In 1913 future Hall of Fame right-hander Walter Johnson earned wins that stopped 18 losing streaks by his Washington Senators. He did it again 10 times in 1914 and 17 times in 1915. By the end of May 1916, he had stopped two more Washington losing streaks; on June 1 he was on the mound again, trying to stop a three-game slide against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. His pitching opponent that day was Babe Ruth, Boston’s 21-year-old left-hander. Ruth had defeated the Senators and Johnson in two previous head-to-head meetings, on August 14, 1915, and earlier in 1916, on April 17.
Boston had beaten Washington in the first three games of their four-game set, sweeping a May 30 doubleheader and winning again a day later. The losses dropped Washington into a first-place tie in the American League with the Cleveland Indians, both with records of 24-15. Boston was fourth, three games back at 21-18.
The series in Boston marked the beginning of an arduous 26-game road trip for Washington that was scheduled to end nearly a month later with a six-game series against the New York Yankees at the Polo Grounds.
For the Thursday afternoon series finale against the Red Sox, Washington manager Clark Griffith looked to Johnson as his would-be stopper. Boston’s Bill Carrigan chose Ruth. This was the third career meeting on the mound for the two pitching greats and the second of the 1916 season. Johnson had not yet been able to put a loss on Ruth’s pitching ledger.
Johnson fared no better in this game. His defense committed three errors that led to one unearned run, which turned out to be the only one Ruth needed. “The lone run of the great pitching duel [was] a pure gift in the eighth inning,” reported the Washington Post.1 The result was a fourth consecutive loss by the Senators in Boston, this one coming against Griffith’s top pitcher, one of the best in baseball.
“Before the game, a concert entertained the crowd of 7,934 with [Washington infielder] Carl Sawyer assisting as bandleader. Then Bill Carrigan and Clark Griffith raised the [Red Sox’ 1915 American League] pennant after the customary march from home plate to center field,” wrote the Washington Times.2
In the Senators’ first inning, Ray Morgan grounded out to shortstop Hal Janvrin. Ruth got Eddie Foster to fly out to Tillie Walker in center field; Clyde Milan grounded out to Ruth. It was an equally easy one-two-three inning for Johnson as Olaf Henriksen flied out to Henri Rondeau in left field. Mike McNally struck out, and Duffy Lewis grounded out to shortstop George McBride.
Ruth cleared Washington without a baserunner, striking out two, in the second inning. In the Boston half, Dick Hoblitzell reached first on an error by Rondeau. Walker flied out, but Larry Gardner singled, sending Hoblitzell to second and putting Johnson in a bit of a jam for the first time. He got Janvrin on a fly ball to center for the second out with both runners advancing a base. But Boston didn’t score; Pinch Thomas grounded back to Johnson for the third out.
In the third inning Ruth encountered some mild trouble of his own. He struck out Eddie Ainsmith, but McBride got the first Washington hit of the day, a single. Ruth hit Joe Judge with a pitch but rallied to fan Morgan and get Foster on a groundball to Janvrin.
It was an uneventful fourth – both Ruth and Johnson recorded clean innings. In the fifth, Ruth gave up an inning-opening walk without damage. When Boston batted, Thomas singled with one out and went to second when Ruth walked. Henricksen’s groundball yielded a force at second, leaving Boston with runners at first and third with two outs. Henriksen stole second but Johnson struck out McNally looking, to strand the runners. McNally had been especially futile against Johnson; it was already his third strikeout of the afternoon.
Ruth allowed a pair of one-out singles in the sixth inning to Foster and Milan, but got Danny Moeller on a fly ball and struck out Johnson. Johnson responded with an easy one-two-three half-inning. It was still a scoreless game.
In Washington’s seventh, McBride reached on a two-out error by Janvrin but Ruth pitched around it, inducing Judge to ground out, avoiding further trouble. Janvrin atoned with a one-out single in the Boston half but was caught attempting to steal second base. Johnson walked Thomas but struck out Ruth to end the inning.
Ruth logged another one-two-three inning in the eighth. Then things broke his way in the bottom half. McNally finally got his bat on the ball and singled to left field with one out. Lewis reached on a “pure gift” error3 by McBride at shortstop, advancing McNally to second.
The error proved costly. Hoblitzell followed with a groundball. Washington turned it into a force of Lewis at second, but McNally hustled home from second to score the first run of the game. “Mike McNally who is subbing for Jack Barry, is a hero in this town tonight, for McNally by a daring bit of base running, came all the way from second base on a force play and scored what proved to be Boston’s only run, winning a hard fought battle from the Griffmen,” wrote a rueful Washington sports scribe.4
In the top of the ninth, Ruth protected his one-run lead. Moeller rolled back to him for the first out. The lefty then got both Johnson and Howie Shanks on groundballs to second baseman McNally to complete a 1-0 Red Sox win. It was Ruth’s third head-to-head win over Johnson in as many tries.
The Boston Globe enthused: “The score was 1 to 0. It had been one of the best played games of the year. The band had been tearing off various little things including Tessie, the songbirds had been warbling, and besides, the American League championship flag had been raised.”5
Stanley Milliken of the Washington Post provided an apt summary of the game: “Although it ended 1 to 0, there is no telling how far ‘Babe’ Ruth and Johnson would have struggled before a verdict was reached had the latter received better support. Johnson succumbed only because of bad baseball behind him.”6 The Big Train, 28 and already pitching in his 10th season for the Senators, had weathered the first two errors, but the eighth-inning bungle, coupled with McNally’s heady baserunning, was his downfall.
Washington had just three hits off Ruth, singles by Foster, Milan and McBride. Johnson allowed four hits, walked two, and struck out six. McNally, Gardner, Janvrin, and Thomas had the four Boston hits, all singles. Ruth, besides allowing the three singles, walked one and struck out six. Although he went hitless in the game with a pair of strikeouts, Johnson, a good hitter, went into the game with an offensive line of .282/.364/.436. Griffith had him batting fifth against Ruth, the first time in 1916 that Johnson had batted other than ninth in the order as a starting pitcher.7
Ruth, now 3-0 against Johnson dating back to 1915, improved his 1916 record to 7-3 with a 2.06 ERA. Johnson’s 1916 log went to 9-4 (2.04).
Author’s note and acknowledgments
This is the third in a series of Games Project accounts intended to present each of the starting mound matchups between Hall of Famers Babe Ruth and Walter (“The Big Train”) Johnson between 1915 and 1918. Johnson had been pitching for the Senators for eight seasons and was an established star before left-handed pitcher George Herman Ruth, later to be immortalized as “Babe,” debuted with the Boston Red Sox in 1914. R08-05uth and Johnson started against each other on eight occasions, starting in 1915 and extending through three of Ruth’s seasons in Boston, before the Red Sox dealt him to the New York Yankees on December 26, 1919. Although Johnson continued to pitch through 1927, the Yankees, recognizing Ruth’s prowess as a hitter, moved him to the outfield. He and Johnson never again met as starting pitcher opponents after October 3, 1917.
This series was conceived in mid-2020 just as John Fredland was being installed as the new chair of the SABR Games Project committee. The author appreciates John’s enthusiastic support of the series and suggestions for elements to improve the original concept. Jack Zerby, who introduced the author to the SABR Games Project in 2017, assisted with first-review vetting. Thanks to both.
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: Phenom Press, 1995).
1 Stanley Milliken, “Present Red Sox With Tally; Enough to Defeat Nationals,” Washington Post, June 2, 1916: 8.
2 Louis A. Dougher, “Griffmen Playing Poorly at Present on Start of Swing,” Washington Times, June 2, 1916: 14.
4 William Peet, “Morgan Slumbers and Boston Wins,” Washington Herald, June 2, 1916: 10.
5 Edward F. Martin, “Sox Make It Four Straight,” Boston Globe, June 2, 1916: 6. The “Tessie” reference is to a popular sing of the day adopted by Boston’s Royal Rooters as their theme song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-5FIUHlPYM, accessed May 2, 2021.
7 Twice in 1916 prior to June 1 (on April 15 and in the first game of a May 30 doubleheader in Boston), Johnson had pinch-hit in the number seven spot. Griffith batted Johnson higher than ninth as a starting pitcher 10 more times in 1916, but this was the only time he hit as high as fifth. Over his 21-year career, Johnson, who hit right-handed, batted .235 with 24 home runs and 255 RBIs. But he had little success against lefty Ruth. In 24 at-bats against Ruth, Johnson managed two hits (.083) and drew a walk. Walter Johnson Batter-Pitcher Matchup log, Retrosheet.org, https://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/J/MU0_johnw102.htm, accessed May 2, 2021.