Walter Perry Johnson, Hall of Fame Pitcher, b. November 6, 1887, Humbolt, Kansas. d. December 10, 1946, Washington, D.C.
One of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball, Walter Johnson made his major league debut in 1907 (when most of us were still in grade school). Supposedly spotted by a liquor salesman or a decrepit old umpire playing barnyard baseball in Kansas or Idaho*, Johnson was signed to a contract by the Washington Senators after scouts verified the tale of this big, powerful pitcher from the middle of nowhere.
Johnson's first contract with the Washington Senators paid him train fare to Washington, a $100 signing bonus and $350 a month. In his first three seasons, Johnson averaged fewer than two runs allowed per nine innings pitched, an impressive earned run average, but lost more games than he won. Then, in his fourth season, Johnson developed into the dominating pitcher that makes him a baseball immortal.
Johnson would win no fewer than 25 games with an ERA under 2.00 in each of the next seven seasons. In 1924, the Senators would win their first and only World Series title. Johnson managed to lose in two starts against the New York Giants in that Series, but in game seven would make a relief appearance and pitch four scoreless innings to secure a 4-3 victory for the Senators in 12 innings. The Senators would return to the World Series in 1925, but would lose to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games.
Walter Johnson pitched most of his career in what was called the "Dead Ball Era" which many say taints his lifetime ERA of 2.17 and contributed to his career record of 417 wins and 279 losses. What may be more impressive to fans of modern baseball is that in 21 years, Walter Johnson surrendered a mere 97 home runs and struck out 3,509 batters. This reminds one that the difference between eras in baseball is far too wide to make effective comparisons between players from one era to another. Just imagine any pitcher today compiling a 36-7 record with a 1.09 ERA like Johnson did in 1913.
“He’s got a gun concealed about his person.
They can’t tell me he throws them balls with his arm.”
--Ring Lardner on Walter Johnson
Nicknames like "Sir Walter," "White Knight" and "Big Train" attached themselves to Johnson, who was at the time considered menacingly big at 6'1" and 200 lbs. So many anecdotes exist about Johnson from players who shared the field with him that fact becomes hard to discern from legend.
In 1929 Walter Johnson began a four year run as manager of the Washington Senators before taking on the same role with the Cleveland Indians until 1935. He retired with the highest strikeout total in Major League Baseball history, a record which has since been eclipsed (by both Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton in 1983). He was the league MVP in 1913 and 1924 (at a time when Babe Ruth was in the same league) and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936 with just short of 84% of the vote. His career victory total is second only to Cy Young.
*Weiser, Idaho was where Walter Johnson first played baseball and was originally discovered, according to scouting reports shared with me by the lovely and resourceful icicle. I have no doubts that her information is correct on this, as it comes from a book called "Big Train."
Research compiled from numerous vague statistics websites
The National Baseball Hall of Fame
and a pamphlet found folded and shoved between sofa cushions in Tempe, Arizona