A discussion among sophisticated baseball fans on the greatest pitcher of all time will usually involve the same few names - Lefty Grove, Sandy Koufax, Grover Alexander, Christy Mathewson, Cy Young, maybe Steve Carlton, maybe Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux, occasionally Nolan Ryan - but it usually stops at Walter Johnson. Although there were no radar machines in the early 1900s, his fastball was conceded by anecdote to be the fastest of it's time.
He had a sweeping sidearm delivery, and absolutely baffled hitters with his speed and pinpoint control - he walked less than one batter every 4 innings throughout his career, remarkable for a strikeout pitcher. Of all the remarkable statistics he gathered in his career - 417 wins, mostly for losing teams, second only to Cy Young; 3,508 strikeouts; he led the league in strikeouts 12 times and ERA 5 times; his 110 career shutouts is 20 more than his nearest competitor, Pete Alexander - the most remarkable may be this one: his 38 1-0 wins are, by far, an all-time record.
He was also a workhorse, logging more than 300 innings for 9 straight seasons, leading the league in innings on 5 of those occasions. He worked both as a starter and a reliever; he was 40-30 in relief, with 34 saves.
He threw for the Washington Senators, who had a record of 1,559 wins and 1,609 losses during the years Johnson was there - considering that Johnson was 417-279, one wonders what he could have done on a better team. 65 of his losses were by shutouts, 26 of them by 1-0 scores (both records); he lost six of eight duels with formidable Red Sox lefty Babe Ruth.
As the years wore on, Johnson became frustrated at his team's inability to win - he even signed with the Chicago Whales (later the Cubs) of the upstart Federal League at one point, but came back to the Senators when the tight-fisted Clark Griffith upped Johnson's salary. Finally, in 1924, a 37-year-old Johnson went 23-7, and he put his team into the World Series for the first time.
His performance in Game 7 against the New York Giants is one of the greatest moments in World Series history. Just two days after pitching a complete game, he came out of the bullpen and held the Giants scoreless for four innings. Finally, Early McNeely's 12th-inning grounder deflected off a pebble and bounced over Freddie Lindstrom's head, scoring the winning run.
In 1925, with another 20-win performance from Johnson, the Senators went to the World Series again, but this time Johnson was beaten by the Pirates, 9-7, in Game 7.
"Can I throw harder than Joe Wood? Listen mister, no man alive can throw any harder than Smokey Joe Wood."
"You can't hit what you can't see."
"His fastball looked about the size of a watermelon seed and it hissed at you as it passed."
Ty Cobb, on Walter Johnson
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