October 2012

For the Washington Nationals: Walter Johnson’s Greatest Game

A couple of nights ago, the Washington Nationals lost a decisive Game 5 in the National League Division Series, in agonizing fashion. Opening a 6-0 lead in the game’s early innings, they carried a lead of 7-5 into the ninth inning. Any of five pitches with two outs and two strikes could have been the last one of the game. The last time a Washington team played a deciding game in a postseason series was the seventh game of the 1925 World Series. Walter Johnson coughed up an early 6-3 lead while allowing 15 hits, shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh made two of his seven errors in the Series,  and Washington lost, 9-7–the same score by which they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals. I could go on about that sad, mud-spackled ballgame but I thought today I’d give Nats fans a lift. Here’s Walter Johnson, as he related the tale of Washington’s only World Series championship, as told to John P. Carmichael. Asked what was his greatest game, Old Barney–the nickname referenced racecar speedster Barney Oldfield–replied thus.

This won’t be very original, I’m afraid, because there couldn’t be a bigger day for me than the one everybody already knows about … October 10, 1924, in the last game of my first World Series. It was Weiser, Idaho, and Detroit and Washington put together; I guess you’d call it a piece of every day for eighteen years, and it didn’t look like I’d ever see it come around. After all, I was thirty-six years old and that’s pretty far gone to be walking into the last game of a World Series…especially when you couldn’t blame people for remembering I’d lost two Series starts already that year.

You see, I didn’t have much besides a fastball in my life, and there comes a time when speed alone won’t stop a batter. If a boy hasn’t got real, natural speed, it isn’t worth his while to try and force a fastball, because a slow pitch and a curve can fool a hitter better than unnatural speed. Besides, the arm may suffer. A free, loose motion and control are the main assets for a pitcher. That’s all I ever had to amount to anything.

Why, when I started out at 18 years of age, I couldn’t even land a job on the Pacific Coast. I went to Weiser, Idaho, because it had a semipro team and the players worked in the mines. I won my first game 4-0 on two hits. I won the next 2-1 in fifteen innings and then fanned fifteen to make my string three straight.

Weiser people began calling me “Pardner” instead of “Sonny.” I still was at Weiser in 1907 and had won 13 and lost 2 when Cliff Blankenship, a Washington scout, arrived. He’d really come out to look at Clyde Milan; I was just a by-product of his trip.

Well, he never saw me pitch at all, but he knew my record and offered me a job. I wouldn’t take it until he’d promised me a return ticket to California in case I failed. I joined Washington at Detroit on August 2, 1907, despite the pleas of the Weiser folk, who offered to buy me a cigar stand and set me up in business if I’d stay there. But you know how you are at 18 … you want to see things.

I saw something my first start. I got beat 3-2 and Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford bunted me all over the infield. I fell all over myself … and the 1,000 people in the stands laughed themselves sick. I was so confused I even missed the bus back to the hotel … and was walking there in my uniform when some fans gave me a lift.

Seventeen years later I was in a Series, but I wasn’t happy about it. I’d been beaten in New York for the second time by the Giants, and I’ll admit that when I got on the train to Washington, where we were to play the seventh game, there were tears in my eyes. I was carrying my youngest boy on my shoulder and trying not to speak to people when Clark Griffith put a hand on my arm. “Don’t think about it anymore, Walter,” he told me. “You’re a great pitcher. We all know it. Now tonight when we get home don’t stand around the box office buying seats for friends or shaking hands with people who feel sorry for you. I’ve seen many a fastball shaken right out of a pitcher’s hand. Go home and get to bed early … we may need you tomorrow.”

I told him I would, but as far as needing me further … I didn’t think manager Bucky Harris would call on me again. But I got my family off the train and we went straight home.

You can imagine how red-hot Washington was the next day … the last game of its first World Series coming up. Thirty-five thousand people were crammed into our park. President Coolidge was there. I made myself as inconspicuous as possible on the bench, because I didn’t want any sympathy … and I didn’t even want Harris to think of me in a jam. Well, Bucky started Curley Ogden, but pretty soon George Mogridge was in there and then Firpo Marberry, our big relief ace.

We were all tied up in the ninth when I came in. I’ll always believe that Harris gambled on me because of sentiment, but he said no. He just told me, “You’re the best we got, Walter … we’ve got to win or lose with you.” So I walked out there and it seemed to me the smoke from the stands was so thick on the field that nobody could see me clearly anyway. I remember thinking, “I’ll need the breaks,” and if I didn’t actually pray, I sort of was thinking along those lines.

I was in trouble every inning. After getting Fred Lindstrom in the ninth, Frankie Frisch hit a fastball to right-center for three bases. We decided to pass Ross Young and then I struck out George Kelly and Irish Meusel grounded to third. In the tenth I walked Hack Wilson and then, after striking out Travis Jackson, I was lucky enough to grab a drive by the old catcher Hank Gowdy and turn it into a double play.

Heinie Groh batted for Hugh McQuillan, the Giant pitcher, in the eleventh and singled. Fred Lindstrom bunted him along. I fanned Frisch this time, on an outside pitch, and once more passed Young. Kelly struck out again.

They kept after me, though. Meusel singled in the twelfth, but I’d settled down to believe, by then, that maybe this was my day, and I got the next three hitters. I’d tried to win my own game in the tenth with a long ball to the wall, but Wilson pulled it down. So I was up again in the twelfth when it was getting pretty dark. Muddy Ruel had lifted a pop foul to Gowdy, who lost it, and on the next pitch Ruel hit past third for two bases.

Then I sent an easy grounder to short … and Jackson fumbled. We all sat there staring at Earl McNeely as he hit an easy grounder to Lindstrom.

The ball never touched Fred. It hit a pebble and arched over his head into safe territory. I could feel tears smarting in my eyes as Ruel came home with the winning run. I’d won. We’d won. I felt so happy that it didn’t seem real. They told me in the clubhouse, that President Coolidge kept watching me all the way into the clubhouse and I remember somebody yelling, “I bet Cal’d like to change places with you right now, Walter.”

A long time later Mrs. Johnson and I slipped away to a quiet little restaurant where I used to eat on Vermont Avenue, in Washington, and do you know that before we were through with our dinner 200 telegrams had been delivered there. I never thought so many people were pulling for me to win, because the Giants were pretty popular. When we packed up and went home to Kansas, we had three trunks full of letters from fans all over the world. Mrs. Johnson answered about seventy-five every day for me … and we still didn’t finish until after Christmas.

Remembering Tony-C

It gives me great pleasure today to give Our Game over to John Holway, my friend, colleague, and frequent collaborator over the past three decades. We co-wrote The Pitcher, worked together on Total Baseball‘s first edition, and promoted SABR in the years before its membership was not yet 2000. But John’s forays into baseball’s dimly understood past predates mine by eons. He has been researching baseball since 1944, and he is still at it. Looking at baseball beyond America’s major leagues, he wrote the first book in English on Japanese baseball, Japan Is Big League in Thrills, in 1954. Since then he has published many notable books on the Negro Leagues, most notably perhaps Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues (1975), a collection of interviews with the then virtually unknown Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Bill Foster, Willie Wells, and The Complete Book of the Negro Leagues (2000). Holway saw his first Negro League game–Satchel Paige’s Monarchs against Josh Gibson’s Grays–in Washington, DC in 1945. He has also wrritten frequently about Ted Williams, whom he saw strike two home runs in the 1946 All-Star Game. A former chairman of SABR’s Negro Leagues committee, Holway has received SABR’s Bob Davids Award and the Casey Award for Blackball Stars, voted the best baseball book of 1988. In 2011 he captured a Henry Chadwick Award, capping a great career in which he has viewed baseball’s past from the vantage point of the present. Here he continues to point to the future, in the person of Washington’s Bryce Harper.

Remembering Tony-C

John B. Holway

Bryce Harper has now hit 22 homers as a 19-year-old. That puts him #2, behind Tony Conigliaro.

Never heard of Tony-C? He was one of the great tragic men of American baseball. Almost a half century ago, 1964, he slugged 24 home runs in 100 fewer at bats than Bryce.

Fans today don’t know Tony. But us old geezers remember a fresh-faced young guy with a smile who was struck down much too soon.

A Massachusetts boy, Tony signed with the Red Sox when he was 17 and came up to the big time when he was 19. He conked 24 over the Monster in only 404 at bats–Harper has 530 at the moment. That would equal about 32 for an equivalent number of at bats. Conigliaro also batted .290. Harper is struggling to get over .270.

Let’s not even talk about how much more money Bryce is being paid. Tony made a little extra change singing in Boston nightclubs; his most popular hit was “Little Red Scooter,” which he performed on TV too.

Then in August Tony broke his arm and his toes, and that was all for him that year.

But he came roaring back in ’65 with his 32 shots to lead the league, the youngest man ever to do it. Will Harper equal that?

Tony-C added 28 in ’66, but the Sox finished ninth. The one bright spot was, the Yanks finished tenth.

Then came ’67. The “Impossible Dream.”

The Sox charged back from almost worst to first, with Yaz and Tony and pitcher Jim Lonborg leading. Tony was batting .287 with 20 homers  Then on August 18 in Fenway, facing Jack Hamilton of the Angels, Tony was almost killed.

The Sox won the pennant in their very last game, and I raced up to Boston to see Game 7 against the Cards. It was the second of three Series the Sox would hobble into without a key star. In ’46 Ted Williams had played with a painfully swollen  right elbow; he was really half a player. In ’75 sensational rookie Jim Rice would ride the bench. (Should I mention Bill Buckner in ’86?) All four Series ended in seven-game losses.

I remember clearly when the lineups were announced, and Tony, still on the DL, was called to take his place on the foul-line with the other guys. He lifted his cap and waved it with a happy grin. The only thing bigger than his grin was our ovation.

Tony sat out in ’68, as the Sox fell back to oblivion. But  he won the Comeback of the Year award in ’69 with 36 homers and 116 RBIs, his most ever. He’s the guy who made them remove the seats in dead centerfield.  (Ted had tried, but they didn’t do anything until Tony complained.)

That winter, Tony’s eyesight almost gone, Boston traded him to California. He hit four homers.

He was interviewing for a broadcaster’s job in Boston when he was hit by a heart attack, then a stroke, and fell into a coma, which lasted for eight years until his death.

So, Bryce, I wish you the best of luck in memory of a guy who didn’t have much.