This article was written by Kevin Larkin
World Series.1 In 1979 New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson perished in an airplane crash in Canton, Ohio.2 However on August 2, 1907, a 19-year-old right-hander, Walter Johnson, made his major-league debut, against the Detroit Tigers at American League Park II in Washington. Johnson, who was born in Humboldt, Kansas, on November 6, 1887, had signed a contract that paid him $450/month. He joined the Washington Senators in July 1907.
Johnson made his debut on the mound for manager Joe Cantillon against a Detroit squad that included future Hall of Fame players Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford. It was the first of two games on August 2; the second game was a rematch of a rainout on June 13.
Since debuting in the American League in 1901, Washington had finished no higher than sixth in the standings. After two more dismal finishes in 1908 (seventh) and 1909 (eighth), sportswriter and humorist Charles Dryden in 1904 coined the phrase, “Washington — first in war, first in peace and last in the American League.”3 The Senators entered game one of the twin bill having lost 10 of their previous 14 games (there was a 0-0 tie on July 19, a 12-inning contest with the Cleveland Naps). The Senators were 28-58 with two ties, in eighth place. Detroit was in second place, trailing the Chicago White Sox by two games.
Johnson’s mound opponent was left-hander Ed Siever, who had made his debut in the majors in 1901. A year later he led all American League pitchers with a 1.91 ERA.
According to the Washington Herald, “Johnson, who was recently un-earthed in the wilds of Idaho by scouts from Cantillon’s camp, gave one of the most remarkable exhibitions of pitching ever witnessed in this city.”4 Further, Johnson was facing batters he had never seen, “and with a strange catcher and a makeshift infield, the Weiser Wonder was a decided success in his initial performance.”5
For the first six innings, “Johnson had allowed but three hits and two were bunts which a more experienced man would have handled.”6 In the second inning, Cobb and Claude Rossman laid down the bunts. Cobb went from first to third on Rossman’s bunt, then scored on a fly ball by Red Downs.
The Tigers scored their second run in the eighth inning on a home run by Crawford. Washington had scored a run in the sixth inning. Catcher Mike Heydon walked. Johnson laid down a bunt but was hit by the ball and declared out, with Heydon returning to first. Otis Clymer struck out, and Bob Ganley walked. Washington first baseman Jim Delahanty’s fly ball to right field fell in for a hit and Heydon scored from second. Ganley tried to score from first but was thrown out at the plate.
In the eighth, Wahoo Sam Crawford earned the admiration of the Detroit Free Press, which wrote that he “broke into the limelight with great brilliancy by knocking a home run to the scoreboard, his great speed in going around the bases sharing honors with this mighty hit.”7
In the ninth inning, Detroit scored a third run, against Tom Hughes, who had relieved Johnson. Rossman led off with a double to right. Red Downs bunted. Catcher Heydon fielded the bunt but his throw to first hit Downs. Second baseman Rabbit Nill “gathered up the ball and by a good throw the catcher headed off Rossman at the plate as he was trying to score on the play.”8 Boss Schmidt then singled and Downs came home when Charley O’Leary also singled to center.
Washington rallied in bottom of the ninth but came up short. With one out Charlie Jones singled and Nill hit a drive to right field. The ball got away from Cobb; Jones scored and Nill took third to make the score 3-2. Dave Altizer attempted a squeeze-play bunt but failed to touch the ball and Nill was caught between third and home and was tagged out. With the bases empty, Altizer singled to center, and third baseman Bill Coughlin fumbled Bill Shipke’s grounder. But Hank Gehring, pinch-hitting for Heydon, struck out to end the game.
Rossman, Downs, Schmidt, and O’Leary each had two hits for Detroit in addition to the home run by Crawford. Siever pitched a complete game, allowing five hits, walking three, and striking out six.
Nill led the Washington offense with two hits, including a triple, with Delahanty adding a double. Hughes pitched the ninth inning in relief of Johnson, allowing four hits while striking out two.
Johnson pitched well in his first major-league appearance, despite taking the loss. In eight innings he allowed six hits and two runs, walked one batter and struck out the first three batters of the 3,509 he totaled for his career.
After the game, Cobb had nothing but praise for Johnson, saying, “We couldn’t touch him. … Every one of us knew we’d met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ball park.”9
Johnson’s performance drew the praise of his fellow future Hall of Famer, Ty Cobb, who commented, “His fastball looked about the size of a watermelon seed and it hissed at you as it passed.”10
Some time later Cobb said of his introduction to Johnson, “On August 2, 1907, I encountered the most threatening sight I ever saw in the ball field. He was a rookie, and we licked our lips as we warmed up for the first game of a doubleheader in Washington. Evidently, manager Pongo Joe Cantillon of the Nats had picked a rube out of the cornfields of the deepest bushes to pitch against us. He was a tall, shambling galoot of about twenty, with arms so long they hung far out of his sleeves, and with a sidearm delivery that looked unimpressive at first glance. One of the Tigers imitated a cow mooing, and we hollered at Cantillon: ‘Get the pitchfork ready, Joe –your hayseed’s on his way back to the barn.’
“The first time I faced him, I watched him take that easy windup. And then something went past me that made me flinch.”11
In addition to the game story and box-score sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites.
3 Baseballhall.org J.G. Taylor Spink Award series. Dryden’s phrase was a play on the words of Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, who had served under George Washington in the Revolutionary War: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
4 “Johnson a Wizard,” Washington Herald, August 3, 1907: 8.
5 Washington Herald.
6 J. Ed Grillo, “Lose Two to Tigers,” Washington Post, August 3, 1907: 8.
7 “Crawford Helps in First Game with Mighty Home Run,” Detroit Free Press, August 3, 1907: 6.
8 “Crawford Helps in First Game with Mighty Home Run.”
9 J. Conrad Guest, quoted in https://vintagedetroit.com/blog/2013/01/02/ty-cobb-talks-about-the-greatest-pitcher-he-ever-faced/. Accessed October 16, 2020.
11 J. Conrad Guest.