He possessed a blinding fastball and wonderful curve, and he may have been the greatest pitcher, pound for pound, of all time. But if you look closer into what made up the sum parts of this man, his heart and soul, his life in general, then and only then will you come to understand what Walter Perry Johnson was all about.
Everyone knows about his records, his 417 wins and 110 shutouts playing for the lowly Senators. In a time when Christy Mathewson was the King of Pitchers and a national hero to millions, Walter Johnson toiled in Washington DC for a second division team. His blinding speed notwithstanding, people loved him for so much more than just his pitching ability. Unlike his friend Mathewson, he was almost always courteous with fans, and never tried to dodge away from them when asked for autographs. At a time in baseball when rowdy play and conduct was the standard, Walter Johnson's character, attitude and values shown brightly.
Born in Humboldt, Kansas on November 6, 1887, his family later moved to California, where the young Walter discovered his fastball. He was signed by the Washington Senators after being discovered by Joe Catillon. Detroit had actually been informed about Johnson beforehand, but the tightfisted and tightwad Frank Navin decided to not send any scouts to have a look see at the young pitcher from the Iowa State League. (It should be mentioned that when Ty Cobb found out that Walter could have been a Tiger, but wasn't because of Navin's habitual cheapness, it outraged him so much that he flung a chair across a room. )
He never liked to pitch inside to a player, fearing that he might kill or injure someone. He very rarely had any problems with umpires. Tommy Connelly called him, "The easiest pitcher I ever had to call balls and strikes for. Just a wonderful man." Nicknamed the "Big Train" because of the speed of his fastball, he also acquired the nickname "Barney," for Barney Oldfield, the legendary mile-a-minute auto racer that the famous Oldsmobile brand of cars would later be named after.
He also acquired the nicknames "Sir Walter" and the "White Knight," because of a chivalric attitude. Possessing a wholly admirable character, he might have had the sweetest disposition of any pitcher in history. Like Mathewson, he never blamed teammates for their mistakes, and like Mathewson, was the "soul of virtue" in the eyes of many. He had many friends in and out of baseball. When his friend Christy Mathewson died from TB during the 1925 World Series, when he was scheduled to pitch, Johnson broke down and cried. It was said that Johnson secretly dedicated the game to his old friend. Johnson was loved and revered by his buddy Ty Cobb, who would frequently come over to the Johnson house for visits. The two great friends would pal around whenever they got the chance.
The late Washington sports writer Shirley Povich once said, "Walter always treated me with warmth and respect, evan when I was a young reporter. He earned my undying gratitude and respect with the way he treated me." He was a man of conservative roots, sweet and thoughtful with hardly a mean bone in his body. He also had a mild disposition, and was very modest to boot. He was, as Babe Ruth once described, "just a downright decent and friendly guy to be around." His values personified a generation of people across America. His values were described once as Lincolnesque, which is quite amazing.
After his playing career was over, he tried his hand at managing. He managed Newark for one season, then his old club the Senators (1929-32), then moved on to Cleveland (1933-35). Even though he had a very respectable .551 winning percentage, he was considered too easy going to be manager material. He went on to become a play by play broadcaster, and did an excellent job. With his easy going, laid back style and friendly delivery, he was a natural at it.
It should also be noted that with all of Walter Johnson's fame and fortune, the vices of success never touched him. He was a devoted husband and family man. His wife Hazel died in 1930, leaving him with 5 children, 3 boys and two girls.
Walter Johnson died from a brain tumor at the young age of 59 on Tuesday, December 10th, 1946. Ty Cobb, upon hearing the news of his old friend's passing, cried. The "Big Train" was gone. He left a legacy of excellence and countless pitching records. In my opinion though, he more importantly, left a legacy of virtue and goodness that we probably will never see again in American sports.