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This Date in Washington Senators History – Happy Birthday, Walter Johnson!
Happy Birthday, Walter Johnson!
“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.” – Ty Cobb
Born on a farm in Allan County, KS, Walter Johnson did not start playing baseball regularly until the age of 16. It was soon evident that the teenage Johnson, playing against adults in a CA semipro league, had a innate gift for pitching. As Johnson said, “From the first time I held a ball,” he explained, “it settled in the palm of my right hand as though it belonged there and, when I threw it, ball, hand and wrist, and arm and shoulder and back seemed to all work together.”
In 1906, after being released following one exhibition start for Tacoma of the Northwestern League, Johnson landed in Weiser, ID. Pitching in the semi-pro Southern Idaho League, Johnson went 7-1 for Weiser. On his way to a 14-2 mark the following season, Senators manager Joe Cantillon received glowing reports about Johnson from a traveling salesman. Cantillon dispatched injured reserve C Cliff Blankenship to Weiser to scout Johnson. Despite Blankenship’s’ protestations to Cantillon about going on a “wild goose chase” to see a “punk pitcher”, Blankenship was soon enthralled by Johnson. After being promised a train ticket from Washington to his home in California in case he failed in the majors, Johnson signed with the Senators.
The train ticket to California was never used. Johnson’s highly anticipated debut occurred on August 2, 1907 against Detroit. Johnson was on the losing end of the 3-2 decision, pitching 8 innings, but the tall, lean 19 year old lived up to the hype. “The best raw pitcher I have ever seen,” said Tiger hurler Bill Donovan after the contest. Johnson’s fastball turned heads in baseball while he posted a deceptive 5-8, 1.88 ERA in 12 games for the woeful Nats of 1907.
Johnson put his name on the national map thanks to a remarkable weekend in September, 1908. With Cantillon carrying only 3 pitchers on a road trip to New York, Johnson started 3 games in a 4 day stretch, recording an unfathomable 3 shutouts in those 3 games. Overall, Johnson improved to 14-14 with a 1.65 ERA in 36 games.
The Big Train had a setback in 1909 with 25 losses, but in 1910, Johnson began his ascent to immortality. Starting a string of 10 twenty win seasons in 1910, Johnson posted 25 wins and recorded a career high 313 strikeouts. Following another 25 win year in 1911, Johnson stormed to a 33-12 record with a minuscule 1.39 ERA, finishing 3rd in the Chalmers Award (MVP) balloting. To prove his 33 win, 1912 season was no fluke, Johnson had his greatest year in 1913, going 36-7 with a 1.14 ERA, the 6th lowest ERA total in major league history. For his efforts, the Big Train copped the Chalmers award, edging Boston’s “Smokey” Joe Wood.
The rest of the 1910’s would feature Johnson keeping Washington respectable in the standings. But, Johnson, regarded as the best pitcher in baseball at this time, still lacked the one thing he wanted the most: A World Series championship. The championship appeared far out of reach when the 32 year old Johnson had arm woes in 1920, snapping his string of 20 win seasons. Johnson bounced back to win 17, 15 and 17 in 1921, 1922 and 1923, low totals by the Big Train’s standards.By 1924, the Senators were on their 4th manager in 4 seasons with Bucky Harris and Johnson was planning to make 1924 his farewell year.
Something funny happened on Johnson’s farewell tour. The Senators had an actual chance to win the pennant. A rejuvenated Johnson responded with a 23-7 mark as the Nats finally landed in the World Series. Johnson led the league in wins, strikeouts, ERA and shutouts in collecting his second MVP award. The Big Train lost games 1 and 5 to the Giants, but 4 scoreless relief innings in the dramatic game 7 gave Johnson his long overdue championship.
When a purchase of a Pacific Coast League franchise fell through following 1924, Johnson returned for his 19th season in 1925. The Nats lapped the field in the AL by 8 games and Johnson notched a 20-7 record, while compiling a .433 batting average, a record for pitchers. Johnson was dominant in game 1 of the World Series against the Pirates, striking out 10 in a 4-1 win and shutting out Pittsburgh 4-0 in game 4. A second consecutive championship was not in the cards with the Pirates coming back from a 3-1 Series deficit to win in 7 games.
After the 1927 season, Johnson hung up his spikes. He became a member of the first class inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. Here are some of the numbers posted by Johnson in his illustrious 20 year career:
12 twenty win seasons, including 10 in a row from 1910-1919
2 thirty win seasons, 33 in 1912 and 36 in 1913
11 seasons with an ERA below 2.00
531 complete games in 666 career starts
55.2 consecutive scoreless innings pitched in 1913
Walter Johnson bio at SABR. ORG:
Other Senators birthdays on November 6th
Two other Senators players share a November 6th birthday with Walter Johnson:
David Tilden Altizer B Nov. 6, 1876 D May 14, 1964
Dave Altizer made his major league debut with the Senators as a 29 year old rookie in late May of 1906. Over the span of 2 and 1/2 seasons, Altizer would play all infield positions as well as in the outfield for Washington. He’d appear in 115 games in his rookie season, stroking 111 hits including 9 doubles, 5 triples and a lone home run, good for a .256 BA.
In 1907 Altizer would play in 147 games for Washington, hitting .269. After 67 games in 1908, when his BA would drop to .224, Altizer would be sold to the Cleveland Naps in late July. Finishing the 1908 season in Cleveland, Altizer would play in 29 games, hitting .213.
Sold again, this time to the Chicago White Sox, Altizer would play in 116 games for the White Sox. He’d finish his major league career with the Cincinnati Reds, playing in only 3 games in 1910 and 37 games in 1911, his last game coming in mid-July.
Robert Willis Repass B Nov. 6, 1917 D Jan. 16, 2006
Infielder Bob Repass made his major league debut in mid-September of 1939 with the St. Louis Cardinals. Playing 2nd base, Repass would make it into 3 games going 2 for 6 at the plate.
Repass would not see major league action again until 1942-drafted by the Senators after the 1941 season, Repass would play in 81 games at 2nd & 3rd base and shortstop, hitting .239 with 11 doubles, 1 triple and 2 home runs, his last game coming in mid-August.