No matter what else is going on in the news, there’s almost always a good baseball story:
“Oh, you knew him!” the man, greatly impressed, responded. Thomas could only laugh.
For sports fans in this city, Thomas’s father, Walter Johnson, remains royalty 85 years after his sidearm fastball last whizzed past a helpless batter and 66 years since his death. The Washington Senators’ pitching ace, Johnson won 417 games, the second most in baseball history, and his 3,509 strikeouts stood as a major league record until 1983. The Big Train, as he was known, retains numerous baseball career marks, with perhaps the most impressive being his throwing 110 shutouts and 531 complete games in 21 seasons, all with Washington.
Late in Johnson’s career, the Senators brought home the capital’s lone World Series championship. Johnson pitched the final four innings of the decisive seventh game in 1924, a 12-inning 4-3 victory over the New York Giants on Oct. 10. His other two World Series wins came in 1925, when the Pittsburgh Pirates took the title in seven games.
Johnson’s Senators played in the American League and later moved to Minnesota, and a second Senators team moved to Texas a decade later. Now, Washington is in the National League and its Nationals will play here Wednesday afternoon in Game 3 of their division series against St. Louis. It will be the first postseason baseball in this city in 79 years, and Johnson’s daughter, now 89, is following along avidly.
The little girl turned great-grandmother represents one of the last direct connections to her father’s life. Her only remaining sibling, Edwin, died at 94 in August. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, no one is alive now who played in the major leagues when Johnson pitched and managed.
Thomas watches many Nationals games on television and reads newspaper articles about the team, which relocated here from Montreal in 2005. A color photograph of the rookie outfielder Bryce Harper graces her living room mantel, next to a stuffed-eagle doll in a Nationals uniform. On a nearby bookshelf rests a baseball signed by the team’s former first baseman Dmitri Young. “You are the sweetest lady,” Young wrote on it.
“Harper’s exciting. He makes things happen. He’s a little spark plug,” Thomas, with a twinkle in her eye, told a visitor one recent afternoon. “Davey Johnson,” she said of the Nationals’ manager, “he’s a baseball man. He knows the game.”
Ken Burns didn’t tell me this! Johnson was widowed young and he raised his five kids plus two of his deceased sister’s kids on his own. I’d like to know how he managed during the season when the team was on the road. Well, as we know, nobody does it all alone. His mother helped, and the story doesn’t go into it, but a photo caption suggests Johnson married again. Guess I need to read the biography his grandson wrote.
Something else I wish the reporter had asked Thomas. Did her father think of himself as playing for the Senators or the Nationals? That’s a real question.
Read all of Hillel Kuttler’s story at the New York Times, The Big Train Is Still Rolling.
The Times has a nice slide show that goes with the story, When Washington Cheered a Winner, but the photo above is courtesy of the Library of Congress. It’s undated and the little girl Johnson’s holding in that giant glove isn’t identified, but it could be his daughter Carolyn.