Walter Johnson Pays a Call: Are You Sure It's Not the 1900s?

What season is it? What year? What century?  Baseball luminary Walter Johnson and friends return to the baseball stadium, not in Washington, but Texas. And it's not Johnson it's Gio.

WASHINGTON, August 11, 2012 – Wednesday night Griffith Stadium burned with energy. Washington baseball fans sizzled with excitement  It was wonderful to see Walter Johnson on the mound again, if you only for one night. To see the pitching ace in his prime.     

Walter Perry Johnson, dubbed “the Big Train,” returned. But it was not in some old crackling film: it was live and in-person.

Things are crazy. What’s going on of late? Like Woody Allen’s “Midnight In Paris,” it seems these American luminaries are all coming back at once. 

Author James M. Cain is back. He died in 1977, but this morning I sat in my living room chair reading a new novel by the famed noir writer of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity.” His book, “The Cocktail Waitress,” will be released in  September, but the publisher provided me with an advanced copy. 

Just after noon, I opened up this week’s copy of “The New Yorker” magazine. And what did I see but a new story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The writer died just before Christmas of 1940, and I even attended his re-interment, in 1975, at St. Mary’s Church Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland.

Nevertheless, he has a new story out this week, titled, “Thank You For The Light.”

Then, Wednesday night, big Walter Perry Johnson takes to the mound. And just like those golden days, he pitches. He strikes out batters. He catches a line drive. He backs a wild throw over third base and saves a run. He pounds a decisive home run into the left field stands with a man on base to give his team a comfortable lead. And, most significantly, he pitches a complete game. No relief pitchers are sent in; none, in fact, even warm up in the bullpen.

All right. Let’s be clear now, if we must. Wednesday night’s game did not take place in  Washington, D. C.; it was in Houston, Texas. The venue was not Griffith Stadium; it was Minute Maid Park. And the pitcher on the mound was, in actuality, Gio Gonzalez.

But, hey, for one brief shining few hours, can’t we be allowed to recall the great Washington speedballer, as we are, to quote Fitzgerald, “borne back ceaselessly into the past”? 

Johnson was a hitting-pitcher. And, last night, we saw a beautiful exhibition of both facilely delivered by Gonzalez who, in the second inning nailed a ball well into the stands with a man on base to give the Nationals a comfortable lead which they held onto and improved.

Gio’s pitching allowed the weary overworked pitching crew to lay down their arms for a night. For only the second time this season a Washington hurler pitched a complete game, just as Walter Johnson was accustomed to doing for most of his 21 years with the Washington Senators.

In remembering, we must recall that Johnson was the undisputed “strikeout king” from 1910 to 1924, with but three exceptions. In 1913, a season in which he chalked up 36 wins, he pitched 56 consecutive scoreless innings. From April 10 to May 14 no opposing player crossed the plate.

Unlike Johnson, however, Washington pitchers are fortunate enough to be backed by a fine gang of hitters. Johnson pitched 60 games in his career which ended in a 1-0 score. Of those, the Senators won only 40. This shows that his own ballclub couldn’t produce a couple of runs to clinch the game for him. It speaks volumes, therefore, that Johnson still chalked up a total 417 winning games with a mostly losing team behind him. He held the career strikeout record for 55 years.

His hitting was so good that he was used as a pinch-hitter. In 1925, Johnson batted .433, a record for a pitcher with more than 75 trips to the plate. The next season, he followed up with a .346 average. He ended his career, in fact, with a lifetime batting average of .236 and a total of 24 home runs.

He threw with a thunderous sidearm that the legendary Ty Cobb said made a “hiss” as the ball shot across the plate. One competitor said that Walter Johnson’s idea of a “change-up” was to throw harder.

The poet Ogden Nash wrote of Johnson:  J is for Johnson/The Big Train in his prime/Was so fast he could throw/three strikes at a time.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Walter Johnson’s plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame reads, “considered the greatest pitcher to play the game.”

In his 21 years of play with the Washington Senators, Walter Johnson was never ejected from a game. If he didn’t like an umpire’s call, he shook his head and said, “Geewilikers.” Thus, looming even beyond all the great statistics is what The dean of sportswriters, Shirley Povich, termed “the measure of the man.”

He is the only ballplayer to have a high school named after him. You can find it in Bethesda, Maryland. In front and in the lobby entrance you’ll find statues and scrolls honoring the great pitcher.

Thanks to Gio Gonzalez for providing the opportunity to remember Walter “Big Train” Johnson. 

Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as Paul Harvey, William Safire, and Shirley Povich. Vance has shared his life experiences and knowledge of D.C. with the Washington Historical Society, the Kiwanis clubs of the Washington area, and on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show.”


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Vance Garnett

Vance Garnett is an eclectic observer of life, politics and sports. 

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