With a remarkable amount of integrity, humility and talent never before seen in the Major Leagues, baseball’s greatest pitcher truly stood above the rest. Walter Johnson’s incredible speed and wholesome demeanor personified the golden age of baseball, earning him the country’s gratitude and respect.
The Washington Senators were only in existence for seven years when Johnson started. His first pitching assignment was against the Detroit Tigers. Even though the Senators suffered a loss, fellow baseball player Ty Cobb immediately recognized the young pitcher’s unbelievable ability. “The first time I faced him, I watched him take that easy windup – and then something went past me that made me flinch. I hardly saw the pitch, but I heard it. Every one of us knew we’d met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ballpark,” Cobb said.
Despite Johnson’s best efforts, he could not lift the ailing team, experiencing consecutive losses five years straight. However, in 1912, Washington sprang into second place as Johnson miraculously had a career season with 32 wins, 303 strikeouts and a 1.39 ERA. Even though the Senators struggled the rest of the decade due to a dearth of quality players being recruited, Johnson held his own. He garnered All-Star recognition in 1909, 1915 and 1918. He became the first pitcher in baseball to earn the prestigious Chalmers Award in 1913 and became the American League’s MVP that same year. In addition, Johnson was successful at winning the Triple Crown as a pitcher in 1913, 1918 and 1924. During the 1916 season he also pitched a record 369.2 innings without giving up a single home run…a record that still stands proudly today.
By the 1920s, Johnson knew he was on his career’s downside. Personal tragedy struck twice when, in July 1921, his father died of a stroke. Later that year, his oldest daughter died of influenza. Stricken with grief and now the oldest pitcher in baseball, Johnson considered retirement.
Johnson’s fans would not let him have his way. His career, while distinguished, still had yet to win a coveted World Series title. Fans knew that deep down, his passion for the game would some how let him keep playing.
He continued, and the 1924 season saw Johnson back in his true form, leading in winning percentage, strikeouts and ERA. Finally, after 17 seasons, the Senators made to the World Series. Prior to the 1924 opening World Series game, fans went wild, cheering for their favorite player. They presented him with the most expensive automobile then made in the United States: an $8,000 Lincoln touring car. President and Mrs. Coolidge were on hand as well as high officers of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. To Johnson, no one was more important than his mother, Minnie, attending her first major league ballgame after all these years. The Senators, playing against the New York Giants, won the series 4-3. Washington went back to the World Series a year later, but their win could not be duplicated.
Johnson retired as a player in 1927 when he was unable to recover from a broken leg. He finished his 21-year career with 416 wins, 3,508 strike outs and a 2.17 ERA. Two years later, he was appointed manager of the Senators. He was replaced, and in 1933, selected to manage the Cleveland Indians. His easygoing disposition and tendency to let things slide, however, did not make him a suitable manager. Johnson then entered politics winning a seat as Montgomery County Commissioner in the state of Maryland. In 1940, he ran for U.S. Congress but was narrowly defeated. Johnson died at the age of 59 on December 10, 1946 from a brain tumor.
In honor of his contributions to the game of baseball, Johnson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. It is only fitting that the greatest right-handed pitcher in history should be among the elite first group selected for enshrinement.
-Credit CMG Worldwide
Henry W. (Hank) Thomas, the grandson of Walter Johnson, presented several mementos from Johnson's estate in our June 2007 auction.