May 7, 1917: Babe Ruth gets the best of Walter Johnson in 1-0 shutout at Griffith Stadium
Seeking their third straight World Series championship and their fourth in six seasons, the Boston Red Sox opened 1917 with 10 wins in their first 14 games. Their hot start included a two-game sweep of the Washington Senators at Fenway Park in late April.
Boston’s Babe Ruth and Washington’s Walter Johnson had faced each other five times over the previous four seasons, but at Fenway Park their turns in the rotation did not match up. Ruth survived seven walks and two Red Sox errors to win the series opener on April 25, 5-4. A day later, Boston broke open a close contest with five eighth-inning runs against Johnson for a 7-1 win.
On May 7 Boston traveled to the nation’s capital for a rematch with the Senators in a three-game series at Griffith Stadium. This time, the stars were aligned. The 22-year-old Ruth, who had won 23 games, led the AL with a 1.75 ERA, and won a 14-inning game in the World Series in 1916, faced the 29-year-old Johnson, the league leader in wins for the past four seasons and strikeouts for the past five.
The two pitchers had met five times previously, and Ruth had yet to lose to Johnson. Four of the five games had been decided by one run; three were 1-0 games.1 Ruth entered his sixth career start against Johnson with a record of 5-0 through his first five outings of 1917 and a 2.20 earned-run average, with the Red Sox – aided by Ruth’s .474 batting average – averaging 5.6 runs per start. Johnson was 2-3 in five starts with a 2.23 ERA; two hard-luck losses to the New York Yankees made his record look worse than his performance indicated.
With American League President Ban Johnson in attendance, the sixth Ruth-Johnson matchup was a pitching duel from start to finish. For the first seven innings, neither the Red Sox nor the Senators were able to score a run, with nary a runner reaching second base.
Washington managed only four baserunners against Ruth during that stretch. Clyde Milan walked in the first, Eddie Ainsmith singled in the third, Sam Rice reached on third baseman Larry Gardner’s error in the fourth, and George McBride had an infield single in the fifth. Thanks to a caught-stealing and a double play, Ruth faced only two batters over the minimum through seven innings.
If anything, Johnson was even better. He retired the first 15 Red Sox in order, needing only 41 pitches to get through five innings while striking out five and allowing just two fly balls to the outfield.2
Everett Scott snapped Johnson’s unblemished streak when he led off the sixth with a single. Pinch Thomas sacrificed him to second, setting up Ruth and Harry Hooper – both of whom later joined Johnson in the Baseball Hall of Fame – with the chance to drive in the game’s first run. But Johnson fanned Ruth and retired Hooper on a fly ball to strand Scott.
Boston threatened again in the seventh. Shortstop Jack Barry – double-hatted as Red Sox manager after Bill Carrigan resigned after the 1916 season – drew Johnson’s only walk of the game. One out later, Duffy Lewis singled Barry to second. Johnson, however, induced groundballs from Tillie Walker and Gardner, keeping the game scoreless.
The Red Sox finally broke through in the top of the eighth, after Johnson had limited them to two hits through seven innings. “The ‘Coffeyville Cyclone’3 was giving the champions a tough fight,” the Washington Times reported. “Two hits had been made off his speed and curves without avail when the eighth inning came along.”4
Scott again started Boston off with a hit, grounding a double to left. Thomas, as he did in the sixth, attempted to move Scott up with a bunt. Johnson went for the ball but did not come up with it – and also obstructed third baseman Eddie Foster from throwing to first. Thomas was safe on the bunt single; Scott took third.
Ruth followed with a long fly ball to center that scored Scott for a 1-0 Boston lead.
Washington tried to answer in its half of the eighth. Ray Morgan led off with a grounder to shortstop and reached first when Scott’s throw was wild for an error.
But McBride struck out, disputing umpire Brick Owens’s strike calls during the at-bat and finally “delivering a hot speech, also tossing his bat, which was wrapped with rage, towards the dugout.”5 Owens ejected McBride, and Washington’s would-be rally was soon over when Eddie Ainsmith fanned and Thomas gunned down Morgan attempting to steal second.
Ruth retired the Senators in the ninth inning with no difficulty to preserve the win, his sixth of 1917 against no losses. It was the third two-hit complete game of his career. Ruth improved to 6-0 lifetime against Johnson; it was the third time in the last four Ruth-Johnson matchups that the score was 1-0.
A distinguished spectator among the announced crowd of 962 at Griffith Stadium was impressed with the pitching duel.
“That was one of the best ball games I’ve ever seen,” Ban Johnson told the Washington Post. “I have never seen better playing in a world’s series contest. It was a treat to be in the stand and watch two masterful twirlers as Johnson and Ruth.”6
Ruth finished 1917 with a record of 24 wins and 13 losses and a 2.01 ERA. He led the AL with 35 complete games. The Red Sox, however, had their streak of World Series championships end at two. They wound up in second place, nine games behind the Chicago White Sox, winning 90 games, losing 62, with 5 ties.
Johnson had a final record of 23 wins and 16 losses, a 2.21 ERA and a league-leading 188 strikeouts. Washington finished in fifth place in the AL with a 74-79 record, trailing the White Sox by 25½ games.
The two aces opposed each other as starters twice more, once more in 1917 on October 3 and once in 1918 on May 9, giving Johnson two more opportunities to gain a win over Ruth.
This article was fact-checked by Russ Walsh and copy-edited by Len Levin.
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.
1 Ruth and Johnson had previously matched up on August 14, 1915, in Boston; April 17, 1916, in Boston; June 1, 1916, in Boston; August 15, 1916, in Boston; and September 9, 1916, in Washington.
2 Washington Post game coverage provided Johnson’s pitch counts for the first six innings; the Washington Herald reported that he threw 94 pitches in the game. “Johnson Kept Red Sox at Sea Early in Game,” Washington Post, May 8, 1917: 8; John A. Dugan, “Boston Red Sox Take Close Game from Griffmen, 1 to 0: Babe Ruth Annexes His Sixth Straight Victory in Great Duel With Johnson,” Washington Herald, May 8, 1917: 10.
3 Johnson was given this nickname because he hailed from the town of Coffeyville, Kansas.
4 “Johnson’s Anxiety Is Costly in the Pinch,” Washington Times, May 8, 1917: 11.
5 Edward F. Martin, “Johnson Vanquished by Ruth in Pitching Duel,” Boston Globe, May 8, 1917: 5.
6 “One of Greatest Games, Says President of A.L.,” Washington Post, May 8, 1917: 11.
Boston Red Sox 1
Washington Senators 0
Box Score + PBP:
If you can help us improve this game story, contact us.