The Big Train kept on chuggin'
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

Sure, pitching statistics were inflated early this century. And the game has changed considerably, especially with an increased reliance on relief pitching. But even taking this into account, the numbers produced by Walter Johnson are staggering.

 Walter Johnson
You want durable? Walter Johnson gave you durable during his 1907-27 playing career, completing 531 of his 666 pitching starts.
Let's start with his 417 victories, the most by any pitcher this century. Think of how difficult it is to achieve. Win 20 games for 20 years and you come up short. Greg Maddux, the most dominant pitcher of the 1990s, is not even halfway there.

There are Johnson's 110 shutouts. That's more than fellow Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax, Carl Hubbell and Dizzy Dean had combined.

For seven consecutive seasons for the Washington Senators, he won at least 25 games, peaking at 36. In his 21-year career, he was a 20-game winner 12 times.

Relying almost exclusively on a sidearm fastball, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound right-hander liked to finish what he started. He completed 531 of 666 starts, including 36 of 37 in 1911. The entire National League had only 143 complete games in 2,268 starts in 1997.

He struck out 3,508 American League batters. No pitcher has ever whiffed more AL batters.

There were all those 1-0 games he was involved in, 64 total. He won 38. A record. He lost 26. Another record.

As for earned-run average, nine times in a 10-season stretch the numeral "1" came before the decimal point.

Except for 1926, when he was 38, Johnson's winning percentage exceeded his team's winning percentage in the other 17 seasons he pitched at least 200 innings. Fifteen times the difference was more than 59 points. In 10 of his first 16 seasons, the Senators finished in the second division. Not until 1924 and 1925, when Johnson was in the twilight of his career, did Washington reach the World Series.

The seventh game of the 1924 World Series was perhaps the finest moment of Johnson's distinguished career. The loser of two complete games in the Series, he relieved in the ninth inning with the score tied against the New York Giants. Pitching with one day of rest, he threw four scoreless innings to record his first Series victory as Washington won its only Series ever.

"The good Lord just couldn't bear to see a fine fellow like Walter Johnson lose again," said losing pitcher Jack Bentley.

In 1936, Johnson was part of the elite first group of players to be voted into the Hall of Fame, with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson being his companions.

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He was nicknamed "The Big Train" by sports writer Grantland Rice, who was reminded of an express train by Johnson's size and fastball. His teammates called him "Barney," after race car driver Barney Oldfield. This had more to do with the reckless and erratic manner in which Johnson drove an automobile rather than anything to do with the speed of his pitches.

Not only a legendary pitcher, Johnson was considered to be a class person, with the virtues of decency, charm and style.

He was born Nov. 6, 1887, in Humboldt, Kan., to Swedish emigrants. Having difficulty making a living through farming, the family moved in 1901 to California, where his parents hoped to do better in the oil fields.

Johnson was 19, working for the telephone company in Idaho in 1907 and burning up a semipro baseball league when he was spotted by someone. Various stories have "the discoverer" being a fan, a traveling liquor salesman and an old-time umpire. Word reached Washington manager Joe Cantillon, whose team was the worst among the 16 major-league teams. He sent an injured catcher to scout Johnson, and the player was impressed with the pitcher's fastball. Johnson signed for $350 a month, a $100 bonus and train fare to Washington.

He made his debut on Aug. 2, 1907, losing to Cobb and the Detroit Tigers. Johnson was not an immediate success, going 5-9, 14-14 and 13-25 in his first three seasons, with the Senators finishing last twice and seventh once.

But Johnson had his moments, such as September 1908, when he did the incredible. "We are grievously disappointed in this man Johnson of Washington," wrote W.W. Aulick, with tongue in cheek, in The New York Times. "He and his team had four games to play with (New York). Johnson pitched the first game and shut us out (Sept. 4). Johnson pitched the second game and shut us out (Sept. 5). Johnson pitched the third game and shut us out (first game of a doubleheader Sept. 7 after an off day). Did Johnson pitch the fourth game and shut us out? He did not. Oh, you quitter!"

Johnson continued his "iron man" demonstration by beating the Philadelphia Athletics on Sept. 10 and 11, giving him five victories in eight days.

His career turned around in 1910 when he went 25-17, completing 38 of 42 starts. He would win at least 20 games every season in this decade. He also started a tradition in 1910 with the first of his 14 Opening Day starts; he won nine, seven by shutout. With a career-high 313 strikeouts in 1910, he won the first of his 12 strikeout titles.

After going 25-13 in 1912 with another seventh-place team, Johnson compiled the most amazing back-to-back seasons ever, combining to go 68-19. He was 32-12 with a 1.39 ERA in 1912 and 36-7 with 11 shutouts and a 1.14 ERA the next year. He was voted the American League MVP after the Senators had their second straight second-place finish.

After Johnson went 28-18 in 1914, the Chicago team in the Federal League sought to entice the pitcher with an offer of $25,000 per season for three years. Johnson, who was earning $12,000 a year, was tempted to jump leagues. But Clark Griffith, the Senators' manager and a minority owner, had the team up the ante, and Johnson remained a Washington landmark for the rest of his career.

After going 118-76 the next five seasons, Johnson slowed down from 1920 through '23, with a 57-52 record. It looked as if it could be the end of the line for The Big Train. But in 1924, at the age of 36, he bounced back by leading the league with 23 victories, against seven defeats. He gained his fifth ERA title (at 2.72) and won his second MVP as the Senators won the first pennant in their history. He capped his season in the World Series with his relief performance in the seventh-game, 12-inning, 4-3 victory.

For an encore, Johnson went 20-7 in 1925 as the Senators won another pennant. They took a 3-1 lead in the Series, with Johnson allowing just one run to the Pittsburgh Pirates in winning Games 1 and 4. But this time his seventh-game performance would be disappointing. He let a 4-0, first-inning lead vanish and lost 9-7.

After a 15-16 season in 1926, Johnson suffered a broken leg when hit by a line drive in spring training in 1927. He returned and finished the season, going 5-6. On Aug. 2, on the anniversary of his first major-league game, he was honored by being given a "day" by the Senators.

He retired as a player after the 1927 season with a 417-279 record and 2.17 ERA, but he came back as the Senators manager in 1929. While Washington won more than 90 games in three of his four seasons as pilot, it didn't win a pennant. Following this stint, he managed the Cleveland Indians from the summer of 1933 until the summer of 1935.

In April 1946, he was stricken with a brain tumor. He died on Dec. 10, 1946 in Washington.