If you are among those sharing the conviction that there are more villains than heroes afoot in sports nowadays, allow me to commend to your Christmas shopping needs several new books that recall epic figures of an earlier time. Of these, none may be of more heroic stature than Walter Johnson, that paragon of homely virtue and pitching excellence who shed so much glory on the first quarter of this century. He was, wrote one admirer, "the hero that never struts; the star that never brags." Pitching his entire 21-year career for the old Washington Senators, a team often found in the middle or at the bottom of the American League standings, Johnson was able to fastball his way to an amazing 416 victories, second in baseball history only to Cy Young's 511. His career strikeout record of 3,508 would last 56 years until shattered by another flamethrower—Nolan Ryan.
But as good as Johnson was on the field, he was even better off it, a man of positively saintly personal habits. He didn't smoke, drink, gamble or chase women indiscriminately at a time when his baseball contemporaries wholeheartedly embraced these pleasurable vices. And he was of such an even disposition that he accepted without complaint the misplays of teammates and the misjudgments of umpires. His biggest fear on the mound was not in giving up a hit but of hitting a batter with one of his lethal high hard ones.
Johnson was so virtuous that he even got a character reference from the pitcher-hating Ty Cobb on the occasion of his running for Congress from Maryland in 1940. "I think so highly of this man's integrity," wrote Cobb to the Bethesda Journal, that "I can't resist recommending him to the voters of his district." ( Johnson lost to an incumbent, not necessarily because of Cobb's endorsement.) And Will Rogers, the ranking humorist of the age, was able to say of him in all sincerity, "Any man, woman or child in the United States that don't love Walter Johnson and admire him as a man, is not a good American."
So what can you say of such an unblemished specimen in print? Where's the conflict? The controversy? And why would anyone read a book about him written by, of all people, his grandson? Well, there are plenty of good reasons to buy Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train by grandson Henry W. Thomas (Phenom Press, $24.95), not the least of which are the author's thorough knowledge of the period and his evenhanded treatment of his subject.
And Johnson's life and career were hardly without drama. Born on a Kansas farm, he was transplanted as a boy to Southern California, where his father found work but not fortune in the burgeoning oil business. Johnson tore up the local leagues with his virtually unhittable fastball and then moved to semipro ball in Idaho, where he was discovered by the Senators, who were dazzled by such velocity. With a sidearm motion so casual and unhurried he never appeared to be doing anything more strenuous than playing catch, Johnson may have thrown harder than anyone in the history of the game, harder even than Ryan or Bob Feller. There were, of course, no radar guns in Johnson's time, only the awed recollections of contemporary hitters. Casey Stengel once walked away from the plate to the dugout after two Johnson strikes. When he was informed by the umpire that the last throw was to first base, not to the plate, Casey replied, "That's all right. I didn't see the other two either." As a joke, catcher Eddie Ainsmith once persuaded Johnson under darkening skies to wind up as if to pitch but to never let the ball go. "Strike three!" the umpire bellowed upon hearing Ainsmith pound his empty mitt. "[That ball] was a foot wide!" protested the hitter.
In the years from 1910 to 1919, Johnson won a cool 35% of his team's games. Over the course of his career, he led the league in strikeouts 12 times, in shutouts seven times, in complete games and wins six times, and in innings pitched and earned run average five times. He was 36-7 in 1913 with an ERA of 1.09. He had 11 seasons in his career in which his ERA was below 2.00. But with the Senators it was never easy. In 1916 he lost 13 one-run games, four by scores of 1-0. And by the time the Senators reached the World Series, he was 36 years old and fighting a sore arm. He lost his first two starts in that 1924 Series against the Giants, then as the nation outside New York rejoiced, he pitched four scoreless innings in relief to win the 12-inning final game that gave Washington its first world championship.
His middle years were marked by tragedy. In the span of nine years, his father, his baby daughter, his grandfather, his mother-in-law, a sister, and finally, and most devastatingly, his wife, Hazel, died. Johnson never fully recovered from Hazel's death, and his last years, spent on a Maryland farm, were melancholy ones. He himself succumbed to a brain tumor at age 59 on Dec. 10, 1946. "He died like he lived—with quiet dignity," wrote the nurse at his bedside. "As gently as a feather wafted out the window, and just as silently, his soul took flight."
A somewhat different, certainly more familiar and, in his own way, no less exemplary figure is portrayed in DiMaggio: An Illustrated Life by Dick Johnson and Glenn Stout (Walker & Co., $29.95). The authors, who previously collaborated on a biography of Ted Williams, do a workmanlike job of tracing this icon's journey from the San Francisco waterfront to marriage to Marilyn Monroe and international celebrityhood. They are particularly effective in detailing the events of his now legendary 56-game hitting streak in 1941. Wisely, they point out that while the streak may have sent the rest of the sporting public into various stages of quotidian anxiety, Joe DiMaggio himself was relatively unaffected by it, for the simple reason that he had been there before. Eight years earlier, as an 18-year-old rookie with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, Joltin' Joe had hit in 61 straight games, so for the most part, he took his daily bingles in stride.
The photographs in this volume are excellent, starting with the cover shot of the somber slugger honing his famously productive bat. But there are occasional errors in the text, most notably one howler describing Hank Greenberg, who was, with DiMaggio, one of the greatest of right-handed power hitters, as "left-handed." And on a smaller scale, Saints Peter and Paul Church in San Francisco, where DiMaggio and his first wife, Dorothy Arnold, were married, is not a cathedral.
In keeping with his reclusive persona, DiMaggio did not cooperate in the preparation of this book, but some lively, if somewhat dated essays by Thomas Boswell, Stephen Jay Gould, Luke Salisbury and the late Mickey Mantle (with Mickey Herskowitz) heighten the text. Novelist Salisbury deftly describes DiMaggio's marriage to his second wife—like his first, an actress, but of somewhat greater renown—as a union of "the man who needed no one and the woman who needed everyone." And of the ongoing DiMaggio mystique, Salisbury writes, " Joe DiMaggio understood what it meant to be Joe DiMaggio." Not that that's such an easy thing to do, for as former teammate and current broadcaster Jerry Coleman tells us in these pages, "He had to be perfect every day. He had to be Joe DiMaggio every day."