100 years ago today, Walter Johnson, the best pitcher in the history of baseball, made his big league debut in Washington. The visiting Detroit Tigers, led by Ty Cobb, had a good time ridiculing the 19 year-old farm boy with the “three-quarter” delivery as he warmed up. Once the game began, it was a different matter. “Get this kid even if he costs you twenty-five thousand dollars,” Cobb told his manager. “That’s the best arm I’ve ever seen; he’s so fast it scared me.”
Johnson would go on to win 416 games. He retired in 1927 with a career ERA of 2.17; 110 shut-outs (a record that still stands); and 3508 stirkeouts (a record that stood for nearly 60 years). In 1912, he went 32-12 with an ERA of 1.39. The next year he was even better — 36-7 and 1.09. In 1924 at age 36, he went 24-7 and led Washington to its only championship, winning the seventh game of the World Series with four innings of shut-out relief. Johnson was one of the five first inductees into the Hall of Fame, along with Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, and Christy Mathewson.
Through it all, Johnson maintained an unblemished record for gentlemanly conduct. He was sufficiently well-respected that the folks in my home country in suburban Washington elected him county commissioner. In 1940, he ran for Congress (as a Republican) but lost narrowly.
This evening, the Washington Nationals honored the occasion of Johnson’s debut. His daughter Carolyn Johnson Thomas was on-hand, along with his grandson (and Johnson biographer) Hank Thomas who threw out the ceremonial first ball. Mrs. Thomas still lives in Washington and reportedly is an avid Nationals fan. She certainly seemed to enjoy meeting current Nats standouts Ryan Zimmerman and Dmitri Young. The Nats also unveiled a plaque of Johnson that will grace the new ballpark when it opens next year.
The history of baseball in Washington is an unhappy legacy of losing teams, lost franchises, and a gaping 34 year hole. But Walter Johnson just about redeems it.
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