April 21, 2021

D.C. Baseball History: The Big Train’s District Debut

by Mark Hornbaker, Special to District Sports Page

It was 105 years ago — August 2, 1907 — The Senators pitcher Walter Johnson made his big-league debut in D.C., kicking off a thirty-year baseball career and leaving a lasting imprint on the game.

The Weiser Wonder

Before Walter Johnson was known as The Big Train he was The Weiser Wonder. In the summer of 1907, Walter Johnson was pitching for the Weiser “semi-pro” team in the Idaho State League. The 19-year old hurler was so dominating that he caught the attention of many Major League scouts from the east. On June 17, 1907 Joe Cantillion sent a telegram to Walter Johnson letting him know that the Senators were very interested in signing him to a contract.

A couple of weeks later Joe Cantillion sent injured catcher Cliff Blankenship to Idaho to scout the young phenom. Cantillion told Blankenship, who was not known to be a great hitter, to take his bat on the trip. Cantillion tells Blankenship that if he can manage to hit a foul ball off the young Johnson, to leave him in Idaho. A few days later, Blankenship sends a telegram to his skipper saying, “You can’t hit what you can’t see. I’ve signed him and he is on his way.”

In fact, Walter was not on his way. He told Blankenship he would only sign if the Senators agreed to let him play for Weiser through the end of their season. On June 29th the Washington Senators signed Walter Johnson to a contract that paid him $350 a month, a $100 bonus and train fare.

On July 22, 1907 Walter Johnson left Weiser on his way to the Nation’s Capital. Two weeks later, on August 2nd, Walter Johnson made his Major League debut against the Detroit Tigers.

Marking Walter Johnson’s D.C. Debut

The Washington Senators, with a record of 28-59-2 ties, started the rookie Johnson against the Detroit Tigers, then 29 games ahead of the Senators in the standings. The 19-year-old Johnson quickly learned that the veteran Tiger players bench didn’t take too kindly to rookies from the country — they made mooing sounds as Johnson walked out to the mound.

The powerful Tigers were only able to manage five hits off the rookie, but it was enough to beat the Senators, 3-2. The young pitcher might not have won the game but he sure did leave some lasting impressions with Ty Cobb, who managed to log a bunt-single. Said Cobb:

“On August 2, 1907, I encountered the most threatening sight I ever saw in the ball field. He was only 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 side arm 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.”

Dominating the Game

Walter Johnson was highly respected and idolized by all types of fans, from United States presidents to the kids playing stickball in the ally ways of the Nation’s Capital. Washington fans had a true superstar on the team and they sure needed him. Before the Big Train arrived in Washington, the Senators had never posted a winning record, though it would be another five years after his debut before they notched their first — a second-place, 91-61 finish.

That season, Johnson accounted for 33 of the Senators’ 91 wins, while only accounting for 12 of their 61 losses. The Senators saw a large increase in attendance that year, with 350,663 fans watching the Senators — up from 244,884 the year before.

In 1913, the Senators finished in second place again as the Big Train had the most productive season of his career. Johnson dominated the majors like no man who pitched before him or any man who pitched after him. That season, he led the Major League in five categories: Complete games (29), earned run average (1.14), shutouts (11), strikeouts (243), winning percentage (.837), and wins (36).

The Big Train won 20 games in each of the next five seasons, but the Senators did not finish any better than third place during the span.

The 20’s

In the early 1920’s, the Big Train had to deal with some mediocre seasons. During the 1920 season The Big Train had a chronic cold and complained of having a sore arm, going 8-10. From 1920 to 1923, the Big Train won only 57 of his next 109 decisions. With the Senators’ ace struggling to win 50 percent of his decisions, the Senators didn’t finish above fourth place.

The Senators were in good hitting shape entering the 1924 season, but the team needed help on the pitching staff. They needed the Big Train to dominate the league like he had done in the past. During the first 52 games of the season, the Senators won 26 games and looked like they were going to stay in the middle of standings once again. But during the dog days of summer in June, the Senators started to heat up. The Senators won 10 consecutive games as they moved up in the standings.

Going into the last two months of the season, the Senators were playing better than they ever had before. They won 36 of their final 55 games and ended the season two games ahead of the New York Yankees. The Big Train showed the league that he could still be a dominating pitcher, winning 23 of his 30 decisions. Johnson didn’t do it alone, as the Senators had three players that had a batting average greater than .320 — Goose Goslin (.344), Sam Rice (.334), and Joe Judge (.324).

The Washington Senators played in their first World Series that year against the New York Giants, who were playing in their eighth World Series in the past 14 years. Johnson lost the two games that he started.

In Game One, the Giants notched 14 hits and six walks off of Johnson and went on to beat the Senators, 4-3, in front of 35,000 people at Griffith Stadium. His next start came in Game Five at the Polo Grounds in front of a crowd of 49,000 spectators. Johnson struggled, giving up another 13 hits and taking a 6-2 loss.

The Giants led the Series, 3-2, as the teams headed back to Washington. Behind the great pitching of Tom Zachary, the Senators beat the Giants, 2-1, to even the series.

Game Seven was a back and forth contest as the Giants took a 3-1 lead in the top of the sixth inning, but the Senators tied it up in the eighth inning. In the ninth inning, Senators Manager Bucky Harris puts the game in the hands of Walter Johnson.

The Big Train gave up three hits and three walks but no runs, as the game remained tied going into the bottom of the 12th inning. The Giants committed two devastating errors that allowed the Senators to score the winning run and the Big Train to record his only victory of the 1924 World Series.

In 1925, the Senators went 96-55 and enjoyed their best regular season ever, winning the American League pennant by 8.5 games. The ’25 Senators were both a great hitting team and a great pitching team. Sam Rice led the team with a .350 batting average and Goose Goslin batted .334 and led the American League with 20 triples. Stan Coveleski has a breakout year at 20-5. Johnson won 20 games for the last time in his career, going 20-7. With the other pitchers doing so well, it took the pressure off of The Big Train so he could show off his hitting skills — he hit .433 with 97 at bats.

The Senators faced the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1925 World Series. Johnson had 10 strikeouts during a 4-1 win in Game One. The Senators and Pirates split games two and three, and Johnson shut out Pittsburgh, 4-0, in Game Four.

The series was tied going into Game Seven. The Big Train couldn’t hold to an early 4-0 lead and the Pirates went on to beat the Senators and Johnson, 9-7, to win the World Series.

Johnson was 15-16 in 1926, as the Senators finished in 4th place. The 1927 season was his last, finishing with a record of just 5-6.

To honor Johnson’s career, the Senators dedicated August 2, 1927 as “Walter Johnson Day” at Griffith Stadium, bestowing on him a variety of gifts before the game to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his debut as in Washington.

Beyond His Playing Days

The Big Train went on to manage the Senators from 1929 to 1932, winning more than 90 games in 1930, 1931 and 1932, but unable to win the American League pennant. Johnson was not signed to manage the team in 1933.

The Cleveland Indians hired Johnson instead, and from 1933 to 1935 Walter Johnson and the Indians couldn’t finish better than 3rd place.

His contract not renewed, Johnson retired and returned to his farm in Germantown, Maryland, where he was later informed that he was chosen as one of the original members to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His class included Christopher “Big Six” Mathewson, George “The Babe” Ruth, Honus “The Flying Dutchman” Wagner, and Ty “The Georgia Peach” Cobb.

In 1938, Johnson was elected as County Commissioner for Montgomery County Maryland, but his 1940 campaign for Congress fell just short.

After being admitted to Georgetown University Hospital in the fall of 1946 with severe headaches, Johnson was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He succumbed on December 10, 1946, and was buried at the Rockville Union Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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