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Remembering the "Big Train" Walter Johnson"

By Harvey Frommer

A traveling salesman watched in awe as a big right-handed pitcher struck out batter after batter on an Idaho sandlot. The salesman, a loyal fan of the Washington Senators, contacted manager Joe Cantillon and raved.

Cantillon dispatched his injured catcher Cliff Blakenship to see the pitcher.

"Take along your bat, Cliff," said the Washington skipper. "And if you can get a loud foul off him, leave him where he is," joked Cantillon to his light-hitting backstop.

A few days later Cantillon received a telegram.

"You can't hit what you can't see. I've signed him and he is on his way," Blankenship wrote.

His name was Walter Perry Johnson and this Saturday (November 6) marks the 112th anniversary of his birth.

He joined the Washington Senators in 1907 and remained with the team known as "first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League" until 1927. Literally carrying the Washington team year after year, Johnson was selected 14 times to pitch the Senator season opener. Seven times he pitched Opening Day shutouts - a major league record. His nickname, "The Big Train," came from the fact that he seemed to always be moving his team down the track. Another reason for the nickname was his almost mechanical, precision harnessing durability and power on a 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame.

A non-smoker and nondrinker, Johnson's strongest expression was "Goodness gracious sakes alive." Batters had choicer words for the side-arming, whiplashing right-hander with the blinding speed. Although Johnson holds the record for the most hit batsmen in history (206), he was too nice of a man to ever dust off a batter on purpose.

"It was a disgrace the way I took advantage of him," Ty Cobb had said. "Knowing he would not throw at me, I crowded the plate outrageously and hit the outside pitch from him more often than I was entitled to."

Baseball records are made to be broken, and Johnson's career strikeout mark of 3,508 was shattered by Nolan Ryan. But the "Big Train's" record of 113 career shutouts should stand for a long time, especially the way complete game hurlers have become a vanishing breed these days. Johnson's career won-loss record was 416-279.

Once Johnson hurled a shutout on a Friday, another one on Saturday, and another one on Monday - three shutouts in four days. He probably would have had four shutouts in four days, but there was no game scheduled for the Sunday.

Twelve of Johnson's career shutouts were hurled in his high-water year of 1913, a season when he posted a gaudy 36-7 won-lost record and a glittering 1.09 earned run average. His 56 straight scoreless innings pitched that year was a record at the time.

The "Big Train" achieved some other remarkable career stats, including most 1-0 wins (38), most 1-0 losses (27), and most shutout losses (65). In 1909 alone he had the misfortune of losing 10 games when the opposing hurler pitched a shutout against his weak hitting Washington Senators team.

Many argue that Walter Johnson was the greatest pitcher who ever lived. It is an argument with a great deal of merit, especially when one considers who he pitched for and what he accomplished.

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