Friday, May 14, 2010

This Day in Baseball History (Walter Johnson Wins 300th)

May 14, 1920—Washington Senators ace Walter Johnson notched his 300th career win—a milestone that, since then, virtually guarantees a pitcher a Baseball Hall of Fame plaque—against the Detroit Tigers, his first opponent 13 years before.

At first glance, Johnson’s win—gained with 3 2/3 innings of relief in the Senators’ 9-8 seesaw win—appears uncharacteristic of the rest of his career. That was not quite so, however.

True, Johnson started 666 games, but he was also his beleaguered team’s chief fireman, appearing in approximately 150 games throughout his career in relief, compiling a creditable 40-30 record with 34 saves.

That endurance and omnipresence on the mound lends great credence to the nickname bestowed on the great righthander by Grantland Rice: “The Big Train.” The veteran sportswriter came up with the moniker not only to refer to the pitcher’s velocity, but also to the way he pulled along his luckless team, who already were a long way toward fulfilling their own dubious distinction as “first in war, first in peace, last in the American League.”

I really haven’t found a satisfactory picture of Johnson in his pitching motion. Oh, there are photos aplenty showing him getting ready to wind up, but he just looks so relaxed. There’s nothing giving you an idea of what it felt like when he had followed through and released the ball and here you were, the batter, staring at a white object you can barely see because, at close to 100 miles per hour, it was seven to 12 MPH faster than the other best hurlers of the time could manage.

If you want a better idea of this, you have to rely on something old-fashioned, the written word, and a thoroughly unexpected contributor to it, in this case: Ty Cobb, he of the .367 lifetime batting average, who saw him in that first game (as well as his 300th win) as a member of the Tigers. “The first time I faced him,” Cobb recalled, “I watched him take that easy windup – and then something went past me that made me flinch. I hardly saw the pitch, but I heard it. Every one of us knew we’d met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ballpark.”

Cobb, it turned out, though always an admirer, also became one of Johnson’s great tormenters by exploiting one of his few weaknesses, a psychological flaw born from his great strength. The Big Train’s fastball moved so much faster than anyone else’s that batters were unprepared if he lost command and hit them.

In August 1915, one of those fastballs knocked the Tigers’ third baseman Ossie Vitt out of the game with a concussion. A mortified Johnson then became reluctant to pitch inside lest he bean hitters. Cobb, Vitt’s teammate, quickly sized up the situation and started crowding the plate, forcing Johnson to pitch to him outside. The change in outcomes was dramatic: while exceeding .222 only once in his first eight seasons against Johnson, Cobb thereafter averaged .435 for the rest of his career against him.

So, I settled for the image accompanying this post. It gives something of that quality in Johnson that so many described as almost Lincolnesque, an almost infinite forbearance in the face of tribulation--in this case, playing virtually an entire career for a team that, with a few notable exceptions (such as World Series appearances in 1924 and 1925), finished out of the money. He felt constant responsibility whenever he stepped on the mound. He had to be in top form because, very likely, his team would offer minimal run support. His 38 1-0 wins—as well as his 26 1-0 losses—remain records to this day.

Johnson was Lincolnesque in another respect: he was a Republican. In 1940, he ran for Congress against incumbent Maryland Democrat William Byron, losing by some 8,000 votes out of approximately 112,000 ballots cast.

He had far better luck with his election to Cooperstown, when he joined nemesis Cobb—along with Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Christy Mathewson—in the first group admitted to baseball’s shrine.

Truth be told, I’m not that crazy about that “Big Train” nickname. Even another created for him, “Sir Walter,” perhaps meant to suggest his nobility, strikes me the wrong way—too redolent of a certain English adventurer who, when he wasn’t sucking up to Queen Elizabeth I, was perpetrating genocide upon the Irish.

No, the nickname I prefer is “The White Knight,” a tribute to the unfailing dignity with which he comported himself on the field and off—not a bad role model for today’s players.

1 comment:

Horvendile said...

There is footage of Johnson pitching on YouTube. Just search for his name. Here is one of them.

Search on YouTube and you'll find more.