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The Big Train Once Faced the Herd

By: Brian Frank

Walter Johnson, arguably the greatest pitcher in baseball history, pitched in 802 major-league games, but only made one minor-league pitching appearance – albeit a brief one. After his historic major-league playing career was over, the legendary hurler took the mound for the Newark Bears against none other than the Buffalo Bisons.

Johnson’s major-league career is the stuff of legend. He skipped the minor leagues and went straight to the American League’s Washington Senators. Johnson had a 1.88 ERA in 14 games – including 12 starts – as a 19-year-old rookie with the Senators in 1907. Known as “The Big Train” because his fastball had the speed of a locomotive, he went on to win 417 career games, second most all-time to Cy Young’s 511. He hurled a major-league record 110 shutouts, won the American League MVP Award two times, the pitching triple crown three times, was the A.L. strikeout leader 12 times, ERA leader five times, and wins leader six times.

After pitching 21 seasons for the Senators, Johnson retired and accepted a job managing Newark for the 1928 season. His rookie season as manager didn't begin well. He suffered a debilitating bout of the flu during the spring that caused him to lose weight and take on a gaunt appearance. Newark coach George McBride began the season as the Bears interim-manager while Johnson recovered in Washington. Johnson wasn’t able to see his new team perform until April 29, when he watched a 2-1 Bears loss to Buffalo from Newark’s home dugout. He then stayed in Newark to continue to recover as the Bears embarked on a grueling 18-day road trip. He ended up rejoining the team on May 14, when the Bears were playing in Rochester.[1]

Due to his early season health struggles, Newark’s plan to have a day to celebrate their new manager was postponed until June 23 when the Bears were at home to take on Buffalo.

Walter Johnson with the Washington Senators. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Bisons had been a powerhouse in 1927, winning the International League with a 112-56 record, before falling in the Little World Series to Casey Stengel’s Toledo Mud Hens five games to one. However, their success didn’t carry over in the early going of the 1928 season – they went into Newark with a 28-31 record, sitting in seventh place in the eight team league. The Bears were also struggling with a 31-34 record, just percentage points ahead of Buffalo.

A parade of approximately 200 cars kicked off the festivities on Walter Johnson Day. The Buffalo Courier-Express reported: “the venerable figure of the national pastime received one of the finest tributes ever paid an individual in the International League. A parade, abundant colorful music, presentations, elaborate decorations and a full quota of camera men and dignitaries of the game lent an opening day air to the proceedings.”[2]

A pair of Johnson’s former teammates with the Senators, Nick Altrock and Al Schacht, helped entertain the crowd before the game with some on-field antics. The pair were well known for performing comedy routines on the vaudeville circuit and at baseball fields throughout the country – with Altrock dubbed “The Clown Prince of Baseball”. The Courier-Express wrote: “Their pantomime of the (Jack) Dempsey-(Gene) Tunney fight was a scream and their mincing of the athletes entered in the various contests also drew a storm of applause.”[3] Tunney’s next opponent, Tom Heeney, served as the referee for the fight and “clowned almost as much as the ludicrous contestants.”[4]

However, all the pregame hoopla paled in comparison to the main attraction of Walter Johnson Day – The Big Train himself would take the mound for the Bears for his first career minor-league pitching appearance.

The Bisons sent Bonnie Hollingsworth to the mound to oppose Johnson. In a bit of an oddity, Hollingsworth had actually been dealt away from the Bisons two days earlier. In a trade with the National League’s Boston Braves, Buffalo sent Hollingsworth, catcher Art Pond, infielder Eddie Taylor, and pitcher James Wiltse to Boston for catcher Luke Urban (who was the Canisius College football coach at the time,) infielder Jimmy Cooney, pitcher Johnny Wertz, and cash. However, “the formalities of seeking waivers on the players” still had to be taken, so all four players that Buffalo had dealt continued to play for the Herd until the trade was officially completed – and Hollingsworth took the mound for his final start with Buffalo.[5]

A crowd of 13,000 fans turned out at Newark’s Davids’ Stadium (later renamed Ruppert Stadium). It was clear who the crowd had turned out to see, as Johnson “was given a standing tribute that reverberated to the high heavens. The ovation lasted for several minutes.”[6]

Video of Johnson pitching via YouTube.

Maurice Archdeacon stepped to the plate to start the game against the great Walter Johnson. The Bisons leadoff batter worked an unceremonious walk on five pitches. Johnson then “walked from the mound and delegated Hal Goldsmith, former National League flinger to the task of chastising the Bisons.”[7] The Buffalo Times noted that Johnson “is not yet in proper shape and for that reason, retired after he had walked Archdeacon.”[8] Johnson’s excellent biography written by his grandson Henry W. Thomas called Johnson's mound appearance "a token gesture" and eluded to the fact that Johnson’s health struggles throughout the spring likely contributed to his short outing.[9] Thomas wrote that Johnson never pitched again during the season, and that “Doctors cautioned against trying to work himself into condition to pitch, recommending a continued steady strengthening instead.”[10] The Buffalo Times simply noted that Johnson “is not yet in proper shape and for that reason, retired after he had walked Archdeacon.”[11] So, Johnson’s minor-league pitching career came to an abrupt ending – although the celebration of the famed hurler would continue throughout the day.

Buffalo pushed a run across against Goldsmith in the second inning on a triple by Herb Thomas and a single by Eddie Taylor. However, former Bison Lou Malone “propelled a homer into the right-field bleachers with a man on” in Newark’s half of the second to put the Bears on top.[12] Malone’s homer not only gave Newark the lead, but also earned the Bears second baseman a $50 reward, which was “offered by a spirited citizen to the batter making the first home run of the game. It was one of the many prizes offered players for their efforts during the celebration of Walter Johnson Day.”[13]

The third inning was eventful both on the field and in the air above the ballpark. Bisons cleanup hitter Showboat Fisher doubled in the top of the inning and came home on a single by Billy Kelly to tie the score at two. However, the Bears scored a pair to retake the lead on Rube Lutzke’s two-run single. But the most memorable event of the inning took place over Davids’ Stadium, when an airplane dropped a basket of flowers onto the field as a way to honor Johnson.

Archdeacon stroked an RBI single in the fourth and Eddie Taylor brought home a run with a single in the fifth to tie the score at four. But as they’d done all afternoon, Newark answered back. This time, after a pair of Bears had drawn walks, Jack Fournier stroked a two-out RBI single off Bisons reliever James Wiltse to give Newark a 5-4 lead.

Eurie Proffitt entered from the Bisons bullpen and held the Bears hitless over the final 3 1/3 innings. Unfortunately for Buffalo, Goldsmith also got into a groove after the fifth inning, and held the Bisons hitless over the final four frames to preserve a 5-4 Bears win.

Although a doubleheader was originally scheduled to be played, “officials in charge of the Johnson celebration vetoed the plan to play two games.”[14] This was likely due to the fact that the celebration of the Bears new manager was not over – a banquet was held later in the day in Johnson’s honor, where he continued to be celebrated and showered with gifts. Besides the flowers which were dropped from the plane during the game, other gifts the legendary hurler received throughout the day included “a moving picture camera and an easy chair.”[15]

The Bisons went on to finish the season strong. Their final record was 92-76 (.548), but they missed out on a second consecutive league championship, finishing a mere percentage point behind the first-place Rochester Redwings (90-74, .549). Johnson’s Bears finished in a disappointing seventh place with an 81-84 record – but they led the International League in attendance.

It would be Johnson’s lone season managing in the minors. He pinch-hit six times throughout the year and collected one hit, but he never pitched in a game again. The next season, he returned to Washington to manage the Senators – where he stayed from 1929 to 1932 – before moving to Cleveland to manage the Indians for four seasons.

The Baseball Hall of Fame's First Class. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.

A testament to Johnson’s greatness came in 1936, when he was immortalized as a member of the famed first class to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, along with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and Christy Mathewson.

Johnson pitched 5,914 1/3 major-league innings in his illustrious career, second most all-time to only Cy Young and former Bisons great Pud Galvin. But when his long pitching and managing career was over, he’d faced only one batter in the minor leagues – a walk to the Bisons leadoff batter on a summer afternoon in 1928.

[1] Henry W. Thomas, Walter Johnson, Baseball’s Big Train (Washington D.C.: Phenom Press, 1995), 307. [2] W.S. Coughlin, “Walter Johnson Twirls to One Batter; Herd Loses Close Battle,” Buffalo Courier-Express, June 24, 1928), 307. [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid. [5] “Bisons Wind-Up Newark Series with Twin Bill,” Buffalo Times, June 23, 1928. [6] Coughlin. [7] Ibid. [8] “13,000 Pay Homage to Bears’ Famous Pilot,” Buffalo Times, June 24, 1928.

[9] Thomas.

[10] Thomas. [11] “13,000 Pay Homage to Bears’ Famous Pilot.” [12] Coughlin. [13] “Homer Netted Lew $50 Cash Award,” Buffalo Times, June 24, 1928. [14] Coughlin. [15] “13,000 Pay Homage to Bears’ Famous Pilot.”


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