On August 2, 1907, a young man later described by Frank Graham as “beyond doubt, the greatest pitcher that ever scuffed a rubber with his spikes”1 made his big-league debut for the Washington Senators, losing a 3-2 decision to the pennant-bound Detroit Tigers. The great Ty Cobb admitted his fastball “made me flinch” and “hissed with danger.”2
By the time he hung up his spikes 20 years later, Walter Johnson had recorded statistics which seem beyond belief — 417 wins and 279 losses, 3,509 strikeouts, 110 shutouts, 12 20-win seasons, 11 seasons with an earned run average below 2.00, and what seems almost incomprehensible a century later, 531 complete games in 666 starts. But, as superlative as his pitching record was, in Shirley Povich’s words, “Walter Johnson, more than any other ballplayer, probably more than any other athlete, professional or amateur, became the symbol of gentlemanly conduct in the heat of battle.”3
Walter Perry Johnson traveled a circuitous and improbable route to his major-league debut and subsequent stardom. He was born November 6, 1887, on a farm in Allen County, Kansas, the second of six children of Minnie (Perry) and Frank Edwin Johnson. As a child, he helped his parents scratch out a living on their 160-acre farm and found time for hunting and fishing, which became his lifelong passions. Other than occasional schoolyard pickup games, baseball had no place in his early life.
At the turn of the century, Frank Johnson was forced to give up his farm as a result of the persistent Kansas droughts. The family moved into the town of Humboldt, where Frank worked at odd jobs and Walter attended the eighth grade. At this time, Minnie’s parents and siblings were all moving to the oil fields of Southern California, attracted by the good weather and plentiful jobs. After years of poverty in Kansas, a move to the Golden State seemed very appealing to Frank and Minnie. They joined the migration in April 1902, settling in Olinda where Frank found work with the Santa Fe Oil Company as a teamster.
Working on the Kansas farm and in the oil fields, Walter developed a strong, muscular, 6-feet’1 frame which eventually filled out to 200 pounds. At 16, he gained his first baseball experience with a sandlot team. Shortly afterward he started his first game against adults, pitching for a semipro team sponsored by the local oil company. Soon he was a permanent member of the oil company team, and was so impressive that a reporter commented, “Johnson was presented as a high school kid, but he is certainly a graduate in the science of delivering the ball.”4
The unorganized baseball action of Southern California continued year-round, pitting town teams, company teams, and barnstorming teams against one another. During the winter, the rosters were augmented by major and minor leaguers who needed to pick up some extra cash. Over the next three years, it was in this environment that young Walter honed his pitching skills, if indeed they needed honing.
As Johnson readily admitted, his gift for pitching was not of his own doing, but God-given: “From the first time I held a ball,” he explained, “it settled in the palm of my right hand as though it belonged there and, when I threw it, ball, hand and wrist, and arm and shoulder and back seemed to all work together.”5 His signature pitching motion was unique — a short windmill-style windup followed by a sweeping sidearm delivery. During the first part of his career he relied almost exclusively on a fastball (he developed a good curve around 1913) which inspired Ring Lardner to comment, “He’s got a gun concealed on his person. They can’t tell me he throws them balls with his arm.”6
In April 1906, a former teammate arranged a job for Walter with Tacoma in the Northwestern League. After one exhibition outing, Walter was released, but another ex-teammate landed him a job playing for the Weiser (Idaho) team in the semipro Southern Idaho League. In Weiser, he was paid $90 a week, ostensibly to work for the local telephone company, but actually to play baseball on weekends. There was plenty of time to enjoy hunting and fishing in the nearby mountains during the week. Pitching until July for Weiser, Johnson racked up a 7-1 record, then returned to his California home.
It wasn’t until after Walter returned for a second season in Weiser and was on his way to a 14-2 mark that his pitching prowess came to the attention of major-league baseball. “The Weiser Wonder” posted a 0.55 ERA while striking out 214 batters in 146 innings. Manager Joe Cantillon of the Washington Senators began receiving telegrams touting Johnson’s feats and the wire services were spreading far and wide the story of the young pitcher’s string of 77 scoreless innings, which included back-to-back no-hitters. Finally, Cantillon sent an injured catcher, Cliff Blankenship, west on a scouting trip. Blankenship persuaded the young phenom to accept a Washington contract. The 19-year-old was so reluctant to accept the offer that he demanded a train ticket to return home to California in case he didn’t make good, and insisted on wiring his parents to obtain their permission to sign.
On July 22, 1907, a large crowd came to the Weiser depot to see him off. As Johnson said goodbye to his pals, there were tears in his eyes. A group of appreciative Weiser fans had tried to convince him to stay, offering to set him up with a cigar store on the town square. Johnson thanked them, but declined the offer. “You know how you are at 19,” he explained later. “You want to see things.”7
The team to which Walter Johnson reported had never finished higher than sixth in the American League, but their highly touted youngster was an immediate success. After Johnson’s debut game against the Tigers, Detroit hurler Bill Donovan called him “the best raw pitcher I have ever seen.”8 The rookie posted a 1.88 ERA in 110 1/3 innings, but it wasn’t enough to save the Senators from a 49-102 mark, 43½ games behind Detroit.
Walter’s presence in Washington’s rotation made scant difference during the next two seasons. After improving to seventh place in 1908, the woeful Nats returned to the cellar in 1909, finishing 42-110, 56 games out of first and 20 games behind the seventh-place St. Louis Browns. This is not to say that Johnson pitched badly, although he must have been extremely disappointed with his 13-25 won-lost mark in 1909. His 2.22 ERA that year was better than average, and his 164 strikeouts ranked second in the league. In 1908, Walter recorded one of the greatest pitching performances of his life over the Labor Day weekend. With his pitching staff in shambles, manager Cantillon sent the sturdy Johnson to the mound in New York for three consecutive starts over a four-day period. Walter didn’t disappoint, shutting out the Highlanders on six, four, and two hits, in a feat that electrified the baseball world.
In 1910, with Johnson posting a 25-17 record with a 1.36 ERA and 313 strikeouts, the Washington team improved to seventh place. This marked the beginning of a 10-year run of 20-victory seasons for the big right-hander, who acquired the nicknames of “The Big Train” for the blinding speed of his fast ball, and “Barney,” after race car driver Barney Oldfield, for his flamboyant motoring habits. During this decade, the Senators achieved some degree of respectability, finishing second in 1912 and 1913. In 1918, they were closing in on the Red Sox and Indians when the government’s “work or fight” order brought the curtain down on the baseball season on Labor Day with Washington four games out, in third place.
Washington’s improved performance during the second decade of the twentieth century was due mostly to Walter Johnson’s pitching. This can be illustrated by a breakdown of its won-lost record into games where Walter was awarded the decision and games won or lost by other pitchers:
Johnson: 265-143, .650
Others: 490-594, .452
Total: 755-737, .507
That Johnson recorded as many losses as he did was due to the mediocre quality of his team’s batting and fielding. This lack of support is reflected by the fact that he holds major-league records for number of 1-0 wins (38) as well as losses (26).
Walter’s peak years were 1912-13, when he went 33-12 and 36-7, winning a Chalmers automobile as American League MVP during the latter year. He was now admired all over America not only for his pitching exploits and his fierce competitiveness, but also for the modesty, humility and dignity with which he conducted himself, never arguing with umpires, berating his teammates for their errors, brushing back hitters or using “foreign substances” on the baseball. At a time when many ballplayers were ruffians and drunkards, Walter was never in a brawl and didn’t patronize saloons.
During the summer of 1913, Walter Johnson met the love of his life, Hazel Lee Roberts, the daughter of Nevada’s congressman. They renewed their acquaintance when Walter returned from Kansas in 1914 and their romance soon became the talk of Washington society. The couple was married June 24, 1914, with the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate officiating. Their marriage was blessed with six children, of whom five lived to adulthood.
Walter’s string of 20-win seasons was broken in 1920 when a combination of a bad cold, a sore arm, and pulled leg muscles limited him to an 8-10 mark in only 21 appearances. He did pitch his first and only no-hitter in the big leagues, on July 1 against the Red Sox. Although his health returned in 1921 and he posted a 17-14 record, tragedy struck when Frank Johnson died of a stroke in July and two-year-old daughter Elinor died from influenza in December. Burdened with the memories of these tragedies, Walter and Hazel sold their farm and moved away from Coffeyville, eventually making Bethesda, Maryland, their year-round home.
Johnson decided to make 1924, his 18th major-league season, his last hurrah, and planned to become the owner of a team in the Pacific Coast League following the season. But Washington owner Clark Griffith finally had assembled a team worthy of its pitching ace, and the Senators captured their first American League pennant. A rejuvenated Walter Johnson was the key to their victory and was the league’s MVP, delivering a 23-7 record and leading the league in wins, ERA, strikeouts and shutouts.
Facing John McGraw‘s New York Giants in the opening game of one of the most dramatic World Series of all time, Walter pitched well but lost 4-3 in 12 innings at Griffith Stadium. Perhaps still tired from that 165-pitch effort, he turned in a lackluster performance in the fifth game, losing 6-2 in the Polo Grounds. The Senators were now one game away from elimination and it looked as though Walter Johnson might never have another chance at World Series glory.
In the sixth game, however, Washington rallied for a 2-1 win behind Tom Zachary to set the stage for the seventh game. On a beautiful Indian summer afternoon, as the Giants and Senators battled to the finish, an ovation echoed across Griffith Stadium when Johnson headed for the bullpen in the sixth inning. In the top of the ninth, manager Bucky Harris, who had just singled in two runs to tie the score at 3-3, called the Big Train in to pitch. He handed him the ball with the words, “You’re the best we’ve got, Walter. We’ve got to win or lose with you.”9
Walter didn’t disappoint his manager, or his millions of fans, holding the Giants scoreless for four innings, pitching his way into and out of one jam after another. Twice, after giving intentional walks to Ross Youngs, he fanned major-league RBI champ George Kelly. Washington secured its only world championship in the bottom of the 12th inning, when Muddy Ruel scored on an Earl McNeely ground ball that hit a pebble and bounced over the head of Giants third baseman Fred Lindstrom.
Following his World Series triumph, Johnson traveled to California, visiting his boyhood home in Olinda, pitching an exhibition game against Babe Ruth, visiting Hollywood movie studios and trying to wrap up ownership of a PCL team. After the purchase fell through, he decided to return to Washington for yet another big-league campaign. 1925 was a superb season for Washington. The Senators won the pennant handily and Walter delivered his final 20-win season while setting a record for the highest batting average by a pitcher, .433. But the 1925 World Series turned out to be the exact opposite of the 1924 triumph. After Walter notched 4-1 and 4-0 wins, disaster struck in the seventh game on a muddy, rainy day in Pittsburgh. In a game which should never have been played, Walter and his team went down to a 9-7 defeat.
After 1927, his final season, Walter Johnson managed for a year at Newark in the International League, then returned to Washington, where he served as manager for four seasons. He also managed at Cleveland from 1933-35, where he was constantly under attack by the local press. Although his managerial style was criticized as too easy-going, it should be noted that his teams had an overall winning percentage of .550.
The biggest tragedy of Walter’s later years, though, was Hazel’s death at age 36 on August 1, 1930, apparently the result of exhaustion from a cross-country drive during one of the hottest summers on record. After he lost the woman he idolized, a cloud of melancholy descended over the rest of Johnson’s life, darkening what should have been tranquil, happy years of retirement on his Mountain View Farm in the Maryland countryside.
During his later years, Walter kept busy on the farm, served as Montgomery County commissioner, was brought back by the Senators in 1939 as their broadcaster, and made an unsuccessful run as a Republican for a seat in the U.S. Congress. On June 12, 1939, along with such other greats as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Honus Wagner, Johnson was inducted into the newly-created Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. During World War II, he made several brief playing appearances in war bond games, including serving up pitches to Ruth in Yankee Stadium.
After an illness of several months caused by a brain tumor, Walter Johnson died in Washington at age 59 on December 10, 1946, and is buried next to Hazel at Union Cemetery, in Rockville, Maryland.
An updated version of this biography appears in “20-Game Losers” (SABR, 2017), edited by Bill Nowlin and Emmet R. Nowlin. This biography originally appeared in “Deadball Stars of the American League“ (Potomac Books, 2006), edited by David Jones.
In addition to the sources in the Notes, the author also consulted:
Lane, F. C., “At Coffeyville with Walter Johnson.” Baseball Magazine, April 1915.
Thomas, Henry W. “The Weiser Wonder,” (Walter Johnson in Idaho), in Grandstand Baseball Annual (Downey, California: Joseph M. Wayman, 1995).
Thomas, Henry W. and Charles W. Carey, “The California Comet — Walter Johnson in the Golden State,” Grandstand Baseball Annual, 1995.
1 Frank Graham, Baseball Magazine, February 1947.
2 J. Conrad Guest, “Ty Cobb talks about the greatest pitcher he ever faced,” Detroit Athletic Co., at https://www.detroitathletic.com/blog/2013/01/02/ty-cobb-talks-about-the-greatest-pitcher-he-ever-faced/
3 Shirley Povich, Washington Post, December 12, 1946 – two days after Johnson’s death.
4 Henry W. Thomas, Walter Johnson, Baseball’s Big Train (Arlington, Virginia: Phenom Press, 1995), 12.
6 Chris Jensen, Baseball State by State: Major and Negro League Players, Ballparks, Museums (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2012), 106.
7 James E. Odenkirk, “Seven—Come Eleven,” The Journal of the Emeritus College at ASU. https://emerituscollege.asu.edu/sites/default/files/ecdw/EVoice10/7come11.html
8 Wild Bill Donovan, quoted in Washington Post, August 3, 1907.