Baseball’s Best of the Worst: Walter Johnson
The following post is Part IV in this series. Graham Womack of Baseball Past and Present wrote this one. My next contribution to this series will be featured on this blog one week from today.
The baseball world was captivated this summer by the debut of Stephen Strasburg, who shined two months for the Washington Nationals before an arm injury ended his season. A century ago, another young pitcher arrived in the nation’s capital, and while his rookie campaign wasn’t much to speak of, he went on to do more with far less of a team. His name was Walter Johnson.
The saying about Washington used to be, “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.” The Washington Senators became a contender in the 1910s and eventually, a World Series team, but when Johnson arrived in 1907 as a 19-year-old rookie from the Idaho League, the saying was absolutely true. While Johnson won 20 games two of his first five seasons, the Senators had a losing record every one of those years.
A lot is made of Steve Carlton’s Cy Young season in 1972 when he went 27-10 with a 1.97 ERA and 310 strikeouts for the 59-97 Phillies. Johnson may have been Carlton’s 1910 equivalent. On a 66-85 Senators team, Johnson went 25-17 with a 1.36 ERA and 313 strikeouts. He had a comparable Wins Above Replacement rating to Carlton in 1972, 9.1 to 12.2 and strikeouts per nine innings, 7.6 to 9.1. Johnson bested Carlton in ERA+ (183 to 182), WHIP (0.914 to 0.993), and innings pitched (370 to 346.)
Johnson may have won 30 games on a better team in 1910, and in 1912, this happened. Playing on the first winning club of his career, the 91-61 second-place Senators, Johnson went 33-12 with a 1.39 ERA and 303 strikeouts and rivaled Smoky Joe Wood as baseball’s best pitcher. Johnson won 16 games in a row early in the season, and after Wood won 15 straight, he came up against the Senators and faced Johnson. Wood, who went 34-5 that year and helped Boston win the World Series, recounted what happened to Lawrence Ritter in the The Glory of Their Times.
“Well, I won, 1-0, but don’t let that fool you,” Wood said. “In my opinion the greatest pitcher who ever lived was Walter Johnson. If he’d ever had a good ball club behind him what records he would have set!”
The Senators contended for another few years then retreated back to mediocrity for another long stretch. In all, they finished below .500 11 of Johnson’s 21 seasons. No matter. Johnson continued to win the majority of his decisions on a near-annual basis well into the latter half of his career, on his way to 417 victories lifetime. That’s second-best in baseball history, which helped make Johnson one of the first five players selected to the Hall of Fame in 1936.
In 1924, everything came together for Washington and the 36-year-old Johnson. With their first 90-win team in 11 years, the Senators finished two games ahead of the Yankees to win the American League and met the Giants in the World Series. Johnson lost his first two starts, but saved the best for last. Pitching in relief, Johnson entered Game 7 in the top of the ninth inning and pitched four shutout innings with five strikeouts until a ball hit a pebble and bounced over the head of Giants’ third baseman, Fred Lindstrom and allowed the winning run to score for the Senators.
After the game ended, Frank O’Neill wrote an article in the Syracuse Post-Standard that’s collected in an old anthology of sports writing on my bookshelf. O’Neill wrote:
A king returned to his throne today in this land of the free heart’s hope and home. An emperor came back from Elba to find his worshipping following rallying in his serried ranks to his standard.
The king was Walter Johnson, and his diadem of victory was placed upon his brow amid scenes without parallel in the history of baseball. For Walter Johnson, idol of American fandom, stepped into the breach and guided the staggering Senators out of the vale of defeat and perched them upon the pinnacle of the baseball world.
It was his finest hour.