Thursday, August 02, 2007
Commemorating Walter Johnson
August 2nd, 2007 is important for me. As a life long Washingtonian--the baseball history of my beloved hometown is special to me. Even though Our Nation's Capital DID NOT have a Major League Team for nearly 34 seasons--a Rich History exists. From the late 1800's to the very beginnings of The American League in 1901--Washington, DC is represented by Major League Baseball. Throughout those early years--The Nationals (also known as Senators) were mostly a wayward team in the Junior Circuit. Not too good of a ball club. Not too much talent.
At least until Walter Johnson arrived from Weiser, Idaho in 1907. Tall, Strong and in possession of one of the finest and fastest baseball throwing arms in the game--Walter Johnson threw in an easy--almost whipping style. A talent that struck fear in opposing batters. An aptitude that would eventually lead Washington's new found hero to be called "The Greatest Pitcher of All Time". An Original Member of The Baseball Hall of Fame--Johnson would play 21 Seasons, all for Washington. Some of his Nationals teams were good, others not so. Yet, eventually--late in his illustrious career--"THE BIG TRAIN" would lead Our Hometown to its ONLY WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONSHIP. The 1924 World Series was won with Walter Johnson on the mound. And, a little luck from a pebble--on a ground ball hit to New York Giants Third Baseman--Fred Lindstrom.
An electrifying win nearly repeated in 1925 against The Pittsburgh Pirates. A seven game World Series Loss--in the rain and fog--with Walter Johnson on the mound--His last appearance in the post season. When Johnson finally retired from The Great Game in 1927, due to complications from a broken ankle--he had won 417 Games, lost 279 while compiling a career ERA of 2.17. Yes, that's right--2.17. Not only that, Walter Johnson compiled some impressive statistics. 110 Shutouts (in 666 total games started), 3508 strikeouts and 531 complete games. If you haven't heard of this GREAT PLAYER, I am sure you get the picture.
But,Today is A GREAT DAY--because this Thursday marks the 100th Anniversary of Walter Johnson's very first Major League Game with The Washington Nationals (Senators). And, in honor of that occasion--Our Washington Nationals will commemorate the moment with an On Field Celebration before Washington takes on Cincinnati (The Very First Professional Team, ironically) at RFK Stadium. The Guests of Honor with be Walter Johnson's 84 year old daughter--Carolyn Johnson Thomas. And, her son--Walter's Grandson--Henry W. Thomas.
For many years--Hank has carried the torch of his beloved Grandfather. Although, he was not even one year old when Walter Johnson passed away on December 6, 1946, Hank in his early 30's (mid-1970's) became enamored with his relative's history, background and human spirit. First touched by Walter's wife's (Hazel's) scrapbooks--of Johnson's fabulous career--Mr. Thomas set out to be the official biographer of his Famous Grandfather. A effort that resulted in the publication of "Walter Johnson, Baseball's Big Train" in 1995. A 458 Page Masterpiece that digs deeply into THE PERSON that Walter Johnson became and was.
Really, its a terrific book--and not just about baseball.
Knowing this Special Day was coming--I reached out to Henry W. Thomas, with help from Our Washington Nationals, to see if he might be interested in a Special Interview for The Nats320 Blog. Hank was more than willing. "Walter Johnson is my passion," he told me. Due to both our busy schedules--we were only able to talk by phone. Asking for 20 to 30 minutes--we were having such a good time--that we chatted for over 65 minutes. Other work on both our parts, finally ended the conversation.
As always--my interest in the subject--is about the person--not necessarily about the statistics. Everybody who has ever played This Great Game has stats. Some Great, Some Good, Some Mediocre. But, no matter what the skill level--its personality that always stands out. And, that's the gist of my interview with Hank Thomas. Walter Johnson's Greatness lies in his personal makeup. Identity that makes him special.
So, over the next two days--Chatting With Walter Johnson's Grandson--Hank Thomas. I hope you enjoy it.
Here we go:
When did you know that The Nationals were going to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of Walter Johnson’s first game? (SBF)
“I was at their Spring Training for a week, hanging out with some of The Nats Front Office people. They were aware of the upcoming historical date. I was told then (last March) they were going to do something. They didn’t know quite what. Then, just a few days ago, I was told what was going to happen formally. But, I knew. I ran into Mark Lerner (Principal Owner) at the Stadium Topping Ceremony. He told me ‘Yeah, Yeah. We are definitely going to do it up big.’ So, I knew The Nationals were going to do something. I am very pleased that are recognizing the date.”
When did you realize Walter Johnson was such a Big Thing in baseball?
“Really, I was in my 30’s, believe it or not. I always knew. I was a Griffith Stadium Rat. Of course they (The Senators) had a Memorial to him. My Gosh—this was my Grandfather. There were always a couple of pages in the Yearbooks. So, I knew, but I HAD NOT KNOWN HIM. And, I had not known my Grandmother. His wife (Walter’s--Hazel) died before he did. So, they were pictures on the wall to me. They really were. And, Mom (Carolyn Johnson Thomas), my Aunts and Uncles—they never talked about him. When they did, it was amongst themselves—probably just remembering him as a Father. There were never any stories being passed down from his baseball career. But, I was proud to be his Grandson, certainly. I read all the old Big Time Baseball Books—Fireside Series and stuff. So, I knew about him.”
“I was in my early 30’s when I started to go through Mom’s Scrapbooks that my Grandmother (Hazel) kept of his career. And, believe it or not--as a kid, I NEVER TOUCHED THOSE. Not Once. They were in these enclosed cabinets in Mom’s living room. They were not locked. These books were stashed on shelves in there. Never once pulled out (laughing incredulously at the thought)--not even once to start going through. But, there came one occasion. The moment itself I can’t remember. Maybe a Thanksgiving gathering or something. But for some reason—I opened those cabinets pulled out a scrapbook. And, I WAS BLOWN AWAY!!! I really had no idea.”
“It’s the difference between picking up on someone’s life and career secondhand, like through Biographies or a current Magazine Articles. Everything is coming from secondary sources. For me to go through those scrapbooks, reading articles contemporary to his day and career was a Revelation for me. It would actually be a revelation for a lot of Old Time Baseball Fans. And, I am sure you could say that about a lot of players. The regard—the way people talked about him (Walter Johnson), when he was active. Its one of the things I bring up when people say—‘Where would you place him with Christy Mathewson and Cy Young? Even Lefty Grove who came later?’ And, all I can tell you from FIRST HAND EXPERIENCE AT THAT TIME—it was not like he was in this group of great pitchers—NO!! It was not like that at all. It was—Walter Johnson was THE GUY!! He was, I would have to say, virtually unanimously—THE GREATEST PITCHER WITHOUT QUESTION!! That’s the way they (newspapers) wrote about him—starting in the Mid-Teens (1914-16), when he really started to put up those fabulous numbers together.”
“His fastball, the way he pitched, his strikeouts, his shutouts—people were in awe of his talent. He was Babe Ruth, except Walter Johnson was a pitcher. And, pitchers were much bigger figures back then (in popularity). Pitching was a much more important part of the game, until the 1920’s came along—with the Home Run dominating.”
“The other important thing, not just his career (playing), that I had not picked up on, other than just a general impression that he had been a good guy—was the regard for him as a person. That went hand in hand with the regard people had for him as a pitcher. There was almost as much written about that (his personality) as there was about his pitching. He was just IDOLIZED for the character traits that were held in HIGH ESTEEM back then. Humility, a very humble guy, came from humble roots—and was just a nice guy. Everybody that ever had anything to do with him, just talked about what a terrific man Walter Johnson was.”
“Bucky Harris (Former Teammate & Manager) the day of Johnson’s Funeral standing in Clark Griffith’s (Senators Owner) Office (at Griffith Stadium) standing around with a bunch of the older players—Harris just exclaimed: ‘Gosh, What a Sweet Guy Walter was!!’ (Hank Laughing now)—What a word for a Tough Guy like Harris—coming out of the coal mines starting at Age 12. But, that’s probably the perfect word to describe him (Walter Johnson). He was just kind. He was gentle. He was modest. On that same occasion (as Bucky Harris’ comment) Clark Griffith said to a reporter—‘You know to this day, I don’t know.’ I can’t tell you Walter ever knew what a monumental figure he was in the game. I just don’t know’. Because you never had any clue one-way or the other. He was just who he was—all the time.”
“He (Johnson) had been that way when he was 10. And, he was that way when he was 15. And, was that way when he was 25 and 55 (years old), Its what everybody ever said about him--there was absolutely no air of being a big deal. Yet, he was a HUGE DEAL!! There were not many celebrities of any kind during his life that achieved the kind of fame and regard that he did.”
You have touched on what I think is so special about Walter Johnson and your book. Its not about his baseball playing necessarily. It’s about Walter Johnson—The Person. And, how he handled himself as a man. (SBF)
“Well, it is a BIG PART of his story. And, it’s the main reason I wrote the book. I never would have written the book. I don’t care how great he was (on the playing field). If my Grandfather had been Ty Cobb—I never would have written a book about him (Cobb had a checkered past). There was too much you were not particularly proud of (when it comes to Ty Cobb). That’s what it was. Gosh, WHAT A GUY!! (Walter Johnson)”
“And, to spend enough time writing a book about someone—and I am not the first biographer who said this—you really have to like that person (both of us laughing). You really do. I am sure there are instances where biographies have been written about some real bastards too. Sometimes you really don’t want to spend any more time with those people (Both of us laughing again). This book took me an enormous amount of time to put together. I enjoyed every second of it. I LOVED BEING WITH THIS MAN!!”
There are six Presidents of The United States who all enjoyed baseball revolving around Walter Johnson’s Career? (SBF)
“And, he knew them all.” (When President Taft threw out the very first Presidential Pitch, he threw it to Walter Johnson—his preferred choice—SBF)
“Absolutely, its one of the many little facts of his story that just grab you. Here’s this country boy. He could not have been more of a country boy—Kansas Farm Boy. And, where does he end up. Who does he end up hob knobbing with? Presidents and gets married to a Congressman’s Daughter. He ran in those circles. Not so much socially, but he got invited to White House Parties. Although, I am sure it was not his favorite events. He would have rather been out hunting with his hunting dogs.”
“You can see from the pictures, he wore a suit like not too many other people have ever seen. Big, good-looking guy anyway. But, he wore these beautifully tailored suits. He looks like a Bank President.”
He’s is almost the ultimate reluctant hero? (SBF)
“Yeah, but the reluctance came sort of in one of one situations. I am sure he hated these innumerable banquets and occasions---people going on and on about his greatness. That’s the stuff he would rather not have to endure, I am sure. Of course there were no paparazzi then. They didn’t get chased around quite so much as they (Stars) do these days. But, I think he enjoyed just about all of it. And, took the fame as part of it. There are many, many stories just interrupting something (personal) he is doing because a fan has come up. Walter would always respond—he didn’t want anyone to think he was not a good fellow. There are all types of stories like that”
Also, money was important to him, but not the end all? (SBF)
“You talk about money. He wasn’t stupid. He knew what he was worth. And, he didn’t like it when the team was unwilling to pay his worth. Of course the classic was his jump to The Federal League (in 1915). They (Washington) offering him a $500 raise after he had won 28 Games. He’s wondering: ‘Gosh—just $500’ The team responds: ‘Yeah, you didn’t have a very good year. You won 36 the year before!!’ (Both of us busting out laughing at the absurdity of the statement). So, he was known as a nice guy. But, he wasn’t an idiot. That kind of comment is going to get anybody's hackles up. And respond: 'Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Guess What—there is this other league here and they just offered me $20,000 per year.’ Of course characteristically—Griffith being the ‘sly fox’ goes to this meeting with Walter in this hotel in Kansas City and Johnson emerges from this meeting with tears in his eyes. Griffith saying: ‘Oh My God Walter, I have invested money in this team. Its all because you were there. I thought we were going to ride this all the way to a pennant? And, here you are…..’ And, of course Griffith promised also that he would make it right for Johnson financially—which he did. ‘Sign this one,' Griffith said. 'Next Year, I will get you 5 Years at $16,000 per year.’ And, he did. Of course, that also was a BARGAIN for Griffith. What a bargain that was!! But, it’s what Johnson wanted. He wanted respect. He wanted the kind of money his achievements warranted.”
“That is the type of story as a biographer is always fun to come across instances, mostly fun. Although, not at Cleveland (where Walter Johnson Managed from 1933 to 1935). Cleveland was a tough time for him. It certainly makes everything more interesting when you come across facts that show character. But, at the same time, you don’t want the subject to be Mary Poppins. So, when he (Walter Johnson) would stand up for himself—and show that he wasn’t a milk toast. He had character. That was cool to realize. I loved writing about his holdouts.”
“Even the earlier one. He has won 25 games in 1910. He’s up for a new contract, and he wants $7500. They (Washington) offer $5500. Neither one of them is going to budge. He holds out for three weeks during Spring Training. Finally, signs three years at $7,000 per year. Over the next three seasons—Walter wins 25, 33 & 36 Games. (Hank laughing now). And they (Washington) were not going to budge. They were claiming that at $6500 only Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were making more than that. You have only had one good season—blah, blah blah. Look what Washington got from that contract! Oh—My Gosh! (Both of us laughing mightily)”
“Walter believed he should be earning as much as those guys. He was right. He would stand up for himself, then cave, when it came down to it. He wanted to play baseball. He knew that that kind of money was a lot of money back then.”
Can you imagine a player winning 94 games over a three-year span today, and how much he would be worth? (SBF)
“Astronomical. What kind of contract would that bring? $20 Million a year, easy.”
Tomorrow--in Part Two. More about Walter Johnson's Legacy. The Tragic Death of his beloved wife--Hazel. His reputation as a Manager for nearly seven seasons. And finally, an interesting comparison to one of Today's Great Players.