Johnson came home for good after managing in Cleveland, to a dairy farm he had bought in Germantown, Md. The homestead was tiny, Carolyn recalls, and several of the children slept in a bunkhouse that had so little heat that a glass of water left out on the table in the winter would be frozen solid in the morning. This was the Depression and milk prices were low, and old newsreels and newspaper features that cast Johnson as a contented gentleman farmer milking cows in retirement simply weren't true, according to his children. He was a working farmer, and Eddie says that the most money his father had in his bank account, right up to his death in 1946, was no more than $200.
You know what was totally out of character about Walter Johnson? Politics. He didn't have a political bone in his entire frame, and he hated to hobnob in public; yet from 1938 to 1940 and from 1942 until his death, he served as a commissioner in Montgomery County, Md. In 1936 he made appearances for fellow Kansan Alf Landon, the Republican presidential candidate, and in 1940 he did the same for that year's Republican nominee, Wendell Willkie. More amazing still, Republican party officials in Maryland dragooned Johnson into running for Congress in 1940. In one old newsreel he appears to be scowling as he throws his hat, a large fedora, into a ring for the photographers. In reporting his campaign expenses after the race, he listed only one item—50 cents for printed cards. Of course, he lost and almost major leagues in the summer of 1907.
He threw only fastballs, blazing fast-balls. His unique, fluid motion—a kind of casual sidearm, almost submarine delivery, in which his right arm whipped around and across his chest—became simultaneously the most recognizable but least imitated in all of baseball, although why legions of major leaguers don't throw the way he did is one of the game's enduring mysteries. Johnson complained only once of a sore arm, even though he pitched 5,924 innings, third on the alltime list. His pendulum delivery was a natural motion, unlike an overhander's. He had sinewy muscles and long arms. His motion looks peculiar today because he never seemed to snap his wrist or elbow. He gained his exceptional speed from the sweep of his broad back and shoulders and his right arm, which was an inch and a half longer than his left. Johnson would turn away from the batter as he began his motion and then pivot in a graceful burst of energy, the ball shooting out from his body toward the plate.
In 1924 Johnson finally made it to the World Series, after a 17-year novitiate in the majors. He lost his first two starts to John McGraw's New York Giants but pitched five innings of winning relief in the seventh game, beginning in the eighth inning. Carolyn has a baseball from that game with her father's signature on one side and an X on the other. The ball is said to be the one hit by the Senators' Earl McNeely in the bottom of the 12th, and the X supposedly marks the spot where it struck a pebble and bounded over the New York third baseman's head to drive in the run that won the game and the Series for the Senators and sent Washington into a tumult of celebration.
The melancholy years for Johnson began when he became the Senators' manager in 1929. Although his won-lost percentage as a manager was a commendable .551, he was too kindly to be a great one. He hated to have to bench Joe Judge, once his teammate on the Senators, and when he did, Judge resented it. He also was a terrible handler of pitchers. He never understood why they couldn't pitch their way through trouble as he did, and all too frequently he left them in the game too long. After man sprinted back to the farm. Why did he run for office? He never said. Eddie assumes that he simply needed the money he would have earned from a congressman's salary.
It was Eddie and his wife, Polly, who first noticed something wrong with Johnson early in 1945. More than a year before, he had told Eddie that a dentist thought he might have cancer, and he advised Eddie to sell the farm should anything happen to him. But Johnson did not see a doctor. Then Polly became aware that her father-in-law was having difficulty using a knife and fork. He finally went to a physician—the Senators' team doctor—who sent him to Georgetown Hospital, where it was discovered that he had an inoperable tumor.
He never left the hospital. Some days he would lapse into unconsciousness. Other times he would be alert. Sometimes, the mounting hospital bills worried him. One afternoon he beckoned Eddie to his side and told him that years earlier, he, Ty Cobb and George Weiss, who later became the general manager of the Yankees, had been partners in a deal to buy a minor league team. Johnson said he paid Weiss $4,000 as his part of the transaction, but the deal fell through and Weiss never returned the money. "Eddie," Johnson said, "I want you to call George Weiss. Don't tell him that you know about the money. Just tell him I'm not doing so well and that I told you to call."
Weiss didn't send back the $4,000, if Eddie remembers correctly, but he apparently got in touch with the American League office, and the league in turn alerted Clark Griffith in Washington. After that, all of Johnson's hospital and medical bills were paid by Griffith, with help from the league.
The end came on Dec. 10, 1946. Johnson's funeral was held at the Washington Cathedral, and crowds lined Wisconsin Avenue to watch the funeral procession. He was buried in a small cemetery in Rockville, Md. The brass grave marker shows only his name and the dates of his birth and death.
Johnson's old Washington uniform is on display at Cooperstown. His rickety old locker is there, along with his glove, a ball from the no-hit game he pitched in 1920 and one of his low-paying Washington contracts. But other things are missing, things Johnson kept in a burnished wooden box that held the Big Train's most treasured possessions from his baseball past.