WASHINGTON, September 4, 2012 — Now that Labor Day weekend is over and it’s back to work, back to school time, I think of another Labor Day Weekend, long, long ago.
Let’s step into the Time Machine, throw the gear into reverse, and take one of those quick trips back. A long way back to the old New York Ball Park at 168th Street and Broadway.
It’s Labor Day Weekend — 1908.
A novice pitcher named Walter Johnson had recently been introduced, or launched, by the Washington Senators. Fresh from Kansas by way of the Weiser, Idaho baseball league, the 20-year-old fastballer takes the mound. It’s Friday September 4. His amazing sidearm fastball puzzles and baffles the New York Highlanders (also known as the New York Yankees). They have never faced anything like this.
At game’s end the young pitching ace has racked up a complete game. In addition, he has pitched a shut out, beating the Highlanders 3-0, while giving up just six hits.
The next day, Saturday, September 5, before the game, the Highlanders see the 6’-1” marvel warming up on the sidelines. Surely they won’t have to face him again, not so soon. But there he is. And he’s walking to the mound.
Again they experience this fastball, which seems to spit as it shoots across the plate. One hitter tells his teammates, “When you see his arm go up, swing!” Another player, walks out of the batter’s-box on two strikes, and when Umpire Bill Evans yells, “You got another strike coming,” The player replies, “You take it, Ump, it won’t do me any good.”
To the amazement of the sports world, Johnson does it again. He pitches a second complete game. It’s a 6-0 victory in which this time he gives up only three hits. That’s two straight shutout victories.
Manager Joe Cantillon is asked by the press, jokingly, “You won’t be letting him pitch your next game, will you?” Joe chuckles and says, “You never know.”
Even though the Washington pitching staff is thin, no reporters are serious about that little question-and-answer exchange.
The following day, Sunday September 6, Walter Johnson doesn’t pitch. He can’t. No, not because he is tired. Not because his arm is worn out.
He can’t pitch because 1908 Blue Laws prohibit Sunday baseball. There are no big-league ballgames allowed. Playing one would constitute a crime. But the following day, Labor Day Monday, September 7, baseball play resumes. The New York club is stunned. They see, warming up in front of the visitors bench, none other than the powerhouse who has become their nemesis, Walter Perry Johnson.
After a while, Johnson notices, too, that no other pitcher is warming up. He looks over at manager Joe Cantillon who gives a nod.
Johnson walks to the bench and sits down.
The manager asks Johnson how he feels. The big fellow simply says, “It’s all right with me, if it’s all right with you.”
That Labor Day the big right-hander pitches his third complete game. That game is also a shutout as he gives up only two hits in a 4-0 win.
To review: Walter Perry Johnson has pitched three complete games within four days, winning each game by a shutout, and giving up fewer hits with each game, for a total of 11 hits.
The next day the Evening Star newspaper runs a banner headline:
WONDERFUL WALTER DOWNS THE YANKEES
Over night, Walter Perry Johnson goes from a local Washington hero to a national baseball celebrity.
Baseball happens every spring. A monumental performance like this does not. This is a baseball event that remains unduplicated. It can be safely predicted that it will never be matched.
There is currently much talk and dispute about the calculations and calibrations regarding how many innings a major-league pitcher should play, how many balls he should throw. This Labor Day Weekend, 2012, I couldn’t help recalling that other Labor Day weekend, 104 years ago, which has riveted a monumental place in baseball history.
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.”
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