Walter Johnson

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Walter Perry Johnson
(Barney or The Big Train)

Inducted into Hall of Fame in 1936

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"I never saw a kid with more than he displayed." - Hall of Famer and contemporary Addie Joss speaking about Walter Johnson

". . . his motion was so slow and easy . . . I thought I was a pretty good college ballplayer, and I'm swinging way late on these things and he wasn't even trying to throw hard. . . That was my first realization of how fast he really must have been." - son Eddie Johnson, a star from the University of Maryland, about batting against a 50-year-old Walter Johnson in 1937, from the book "Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train"

Walter Johnson was a pitcher for the Washington Senators from 1907 to 1927, and later manager of the Senators (1929-1932) and the Cleveland Indians (1933-1935). He was the American League's dominant pitcher for the 1910s, and set numerous AL and Major League records, several of which still stand. He was one of the "Five Immortals" elected to the Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class of 1936.

Early Years[edit]

Walter Johnson was born and raised on his family's farm a few miles outside Humboldt, Kansas. When he was 13, a severe drought forced his parents to sell the farm and move, first into town and then to Olinda, a small town near Fullerton in Orange County, California.

While Walter had received some exposure to baseball in Kansas, he never played in an organized game until moving to California. Even in California he was first limited to informal sandlot games. Johnson later attributed his endurance to his relatively late introduction to the game, saying that he built up his arm strength in ordinary daily work to the point that he was too strong to hurt himself by pitching. His informal background also led him to develop an unorthodox sidearm delivery that became one of his trademarks. His main asset was a fastball that by virtually all accounts was the best of his age, and arguably of all time.

As a 16-year-old, Johnson finally got a chance to play in organized competition, both in high school and with a local semi-pro team, the Olinda Oil Wells. Pitching for the Oil Wells over the next few seasons earned him attention, but no offers, from local minor league teams, including the Pacific Coast League Los Angeles Angels. In early 1906, however, he received an offer from the Northwestern League Tacoma Tigers, where he had gotten a glowing recommendation from former Oil Wells teammate Jack Barnett.

Nature conspired against his attempt to sign with the Tigers. While he was traveling from California to Tacoma, San Francisco was nearly destroyed by the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. When Walter arrived in Tacoma, the PCL looked to be on the brink of collapse. Tigers' manager Mike Lynch expected to be able to scoop up pitchers turned loose by failing PCL teams, and released Johnson after just one game, an exhibition played as a benefit for earthquake survivors. To add insult to injury, Lynch advised Johnson that he wasn't cut out to be a pitcher and should try his hand in the outfield instead.

Instead, Walter found a job pitching for Weiser in the semi-pro Southern Idaho League. He was given a clerical position with the local office of the telephone company with the understanding that his main job was to pitch for the local team every Sunday. He joined the league a few weeks after its inception, but quickly established himself as the dominant pitcher there. After the season, which ended in early July, he returned to play more semi-pro ball in Southern California. His excellent performance in the California Winter League earned him the attention of the Angels and the New York Giants but he was unable to connect with either club's manager and failed to catch on.

He returned to Weiser for the 1907 season, where he put on a pitching exhibition that overcame his previous difficulties in garnering attention. He struck out nearly 14 batters per 9 innings while allowing less than one run and one walk per 9 IP. He also pitched 77 consecutive scoreless innings - misreported as 85 innings at the time - including back-to-back no-hitters, one of which was a perfect game. His performance, and his reputation from California, attracted telegraphed offers from teams within organized baseball. The first came from Tacoma, where Mike Lynch had reconsidered Johnson's suitability as a pitcher, but other teams who had scouted him soon sent in offers of their own. Finally, he received a telegram from the Washington Senators offering him a position in the American League. Walter turned them all down, but he was unable to resist when Senators catcher Cliff Blankenship turned up to make an offer in person. After receiving his parents' permission by telegram and getting Blankenship's reluctant agreement that he could finish the season in Weiser, Johnson agreed to come to Washington.

Early Major League Career[edit]

". . . he knows where he is throwing, because if he didn't there would be dead bodies all over Idaho." - Joe Cantillon, talking about Walter Johnson before he came to the majors

The Senators team that Johnson joined was woefully bad. They were at or near the bottom of the league in scoring and preventing runs and in fielding. In a bid to improve his team, manager Pongo Joe Cantillon signed several new players toward the end of the 1907 season. In addition to Johnson, he brought in Clyde Milan, George McBride, and Gabby Street.

1909 T206

The delay between Johnson's recruitment (he wasn't formally signed until after his second start) and his arrival in Washington gave time for the team to hype him, but others were quick to question his legitimacy. He had, after all, been playing in the most bush of the bush leagues, so there was no way to be confident that his amazing record reflected his greatness or his opponents' weakness. The questions were silenced as soon as anyone had a chance to see his pitching. Walter was proclaimed to be the pitching find of the season and given the inevitable comparisons to the top pitchers in the game that great prospects routinely receive. His statistics, other than a weak 5-9 record that could be attributed to lack of run support, were excellent. He didn't pitch enough innings to qualify for the AL leaderboards, but his 1.88 ERA would have finished fourth in the league, and his 5.79 SO/9IP would have finished second.

Following his successful introduction to the majors, Johnson returned home to Southern California to play in the California Winter League. He racked up gaudy numbers there similar to the ones he had put up in Weiser; in 102 innings he allowed just 35 hits, 5 walks, and 4 runs while striking out 152. He also hit .372 and slugged .628. He led the league in both wins and winning percentage. He also pitched the first no-hitter in league history, doing so on January 19. At the tail end of the season, though, he developed an infection behind his right ear. Walter hoped that it would go away by itself and avoided treatment because he feared that it would make him miss the start of spring training. Delay only let the infection get worse, though, and he wound up requiring surgery that kept him sidelined until June 11.

Even when he came back, Johnson wasn't really in pitching condition, and his record suffered from it. When he pitched himself into shape, he started to live up to the promise he had shown the previous season. His most outstanding achievement took place over Labor Day weekend, when he pitched three consecutive complete game shutouts against the Highlanders. On Friday, September 4, he topped Jack Chesbro by pitching a 6 hitter. The following day he topped the Highlanders again, this time giving up just 4 hits and no walks. With no game on Sunday because of blue laws, Johnson got a day of rest and came back to throw a 2-hitter to top Chesbro again in the first game of the Labor Day doubleheader. Despite missing the first two months of the season, Johnson finished the year with a respectable 256 1/3 innings, and finished in the top 5 in the league in ERA, strikeouts, and shutouts. In the 1908-1909 winter season, Walter went 2-1 with 52 strikeouts and only 4 walks in 36 innings.


If his injury made Johnson's 1908 season a bit disapointing, his 1909 season was nearly a disaster. For the second year in a row he missed the start of the season, this year because of a severe cold, and for the second year in a row he was forced to shoulder a full pitching load before he had completely recovered. Manager Cantillon pushed him too fast and too far, regularly pitching Johnson on short rest. By the end of August, Walter had simply passed his limit and came up with a sore arm that kept him out of the lineup for three weeks and scared Cantillon into using giving him more rest for the remainder of the season. His tremendous workload showed up in his statistics. Despite missing more than a month to his cold and sore arm, he placed third in the league in innings pitched, second in starts, and in the top ten in appearances and complete games. His pitching quality declined, though, as is ERA was barely better than league average and his record was just 13-25.

In 1909-1910, he went 9-0 in the California Winter League with 117 K in 81 IP, leading in wins and winning percentage. He threw the league's second no-hitter; in the next 37 years, only two other pitchers would throw one, giving Walt half of the CWL's historical no-hitters. Overall, he had gone 18-3-3 with 321 K in 219 IP in his three years in the league. His 13 K/9 innings tops Satchel Paige's 12/9 for the best in CWL history. He ranks 11th in wins, tied with Lou Koupal for 11th in innings and was second in shutouts (12), five behind Paige. Johnson ranked 4th in CWL winning percentage, the best of any white pitcher - Willie Foster, Schoolboy Griffith and Paige were ahead of him. His 321 K rank third behind fellow Hall-of-Famers Paige and Bullet Joe Rogan, both of whom pitched far more games in the league.


"He was the only pitcher I ever faced who made the ball whistle. You could actually hear it as it crossed the plate. Sounded like a bullet from a rifle, sort of a zing, and it made you shaky in the knees." --Ty Cobb.

In 1910, Johnson finally broke through and converted his promise into productivity. In the 1910s, he reached a sustained peak unmatched in baseball history. From 1910 to 1919, he was 265-143 with an ERA of just 1.59; his ERA+ of 183 for the decade would rank as one of the top 100 single seasons. He finished at or near the top in almost every positive statistical category every year, including leading the league in strikeouts a remarkable 9 times.

The decade began auspiciously, as Johnson pitched a 3-0, one-hit shutout in the first of his 14 career Opening Day assignments; it might easily have been a no-hitter had outfielder Doc Gessler not tripped over a spectator while chasing a fly off the bat of Home Run Baker. That opening day was also notable as the first time that the President of the United States, William Howard Taft, threw out the first ball of the season.

1911 M116

Johnson's success was triggered by new Senators manager Jimmy McAleer. McAleer showed more restraint than Joe Cantillon had, routinely giving Johnson a full three days off between starts and rarely using him in relief. He also encouraged Johnson to rely almost exclusively on his dominating fastball rather than trying to mix in his middling curveball and change-up. Johnson was widely regarded as being the fastest pitcher of his era, and his fastball was the benchmark against which everyone else's was judged. Johnson responded with an outstanding season, leading the league with 370 innings and 313 strikeouts and coming in third with a 1.39 ERA and 25 wins - more than twice as many as any other pitcher on the team. His 1911 season was nearly as good; he was only third in the league in innings and strikeouts, but moved up to second with a 1.90 ERA and won another 25 games and finished 5th in the newly instituted MVP voting. Unfortunately, Johnson's performance wasn't enough for the Senators. None of the Senators' other pitchers managed to post an ERA better than league average, and the team's offense was sub-par as well. They were able to stay out of the cellar, but after two 7th place finishes McAleer was replaced by Clark Griffith.

Griffith had been a great pitcher in his playing days, and the Washington pitching staff improved under his guidance. None improved as much a Walter Johnson. Building on his already outstanding performance of the previous two seasons, Johnson lit up the league. He led the league by a large margin in ERA and strikeouts, and set an AL record by winning 16 consecutive games. The only thing that kept him from winning the triple crown was that the Red Sox's Joe Wood had a similarly great season and topped him by one win. When Wood also put together a long winning streak that season, Griffith and Sox manager Jake Stahl juggled their rotations so that the two could face each other on September 6. The matchup lived up to the pre-game hype, as Wood won 1-0 to reach 14 consecutive wins. Ironically, Wood's streak was eventually stopped at 16, tying Johnson's record; Rube Marquard of the New York Giants had set the National League and Major League record of 19 earlier in the season. Johnson's 33-12 record earned him a third place finish in the MVP race and helped push the Senators to 91-61 - the first winning record in the history of Washington, DC baseball.

As if to prove that 1912 was no fluke, Johnson somehow managed to improve again in 1913. After allowing a run in the first inning of the season, Johnson rattled off 55 2/3 scoreless innings, a Major League record until broken by Don Drysdale in 1968 and still the AL record. He ran his record to 13 wins before suffering his first loss, and finished the season 36-7. Without a healthy Joe Wood to match against him, he led the league in almost every category: ERA, wins, winning percentage, innings, strikeouts, shutouts, and even fewest walks per game. The Senators had their second consecutive second place finish, and Johnson was a shoo-in for the MVP. For a long time, he was credited with 42 earned runs allowed and an ERA of 1.09 for that season, but that was due to some charity on the part of an official scorer. In a meaningless game against the Boston Red Sox on October 4th in which he played in center field and all sorts of other players played out of position, he was called up to face a couple of batters in the 9th and lobbed a few pitches resulting in a pair of hits and both batters eventually scoring. Those two runs were not added to his record, but there was no reason, really, and when Bob Gibson threatened his mark in 1968, his mark came under scrutiny and the error was discovered. His ERA adjusted upwards to 1.14 as a result - which was just above Gibson's final mark of 1.12, which is now considered the all-time record.

Johnson promoting healthy living during World War I.

He signed a three-year contract with the Chicago Whales of the Federal League in 1915 but was persuaded to break the contract by Clark Griffith, who offered him $12,500 per season to stay with the Washington Senators.


Managerial Career[edit]

After his major league career, Johnson became player-manager of the Newark Bears in 1928. He was originally expected to be a full-time pitcher as well as managing, but only wound up using himself in a handful of appearances as a pinch-hitter. Those few pinch hit at bats constituted his entire official minor league career.

He quickly returned to the majors as manager of the Nationals and Cleveland Indians. Even though he never won a pennant, his .570 winning percentage is the best of any manager in the history of Washington baseball.

Post Baseball[edit]

Johnson had three sons, of which two (Walter, Jr. and Eddie) played in the minors. Eddie seemed quite promising, but didn't have the fervor and instead went back to the farm. Eddie felt the third son, Bobby, was the most talented, but Bobby never cared to go past sandlot ball. Source: Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train.

He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on February 2, 1936 by the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Johnson in April 1939 with six baseballs signed by Presidents, which he donated to Cooperstown.

He was an unsuccessful Congressional candidate from Maryland in 1940. A public high school in Bethesda, MD, in the suburbs of Washington, is named after him (Walter Johnson High School). The school opened in 1956. At the time, Johnson was the only former major leaguer with a school named for him (Steve Garvey had a Junior High School in Lindsay, California named after him in 1977). ESPN's Tim Kurkjian is a graduate of WJHS.


Johnson was an outstanding hitter for a pitcher, and he still holds two major league batting records for pitchers: career triples and single season batting average. He was used as a pinch-hitter more than 100 times in his career and was pressed into service as an outfielder when the Nationals were short on players in 1918 and 1919. Even when pitching he was sometimes put higher in the batting order than the pitcher's usual 9th spot.

Johnson solely held the record for most games pitched with one team (802) until 1968, when Elroy Face tied him. They shared the record for another 39 years until Trevor Hoffman broke it in 2007.

His first baseball card appearance was in the 1909 T204 Tamly set.

Notable Achievements[edit]

  • 2-time AL MVP (1913 & 1924)
  • 3-time AL Pitchers Triple Crown (1913, 1918 & 1924)
  • 5-time AL ERA Leader (1912, 1913, 1918, 1919 & 1924)
  • 6-time AL Wins Leader (1913-1916, 1918 & 1924)
  • 2-time AL Winning Percentage Leader (1913 & 1924)
  • 2-time AL Games Pitched Leader (1910 & 1914)
  • 5-time AL Innings Pitched Leader (1910 & 1913-1916)
  • 12-time AL Strikeouts Leader (1910, 1912-1921, 1923 & 1924)
  • 6-time AL Complete Games Leader (1910, 1911 & 1913-1916)
  • 7-time AL Shutouts Leader (1911, 1913-1915, 1918, 1919 & 1924)
  • 15 Wins Seasons: 16 (1910-1919 & 1921-1926)
  • 20 Wins Seasons: 12 (1910-1919, 1924 & 1925)
  • 25 Wins Seasons: 7 (1910-1916)
  • 30 Wins Seasons: 2 (1912 & 1913)
  • 35 Wins Seasons: 1 (1913)
  • 200 Innings Pitched Seasons: 18 (1908-1919 & 1921-1926)
  • 300 Innings Pitched Seasons: 9 (1910-1918)
  • 200 Strikeouts Seasons: 7 (1910-1916)
  • 300 Strikeouts Seasons: 2 (1910 & 1912)
  • Won a World Series with the Washington Senators in 1924
  • Baseball Hall of Fame: Class of 1936

1923 1924 1925
Babe Ruth Walter Johnson Roger Peckinpaugh

Preceded by
Bucky Harris
Washington Senators Manager
Succeeded by
Joe Cronin
Preceded by
Roger Peckinpaugh
Cleveland Indians Manager
Succeeded by
Steve O'Neill

Year-By-Year Managerial Record[edit]

Year Team League Record Finish Organization Playoffs Notes
1928 Newark Bears International League 81-84 7th none
1929 Washington Senators American League 71-81 5th Washington Senators
1930 Washington Senators American League 94-60 2nd Washington Senators
1931 Washington Senators American League 92-62 3rd Washington Senators
1932 Washington Senators American League 93-61 3rd Washington Senators
1933 Cleveland Indians American League 48-51 4th Cleveland Indians replaced Roger Peckinpaugh (26-25) and Bibb Falk (1-0) on June 11
1934 Cleveland Indians American League 85-69 3rd Cleveland Indians
1935 Cleveland Indians American League 46-48 -- Cleveland Indians replaced by Steve O'Neill on August 5

Records Held[edit]

  • Shutouts, career, 110
  • Shutouts, right-hander, career, 110
  • Shutout losses, career, 65
  • Seasons leading league in strikeouts, 12
  • Most innings pitched without allowing a HR, 371, 1916
  • Hit batters, career, 203
  • Triples, career, pitcher, 41
  • Batting average, pitcher, season (50 at bat minimum), .440, 1925
  • Decisions, AL, career, 696
  • Wins, AL, career, 417
  • Games started, AL, career, 666
  • Complete games, AL, career, 531
  • Innings pitched, AL, career, 5,914.1
  • Hits allowed, AL, career, 4,913
  • Baserunners allowed, AL, career, 6,481

Further Reading[edit]

  • Warren N. Wilbert: What Makes an Elite Pitcher? Young, Mathewson, Johnson, Alexander, Grove, Spahn, Seaver, Clemens, and Maddux, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2003. ISBN 978-0-7864-1456-7

Related Sites[edit]