WINCHESTER — Ninety-five years after Senators Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson clinched Washington’s last World Series championship, his grandson will be watching intently as the Nationals begin efforts to repeat the feat in Game 1 of the series tonight.
Henry W. “Hank” Thomas said his only regret is that his mother, Carolyn Johnson Thomas, who died last year at age 95, won’t witness it. Johnson posed with her as a baby at the 1924 series.
“She became the biggest Nats fan you’ve ever seen in your life in her last few years,” said Thomas, 73. “She would be loving this.”
The Nationals take on the Houston Astros at 8:08 p.m. in Houston. This is the Nats’ first-ever World Series appearance.
Thomas, who grew up in Washington, D.C., and lived in Arlington before moving to Winchester in March, said his grandfather was the greatest pitcher ever, and that’s not just family pride talking. Johnson, nicknamed “The Big Train” for his size and blazing fastball, won a mind-boggling 417 games with a 2.17 earned run average and 3,509 strikeouts in a 21-season career from 1907 to 1927. Perhaps his most heroic achievement was coming out of the bullpen to clinch the 1924 World Series series.
The 36-year-old Johnson had lost twice in the series, both in complete games against a powerhouse New York Giants team that included future Hall of Famers Frankie Frisch, Bill Terry and Hack Wilson. Nowadays, with specialized relief pitching and pitch counts for starters to reduce arm injuries, complete games are a rarity. But in Johnson’s day, they were routine. He had 531 and also made 136 relief appearances.
Running on fumes, Johnson threw four innings of scoreless relief and the Senators, benefiting from a bad hop base hit, won in the 12th inning. They nearly repeated in 1925, with Johnson winning two series games, but he lost the seventh game to the Pittsburgh Pirates in a torrential downpour at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.
While Johnson helped keep the Senators competitive, they struggled after his retirement. “First in war, first in peace and last in the American League” was how they were derisively known. The Senators disbanded in 1971, and Washington was without a major league team until the Montreal Expos became the Nationals in 2005.
Thomas has no personal memories of his grandfather. He was just 8 months old when Johnson died of a brain tumor at 59 in 1946. But over the years, Thomas — who managed nightclubs and restaurants in D.C. before becoming an antiques collector specializing in baseball memorabilia — began researching Johnson’s career in his spare time.
Besides his mother’s memories, research included weekends at the Library of Congress and interviews with players who Johnson managed for the Senators and Cleveland Indians. Other interviews included legendary Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich, who covered the 1924 World Series as a young reporter. Thomas also spoke with Sam Lacy, a black sportswriter for the Afro-American in Baltimore and courageous advocate for desegregating baseball. Lacy met Johnson while a clubhouse attendant for the Senators as a boy.
Fascinated by stories of his grandfather, Thomas decided to write a book, which he spent a year doing. “Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train:” was published in 1995. Thomas said Johnson benefited from his build. He was about 6 feet, 1 inch tall and 200 pounds, which was big for the era, and he had what Thomas described as “freakishly long arms.”
Johnson threw side-armed, slinging the ball. Thomas said his whip-like motion allowed him to avoid arm injuries and throw hard. In an era before radar guns, the speed of Johnson’s fastball was never accurately recorded, but Thomas believes he threw as hard as 100 mph.
Pitchers typically started every fourth day in Johnson’s era — as opposed to every fifth day now — but Johnson threw three shutouts in four days in 1908. A sportswriter found Johnson hiding in the locker room during the second game of the doubleheader after the third shutout because he feared manager Joe Cantillion would ask him to pitch more.
Johnson was also a great hitting pitcher, recording a career .235 career average. His .433 average in 1925 is the highest ever for a pitcher.
Sportswriters in Johnson’s era tended to whitewash the faults of ballplayers, like home run king Babe Ruth’s heavy drinking, but Thomas said his grandfather really was the nice guy that the press portrayed him to be.
After his managing career ended in baseball, Johnson became a Montgomery County commissioner in Maryland. Thomas said his mother recalled Johnson made a point of shaking hands and introducing himself to people despite being well known. While he was a salesman for Dr Pepper, thousands came to Rouss Park in Winchester for free soda and autographs on Walter Johnson Day in 1936.
Comparing players from different generations is always difficult. Thomas acknowledges that segregation limited the quality of the competition Johnson faced, but he believes Johnson — whose highest annual salary was about $25,000 — would still dominate today due to his fastball and rubber arm.
“The great players from back then would be great today and vice versa,” Thomas said. “There’s nothing you could do to make yourself faster as a pitcher.”