Born on November 6, 1887, Walter Perry Johnson’s tale is a rags to riches type of story. This son of a humble Kansas farmer may not have thought that his dreams would get him anywhere, but with his baseball skills, he quickly became the dream for many others. Until his family moved out to town to escape the Kansas droughts, there was no place for baseball in Johnson’s life. Today, some of the right-handed pitcher’s records are still unbroken.
In 1908, Johnson produced one of the most outstanding pitching performances ever. He started 3 games (September 4, 5, and 7) and shut out the Highlanders in each of them, giving up 6, 4, and 2 hits in each of these games, respectively.
In 1909, the Senators finished woefully with 42 wins and 110 losses, 20 games behind the seventh-place team, St. Louis Browns. Regardless of this, Walter Johnson’s performance was undoubtedly phenomenal, with a 2.22 ERA. His 164 strikeouts ranked second in the league that year as well.
The Washington Senators had never finished higher than 6th in the American League before Johnson joined the team. In 1910, Washington moved to 7th place, as Johnson posted a 25-17 record, with a 1.36 ERA and 313 strikeouts. This was the beginning of a series of victorious seasons that went on for 10 years.
Johnson earned his nickname, “The Big Train” a few years into his career. The name was made popular by famed sportswriter Gratland Rice. Trains were the fastest things around then, and it only made sense that the man who pitched the highest velocity fastballs would come to be known as The Big Train.
To complement his incredible fastball, Johnson also developed a great curveball in the early 1910s, which helped him produce 10 straight 20-win seasons. It was in this decade that the Senators finally started to earn their place in the league, finishing second in 1912 and 1913.
When the Senators made the World Series in 1924 for the first time, Johnson finally got to be seen on the biggest baseball stage after playing for 20 years on poor teams. During the 9th inning of game 7, Johnson was brought in to pitch, and the Senators won the game and the World Series, defeating the Giants.
Since the start of his career, even with the mediocre hitting and fielding of his team, Johnson never disappointed on the mound, though his win-loss record didn’t always reflect his dominance.
In 1913, Johnson finished 36-7, with an incredible 1.14 ERA . That season, his wins above replacement (WAR) was 15.1, the best single-season total that any pitcher achieved post-1900.
Johnson finished 10 seasons with a sub 2.00 ERA and completed 531 of his 666 career starts. He went on to finish his career with 417 wins, 279 losses, and a 2.17 ERA. He accumulated 3509 strikeouts, a record for big league pitchers that stood for over 50 years. This record is particularly outstanding, given the fact that he pitched in an era where players did not strike out nearly as much as they do today.
The Big Train also ended his career with 110 shutouts, and 12 20-win seasons. In 1913 and 1924, Walter Johnson won the American League Most Valuable Player award, a rare feat for pitchers.
Johnson was also known in the league for his sportsmanship, as he conducted himself respectfully even in the heat of a game. After his retirement in 1927, he managed the Senators from 1929 to 1932, and then went on to manage the Cleveland Indians from 1932 to 1935.
In 1936, Johnson was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame, as he very well deserved.