Povich Rewind: Farewell to The Big Train
By Scott Greene
On November 16, Nationals’ pitcher Max Scherzer won the 2016 National League Cy Young award as the best pitcher in the National League by a vote of the baseball writers of America.
The award — combining pitchers in both leagues — was first given in 1956; a decade later a pitcher in each league was honored.
But most historians still consider Walter Johnson as the greatest pitcher in Washington baseball history. The late Shirley Povich surely would agree with that statement, although he would have greatly admired Scherzer. His 1946 column after the death of the “Big Train” appears below.
Big league baseball was a hard game, basically unsuited to the gentle fellow. Ty Cobb was typifying the high success of a ball player in 1907 with his tough guy tactics, his unbridled ferocity on the baselines, his jabbering contempt for umpires and his readiness to fight for his rights, real or fancied.
Socially the ball players of thirty years ago rated only one cut above the plug-uglies of the professional prize ring. The stuffier hotels scorned the patronage of the ball teams. The average player could cuss like two troopers. A chaw of tobacco was a badge of the big leaguer. The corner saloon was their hang-out.
Into the brawling business of baseball in that era walked Walter Perry Johnson, the gangling farm boy from Idaho with long arms that dangled and a gait that smacked of the plow field. To the players on the Washington team of August 1907, here was a rube sure enough. They played poker, he played casino and checkers and went to church.
Refinement came to baseball later and the game became more of an honorable profession, attracting the college-breds and dropping pugnacity as a requisite. But Walter Johnson, the gentleman, hadn’t changed. He was simply years ahead of his time.
The admiration that Walter Johnson won was something apart from the kind of acclaim lavished on sports heroes of his time. The noisy cheers for Ruth and Cobb were the product of the high excitement they produced, Ruth with his home runs, Cobb with his feats on the bases. The Nation’s fans held Johnson in a special kind of esteem, something that came from the profound, reserved for the man of quiet deeds.
Walter Johnson, more than any other ball player, probably more than any other athlete, professional or amateur, became the symbol of gentlemanly conduct in the battle heat. Here was the man who never argued with an umpire, never ast a frowning look at an error-making teammate, never seemed to presume that it was his right to win, was as unperturbed in defeat.
Such was the fame and legend of Johnson, whose fast ball shattered pitching records wholesale, that it became a mark of distinction for the fan who could say, “I was there when Walter Johnson pitched his first big league game in 1907.” Twenty years later when the Washington club staged a Walter Johnson day with special badges and a special section for those 700 fans who had seen Walter’s big league debut, nearly 10,000 self-labeled eyewitnesses showed up to claim the privileges.
As late as 1920, Johnson was sitll throwing the fastest pitch known to baseball. Batters were in dread of stepping to the plate against him. Even in the Washington training camp of that year, it was the custom of his teammates when at bat to ask Johnson to lay off his fast ball, throw them his curve. He obliged willingly enough. In fact, his own speed disturbed him. Great was his fear that some day he would kill a batter.
On the occasion he did hit a batter with his fast pitch, he would be unsettled to the point of easing up thereafter. When he hit Eddie Collins, of the White Sox, on the leg in a Griffith Stadium game in 1924, and Collins went down, Johnson raced to the plate, the first to reach him. For five minutes Collins writhed in pain, with Johnson the most solicitous man in the park. When Collins indicated he could stay in the game, Johnson patted him on the back fondly, went back to his pitching.
Collins hobbled down to first base as the game sreumed. It appeared as if he could barely make it. Little did the naive Johnson presume that Collins was putting on an act. Collins stole second on the next pitch. Johnson was not at all angered. Asked about it later, he said, “It was aanice to know Eddie wasn’t hurt.”
Johnson was a five-year veteran with the Washington Club when Clark Griffith moved in from Cincinnati to take over as manager. With the Yankees, in 1907-8-9, Griffith had watched the pitching feats of Johnson in admiration. “But I never really knew the man until the second time he pitched for me in 1912. That was the day up in Boston when it was 0-0 in the ninth and the Red Sox had a man on first with none out.”
Griffith’s story related how the next Boston batter hit what should have been a mere single to center, but the ball rolled through the legs of Center Fielder Clyde Milan and the winning run scored.
Johnson’s only comment as he walked off the field the loser was: “Milan doesn’t do that very often. Anyway, I should have struck that hitter out.”
Among Washington’s native adult population rare is the person who cannot recount a thrill at the pitching of Walter Johnson. Men grown up like to tell “of the time when-.” There’s one in our office who as a boy haunted the players’ exit at the ball park to glimpse of perhaps brush against the Big Train.
He’s Edward T. Folliard, feature writer, was a correspondent, White House reporter and travel-mate of kings and potentates. And still a baseball fan. He wrote the story when Walter Johnson threw a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River several years ago. A few hours ago, Folliard telephoned me.
“That was the day I got my greatest thrill,” he said, “when Walter Johnson took off his coat and made the throw across the Rappahannock. I was the fellow who was holding his coat.”
December 12, 1946