Thursday, August 02, 2007

Commemorating Walter Johnson--Part Two

This Evening--The African Queen and I were given the honor of meeting Walter Johnson's Daughter--Carolyn Johnson Thomas and her son--Walter's Grandson--Henry W. Thomas. Our Washington Nationals invited Sohna and I to meet them personally, chat briefly and take a picture. Both were very gracious and really fun to meet. This on a night--one of Washington's Finest Sons was recognized on a baseball playing field in which he reached his fame. Our Washington Nationals honored the 100th Anniversary of Baseball's Greatest Pitcher's very first game, this evening at RFK Stadium.

Principal Owner Mark Lerner unveiled a special Baseball Plaque with Walter Johnson's named inscribed for the family. The Plaque will be placed at New Nationals Park on South Capitol Street in 2008. After the unveiling--Hank Thomas threw out Tonight's First Pitch. Our Manager Manny Acta took the honors of receiving the throw. A night that saw Washington wear 1927 Replica Washington Senators White Caps with Red Bills.

With that, The Nats320 Blog concludes its Two Part Interview with Henry Thomas on his beloved Grandfather--Walter Johnson. Hank is Walter's Biographer and the author of "Walter Johnson--The Big Train". A wonderful book on the life of Washington's Greatest Player.

Here we go with Part 2:

What do you think your book has done for The Legacy of Walter Johnson? (SBF)

“I don’t think enough to raise his awareness. During The All Century Team Vote (1999), I was thrilled that fans knew enough to vote him onto the All Century Team. He wasn’t one of the five—The Committee had to put on (in retrospect—after voting). He didn’t get as many votes as Nolan Ryan. Or, maybe Sandy Koufax. But, that’s OK. Fans knew enough about Walter. That amazed me—frankly. I have never picked up on any indication that younger generations were as interested as mine was in the history of the game. But, I guess, they are soaking it up somewhere.”

“My Book, I just want the people that want to know more about Walter Johnson, to know—that its there—that its available. That is what makes me happy. And, that’s not a lot of people. I knew it was not going to be a lot of people. This is what I set out to do though.”

I had an interview with Hall of Famer Don Sutton a few weeks back. We discussed how most younger fans and players today don’t care as much about The History of the Game. He’s (Sutton) very sorrowful about that fact. (SBF)

“Its my impression, also. I don’t know about most people, but the younger generations, sure. Now, that might be a prejudice on my part. Maybe, people were saying the same things in the 50’s when we were reading all these books. The older guys then were saying: ‘These kids they know nothing.’ At least, we had the backs of the Topps (Baseball) Cards. I grew up reading guys like Shirley Povich (Long Time GREAT SPORTSWRITER for The Washington Post) who had lived through it (much of Baseball History). So, when they wrote about Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson—THEY KNEW THESE GUYS! They had been there. They had seen them play. That’s been lost, but again—that All Century Team Vote, people knew enough to vote Johnson onto the team.”

When his wife, Hazel, died—How much did it change his life? (SBF)

“From inside of him (Walter), probably completely, just completely devastating. He ADORED HER, and vice versa. They were soul mates. When they found each other that was it. It’s just hard to imagine what it was like for him on the inside. I came across somewhere an article written by Al Stump right after Ty Cobb died. “My Wild Ride With Ty Cobb.” In that article, Cobb claimed that Walter Johnson had told Cobb he had seriously thought about killing himself (over Hazel’s passing). I am sure he did. I am sure he wanted nothing more than to be with her. Go to wherever she had gone—that kind of thing.”

“But, he was in charge of seven kids at that time. Five of his own, and he had taken in two boys from his younger sister that had died. So, he had seven kids he was responsible for. And, I am sure—if it crossed his mind (suicide), he knew what he would be leaving behind. He felt like ‘Dying', probably like that, but he couldn’t. He had responsibilities. That was a terrible time for him.”

“And, as I wrote about, for someone like me who had followed his life so closely. Up until that point (Hazel’s Death)—What a Charmed Life. What a Great Life this guy had lived. Anybody who could have had anything—This GUY HAD EVERYTHING! He responded in the way people would have wanted to see--in a very generous and modest fashion. Not walking around as if he had been anointed or something. There was none of that."

"Then, all of a sudden, the one closest—was now gone. For this to happen, as Al Schacht put it after she (Hazel) died, he said to a reporter questioning how the ballplayers feel: ‘This is the worst thing that could possibly happen, to us, as well as him. This is just horrible beyond all comprehension.’ And, they (the ballplayers) loved her. She was a wonderful person too. The contrast between how charmed his life had been up until that point. Then, to have the one thing in life he wouldn’t want to lose in life—at all. He would have rather had everything else taken away from him, than her.”

That would be absolutely crushing. (SBF)

“CRUSHING—AND IT WAS!! It was. Shirley Povich—I asked him about her passing. He told me: 'Walter was a different man. He was different Man.' Sad, really."

Does your mother (Carolyn) say the same thing? (SBF)

“She was seven years old at the time. She remembers how terrible it was. Walter would not leave the casket. It was in the house for about two and one half days, before the funeral. He sat there the entire time. He did no eat. People were worried about him. He didn’t sleep. He just sat there, next to her casket. Mom remembered—now here is what a seven year old would remember. She came up to him and said: ‘Dad, no one has fed the chickens?’ And, he responds: ‘You know what, you are absolutely right.’ And, he got up and went out with her to feed the chickens. Mom told me that was the only time he left the casket.”

On a lighter note—he had no enemies. Everyone loved him. (SBF)

“Everyone loved him. I think that his absolutely true. I can’t imagine anyone disliking him. Although there were the managing years where he rubbed some players the wrong way. He was at fault for some of that. This was a new experience for him, being a red-ass every once in a while. I don’t think he ever took to disciplining players at all. He tried.”

“Roger Peckinpaugh said Walter really didn’t know how to do that (discipline). So, he used sarcasms sometimes. It really was not in him to go after players. To just say—look—you are not playing as hard as you can. You are letting us down. So, Walter made asides, sarcastic comments. Peckinpaugh said: ‘Ballplayers can take anything but not sarcasm.’ I thought that's correct. But, again—if you look at his record as a manager—especially at Washington—it’s a fine record (Three Straight Seasons of 90 Plus Wins). He and (Clark) Griffith rebuilt the team. That Great Team of The 20’s (1924 World Series Champions) was pretty much done by the time Walter took over (in 1929). They rebuilt it into a contender. And, I think Walter would have won the pennant in ’33 (the year after he was fired as manager—The Senators went to The World Series). Walter was there for four years (as manager) and he had a lot of the say. They had no GM (General Manager). It was basically him and Griffith making all the decisions on personnel. But, Walter was also winning, while they were rebuilding."

"If not for what many people would say were The Two Greatest Teams of ALL TIME—The (New York) Yankees and The (Philadelphia) Athletics during that era--he would have been better remembered for his managing. How would you like to be playing those teams? And, The Senators did not have that kind of talent. But, they competed very well. They actually beat The Yankees (in 1930). We are talking (Babe) Ruth, (Lou) Gehrig, (Tony) Lazzeri—all those pitchers. Like, eight of those guys are in the Hall of Fame. Bill Dickey as their catcher. The Senators beat them out of second place in 1930. How in The Hell Did They do that?

“And The Athletics—(Lefty) Grove, (Jimmy) Foxx, (Mickey) Cochrane, (Al) Simmons—That’s One Hell of A Team! (That’s an amazing lineup—SBF) “YEAH—it really is!! (both of us chuckling). And, the next two years finished barely out of second place both years—finishing behind those two teams. Winning over 90 games three years in a row against that competition—that’s pretty good. Walter was The Manager. But, he gave it up after seven years.”

“Now, reading the contemporary accounts—he really wasn’t a good manager. But, people stood up for him--like Povich. Did he ever. He (Povich) wrote some blistering columns firing back at people who all through Johnson’s managerial career took shots at Walter. Povich really defended him. And, I don’t think it was just because Povich liked him. Povich would claim: ‘Look at the players he’s got. Look what he’s done with them. What else do you want!’ Of course, Griffith fired him because that is what you do after a while. That’s all. Clark Griffith really didn’t want to fire him. In fact, Griffith fired Bucky Harris (as manager) three times. Harris was more a son to Clark Griffith than Walter, or Calvin (his adopted nephew and eventual successor). Or, any of the kids Clark Griffith took in (which is a story all its own actually).”

“That unfortunately is the way it goes. Managers are hired to be fired—as they say. I think he was probably pretty good at it. Although his personality wasn’t the best fit.”

You mention how Roger Peckinpaugh made a statement about the difficulty Walter had with dealings with his players. But, I bet you in the 1925 World Series, when Roger Peckinpaugh (The League MVP) did not play well—Walter Johnson did not say ONE ILL WORLD ABOUT HIM AT ALL? (SBF)

“Talk about something you love to write about. Coming off the field at the end of the 8th inning (GAME 7—being played in Horrible Rainy/Foggy Conditions)—They (The Senators) are all done. Peckinpaugh has just made his 8th Error of The Series—to put them down 9-7, I think. Walter stands at the baseline, waits for Peckinpaugh to come in from shortstop. Puts his arm around him and they walk together to the dugout. WOO!!! This after Peckinpaugh has just lost The Series for The Senators. He really did. He (Roger) had been the Most Valuable Player in The American League that year—because you couldn’t repeat (in the reward). Peckinpaugh had played so well. As Povich wrote, the Most Valuable Player turned out to be The Least Valuable Player in The World Series. So Walter waits for him and throws his arms around him. What more can you possibly say about a guy like that? Walter knowing he has just lost The Series and it’s because of This Guy.”

I have that Black & White Photo of President Truman and Minnie (Walter’s Mom) at the Dedication Ceremony for the Special Plaque placed originally at Griffith Stadium, but now at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. (SBF)

“Its just so fabulous. Truman comes over, Minnie is crying. And The President of The United States says to her: “What A Guy!! What A Guy!!” He just came over to console her—but he cared about Walter Johnson also. Really, it’s just incredible. Truman had said that Johnson was one of his heroes growing up. Truman’s hometown (just a stones throw from Johnson’s—SBF) Yeah. Same kind of people. They were about the same age. And, of course—the Midwest back then really claimed Johnson as their counterpart to Christy Mathewson and all the other heroes of the New York papers—Ruth, Matty and all those. The Eastern Press dominated the national syndication. But, The Midwest would always say to those back east: ‘You got those guys. Well, we got Walter Johnson!!’ Again, his personality fit that very well.”

“We are more homogenized as a country today—not so sectionalized as before.”

Finally—I think its unique that on the very week, The Washington Nationals are going to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Walter Johnson’s First Game—a player as beloved as Walter was in Washington—is inducted into The Baseball Hall Of Fame—Baltimore’s Cal Ripken? Both played 21 years for the very same team. Both won one World Series. Both were cherished during their playing days. Both are as well known off the field, as on the field.

“Yes, for many, many years I cited Cal Ripken as the Modern Day equivalent of what Walter Johnson represented in his time. Writers make archetypes out of all these guys. Ty Cobb the snarling guy, fighter. Ruth big friendly partying guy; Matty the college boy—sophisticated. Walter was the Mr. Everybody. Ripken—that’s why so many care so much about him—cared so much about The Streak. Here’s the guy that seems to represent The Best Of Humans. Now, I have no idea what he is like in Private Life. I have met him a few times. He was our bartender at the All Century Team Function. That was fun (both of us laughing). He just ended up behind the bar getting everyone beers and stuff. “

“From observing him there for a couple of hours, he appeared like everything you ever read about him. I have often cited him saying that’s what Walter was in his time."

With that, Hank and I simply ran out of time. We both had other business to take care of. Although both of us admitted--we could have talked all night long. There is NOTHING LIKE TALKING BASEBALL, with someone that shares your same love and compassion. Highly recommended is his book. If any of Hank's comments interested you, the book will provide much more joy. We only barely scratched the surface of the history of Walter Johnson in this chat.

Many Thanks to Henry W. Thomas--Hank--to is friends, for giving me a small part of his day to allow me to bring this interview to everyone interested.

Walter Johnson is a Washington Monument. Our Washington Nationals began that rediscovery of his greatness this evening at RFK Stadium. And, with The DC Arts and Humanities Commission moving forward on immortalizing, not only Walter, but Josh Gibson and Frank Howard--many more fans are going to be exposed to the rich history that is--Washington Baseball.

I hope you enjoyed Hank Thomas's comments and stories about his Grandfather.

PS--Yes, The African Queen and I have attended each of the past two games at RFK Stadium versus The Cincinnati Reds. But, we felt that this two part interview with Hank Thomas should stand alone and not be divided by "GAMERS" as I would normally write after each Nationals Ball Game at RFK Stadium. I promise they will return beginning tomorrow night against The St. Louis Cardinals. But A SWEEP at RFK over The Reds was PRETTY SWEET! Their second sweep of the season at home. The other this past April against The Florida Marlins. And, how about that Ryan Zimmerman. He is ON FIRE. His Sophomore Slump seems to have faded as the heat and humidity of a typical Washington Summer returns. Hitting .330 in his last 29 games--continuing to make incredible plays at third base. Tonight--a gorgeous diving stop to his right on a Jeff Conine Smash. The baseball bad hopped up above "Zimmy's" head, he still raised his glove--got up and threw out Conine easily at first. Never does Ryan Zimmerman not amaze me. Franchise Player is the only way to describe him.

As good as Our Bullpen has been all year long, Randy St.Claire has his makeshift starters in order as well. Last night, John Lannan made his second career start, lasted into the 6th and received his very first Major League Win. Tonight, Mike Bacsik, who one month ago was possibly looking at his last game in one of Our Washington Nationals uniforms--has now won three in a row. Tonight getting to the 7th, and even helped himself with a double to left and run scored.

A 7-3 win that featured 8 hits, 5 runs and 5 RBI's from the top four hitters in Our Lineup. And, for the second consecutive night--My Main Man!! also lighting it up. Ryan Church with two base knocks each game, 4 RBI and 1 Run Scored.

Curly "W" Number's 47 & 48 were almost routine. Victories a few months ago--many would have not thought possible. Performing like a team finding its knack, Our Washington Nationals are receiving, not only quality pitching, but taking advantage of a now robust offense that is learning to, not only move runners up, but to score them-- in bunches. A far cry from April & May of 2007. Defensively--marked improvement--but still a way to go.

Bang!! Zoom!! Go The Fireworks!! The 100th Anniversary of "The Big Train's First Game might well have concided with a fresh arrival of a new type of locomotive at the station. Our Washington Nationals Express--Manny Acta--Chief Engineer & Conductor.


Jim H said...


Thanks for filling us in. Nicely done. Been a long week and haven't made it to RFK yet. Saturday's a definite. Maybe Friday night as well.

Thanks again for all your efforts. Nice job on WETA!

320R2S15 said...

Fantastic job SBF. What a night, what a lady.

HckyFght said...

For a great review of Hank Thomas' book, Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train, go here.

And thanks for a great article! Go Nats!