Walter Johnson Biography

Walter Johnson was a Hall-of-Fame pitcher for the Washington Senators during the early 20th century. Despite playing on a losing franchise "The Big Train's" pitching exploits are largely unmatched. He ranks second on the all-time list in wins with 417, his 3,509 career strikeouts stood as the standard before Nolan Ryan, and his 110 career shutouts still appear to be an unreachable mark.

Twice Johnson was crowned MVP, 11 times his ERA bowed under two runs a game, 12 times he led the league in strikeouts, and for 10 straight seasons he collected at least 20 wins despite the uniform he was wearing. In 1924, he brought Washington its only championship after coming on for four scoreless innings in relief in Game 7. His skill and his character was so admired that he even won the respect of Ty Cobb, who wrote him a reference on his running for Congress in Maryland in 1940.

Early Years

Walter Perry Johnson was born November 6, 1887 in Humboldt, Kansas. Johnson grew up on a Kansas farm before his father, Frank, took the family to the oil fields of California in 1901 in search of fortune and to escape the Kansas droughts. Johnson's love of baseball was kindled through the community baseball games that took place in Olinda. Johnson played for Fullerton Union High School and for the Olinda Oil Wells. On April 15, 1905 he pitched in a 15 inning 0-0 game against Santa Ana High School and struck out 27.

Professional Career

Minor league career

After high school, Johnson played semi-professional ball in the Idaho State League and was dominant. On June 9, 1907, he pitched a perfect game -- his second no-hitter in a row. During the game he struck out 18 opponents. His pitching exploits in the league likely forced Washington Senators manager Joe Cantillon to bring him to the club as fast as he could. Cantillon sent injured catcher Cliff Blankenship to solicit Johsnon's services himself.

Washington Senators (1907-27)

On August 2, 1907, Johnson made his major league debut against Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers. The Senators were a last place team, but the high scoring Tigers only mustered six hits and two runs off Johnson (the first run coming off a bunt). The Senators lost the game, 3-2.

The story of Johnson's early career in Washington was that, despite his pitching dominance, he was pitching dominantly for a dreadful team. In the 14 games he pitched in that rookie season, he completed 11 and had a 1.88 ERA but sported a record of 5-9. In 1908, with the pitching staff in disarray, he pitched three shutouts in four days against the New York Highlanders.

On Opening Day in 1910, President Taft threw out the first ball to Johnson, who then went on to pitch a one-hit shutout against the Athletics. It was the first time any President had thrown out the first pitch and the first of fourteen Opening Day starts for Johnson. That season he led the league in strikeouts (313), innings pitched (370) and complete games (38). He also had an ERA of 1.36, but he still managed a record of only 25-17. The Senators as a team went 66-85 and could only produce 498 runs in 1910. Even that, though, was a significant improvement over the 1909 season, when the Senators went 42-110 and scored 382 runs.

Before 1912 the Senators franchise never had a winning season or even accumulated over 67 wins in a single year. But that year, Johnson finally began to help transform the Senators fortunes. That season he went 33-12, with 34 complete games, while leading the league in ERA (1.39) and strikeouts (303). Johnson finished third in MVP voting as the Senators went 91-61 to finish second in the American League.

The following year might have been his finest season as he led the league in wins (36), ERA (1.14), complete games (29), shutouts (11), innings (346), and strikeouts (243) and yielded only 38 walks. He also flashed an impressive glove by fielding 103 chances without ever making an error. The Senators again finished second in the American League, but Johnson was awarded with MVP honors.

In 1916 Johnson led the league in wins (25), complete games (36), and innings (369.2) for the fourth straight season. Amazingly, in those 369.2 innings, he didn't allow a single home run. He also led the league in strikeouts for the fifth straight season with 228. He also tallied 20 losses -- 13 of which came in one-run games.

On May 15, 1918, against the defending World Series champion White Sox, Johnson threw 18 scoreless innings in a 1-0 victory. Over the course of his career Johnson was a part of 64 1-0 games. In 1918 he led the league in ERA (1.27), wins (23) and strikeouts (162).

From 1910-1919, Johnson won 35 percent of all Washington Senators games, and he led the league in strikeouts in every season but one. Only once during that time period did his ERA rise above two runs a game, and in every season he recorded at least 20 wins.

On July 1, 1920, Johnson pitched his only no-hitter. But over the next four seasons, Johnson went 57-52 and appeared to slow down as his life was rocked by tragedy. In 1921, his father died of a stroke and his oldest daughter succumbed to influenza. His ERA over that period averaged more than three runs a game, and he wasn't striking players out with the same regularity. By the end of 1923, the Senators had 11 losing seasons in Johnson's 17 years with the team.

But by 1924, Johnson's fortunes had improved and, at the age of 36, he had his second MVP winning season. He led the league in wins (23-7), ERA (2.72), shutouts (6), and strikeouts (158). For the first time in his career, the Senators won the pennant by going 92-62. In Game 1 of the World Series versus the Giants, Johnson pitched 12 innings and had 12 strikeouts but lost the game after giving up two runs in the top of the 12th. Johnson lost again in Game 5 after giving up four earned runs in eight innings.

In Game 7, Johnson came on in relief with one day of rest in the ninth inning with the score tied 3-3. Over the next four innings, Johnson struck out five batters and didn't yield a run. He was the winning pitcher after the Senators scored in the bottom of the 12th. The losing pitcher Jack Bentley said after the game, "The good Lord just couldn't bear to see a fine fellow like Walter Johnson lose again." That was the only World Series championship in the Senators team history.

Johnson went 20-7 the following season, and the Senators won their second straight pennant by going 96-55. Perhaps more impressive was Johnson's batting average of .433, as he smacked two home runs and knocked in 20 runs. In Game 1 of the World Series against the Pirates, Johnson won after going nine innings, striking out 10 and allowing only one run on five hits. In Game 4 he pitched a six hit shutout. In Game 7, though, rainy and muddy conditions helped Johnson squander a 4-0 first inning lead, losing the game -- and the series -- 9-7.

Johnson pitched his last season in 1927 after going 5-6 and failing to recover from a broken leg.

Post-playing career

His wife Hazel died on August 1, 1930. Her death left a gaping hole in Johnson's life which he attempted to fill.

In 1929, Johnson returned to the Senators as manager. In his first season he went 71-81, but, in his next three years, his teams averaged 93 wins. The squad never won a pennant under Johnson, though.

In 1933, he was hired by the Cleveland Indians, where he went 179-168 in three seasons. His kind demeanor and inability to understand how his pitchers couldn't work themselves out of jams helped lead to his undoing as a manger.

He served as a Senators broadcaster in 1939.

After his managing career ended, Johnson won a seat as Montgomery County Commissioner in Maryland. In 1940, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Congress.

On December 10, 1946, Johnson died from a brain tumor at the age of 59.

Legacy

In his career, Johnson won 417 games (second most to Cy Young), threw 531 complete games, 110 shutouts and 3,509 strikeouts, and had a career ERA of 2.17. His career strikeout record stood for 56 years before Nolan Ryan broke it. His consecutive scoreless innings streak of 56 stood 55 years before it was bested by Don Drysdale. His 110 shutouts remain the all-time mark.

Along with Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner, Johnson was honored as a member of the first induction class into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.