May 12, 1926: Walter Johnson records 400th career win
Twenty-four major-league pitchers have won 300 or more games during their respective careers.1 Two of the 24 have more than 400 wins. Leading baseball with 511 wins in his 22-year major-league career is Cy Young.2 In second place on the all-time wins list is the Washington Senators’ durable right-hander, Walter Johnson.3 The Big Train recorded his 400th victory on May 12, 1926, a 7-4 win over the St. Louis Browns in his home ballpark, Griffith Stadium.
In 1926, the Senators were coming off their second consecutive World Series appearance, a stirring seven-game loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Senators (17-11) went into the May 12 game in a three-way tie for first place in the American League with the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees. The Browns (a woeful 7-20) were in last place, 9½ games out.
The 38-year-old Johnson was 5-1, and this start was his first attempt to capture win No. 400. He had won No. 399 on May 7 against the Chicago White Sox. Starting for the Browns was one of Johnson’s former Washington teammates (1919-25), Tom Zachary, who had a record of three wins and five losses. The Senators had traded Zachary to the Browns in February. The big bats in the St. Louis lineup were George Sisler, coming off a .345 season and Ken Williams, who had hit 25 home runs and had 125 runs batted in the previous campaign. The Senators were paced by player-manager Bucky Harris, Sam Rice, Goose Goslin, and Joe Judge.
Johnson had started his career with three mediocre seasons (a total of 32 wins and 48 losses for three mediocre Washington teams). Then from 1910 to 1919 he won at least 23 games in every season but one (in that one, he won 20), and totaled 265 wins over that span. In 1912 he won 33 games with 12 losses, and in 1913 he was even better, winning 36, losing only seven, and snaring the American League MVP Award.4 Johnson was beset by injuries in 1920, pitching in only 21 games and posting an 8-10 record; the sole bright spot in that season was his only career no-hitter. He returned to form in 1924 and 1925, winning 23 and 20 games respectively.
As St. Louis and Washington got to work that Wednesday afternoon, the Senators took a 3-0 lead after two innings off Zachary, who was making his first appearance in Washington since the February trade. St. Louis tied the score in the top of the fourth inning, only to see Washington go ahead 4-3 with a run in the bottom of the inning.
After a scoreless fifth and sixth, the Browns got a run in the seventh and again tied the game.5 But just as they had done earlier in the game, the Senators went back ahead, scoring two runs in their half of the seventh inning for a 6-4 lead.
The Senators added another run in the eighth and St. Louis could not score in the top of the ninth, which gave the Senators a 7-4 victory and Johnson win No. 400, in his 20th year in the American League, all with Washington.6
That spring, a writer had asked Johnson if he was worried about how his arm was responding after all the mileage. “I’m not worried about the arm,” Johnson said. “It’s the legs. They feel wobbly every time I stride on them.”8
The legs didn’t fail Johnson this day — he went the distance despite the two mild Browns uprisings and finished them off on nine hits and two walks to reach the milestone. Zachary took the loss, lasting seven innings. No puzzle to his former teammates, he gave up 13 hits and all seven Senators’ runs and did not walk or strike out a batter. Two of the Senators’ runs were unearned, as the Browns made three errors, two by Zachary himself.9
Zachary was traded back to Washington on July 7, 1927. Later that season, on September 30, Johnson donned his uniform as a player for the last time; he pinch-hit for Zachary in the ninth inning after Zachary had yielded Babe Ruth’s 60th home run of the season an inning earlier.
In addition to the game story and other sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites, Jack Kavanagh’s Walter Johnson: A Life (South Bend, Indiana: Diamond Communications, 1995), Henry Thomas’s Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train (Washington: Phenom Press, 1995), and the sports section of The (Nashville) Tennessean published October 1, 1927.
1 BaseballAlmanac.com, “300 Game Winners,” accessed on February 21, 2017.
2 Ibid. Johnson won 417 games in his career.
4 Kevin Larkin, “The Big Train No-Hits the Red Sox,” SABR Games Project: http://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/july-1-1920-big-train-no-hits-red-sox.
5 N.W. Baxter, “Browns Fail After Count Is Tied, Johnson Is Unsteady But Holds Foes Off Near Finish,”Washington Post, May 23, 1926: 15.
6 “Old Walt Johnson in Twentieth Year, Pitches 400th Win,”Chicago Tribune, May 13, 1926: 21.
7 “Browns Bow To Nationals,” Detroit Free Press, May 13, 1926: 18.
8 Billy Evans, “Billy Evans Says,” Wilmington (DE) Evening Journal, May 13, 1926:18.
9 “Johnson Wins 5th in a Row, Zachary No Puzzle to Old Teammates and Senators Beat Browns 7-4,” New York Times, May 13, 1926: 28.