Ty Cobb is supposed to have said that his greatest embarrassment was batting against Walter Johnson on a dark day in Washington. An uncommonly mellow acknowledgment of human frailty by cranky Ty, it was surely God’s truth about gentle Walter. In an era lacking electronic speed guns, Johnson was generally thought to throw the fastest ball in the game. A 6’1″ righthander with long arms, he threw his hummer with an easy sidearm motion. Contemporaries recalled his pitches as nearly invisible, arriving with a “swoosh” and smashing into the catcher’s mitt like a thunderclap. In 21 seasons with the Washington Senators (10 in the second division), Johnson won 417 games. Only Cy Young won more (and only Young and Pud Galvin lost more). There was no pitching category in which he did not excel. In 1914, for example, he led the AL in wins, games, starts, complete games, innings, strikeouts, and shutouts. He eventually amassed 110 shutouts, the most ever. His 38 1-0 wins are, by far, an all-time record.
Among his accomplishments were 16 straight wins (1912); a string of 56 scoreless innings, and a 36-7 (1.09) mark in 1913; five wins, three of them shutouts, in nine days (1908); 66 triumphs over Detroit, the most for any AL pitcher against any one team; 200 victories in eight seasons, 300 in 14. He had his disappointments: 65 of his losses were by shutouts, 26 of them by 1-0 scores (both records); he lost six of eight duels with formidable Red Sox lefty Babe Ruth; and for all of Ty Cobb‘s dark-day embarrassments, he batted .335 in 67 games against Johnson.
Forgetting the numbers, what pleased people most was that Johnson combined extraordinary baseball talent with a wholly admirable character. In a rowdy game, he was mild, modest, decent, friendly, and forbearing. Across the nation, beyond the confines of baseball, he personified values that Americans respected. He persisted into the lively ball era and the Jazz Age with his old-fashioned, almost Lincolnesque virtues intact. Sportswriters rarely found him less than chivalric and dubbed him “Sir Walter” and the “White Knight.”
He was Kansas-born of a farm family which ventured West to try its luck in the California oil fields. When Washington got him, he was going on twenty, and burning up a semi-pro league in southwestern Idaho. The story has, variously, a fan, a traveling liquor salesman, or an old-time umpire writing east about the young phenom, but only purse-poor Washington and its manager, Joe Cantillon, acted in time. Already interested in a fleet Western Association outfielder named Clyde Milan, Cantillon sent an injured catcher west to scout the pair. He corralled them both; Johnson signed for a $100 bonus, train fare, and a big league salary of $350 a month.
He was not an overnight success. The fastball was undeniable, but he was susceptible to the bunt and to the confusions of inexperience and an eighth-place club. After going 13-25 his third season (1909), he turned things around and became the AL’s premier pitcher. For the Senators he was both starter and relief ace. Ultimately, he was 40-30 in relief, with 34 saves. The legend grew with him. He acquired nicknames deriving from the machinery that best exemplified the overwhelming speed of his fastball: “Barney,” for Oldfield, the mile-a-minute auto racer; and “Big Train,” for America’s impressive, highballing railroads. Still, the image of the kindly fellow prevailed; one who, comfortably ahead in a late inning, might ease up to allow a weak batter or an old friend a hit; who never blamed teammates for losses, however grievously they erred; who never drank, cussed, or argued with umpires; who never deliberately threw at hitters, although his long career contributed to his setting the ML career mark with 206 hit batsmen. Cobb said he’d move up in the box and crowd the plate knowing he would never get a brush-back pitch from Sir Walter.
Johnson’s control was exemplary. His catchers swore by him. In 802 games, he gave up a mere 1,405 walks, less than one every 4.1 innings. But he had wild streaks and still has a piece of the AL record for wild pitches in one season (21).
As the years wore on, Johnson became a Washington landmark. He was tempted during the Federal League uproar, and actually signed with the Chicago Whales, but revoked the contract when penny-pinching Clark Griffith made an emergency trip to Kansas to up the ante and restore him to his pedestal. Finally, in 1924, with the shrewdest trades of his life, Griffith put together Washington’s first pennant winner. Going 23-7 at age thirty-seven, Johnson was finally in a World Series. His performance against the Giants in the seventh game is one of baseball’s favorite stories. Appearing in relief, two days after pitching a complete game, he held the Giants scoreless for four innings until Early McNeely’s 12th-inning grounder deflected off a pebble, over Freddie Lindstrom‘s head, allowing Washington’s winning run to score. In 1925, with another 20 wins from Johnson, the Senators repeated. This time, after winning two from the Pirates, Johnson lost Game Seven. Rain and Roger Peckinpaugh‘s errors helped, but he was rapped for 15 hits and deserved the 9-7 loss.
When his glorious career wound down, Johnson tried his hand at managing: Newark for a season, Washington (1929-32), and Cleveland (1933-35). His .551 winning percentage was respectable, but the manager never measured up to the player. He was considered too easygoing. But he was among the select group admitted to the Hall of Fame when it first opened.