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A Look Back at Walter Johnson’s Debut in Washington with the Nationals

105 years ago, Walter Johnson made his debut with the Nationals in Washington and went on to become one of the most dominant pitchers in Major League history. Learn about his journey from Idaho to Washington and his first game with the Senators.
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Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and now Bryce Harper. We have had some serious players groomed in the Nationals organization over the last several years. I love these guys, but none of them compare to the granddaddy of them all … the Big Train himself, Mt. Pleasant resident (1843 Irving St. NW), Walter Perry Johnson. The modern debut of Washington superstars all came as the team was average, to well below average in the standings. The Big Train’s arrival was very much under the same circumstances, to a team desperately in need of assistance. Walter was just a teenager from Kansas, having been discovered in the Idaho State League just a month earlier. He was simultaneously working as a telephone company employee (not where we found Strasburg). Reports from the Gem State were epic for the soft-spoken, yet confident, phenom. A special report came into the Post on June 30th of that year with the subhead “Johnson his name and he hails from the woolly west.” At the time of his signing, he had hurled 75 consecutive scoreless innings (eat that Hershiser and Drysdale!).

Cantillon received word from Blankenship to-day telling of his capture. Johnson has pitched seventy-five innings without allowing a run. He has a wonderful strike-out record, having struck out 166 men in the eleven games he has pitched. Blankenship is very enthusiastic about Johnson, but fails to state whether he is a right or a left handed pitcher. Cantillon says that Johnson will not join the Nationals until after July 14, when the Idaho State season closes. “If this fellow is what they say he is we won’t have to use but only two men in a game, a catcher and Johnson. He strikes out most of the men, so why have an infield and an outfield. I shall give all the boys but the catchers days off when Johnson pitches,” is the way Cantillon commented on his new find.

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I love the hyperbole. What I really love is the quote he gave to another reporter. It was a very rational, matter-of-fact statement about his entry into the Major Leagues.

“Do you expect to make good in the big league?” he was asked to-day. “Why, certainly,” was the reply. “If I did not think so, I would not go there. They may have better batters in the big leagues, but they also have better fields, and that gives the pitcher who is going up from a small league an even break. I will pitch up there just as I did here. Blankenship told me that he knew I would make good, and he ought to know, for he has had experience and he saw me work in several games. That has given me confidence.”

Walter Johnson in street clothes (1907)
Walter Johnson in street clothes (1907)

Okay, Johnson was maybe a notch below having only a pitcher and catcher, but he was quite possibly the most dominant pitcher in the history of baseball. So, 105 years ago, we had a debut in our city of the pitcher who arguably was the best ever in Major League. The day was a Friday. August 2nd, 1907 was slated to feature a doubleheader between the Washington Senators and the Detroit Tigers, with their own young superstar, Ty Cobb (awesome hitter, giant douche). Just a month earlier, Johnson was pitching in Idaho. Now, he was set to face the powerful Tigers, who would go on to face the Cubs in the World Series (and be swept). The day of the game, the Washington Post reported on the anticipated debut (which was earlier than planned).

With Graham and Hughes unable to work because of sore arms, Cantillon was forced to spring his youthful wonder on the local fans much sooner than he expected. He did intend to allow the young man to get much better acquainted before shoving on the rubber. But with his pitching staff shot to pieces he was forced to decide to work Johnson to-day. The first game will be called at 2 o’clock and the second ten minutes after the completion of the first.

Ten minutes?! Definitely not something you would see today … like Babe Ruth running into a wall, knocking himself out for five minutes, and getting up to play the rest of the game, and the second of a doubleheader!

Walter Johnson in 1907
Walter Johnson in 1907

The Senators were fairly lousy in 1907. Going into the first game that Friday afternoon, they were already 25 1/2 games out of first place. They had lost three of the last four at home against the White Sox and things were looking fairly bleak. They also lost the first game of the day, so the bar was set pretty low for Johnson; he was to be a rare bright spot in a terrible season. The Post reported on the game the following day.

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Walter Johnson is a real phenom. His work yesterday proves beyond question that he is the pitching find of the season. His wonderful speed, perfect control, and deceptive curve, not to speak of his spitball, was nothing short of astonishing, for no one expected a green hand from the bushes to be able to hold down a fast team like Detroit as did Johnson. For a nineteen-year-old boy, who pitched only every Sunday, and that with a rather green lot behind and in front of him, Johnson’s work yesterday exceeded all expectations. With good support and better judgement on the bases, Johnson would have won his game in a walk. The run which the visitors scored in the second inning on two bunts, Cobb going from first to third while Nill held the ball, really caused the young man’s undoing. Johnson, of course, has many things to learn. He realizes this, and, being of at least average intelligence, he will learn without much trouble. He has some rough edges, but he has more natural ability than any pitcher seen in these parts in many a moon, and it really seems that Cantillon has picked up a real live phenom.

Many made comparisons between the youngster and the best pitcher of the day, Christy Mathewson and a few even made bold statements that he would eclipse Mathewson in dominance within a few years of his debut. Zimmerman, Strasburg and Harper … you guys are all awesome. But the Big Train is the man who will always define baseball in Washington.

Walter Johnson in 1907
Walter Johnson in 1907
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