to do anything more than play a quick game with friends.  Who had time to watch others play?

Farming was not the most profitable job in the world and when Walter's uncle visited from Southern California he told the family of the riches he had earned working in the oil fields.  The Johnson's moved west with 14 year old Walter in tow.  They landed in Olinda, CA, a suburb of Brea, CA.  Olinda was the sight of one of the southland's biggest oil fields and Walter's father joined the work force.  Olinda had their very own baseball team but not their own field, so on Sundays the team would travel the roughly 15 miles to Anaheim to take on teams in the area.  Young Walter would go with his dad to watch the games.  As a young teen Walter may have dreamed of joining the team.  When Johnson played after school with the other kids he showed how good he could be.  No one could touch his pitches.  Stories spread around town and he was eventually brought on to the Olinda Oil Wells team.  On July 24, 1904 Walter made his semi pro debut and immediately became a sensation.

There was no minor league system, it was two decades in the future, so players wanting to hook on in the majors had to hope for word of mouth and the luck of a scout being in the right place at the right time.  Walter was impressive and word started to spread.  Still without hopes of a big league career and graduated from Fullerton High School, Johnson took courses at Orange County Business College.  Johnson continued pitching for the Olinda Oil Wells until he got a telegraph from a previous team mate now playing in Tacoma, WA.  It was a job offer to work in the local business while playing for the company team.  As Johnson took the train up the coast, San Francisco was busy recovering from the great earthquake.  The shifting of the earth matched the shifting of the baseball landscape in the Pacific Northwest.  The Pacific Coast League disbanded while the Northwestern League reorganized and added some of the teams from the PCL.  The Tacoma owner wanted to sign the newly free talent of the old PCL and told Walter "as a pitcher you make a great outfielder".  Walter dreaded going home a failure, a similar fear that Ty Cobb would display after being released in his first attempt as a professional, so he migrated east to a small Idaho town.

The Weiser Wonder
Walter landed in Weiser, ID in 1906 and immediately found the team was baseball mad.  He was given a $90.00 a month salary to "work" for Pacific Bell, though he was really just a ringer.  The town certainly got their money's worth as Walter dominated the league.  His strikeouts were routinely in the double digits and the other team rarely touched him.  In one 12-0 win he struck out twelve and held the opposition to one hit.  The 12-0 shutout was not his only shutout.  They were almost all shutouts. He threw 58 consecutive scoreless innings, a record for the majors or minors at the time.  Word of his feats spread and he received a request from the Washington Senators to come east for a tryout.  He declined and said he would stay in Weiser.

Washington's manager didn't give up. He sent his injured Catcher, Cliff Blankenship east and told him not to come back without this kid.  His boss at the time remembered Walter's feelings.  "He didn't want to go.  He couldn't believe he was ready for the big leagues."  Walter struggled with the decision.  "I was nothing but a green country boy and jumping to a city the size of Washington was a real sensation to me.  I was about as nervous as it was possible to be"

The Big Train and Pongo Joe
Joining the Washington Senators at the turn of the century was technically a step up from the minor leagues but realistically it was a questionable career move.  The Senators were the joke of baseball.  Led by Joe Canitllon, known as "Pongo Joe", the Senators were terrible.  They would finish 1907 at 49-102.  News of the signing hit the papers immediately and the anticipation grew as Walter made his way east.  He arrived on July 26, 1907 and the next morning he was pitching batting practice to Major League batters. Jim Delahanty was the first to face him. Cantillion said no human had ever thrown so fast before and asked Delahanty how Walter's curve was.  "I don't know and I'm not getting back in there to find out until I find out how his control is."  Actually his control was already legendary.  One scout had already said he had to have control because otherwise there would be a trail of dead players all over the north west.

On August 2, 1907 Walter Johnson made his major league debut.  His first opponent was Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford and the Detroit Tigers.  Cobb wasn't scared.  "He was only 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...had picked a rube out of the corn fields of the deepest bushes to pitch against us...We began to ride him as the game opened.  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 wind up and then something went past me that made me flinch....The thing just hissed with danger.  We couldn't touch him and so we just waited, expecting the kid to turn wild and start issuing walks.  But after four innings he
hadn't thrown more than a dozen balls."

Johnson would pitch in 14 games in that first season in the Majors (12 of them were starts and 11 of those were complete games).  He would impress everyone immediately.  In 110 1/3 innings Walter would give up only 35 runs, only 23 of those were earned runs, and finish with an ERA of 1.88.  That translated into a record of 5-9.

The team behind Walter did not improve but Walter did.  He improved to 14-14 for 1908 and managed to lower his ERA to 1.65.  Injuries and a poor team in 1909 saw him pitch nearly 300 innings and hold opponents to 2.22 runs per nine innings but his record again failed to reflect his talent as he finished with a 13-25 record.

1910 was his true breakout season.  The team behind him certainly was no better but Walter just refused to allow the other team to hit the ball.  He pitched 370 innings, struck out 313 hitters and had a 1.36 ERA.  The numbers today would be unheard of.  He walked less than 90 batters, had a WHIP of 0.914 and won 25 games.  He also lost 17.  A pattern was forming in Walter's career.  He would often hold the opponents to one run and lose a game when his own team failed to score.

1911 continued the pattern.  Walter pitched as often as possible for the Nationals.  His new manager Jimmy McAleer had no interest in pitch counts, pitching rotations or saving the pitchers arm.  Cantillon had once used Walter in four straight games, all complete games, and McAleer had no intention of saving Walter either.  The Senators continued to be terrible and continued to use Walter without restraint.

1912 saw Walter dominate the league but lose attention as Smokey Joe Wood of the Red Sox had a season for the ages.  From July 3 through August 28th, Johnson won 16 straight games.  Today that would be a good season for a pitcher.  For Johnson, that was two months of the season.  While Johnson was winning, so was Wood.  Wood won 13 straight when the Senators and Johnson came into town.  Nationals new manager Clark Griffith personally challenged Wood to take on Johnson and told the nation that Wood was a coward if he didn't put his mark up against Johnson face to face.  Johnson pitched masterfully, allowing only 5 hits all game and walked only one.  Wood allowed six hits and walked three.  The Red Sox were allowed to push one run across and the Senators were not.  The final score was 1-0 and Wood tied Johnson's record of consecutive wins.  Walter would finish the season at 33-12 with a 1.39 ERA.

1913 would be even better with a 36-7 record and a 1.14 ERA.  Where most pitchers now would kill for a 20 win season with an ERA south of the 3.00 mark, Johnson was struggling along with a poor team behind him.  He continued to lose games he should have won if the offense supported him. His 36-7 record won him an MVP award as his dominance helped the lowly Senators reach the heights of second place, six and a half games behind the dominant A's of the $100,000 infield.

It seemed a never ending cycle.  Johnson pitched well.  The other team would score maybe one or two runs and his team scored none.  Johnson was likely frustrated, though his personality stopped him from expressing it publicly.  He thought he had found his way out after the 1914 season.  He was approached by the Chicago Whales of the newly formed Federal League and was offered a significant raise to join the rival league.  Johnson agreed.  Clark Griffith, the Senators owner, was outraged and terrified.  He already had an agreement with Johnson and if he lost Johnson he had no team.  Griffith reportedly approached Charles Comiskey for a loan.  Comiskey refused at first telling Griffith it was his problem and he should deal with it.  Nevermind, Griffith told him, it would be Comiskey's problem soon enough when Chicago fans started going to see Johnson pitch for the Whales instead of going to see Comiskey's White Sox.  Comiskey helped Griffith and Johnson stayed in the nation's capital.

America's Hero
While Walter continued to work hard he saw other teams reach the promised land.  Since he had entered the league he had seen the Tigers, A's, Red Sox, White Sox and even the Indians and Yankees reach the top while his Senators remained near the bottom, seldom competing.  That was starting to change as the country roared into the 1920's.  His reputation as the hard working, long suffering good guy was growing and the nation often read stories about how sad it was that the best pitcher in baseball played for such a lousy team.  That lousy team was beginning to improve.  They slowly started adding talented players like Sam Rice, Goose Goslin, Ossie Bluege and Bucky Harris.

In 1924 Clark Griffith made the odd choice for a new manager when he named Harris as his manager.  Harris was considered far too young to manage but the fiery young Harris brought a fighting spirit to the team and when the Yankees suffered injuries and fell off the Senators did what no one thought possible.  They won.

The talented team behind Johnson were the underdogs as they faced the Giants in their fourth straight World Series.  As the series neared Johnson was over loaded with letters, telegrams, visits, phone calls and general shouts of well wishes.  He felt that everyone was counting on him to beat the Giants.  He started Game 1 and pitched 12 innings allowing 14 hits and 4 runs.  He struck out 12 Giants but his opponent, Art Nehf was just slightly better pitching 12 innings and allowing only 3 runs.  The Giants took a 1-0 series lead.  Johnson pitched again in Game 5, although he was not nearly as sharp.  He gave up 14 hits and six runs in a complete game effort but lost as the Giants took a 3-2 lead in the Series.  The Senators tied up the series in Game 6 but the talk of the sports world was the sad sight of Johnson losing two games.  It was expected that the Giants would take the final game and that Johnson would sit by watching it happen.  The two teams entered the 9th inning tied thanks to a bad hop ground ball that was said to have hit a pebble.  The story goes that the baseball gods could not stand to see Walter lose so they caused the ball to take the funny hop.Walter entered the game in the top of the 9th and the stadium was a bundle of nerves. If he won the reaction would be ecstasy.  If he lost it would be devastation. A one out triple in the 9th made it look like the end for Johnson but he worked out of it.  A lead off walk in the 10th made the fans squirm but a strikeout and double play ball saved the day.  A lead off single in the 11th again caused the crowd to stir but the Giants couldn't score.  It was like the bad old days when Johnson kept his team in the game as long as they could and his team failed to take advantage.  Another single led off the Giants 12th but Walter shut them down after that.  Now in his 4th inning of relief he was walking a tight rope that seemed to get thinner with each inning.  Finally, in the bottom of the 12th with the help of the baseball gods again, the Senators won on another bad hop single to third base.
The unthinkable had happened.  The Senators had won the World Series.

No longer the underdogs, the Senators entered 1925 with confidence and expectations.  Johnson was his usual spectacular self winning 20 games (20-7) for the 12th and final time in his career.  Now playing with confidence it was the opposition Pirates who were the underdogs.  The Senators took a 1-0 series lead when Johnson shut down the Bucs 4-1 in the first game allowing only 5 hits.  He was even better in Game 4, allowing six hits but winning 4-0 and the Senators took a 3-1 series lead.  Two straight losses tied the series at 3 games each leading to a Game 7 with Johnson on the mound.  The conditions were terrible.  The skies opened up and the field was a sloppy mess.  The fielders had trouble all game, which is reflected in the 3 Pirate errors and the 2 Senators errors.  Johnson allowed 15 hits.  Wheelbarrows of saw dust were applied to the mound to soak up the puddles.  Several times Johnson filled his hat with saw dust to soak up the rain and keep himself dry.  Nothing worked.  The Senators took a 6-3 lead and Commissioner Landis was ready to call the game early.  The Senators refused to take the easy way out and they kept playing.  In the end the Pirates came back beating Walter with five runs in the 7th and 8th.  It was a tough loss to take.

Walter Walks Away
Walter pitched for two more seasons after the World Series appearances.  The team was not as sharp as it had been in those years and with a healthy Ruth and Gehrig in New York the Yankees were really the dominant team.  Johnson's 1926 season was one of his worst.  He fell to 15-16 with a career high 3.63 ERA and the Senators fell to fourth.

Walter came back in 1927 to give it one more shot at the age of 39.  His speed had all but disappeared and his arm was finally worn out.  He pitched in only 15 games, went 5-6 and had a 5.10 ERA.

The Manager's Troubles

Walter retired after the 1927 season and had hopes of buying into a minor league franchise.  After failing to do so he finally accepted a position as manager of the Newark Bears of the International League.  The team had several players with Major League experience including Jim Bagby, formerly of the Indians and Jack Bentley, one of Johnson's opponents in the 1924 World Series.  Walter missed the opening of the season after the death of his sister and a bout with the flu. When he did return he dealt with angry veterans, bitter over their fall from grace.  The team finished with a losing record.  Walter would not be back in Newark the next year.

Instead  He replaced his old friend and manager Bucky Harris as the Senators manager for 1929.  The team still had talent but Johnson heard criticism that he was too lenient on the players and the team finished fifth.  Johnson was determined to improve for the next year and started to enforce discipline on the team.  His new assertive attitude led to a feud with star outfielder Goose Goslin who demanded a trade.  He was sent to the lowly Browns.  Despite the turmoil the team finished second in the league but never really challenged the great Philadelphia Athletics team.  The Athletics again dominated the league in 1931.  Johnson kept the Senators in the first division but they finished 18 games behind the Athletics in third place.  1932 was another third place finish but another season where the team was never really in the race.  The Nationals needed to make a change.  Although he had not done badly Johnson suffered and lost his job.

The Senators replaced Walter with another boy manager in Joe Cronin.  Walter was not out of a job for long.  He didn't start the year with a managing job but in June he got an unexpected visit from Billy Evans, former umpire and now Indians General Manger.  He replaced a former team mate and close friend Roger Peckinpaugh as manager of the Indians in mid June. The team had several talented players like Earl Averill, Wes Ferrell and Mel Harder, however, the rest of the team was not good.  They managed to finish at 75-76 in 4th place as the Senators, led by Joe Cronin and a returned Goose Goslin, won the American League.  The Indians added Sam Rice from the Senators, former teammate of Johnson's and one of his stars while he managed in Washington, and the Indians finished in third but they were 16 games behind Hank Greenberg, Goose Goslin and the Tigers.

Cleveland sports fans are not known for their patience.  They expected a winner and expected it now.  They wouldn't get it.  On August 4th 1935 the team lost their third straight game.  Stuck in 5h place, 13.5 games out of first, Walter Johnson was let go as manager of the Indians and replaced with Indians legend Steve O'Neill. O'Neill had the team playing better and they finished in third but they were no where close to the Tigers in the first spot.

The Greatest Ever?
Johnson's managerial career ended in 1935 but the honors were not done coming in.  The first class of Hall of Fame players were elected in 1936.  Among them, the list of the greatest of the great, were three pitchers: Cy Young, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.  Johnson was clearly a Hall of Famer but was he the best pitcher ever?

Johnson finished his career with 417 wins, second all time to Cy Young.  The next closest pitchers are Grover Cleveland Alexander and Christy Mathewson at 373 (44 games behind).  12 times in his career he won 20 or more games.  In seven of those years he won 25 or more and three of those years he won 30 or more.  In 5914 1/3 career innings, Johnson's ERA was 2.17.  He led the league in Wins five times, ERA  five times and strikeouts 12 times.  110 times he held the oppositions scoreless.  28 times in his career he held the opposition to two hits or less.  65 times his team lost without scoring while Johnson pitched.  26 times in his career he held the opposition to one run and lost 1-0.  Had he had even a decent offense behind him in his prime he could have won another 100 games.  Even more than that, the reason he is so beloved, was his attitude.  The humility and genuine nice guy, the darling of the sporting world, the lovable underdog.  With all the attention and idolatry he could have turned into Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth.  Instead he remained the same nice guy from Kansas who loved his family and retired as King of the Pitchers.

*This is not intended as a full biography and due to space I have done my best to summarize the life of the players in this series.  For further information on Walter Johnson please check out
Ken Burns Baseball


Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Trains by Henry w. Thomas
The First Fall Classic: The Red Sox, the Giants and the Cast of Pugs, Players and Politicos Who Reinvented the World Series in 1912
Inside the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the National Baseball Hall of Fame
The National Baseball Hall of Fame Almanac by Baseball America

Because he won the most games all time (511) the Award for the best pitcher each year is named after Cy Young.  How many World Series titles did Cy Young win?

Answer to Last Week's Question:
The All Star Game was first played in 1933 with the AL winning the game at Comiskey Park in Chicago.  The AL won the first three games.  It has been played every year (with the exception of 1945 because of World War II).  For a few years there were two All Star Games a year.  Overall there have been a total of 85 All Star Games played.  Each league has traded long stretches of success.  There have been two ties in All Star Game History (1961 and 2002).  The National League has a slight advantage with 43 wins against the 40 wins of the American League.

1 comment:

  1. I had no idea So Cal was oil rich back in the day, let alone in Brea. I like how you likened Walter Johnson to Clark Kent. The more I read the article, the more I saw the parallels. Cool article!


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