Walter Johnson, the Big Train, would have been 100 years old on Nov. 6. Despite all his extraordinary accomplishments as a pitcher for the Washington Senators from 1907 to 1927, Johnson has become a half-forgotten figure, strangely uncelebrated on the centennial of his birth. One rare commemoration will be at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., a suburb of Washington in which Johnson once lived. Some family members and aged friends of Johnson's will attend, a few Path� newsreels will be shown, and that will be about it.
Outside the high school is a bronze and granite monument that stood in Griffith Stadium before the original Senators left in 1961 to become the Minnesota Twins. The monument was dedicated by President Truman on a cold April day in 1947, four months after Johnson died of a brain tumor. WALTER JOHNSON, the monument says, A CHAMPION ON AND OFF THE FIELD. Then comes a detailed list of his pitching achievements: Games won, 416. Shutouts, 110. Strikeouts, 3,508. Opening day shutouts, 7. Consecutive scoreless innings, 56.
Only one pitcher, Cy Young, won more games than Johnson did (Young won 511). No one has pitched more shutouts, on Opening Day or otherwise. His scoreless-inning streak stood for 55 years, and it wasn't until the 1980s that Nolan Ryan and others moved past his career total in strikeouts. In 1908 he pitched three shutouts in four days, and in 1918 he equaled the record for the longest shutout, beating the White Sox 1-0 in 18 innings.
He was a good hitter and an excellent fielder. He still holds the single-season batting record for pitchers, .433 (42 for 97) in 1925. His last appearance in a major league game—in Yankee Stadium on Sept. 30, 1927, in the same game in which Babe Ruth hit his 60th home run—was as a pinch hitter. In 1913, the year he went 36-7 (with winning streaks of 10, 11 and 14, an ERA of 1.09 and that 56-inning scoreless streak), he handled 103 fielding chances without an error, still the American League record for pitchers.
In 1936 he, Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson became the original members of the Hall of Fame. Yet Johnson never cared for the glory, which may help explain his relative obscurity today. "A more modest man never lived," says columnist Shirley Povich of
The Washington Post
, who knew him well. "Not only was he the greatest pitcher of his times and times before and maybe times since, he simply commanded love with his kindness and gentleness and honesty." If he had been alive when Ryan eclipsed his strikeout record, it's likely that he would have shrugged and gone coon hunting with his dogs. He was humble, shy and reticent. "When he did talk," his daughter Carolyn Thomas recalls, "you stopped and listened because you knew he had something to say."
I recently spent a day with Carolyn; her 41-year-old son, Henry (Tom) Thomas; and her brother, Eddie Johnson, Walter's only surviving son. (Bobby died in 1954 and Walter Jr. in 1961. Barbara, three years younger than Carolyn, lives in Michigan. Another daughter, Elinor, died at the age of three.) Carolyn, now 64, and Eddie, 70, put their father in bas-relief for me. Carolyn, a tall, graceful woman, and I drove out to the Comus, Md., farm that Eddie bought 32 years ago with the down payment coming from proceeds of his father's modest estate. Eddie, who has the long arms, huge hands and large square forehead of his father, invited me to sit at the kitchen table. A late-afternoon sun glinted through the window.
"Baseball was a living for Dad," Eddie said. "I always had the feeling that he would have been much happier if he had never gotten into baseball. He was the type of fellow who just couldn't wait to get into some old clothes and call a dog and go out in a field someplace."
The first part of Johnson's life, until 1929, was a glory ride. The second, until he died 17 years later, was filled with sadness, loneliness and a surprising amount of financial distress. He was born in Humboldt, Kans., on Nov. 6, 1887. At 13, before he began to play baseball seriously, he moved with his family to the oil fields in Olinda, Calif., near Los Angeles. As a high school pitcher in Southern California he was a local star, but it wasn't until he began playing semipro ball in Weiser, Idaho, that he was discovered and signed by the Senators, who brought him to the aging Washington through 1932 he took over the Indians in 1933. In Cleveland the newspapers began to get on him for the way he handled the pitching staff, and some of his players grumbled openly. In 1934 he suspended Willie Kamm, his third baseman, and Glenn Myatt, a catcher, for creating dissension on the team. Kamm reportedly went to Alva Bradley, owner of the Indians, and tried to get Johnson fired. Anti-Johnson feeling in Cleveland became so strong that Carolyn, who was about 11 at the time, remembers being summoned with her sister Barbara to Babe Ruth's room at the Hotel Cleveland. Carolyn and Barbara were living at the hotel with their father, and Ruth was in town with the Yankees. "I don't know if you girls ever read anything critical about your dad," Ruth said, "but if you do, don't you believe it. He's just a wonderful person."
Johnson was also a poor businessman. He avoided confrontations even when people took advantage of him, and he got into a few ventures that failed. He and his wife, Hazel Roberts, the daughter of a U.S. congressman from Nevada, had all those kids to support, and as a player Johnson never was able to command a salary that approached those paid to the glamorous Ruth and the flamboyant Cobb. Clark Griffith, the owner of the Senators, was not independently wealthy and barely made ends meet with his Washington club. Underpaid, Johnson held out for more money on at least two occasions, although his relationship with Griffith never turned rancorous. In 1914 Johnson had the opportunity to jump the Senators and sign a contract with the Chicago Whales of the "outlaw" Federal League for a $16,000 salary and a $10,000 bonus, extraordinary sums in those days. The cash-poor Griffith persuaded Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, who stood to be hurt at the box office by Johnson's presence on a rival team in Chicago, to put up money to match the bonus. Griffith matched the salary, and the Big Train remained in the station house. Griffith also gave Johnson $10,000, apparently as a gesture of appreciation for his effort, after the seventh game of the 1925 World Series against Pittsburgh. Johnson, who had won the first and fourth games of the Series, had a charley horse in his right leg but pitched with the leg tightly wrapped in bandages. He lost, 9-7, in a cold rain at Forbes Field.
The biggest loss of Johnson's life, though, was Hazel. In the hot summer of 1930, while her husband was busy managing the Senators, she drove from Washington with the children to visit his parents in Coffeyville, Kans. After making the long return trip over the arduous pre-interstate highways of the era, she fell ill and died two days later, at the age of 36, apparently the victim of heatstroke. Johnson couldn't be consoled. The service was held in the parlor of their house in Bethesda, not far from where Walter Johnson High was later built, and for two days Walter sat beside the coffin, a kind of silent sentry, speaking only to tell the children to go outside and play. "I think the light went out of his life after Mother died," Carolyn says. "He was devastated."