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Walter Johnson

Walter Johnson

Position(s):
P, OF
Nicknames:
Barney, The Big Train
Born:
November 6, 1887
Bats:
Right
Throws:
Right
Height:
6' 1"
Weight:
200 lbs
Major League Debut:
8-02-1907 with WS1
Allstar Selections:
1913 MVP, 1913 TC, 1918 TC, 1924 MVP, 1924 TC
Hall of Fame:
1936

“He’s got a gun concealed about his person. They can’t tell me he throws them balls with his arm.” - Famed writer Ring Lardner wrote of Johnson

Biography


 

Walter Johnson Baseball CardConsidered by many to be the greatest right-hander in baseball history, Johnson was the hardest thrower of his time. He was a phenomenally successful pitcher on often terrible Washington Senators' teams. As a veteran, he anchored the only Senators' World Series winning club, in 1924. He and Christy Mathewson were the first pitchers inducted into the Hall of Fame. He was known as the "Big Train” and in later years, upon seeing Bob Feller throw his hard one, Johnson admitted that he had thrown harder in his day.

Johnson is the greatest player to ever play for the Washington Senators, debuting on August 2, 1907, against the Detroit Tigers and Ty Cobb. For 21 seasons he toiled in the Capital, winning 417 games. His career winning percentage of .599 is amazing when you consider the Senators were .462 over that span when he didn’t get the decision. Also, Johnson received scant run support throughout his career: he lost 27 games by the score of 1-0, and he suffered 65 shutout losses. In 1916, for example, Johnson had a brilliant 1.89 ERA, but still lost 20 games!

Johnson won at least 30 games twice, at least 25 games seven times (in succesion from 1910-1916), a minimum of 20 games twelve times, and at least 15 games sixteen times. He won the pitching Triple Crown (wins, ERA, and strikeouts) in 1913, 1918, and 1924, earning MVP honors twice. He paced American League pitchers in strikeouts twelve times and led the majors seven times (only Bob Feller and Nolan Ryan can match that feat). He retired owning the career record in whiffs.

After establishing himself as the best pitcher in the American League from 1910 to 1919, US President Calvin Coolidge and Washington Senators pitcher Walter Johnson shake hands.Johnson helped the Senators move up the standings in the 1920s. By 1924, the Senators had supplanted the Yankees at the top of the Junior Circuit. In that fall’s World Series, Johnson was a hero in Game Seven as Washington won their only World Title. Johnson pitched four innings of shutout relief on one day's rest, leading the Nats to a 4-3 win in 12 innings. In 1925, the Senators returned to the World Series, quite a feat during the Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig days of the AL.

Walter Johnson of the Chicago Federals

One of the most overlooked chapters in Walter Johnson's career is his brief jaunt to the outlaw Federal League in 1915. The Federal League emerged in 1913 with significant financial backing, as a rival to the American and National Leagues. In 1913, the Federal League played in several smaller market cities with few former major leaguers, but in 1914, Joe Tinker led the way for ML players to pursue bigger paychecks in the upstart league. Tinker managed and played for the Chicago Chi-Feds, who finished second in the FL in '14 and outdrew the White Sox.

On December 3, 1914, Walter Johnson signed a two-year contract with the Chi-Feds, for the 1915 and 1916 seasons. Chi-Feds owner Charles Weeghman, one of the principals in the Federal League, refused to disclose the amount he would pay Johnson, but it was speculated to be in the neighborhood of $40,000 for two seasons, making "Barney" one of the highest paid players in the game.

When the story broke it fueled hysteria that the Federal League would raid the majors for all of their talent, backed by the deep pockets of millionaires like Weeghman, James Gilmore, Phil Ball and Harry Sinclair, who boasted to major league owners: "I'll meet you people on the waterfront and we'll toss dollar for dollar into the Hudson River. Then we'll see who runs out of money first!"

Johnson was far from innocent in the entire process, having played the possibility of signing with the Feds against Senators' owner Clark Griffith. At the close of the 1914 season, Griffith reportedly offered his star pitcher $15,000 for one year, $36,000 for three years or $50,000 for five. In October, Johnson responded that the St. Louis Terriers (owned by glass jar magnate Ball), had agreed to pay him $60,000 for three years, with a $10,000 signing bonus. When Griffith heard of the offer, he was disgusted: "I don't wish to buy the whole state of Kansas, just Johnson"

After a few weeks waiting on Griffith, which gave Ball time to refute his offer, Johnson was approached by Tinker and Weeghman of the Chi-Feds, eventually inking a deal in his Coffeyville, Kansas home on the 2nd of December. The move sent shockwaves through the baseball world. In a side deal, Weeghman agreed to allow Ball to pursue other top pitchers unchallenged, in return for his help inking Johnson.

Griffith vowed to "sue Johnson to the end of the earth." Claiming he had the rights to the pitcher for both the 1915 and 1916 seasons, and that the Federal League contract was illegal. As the controversy swirled, other Washington players, including Johnson's best friend, center fielder Clyde Milan, were rumored to be heading to the Feds.

By the time Christmas rolled around, Washington fans were far from merry, certain that their star pitcher was lost. Then, in a frantic turn of events, Johnson had a change of heart and begged out of the Federal League contract, infuriating Weeghman and Chicago fans, and delighting Griffith, who quickly secured his best hurler's signature on a contract for the 1915 season.

Johnson had tested the waters and thought better of it. Reportedly he felt if he jumped to the Feds, he would let his teammates and fans down, but it's also likely that he feared a legal battle which he was ill-suited to finance. The Federal league was never able to persuade a star of Johnson's stature to jump to their league, and as attendance slumped and the World War increasingly affected the U.S., the circuit suffered. In 1916 they were swallowed up by MLB, with Weeghman and Ball allowed to purchase the Cubs and Browns respectively.

It wasn’t until 1983, 62 years after Johnson had gained the crown as strikeout king, that his record was passed. Both Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton eclipsed his mark that season. Johnson had held the strikeout record nearly a decade longer than Ruth had held the home run mark. Johnson was truly the “Babe Ruth of the Mound."

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Tagged:
1936 Hall of Fame, 300 wins, AL MVP 1913, AL MVP 1924, Baseball History, Hall of Fame, Walter Johnson, Washington Senators

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