“His fastball looked about the size of a watermelon seed and it hissed at you as it passed.”
—Ty Cobb on Walter Johnson
Walter Perry Johnson, known in his time as the Big Train, was inducted into the Hall of Fame as part of the initial class of 1936, along with Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Christy Mathewson. Johnson played his entire 21-year baseball career for the Washington Nationals/Senators (1907–1927), later serving as their manager from 1929 through 1932.
The Justin Verlander of his era, Johnson established a number of pitching records, and several remain unbroken today. He remains the all-time career leader in shutouts (110), second in wins behind Cy Young, (417), and fourth in complete games (531). He held the career strikeout record with 3,508, and was the only player in the 3,000 strikeout club for more than 50 years, until Bob Gibson recorded his 3,000th strikeout in 1974. Johnson led the league in strikeouts for a record 12 seasons, which is one more than current strikeout leader Nolan Ryan, including a record eight consecutive seasons.
Ty Cobb recalled the first time he saw Walter Johnson:
“On August 2, 1907, I encountered the most threatening sight I ever saw in the ball field. He was a rookie, and we licked our lips as we warmed up for the first game of a doubleheader in Washington. Evidently, manager Pongo Joe Cantillon of the Nats had picked a rube out of the cornfields of the deepest bushes to pitch against us. He was a tall, shambling galoot of about twenty, with arms so long they hung far out of his sleeves, and with a sidearm delivery that looked unimpressive at first glance. One of the Tigers imitated a cow mooing, and we hollered at Cantillon: ‘Get the pitchfork ready, Joe—your hayseed’s on his way back to the barn.’
“The first time I faced him, I watched him take that easy windup. And then something went past me that made me flinch. The thing just hissed with danger.”
After the game, Cobb had nothing but praise for Johnson, saying, “We couldn’t touch him … every one of us knew we’d met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ball park.”
Cobb told Tigers owner Frank Navin that Johnson had the best arm he’d ever seen, and that his fastball was so fast, it scared him. Then he advised Navin to sign Johnson, even if it cost him twenty-five thousand dollars. Cobb figured that if Johnson ever learned how to throw a curveball, nobody would hit him. Navin never did sign him, and Johnson never did learn to throw a curve; but all he did for the next twenty seasons was beat Detroit.
Winner of 118 games during the 1910-1913 seasons, Johnson had nothing but praise for Cobb as a hitter: “Cobb hits me hard with runners on or not, in daylight or twilight. He would get two or three hits and figure it should have been better. Nobody would wait for the right pitch better than Ty. He just wore you out. The balls we used would get black in the late innings, and he’d still hit.”
Not many other hitters could touch Johnson, with his stellar 2.17 career ERA, but Cobb figured him out. Noting that the Big Train rarely pitched inside, he crowded the plate, forcing Johnson to pitch away. Once ahead in the count, Cobb stepped away, where he could easily put into play the cheese Johnson was sure to serve up. The strategy must’ve worked because, against Walter Johnson, Cobb hit .366 lifetime, which is about what his lifetime batting average was.