One hundred years ago last Friday, the pastoral peace of Humboldt, Kan., (pop. 1,841) was disturbed by the cries of a newborn child of the plains. Whereupon, the family Bible came down from its resting place and on its flypiece was inscribed the name: "Walter Perry Johnson."
On a day 49 years later, in 1936, five acknowledged giants of the game were saluted as the first players selected for Baseball's Hall of Fame. They were inducted as a group to avoid preferences. Their names: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson. And not the least of these was Johnson.
Consider that day in 1887 in Humboldt. Who would have dared then to predict that the name of its newest man-child would ring through major league baseball for two decades as the master of the fastest and most feared strikeout pitch known to the game; and as a player who would offer more shutouts than any other pitcher in baseball history; as the gentle and most modest of men who, incidentally, put his name in the record book more times--67--than any other player who ever worked from the pitching mound.
So fanciful were his feats, so fabled a figure was Johnson, so all-fired fast was his fastball, that legend couldn't wait on the death of the man, as properly it was supposed to do. Only by overdrawing the tales of Johnson's speed in the stories that sprung up during his lifetime could the dominant pitching skills of the man be defined.
On a day in 1915, Ray Chapman was the hitter facing Johnson for the Cleveland Indians. First one, then another blurred streak of white hissed past Chapman's cocked but motionless bat.
"Strike two!" said umpire Billy Evans.
Suddenly, Chapman tossed his bat away and headed for the Cleveland bench. "It's only strike two!" yelled Evans. Chapman said, without breaking stride, "I know, and you can have the next one. It won't do me any good."
Evans, the most famed of American League umpires, was the source of another account of Johnson's speed. This was in a game at Philadelphia, now in the 17th inning, as Evans recalled it:
"Eddie Ainsmith was hurt and the Senators' third-string catcher, Rippy Williams, was having a horrible time catching Johnson's pitches. He was still throwing cannonballs and one of Johnson's pitches nicked me on the ear. I took off my mask and announced 'Game called on account of darkness,' and headed for the dugout. There was some daylight left, but I reckoned my life was worth more than a couple more innings."
It was Ping Bodie who added to the Johnson legend when he took three strikes with his bat on his shoulder and returned to the Yankees' dugout moaning, "You can't hit what you can't see." And Ring Lardner hauled Johnson into his script when he wrote "Horseshoes," quoting his fictional rookie like this:
"They can't tell me he throws them balls with his arm. He's got a gun concealed on his person and he shoots 'em up there. I was leading off in Murphy's place and I just tried to meet the first one and stuck out my bat. When I did, Henry (a John Henry caught for Washington), was throwing the pill back to Johnson. Then I thought if I start swinging now at the second one, I'll hit the third one. . . . "
Other baseball greats were justly famed and much admired, but of all the game's stars, Walter Johnson may have been the most beloved. It may be accurate to say he was more taken to heart, perhaps as a recognition that so much of his career was tied to the misfortunes of second division and last place Washington Senators teams for whom he toiled 21 years (1907-27). As an instance, in his five starts during the month of July in 1909, the feeble Senators didn't get a run.
Johnson was probably the finest pitcher of his time, strikeout king, shutout king, a 20-game winner for nine straight seasons, still the American League's winning pitcher, 23-7, at the age of 37 and winner of 416 games, more than any other American Leaguer. Dizzy Dean got into the Hall of Fame by winning 150 games. As another reference point, Johnson defeated one team, the Detroit Tigers, 66 times.
At the same time he was in a class by himself as a pitcher, Johnson was also a sympathy figure. An entire nation prayed for the Senators to win the 1924 pennant and thus give Johnson a World Series role at last. When they did, and when Johnson lost his first two starts against the Giants, there was a national sadness. When he ambled into the seventh game as a relief pitcher with the score tied in the ninth and reached back to deliver four shutout innings and clinch the world championship for the Senators, America celebrated.
He wasn't the typical fastballer who fitted the image of the big right-hander coming in overhand with smoking speed. Johnson's fastball came out of a sweeping sidearm delivery, even a bit underhand. He once said, "I give hitters a good look at my pitch. Some of these fellows who pitch out of their shirts have an advantage."
The baseball writers of Johnson's era tagged him with names like "The Big Train" and "Barney" (for Barney Oldfield) to denote the ultimate in speed. They also took to calling him "The Big Swede," which was inaccurate because Johnson's distant ancestry was German. He didn't take the trouble to deny he was Swedish, " 'cause, there are a lot of nice Swedish people, I guess. I don't want to offend anybody."
He was like that. One day in Boston when center fielder Clyde Milan let a ball go through his legs for an error that cost Johnson a 1-0 defeat, what was Johnson's reaction? "Y'know, Clyde doesn't do that very often."