Since he became a workhorse pitcher in 1908, Walter Johnson had become a model of both consistency and durability.1 Between 1910 and 1919 Johnson pitched in 454 games; he won 265 of them, including at least 20 in each of those 10 seasons. During the 10 seasons Johnson cemented his legacy as one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. His reputation as “The Big Train” was burnished by this addition to his portfolio.
In 1920 Johnson would not reach double figures in wins. But on Thursday, July 1, he accomplished something for the only time in his storied career, a no-hitter, pitched against the Boston Red Sox. After the no-hitter, Johnson pitched only twice more the rest of the season (he lost both games) because of a bad cold, a sore arm, and pulled leg muscles. But he recovered to comeback solidly for six more years and a lesser final season in 1927.2
The pitching matchup in this game had Johnson pitching for the Senators and Harry Harper on the mound for the Red Sox. Harper’s performance in this game was exemplary as he walked only one batter.
The Red Sox had several good hitters on their team,among them right fielder and captain Harry Hooper, once part of a great Red Sox outfield along with Duffy Lewis and Tris Speaker; and first baseman Stuffy McInnis, who had been part of the Philadelphia Athletics’ “$100,000 infield” along with Frank Baker, Jack Barry, and Eddie Collins. Sportswriters came up with that description when Philadelphia owner-manager Connie Mack said he would not take $100,000 for the four. As for the Senators’ batting lineup, Joe Judge, Bucky Harris, Clyde Milan, and Sam Rice were a handful for a pitcher to have to face.
During the course of his career Johnson became well known for pitching in one-run games for some of the worst teams in baseball.3 Johnson being Johnson, he usually found a way to win. In 1-0 games Johnson had a career record of 38 wins and 26 losses. This game exemplified his prowess: Despite his problems in 1920, it was as if the Johnson of old was on the mound.
Most no-hitters and perfect games have moments that test a player’s mental toughness and physical ability as he strives to preserve a pitching masterpiece. This was one of them. Early on, Johnson fell behind in the count but managed to escape. He still had an effective fastball and used it along with superb control throughout the game to get out of any jams he encountered.
After a scoreless first inning, the Senators created some excitement in the top of the second when Howie Shanks led off with a single. Center fielder Wally Schang, usually a catcher but with some time in the outfield, bobbled the ball momentarily but threw out Shanks trying to stretch the hit into a double. Harper pitched on, retiring Red Shannon and then striking out Bucky Harris.
In the top of the third inning, Washington’s Val Picinich singled leading off and was forced at second base by Joe Judge. Harper tried to pick Judge off first base but an errant throw allowed Judge to move to second base. He ended up stranded there when Clyde Milan could not bring him home.
Harper struck out Braggo Roth for the second time in the Washington fourth. Shanks got his second single of the day but continued his misadventures on the bases when he was caught trying to steal second base and was out by 15 feet.4
Johnson struck out Hooper and Mike McNally in the Boston fourth. Schang and McInnis met the same fate in the fifth as Johnson continued to roll along. In the sixth inning, he whiffed Roxy Walters and Harper as his seventh and eighth victims.5
Through six innings Harper had matched Johnson, but the Senators broke through in the top of the seventh. Sam Rice led off the inning with a single. Roth attempted to bunt him to second base but popped up to first baseman McInnis. McInnis lost the ball in the sun but got Rice at second base as Roth reached first base safely.6
Shanks, hitting next, got his third straight hit of the game, a single that advanced Roth to third base. Harper toughened, striking out Red Shannon, leaving runners at first and third with two outs. Harper then got two strikes on Bucky Harris, but the future big-league manager bounced an infield single over the pitcher’s head, scoring Roth.7 Boston got the third out as the luckless Shanks tried to score behind Roth from second base and “would have been able to score too had he been able to slide. A bat in his path prevented him from hitting the grit as soon as he should have.”8
Johnson had retired 18 straight Red Sox hitters as he took this 1-0 lead into the bottom of the seventh inning. Then fate intervened as Hooper, leading off for Boston, reached first base when second baseman Harris fumbled his “easy” groundball for an error.9 Johnson bore down to get McNally, Mike Menosky, and Schang and strand Hooper at first base. The perfect game was gone, but the no-hitter was still intact.
Johnson retired McInnis, Eddie Foster, and Everett Scott on fly balls in the Red Sox eighth. He was still overpowering as he rolled into the ninth. Benn Karr, pinch-hitting for Roxy Walters, struck out. Red Sox manager Ed Barrow then sent up Hack Eibel to hit for Harper, and Eibel also fanned, Johnson’s 10th strikeout victim.
That left Hooper between Johnson and his first no-hitter. In most pitching masterpieces, there is one defensive play that keeps the gem intact, and on this day Judge at first base would team up with Johnson for the final out. “Hooper hit the ball to Judge, who made a superb running stop,” wrote a Boston scribe. “Johnson covered the bag himself, and the no-hit glory had at last come to the league’s greatest twirler.”10
Before Johnson’s no-hitter, the last one in the major leagues had been thrown by Ray Caldwell of the Cleveland Indians against the New York Yankees on September 10, 1919. The next no-hitter after Johnson’s was a perfect game by Charlie Robertson of the White Sox against the Tigers in Detroit on April 30, 1922.
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, Jack Kavanagh’s Walter Johnson: A Life (South Bend, Indiana: Diamond Communications, 1995), and Henry W. Thomas’s Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train (Washington, DC: Phenom Press, 1995).
1 Johnson debuted in 1907 and pitched 110⅓ innings in 14 games with 12 starts. Over the next 12 seasons he pitched no fewer than 256⅓ innings in a season until 1920, when he pitched 143⅔ innings.
3 Johnson pitched for Washington his entire career. From his debut in 1907 through 1919, the team only twice finished as high as second in the American League.
4 Paul H. Shannon, “W. Johnson Pitches a No-Hit, No-Run,” Boston Post, July 2,1920: 15.
8 J.V. Fitz Gerald, “Johnson Pitches No-Hit No-Run Game,” Washington Post, July 2, 1920: 10.