When Walter Johnson took the mound for the Washington Senators on August 2, 1907 to pitch the first game of a double header against the Detroit Tigers, he embarked on a baseball journey that before it ended would see him win 417 games, 110 by a shutout including 38 by a 1-0 score, strike out 3,507 and post a 2.07 earned run average. But since 10 of Johnson’s 21 seasons were with losing Senators’ teams, his overall record was hampered by hard luck losses. On 65 occasions, Johnson and the Senators were on the short end of 1-0 scores.
Some of Johnson’s other outstanding achievements include winning five games (three shut outs) during nine days in 1908, recording 16 straight wins in 1912 and pitching 56 scoreless innings in 1913 when he went 36-7 with a 1.09 ERA.
About those nine days…W. W. Aulick from the New York Times, after Johnson’ third shut out, wrote:
We are grievously disappointed in this man Johnson of Washington. He and his team had four games to play with the champion Yankees. Johnson pitched the first game and shut us out. Johnson pitched the second game and shut us out. Johnson pitched the third game and shut us out. Did Johnson pitch the fourth game and shut us out. He did not. Oh, you quitter!
But, as witnessed by the 3-2 defeat Johnson suffered in his debut, he did not become an overnight success. Even in Johnson’s first game, however, his teammates and opponents recognized his greatness.
Before the double header began, and with Washington abuzz with baseball fever brought out by rumors of young Johnson’s wicked fastball, Senators’ manager Joe Cantillon went to the Detroit bench to boast that his starter was “a great big apple knocker” who would dominate the Tigers with his “swift”. That was bold talk since the Tigers, led by 20-year-old rookie Ty Cobb and future Hall of Famer Sam “Wahoo” Crawford, was the best hitting American League team and the eventual pennant winner.
According to the box score, Johnson allowed only six hits in eight innings before being taken out for a pinch hitter trailing 2-1. Three hits were bunts including two by Ty Cobb who felt that bunting was the only effective counter to Johnson’s blazing hard stuff. The Tigers also knew that Johnson, a raw rookie, would have a tough time fielding bunts.
Right after the game, Tigers’ manager Wild Bill Donavan predicted that within two years Johnson would be greater than the best pitcher of the day, Christy Mathewson. And years later Cobb admitted that the Tigers knew that Johnson would be one of the most powerful pitchers ever to enter the league. About Johnson’s “swift,” Cobb said: “The thing just hissed with danger. We couldn’t touch him.”
Tigers’ outfielder Davy Jones, the first batter to face Johnson, explained why. In an interview with Lawrence Ritter for The Glory of Their Times, Jones told the author that Johnson’s arms which “were the longest ones he had ever seen” and were “like whips” which helped his effective sidewinder delivery.
Although Johnson ended the 1907 season with a 5-9 mark, his 1.88 ERA was a sign of great things to come.
After Johnson’s career ended in 1927, he managed the Senators and Cleveland Indians before settling on his Germantown, MD farm where he raised purebred cattle and prize birds. Johnson also became a Dr. Pepper spokesman and in 1940 nearly a U.S. Representative. Only a FDR landslide kept Johnson out of Congress.
When at age 59 Johnson died an untimely death from a brain tumor, he had many friends in and out of baseball. The consensus among those who knew the “Big Train” is that he was the finest man to ever wear a uniform.
“Double the fun” is a Friday feature here that looks at one notable doubleheader in baseball history each week.