SI Vault
William Taaffe
October 26, 1987
Sadly, memories of the fabulous Big Train have dimmed
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October 26, 1987

Gone...and Forgotten?

Sadly, memories of the fabulous Big Train have dimmed

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The box originally contained a ball signed by President Taft after Taft had watched Johnson toss a one-hit shutout to beat the Athletics on Opening Day in 1910. The next day Taft wrote a brief message on the ball that had been used for the ceremonial first pitch: TO WALTER JOHNSON, WITH THE HOPE THAT HE MAY CONTINUE TO BE AS FORMIDABLE AS IN YES TERDAY'S GAME. Inside the box was a brass plate with an inscription that read: THIS BALL WAS THROWN BY PRESIDENT WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT TO WALTER JOHNSON...AND [MARKS] THE FIRST TIME ANY PRESIDENT OF THE U.S. HAS OFFICIATED ON AN OCCASION OF THIS KIND.

As the years went by, Johnson added other mementos of presidential openers to the contents of the box—baseballs signed by Presidents Wilson, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. After he died, Eddie and his wife kept the box and, finally, in 1968, they gave it to the Hall of Fame. In 1977 Carolyn's son, Henry, visited the Hall, primarily to see his grandfather's presidential baseballs. He was shocked to find all but one of them gone. The box was there, inside a large glass case, and it was open, but the only ball in it was one signed by Theodore Roosevelt to Walter Jr. that was not one of Johnson's Opening Day baseballs. On display instead was an old Spalding Guide opened to a photograph of the original collection.

"I never did get a straight answer until a week later," Henry recalls. "They said the balls were in storage, or they were in the process of locating them, or they were arranging something. I said I wasn't going to leave until I saw the balls. Finally, I was called in to see Ed Stack [the president of the Hall of Fame]. He said he hated to tell me the news, but the balls had been stolen."

Stack said that during visiting hours someone apparently closed the door to the room in which the balls were displayed, unscrewed the hasps on the glass case and made off with the most valuable items ever stolen from the museum. The old baseballs are still missing; they're probably sitting on some villain's mantel or else are in the collection of someone who purchased them unknowingly. "I can't tell you how much this still bothers us," Stack says. "It's like a robbery at your house. You come home at night and find things of great sentimental value are gone."

Heartsick, the Johnson family urged the Hall to try to recover the balls, but until now the loss has been a virtual secret. The Gaithersburg (Md.) Gazette did an article on it at one point, but not many people took note. And the Hall has said nothing publicly.

"Over the years we've had our own people watch the collectors market for those balls," Stack says. "We may still get them back. We did weigh running ads, but our best advice was to treat it quietly, wait and watch. It's not the kind of thing we want to give publicity to. You don't want to give people ideas."

"I can understand their not wanting any publicity about it," Henry says, "but not notifying the family, I consider terribly bad form."

As upsetting as the theft of the balls is to the family, Johnson himself probably would have said nothing. I often wonder what made him so reserved and dignified and refined in his aw-shucks, country sort of way. He was truly an unusual man in a rough-and-tumble sport. He occasionally smoked cigars and, if coaxed into it, would play poker to all hours of the night with Walter Jr. and his friends. But he was never profane—the closest he came was to say "by jiminy!" He was not a philanderer; he never misbehaved. He kept his opinions to himself for the most part.

In return, he was greatly loved. One day in 1982, Carolyn received a handwritten letter from Dr. Thomas F. Keliher, who had been one of her father's physicians during his last illness and was now professor emeritus of medicine at Georgetown. "Your father was a very gentle man," Dr. Keliher wrote, "and had the finest natural good manners of any person I have ever taken care of. He was particularly kind and courteous to his nurses.... I am taking the liberty of adding the following in case you and the family did not know of it. As you probably know, Clark Griffith had the reputation of being an "old curmudgeon,' but every day brought in a rose for your dad and stayed with him awhile, even when he was comatose.

"One day I asked him about the roses," Dr. Keliher went on, "and he replied, 'I took the earth from the pitcher's box in which Walter Johnson worked so long and made a special rose garden of it. I felt that anything enriched by Walter Johnson's sweat was semisacred. He was the perfect gentleman. These roses are from that bed.' "

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