Walter Johnson’s Opening Day Heroics

This article was written by Ron Liebman

This article was published in the 1981 Baseball Research Journal


Walter Johnson’s shutout, strikeout, and victory records (including his remarkable record in winning and losing 1-0 games) have been well documented through the years. An often-overlooked achievement by Johnson is the remarkable success he enjoyed in games played on opening day. Fourteen times he was selected to open the season for Washington, and on these occasions, he hurled no fewer than 12 complete games, with a won-lost record of 9-5 and a remarkable total of seven shutouts. Included in the record total of seven shutouts was a one-hitter, and two extra-inning 1-0 games lasting 13 innings and 15 innings respectively. Johnson’s cumulative hurling on opening day far surpasses that of any other major league pitcher, past or present.

When Johnson joined the Washington team in mid-season 1907, he was considered to be a potential Amos Rusie — Rusie being a New York Giant flamethrower of the 1890s who was the fastest pitcher of his time. It soon became apparent that Johnson’s speed and ability exceeded that of Rusie. Unlike most fast-ball hurlers, Johnson delivered his speedball with a sweeping side-arm motion.

Despite the remarkable record which Johnson was to amass in openers, he did not draw his first assignment until 1910, his third full season with the club. He was sidelined by an ear infection in the spring of 1908 and a heavy cold in the spring of 1909, missing possible assignments. His first opener, on April 14, 1910, was one of baseball’s historic games. President William Howard Taft attended, accepting the invitation of Washington Owner Clark Griffith, and began the perennial custom of the U.S. Chief Executive “throwing out the first ball” at Washington openers. Johnson rose to the occasion, pitching a 1-hit 3-0 shutout against the Philadelphia Athletics. The only hit by Connie Mack’s team was a windblown double by future Hall of Famer Frank Baker, later nicknamed “Home Run” Baker. The great Eddie Plank was the losing hurler. A salary holdout prevented the Big Train from starting in 1911.

Although the city of Washington was later given the historic privilege of having its team open each season at home to permit the U.S. President to “throw out the first ball” of the season, this was not the practice until the late l920s; thus many of Johnson’s openers were played on the road. Washington was the road club when Johnson hurled his second opener in 1912, losing 4-2 to Jack Coombs of Philadelphia at Shibe Park (later Connie Mack Stadium).  Beginning in 1912, Johnson started ten consecutive season-openers for Washington.  Robin Roberts later surpassed this accomplishment by starting 12 in a row for the Phillies (1950-1961). Tom Seaver started 12 openers in a row as well (1968-1979) with 10 for the New York Mets and two for the Cincinnati Reds.

Johnson hurled six additional shutouts after his 1910 game   He beat Ray Collins 3-0 at Boston in 1914; Jack Warhop of the New York Yankees 7-0 in 1915 in Washington; Bullet Joe Bush of the Athletics 3-0 in 1917 in Philadelphia; Scott Perry of the Athletics 1-0 in 13 innings at Washington in 1919; Bryan (Slim) Harriss of the Athletics 4-0 at Washington in 1924; and finally, Eddie Rommel (later an umpire) of the Athletics by a 1-0 count in 15 innings in 1926 at Washington. This last effort, one of his best, came when he was 38 years old.

Walter Johnson also won two opening games in which he did not blank his opponents. He defeated George McConnell of the Yankees 2-1 at Washington in 1913, and beat Ray Caldwell of the Yankees 3-2 in 11 innings at New York in 1916. Three of Johnson’s five opening day losses (including the 1912 loss to Coombs) were complete games. He was routed early, however, in 1920 and 1921, lasting two innings and four innings, respectively. Johnson insisted on taking the 1920 assignment despite an ailing arm which was primarily responsible for his 8-10 record in a season which ended a string of 10 consecutive 20-game victory seasons by the great righthander. (Ironically, Johnson pitched his only 9-inning no-hit game in 1920).

Johnson was not given the starting nod on opening day in either 1922 or 1925. In his final season, 1927, he was hobbled by a broken leg and did not pitch until Decoration Day. Fittingly enough, he hurled a shutout in his first 1927 appearance. Johnson finished the season with a record of only 5-6 and he retired prior to the 1928 season. His final major league appearance was as a pinch-hitter (unsuccessful) in the game in which Babe Ruth hit his 60th home run (September 30, 1927). Johnson was considered a good hitting pitcher as he batted a record .433 in 1925 and had 24 home runs in his career.

Johnson pitched in eight opening day games at home and six on the road. In five of the eight home openers, a President was on hand for the ceremonies. In addition to Taft in 1910, Woodrow Wilson “threw out the first ball” in 1913 and 1915, Warren Harding in 1921, and Calvin Coolidge in 1924.

Although Gabby Street gained fame as the catcher in Johnson’s early triumphs, he left the Washington Senators after the 1911 season and was the backstop only in Johnson’s first opener in 1910. Street had gained some notoriety by catching a baseball dropped from the 555-foot Washington Monument in 1908. He also managed the St. Louis Cardinals to two pennants in later years. Ed Ainsmith was the catcher in six of Johnson’s openers. Other batterymates of Johnson on opening day included Al Williams, Sam Agnew, Ed Gharrity, and Muddy Ruel. In the 15-inning game in 1926, Ruel caught the first 12 innings and Hank Severeid the final three.

Walter Johnson still holds the record of 14 opening game assignments, but Tom Seaver has pitched 13 openers for the New York Mets (10) and Cincinnati Reds (3) and has a chance to break the record. Seaver, who came to the majors at the start of the 1967 season, has failed to start the opening game in only two of his first 15 seasons — his rookie season of 1967 when he started the Mets’ second game, and 1980, when he was sidelined by a virus infection.

Robin Roberts also pitched 13 openers for Philadelphia (12) and Houston (1), and Grover Cleveland Alexander had 12 openers spread over three NL clubs. Alexander won 8 and lost 4 with 10 complete games, but had only one shutout and one other game where he yielded only one run to the opposition.

Seaver is 6-1 with six no-decisions, having only two complete games (one a 5-inning rain-shortened game) and no shutouts, though he did figure in two combined shutouts with Tug McGraw. Roberts was 5-7 with no shutouts. Johnson’s seven shutouts far exceed all others. Rip Sewell and Chris Short share the National League record with three shutouts on opening days, and Bob Feller is the only other American Leaguer with three shutouts. Juan Marichal was the winning pitcher in three opening game shutouts, but he received ninth inning relief help in one of them.

 

Following is a table of Walter Johnson’s 14 opening day starts.

Date                Place   Team   Score     IP   H  BB     SO       Catcher            Opp. Pitcher

4/14/10            H         Phi       W, 3-0    9   1    3        9          Gabby Street   Eddie Plank

4/11/12            R         Phi       L, 4-2     8   7    3        4          Ed Ainsmith    Jack Coombs

4/10/13            H         NY      W, 2-1    9   9    1        3          Ed Ainsmith    Geo. McConnell

4/14/14            R         Bos      W, 3-0    9   5    0        8          Ed Ainsmith    Ray Coffins

4/14/15            H         NY      W, 7-0    9   2    3        3          Ed Ainsmith    Jack Warhop

4/12/16            R         NY      W, 3-2  11   5    0        10        Al Williams    Ray Caldwell

4/11/17            R         Phi       W, 3-0    9   3    3        11        Ed Ainsmith    Joe Bush

4/15/18            H         NY      L, 6-3     9 11    5        2          Ed Ainsmith    Allan Russell

4/23/19            H         Phi       W, 1-0  13  9     3        6          Sam Agnew    Scott Perry

4/15/20            R         Bos      L, 7-6     2   4    2        2          Ed Gharrity     Allan Russell

4/13/21            R         Bos      L, 6-3     4   9    0        2          Ed Gharrity     Sam Jones

4/18/23            R         Phi       L, 3-1     8   6    2        2          Muddy Ruel   Slim Harriss

4/15/24            H         Phi       W, 4-0    9   4    2        8          Muddy Ruel   Slim Harriss

4/13/26            H         Phi       W, 1-0  15   6    3        12        Muddy Ruel    Ed Rommel

                                                                                            Hank Severeid

SUMMARY: Starts, 14; Complete Games, 12; Extra Inning Games, 3; Won 9; Lost 5; Innings, 124; Hits, 81; Runs, 25; Walks, 30; Strikeouts 82; Shutouts, 7; 1-0 Shutouts, 2.

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