Monday, October 8, 2012

Walter "Big Train" Johnson

Rockville, MD         Visited March 2012

Walter Johnson is considered to be one of the greatest pitchers in the early years of Major League Baseball. Nicknamed ‘the Big Train’, Johnson remains first all time in career shutouts, second all time in total wins, and in the top ten in career strikeouts, Known for a blazing fastball and gentlemanly demeanor, he is one of five original inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Walter Perry Johnson was born in 1887 on a farm in Humbolt, Kansas. His family moved to California in 1901 where his father worked in the oil industry. Johnson discovered baseball in high school and semi-pro leagues where his power arm led to great pitching success. He was signed by the Washington Nationals/Senators at the age of 19 in 1907. He pitched his first major league game August 2, 1907 against the first place Detroit Tigers. Young Detroit star Ty Cobb described his first encounter with Johnson this way.

Big Train and Georgia Peach -
could not have been more
different as players or people
"On August 2, 1907, I encountered the most threatening sight I ever saw in the ball field. He was a rookie, and we licked our lips as we warmed up for the first game of a doubleheader in Washington. Evidently, manager Pongo Joe Cantillon of the Nats had picked a rube out of the cornfields of the deepest bushes to pitch against us... He was a tall, shambling galoot of about twenty, with arms so long they hung far out of his sleeves, and with a sidearm delivery that looked unimpressive at first glance... One of the Tigers imitated a cow mooing, and we hollered at Cantillon: 'Get the pitchfork ready, Joe-- your hayseed's on his way back to the barn.'  ...The first time I faced him, I watched him take that easy windup. And then something went past me that made me flinch. The thing just hissed with danger. We couldn't touch him... every one of us knew we'd met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ball park."

Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice gave Johnson the nickname ‘Big Train’, referring both to his stature (a relatively large for the time 6’1 and 200 lbs) and his fastball. While there was no technology in Johnson’s era capable of tracking pitch speed, Big Train was generally thought to have the top fastball in the game for most of his career – made even more intimidating by his ‘out of nowhere’ side-armed delivery. On his straightforward approach to pitching, Johnson would simply say, "I throw as hard as I can when I think I have to throw as hard as I can."

Walter Johnson statue at National's Park in
Washington DC - depicted with his side-
armed release
Walter Johnson’s career spanned 21 years, all with Washington, ending finally in 1927. His best year was 1913, when he went an astounding 36-7 with a 1.14 ERA and eleven shutouts – perhaps the greatest single season pitching performance in major league history. While over half of his seasons were spent on teams with losing records, he did have two trips to the World Series late in his career; in 1924 and 1925 (a loss). In 1924 the Senators beat the New York Giants in seven games. Johnson didn’t pitch well in the two games he started, losing both, but came on in relief and pitched four shutout innings to win Game Seven in extra innings.

The Big Train with President Calvin Coolidge

The Big Train retired just shy of the age of forty at the end of the 1927 season. Two years later Johnson was named manager of the Senators, a position he held for four years, all with winning records. His life was visited by tragedy in 1930 when his wife died relatively early in age. After another short stint as manager of the Cleveland Indians, Walter Johnson retired from baseball in the Washington DC area. He was elected Montgomery County, Maryland commissioner and ran unsuccessfully for congress. He died at the age of 59 in December 1946.  For a nice short video montage of Walter Johnston set to some heroic music check this out.

Walter Johnson's funeral at Washington National Cathedral

Your  blogger at the entrance to
Rockville Cemetery

Walter Johnson is buried in Rockville Cemetery (aka Union Armory Cemetery) in Rockville, MD. I had the chance to visit Johnson’s grave with my friend Andrew Kalvelage when I was teaching a class at the Sovereign Grace Ministries Pastor’s College. It’s a quaint old cemetery in a residential neighborhood. There’s nothing notable about Johnson’s grave, which meant we had to wander around the cemetery for a while before we stumbled upon it.

My buddy Andrew with Walter

Its not uncommon to see baseball's left on gravestones
 in tribute to ballplayers.  I'd love to know the story of
how this one found its way to Rockville Cemetery

To get a quirky take on the Big Train check out 'Walter Johnson' by proto-punk artist Jonathan Richman; including the fitting refrain,

“All through baseball he was loved and respected. Was there bitterness in Walter Johnson? It was never detected”

Big Train's Cooperstown plaque