On August 2, 1907, I encountered the most threatening sight I ever saw in the ball field. He was 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 sidearm 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. –Ty Cobb
Born November 6, 1887 in Humboldt Kansas Walter “Big Train” Johnson would grow up to become one of the greatest and most unhittable forces ever unleashed on a baseball diamond. With a wind-up that was all flailing body parts and an easy side arm delivery it must have looked to batters as if Johnson’s high 90’s fastball was coming out of his hip pocket, but there were no tricks to Walter Johnson. For most of his career his fastball was the only pitch he used. Shirley Povich of the Washington Post describes Walter Johnson’s pitching mechanics as, “sidearm, almost underhand, with a long sweeping delivery, and no great snap of the wrist.”
How Johnson came to be with the Senators sounds like a story out of a tall tale. A traveling salesman and fan of the Washington Senators would send letters to the manager Joe Cantillon telling him of the pitcher with the fastest fastball he had ever seen. Walter Johnson pitched 75 innings in the Idaho State League before being signed by the Senators and didn’t allow a run in any of them.
It was a different time when Walter Johnson pitched. Most games were played with one ball that became increasingly hard to hit as the game went along. The damage done to it by the bat and the players would make it nothing more than a half flattened tennis ball by the end of the game, and it would be so covered with dirt and other substances that it would be near impossible to see. None of that should diminish the accomplishments of Walter Johnson.
Over a 21 year career, while playing for the Senators during some of their worst offensive years, Walter Johnson was able to compile a record of 417-279 with an ERA of 2.17 with 3,509 strikeouts and WHIP of 1.061. The most impressive statistic of Walter Johnson’s is the record he holds of career shutouts with 110. To put this in perspective the active leader in shutouts is Roy Halladay with 20. The rise of the bullpen has made it so that the day and age of a complete game being routine for a pitcher is a part of the past, but don’t let that diminish in anyway what Walter Johnson did.
There were times in Johnson’s career when the Senators struggled to score runs, and he had to pitch a shutout to win. In fact of the 666 games Walter Johnson started 59 of them would end in a 1-0 score, and Walter Johnson would win 40 of them. In September of 1908 Walter Johnson would take the mound in three consecutive games against the New York Highlanders on a Friday, a Saturday, and because of Sabbath laws a Monday, and in all three contest he would shutout the Highlanders. In 1913 Walter Johnson won 36 games, a career high, and pitched 11 shutouts, also a career high, while the Senators offense ranked 12th out of 16 in MLB that season averaging 3.85 runs a game. Walter Johnson pitched most of his career for such lowly offenses that he had to shutout opponents if he wanted to win. The year the Senators finished seventh in baseball with 4.83 runs a game Walter Johnson led them to a World Series victory.
When considering just how much baseball has changed over the years consider this. Walter Johnson was thought to be one of the greatest strikeout pitchers of his era, but yet his career K/9 is 5.4 and his best season in that statistic was in 1910 with a K/9 of 7.6. To put that into a bit of perspective John Lannan had a K/9 of 5.2 in 2011, and the average K/9 for a pitcher in baseball this season is 7.5. To batters the strikeout is no longer regarded as a humiliating experience and a source of embarrassment. In Walter Johnson’s days the strikeout was the ultimate defeat.
Baseball is a game obsessed with its numbers. There may never be another person that hits in 56 straight games, or plays in 2,632 consecutive games, and while those two records are mentioned often among the most unbeatable keep in mind Walter Johnson’s 110 career shutouts. As unbeatable as the record is now due to things like the bullpen and pitch counts, consider that the next closest players on the list to Johnson are Grover Cleveland Alexander with 90 and Christy Mathewson with 79. Two pitchers of the same era as Johnson and the closest has an entire Roy Halladay between himself and Johnson.
Baseball fans will always wonder who has thrown the hardest in baseball history. Is it “Smoky” Joe Wood, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Bob Feller, Dazzy Vance, Justin Verlander, Aroldis Chapman, or Washington’s Big Train–Walter Perry Johnson? That question is impossible to answer as many of those men pitched before pitch speed was or could be recorded, but there is one thing that is known. No one was hard to score on than Walter Johnson. His 110 career shutouts are a testament to that.
When it came time to elect an inaugural class to baseball’s Hall of Fame two of those men that stood with the most career shutouts were among that first class. In 1936 the Baseball Writers Association of America elected five men to be the first inducted into the Hall of Fame. Along with Mathewson and Johnson as the pitchers position players Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Honus Wagner would join them. Cy Young has an award named after him, but when the best pitchers in baseball were considered for the Hall of Fame Young fell short of both Johnson and Mathewson. There is a debate every season about pitcher’s wins and the Cy Young. Perhaps the pitcher with the most wins should get the Cy Young award while the best pitcher in baseball gets the Walter Johnson award.