Walter Johnson in Idaho

A book called “Boise Baseball: the First 125 Years,” by Arthur A. Hart, talks about Walter Johnson’s time spent playing in the semi-pro Idaho State League in 1907. Johnson was on the Weiser Kids. As you might expect, he was too much for the Idaho ballplayers. The Big Train threw either 77 or 85 straight scoreless innings over May and June and struck out an average of 16 hitters per game. He signed with the Washington Senators at the end of June, then threw his last two scoreless games in the streak back-to-back, 19 innings worth, in two straight days. The streak ended on an 11th inning error that got Johnson beat, 1-0, on June 30. The season’s end was highlighted by a 5000-person crowd in Boise on July 4th to see Johnson duel against a Boise Seantor pitcher named Campbell, triple off Campbell, and win 2-1.

Then, on July 7, Johnson was a “picked” player for Payette, which signed him on to pitch a single game against Caldwell that had heavy betting on it. In his book, Hart explains that Payette “loaded up” for the game by signing several other Weiser stars as well. It worked: Payette beat Caldwell 4-2.

Weiser wound up winning the Idaho State League crown, but the Mountain Home team challenged it to a three-game postseason series. Weiser and Mountain Home put up $2500 each of winner take all stakes, and Johnson won the last two games of a Weiser sweep to win the $5000 for Weiser. Walter then went straight to the Senators. At the end of the 1907 season, with its greatest player gone, the Idaho State League reorganized by halving its eight teams to four and banning the  borrowing of players and teams “loading up” for individual games. The next famous player to call Boise his baseball home, however briefly, was Rickey Henderson in 1976.

When Johnson was pitching for the Weiser Kids, one local wrote this letter to Pongo Joe Cantillon, Washington Senators manager: “You better come out here and get this pitcher. He throws a ball so fast nobody can see it and he strikes out everybody. His control is so good that the catcher just holds up his glove and shuts his eyes, then picks the ball, which comes to him looking like a little white bullet, out of the pocket. He’s a big, 19-year-old fellow like I told you before, and if you don’t hurry up someone will sign him and he will be the best pitcher that ever lived. He throws faster than Addie Jones [Joss] or Amos Rusie ever did, and his control is better than Christy Mathewson’s. He knows where he’s throwing because if he didn’t there would be dead bodies strewn all over Idaho.”

On June 30 of ’07, the Boise Daily Statesman noted that Johnson had signed with the Senators. At the time, Walter had “pitched 75 innings without a run having been made against him,” breaking the former world’s record of 54 scoreless innings. The Statesman noted: “The complete record of Johnson for the entire season is as follows: He has struck out 166 batters; is credited with 18 base hits out of 37 times at bat, assisted 26 times and has 8 putouts to his credit. He has not made an error and only five runs have been made by his opponents. Twenty-five base hits have been made off his pitching during the season to date. [That is, Johnson’s 18 hits were close to the total of everyone who’d hit against him.]

“Walter Johnson was born at lola, Kan., and is 19 years of age. He is six feet and two-fifths of an inch in height in his stocking feet and weighs 180 pounds. His home is at Fullerton, Cal., where he attends school. His first ball playing away from home was with the Weiser team last season.”

You can read much more about the Big Train in Idaho here.

Published in: on December 3, 2009 at 11:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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