III. A Natural on the Flat

The first game of baseball Walter Johnson ever witnessed, in fact, was one of these contests at Anaheim. He was fourteen years old, and it would be two years yet before he would play in a game himself. Growing up on a farm in Kansas had afforded him little opportunity for participating in organized sports. Walter had played an occasional game of "one o' cat" or "numbers" or the other games that only required the handful of boys available in a rural area. A strong throwing arm was in evidence even then, however, getting him into trouble once when an overthrow broke a window in his little country school.

As the Olinda Oil Wells' success was capturing the imagination of the community, it also generated enthusiasm for the game among the youngsters. There were about fifteen of them, mostly students from the Olinda Elementary School, who gathered every day on the flat to play until the sun disappeared behind the hills. Lacking the numbers for real games, they made do with the usual kids' short-handed versions, although there was an occasional contest against teams from neighboring areas. For several years after his arrival in Olinda, Walter's involvement in baseball was limited to being a spectator at the games in Anaheim -- that, and the typical boy's fascination with the great stars of the major leagues. Years later (as a new generation of youngsters followed his every move), he recalled searching the newspapers for the latest exploits of Big Ed Delahanty, "Wee Willie" Keeler, Honus Wagner, Napoleon Lajoie, and a pair of pitchers with whom he himself would always be compared: Christy Mathewson and Cy Young.

Walter drove a team of horses for his father after school and during summers, and this might have kept him from joining in with the other boys on the flat. "I never had a chance to play," is the only explanation he offered. Whatever the reason, it was well into Johnson's sixteenth year before he played baseball to any extent, a late start in the game for which he credited his durability. "By that time I had attained sufficient strength so that I could not hurt myself," he reasoned. Walter's preferred position in these boys' games, ironically, wasn't the pitching end of the battery, but as the receiver. The catcher was always involved in the action on the field, and his powerful arm made him a natural at it. "What I liked was that long throw to second base," he later recalled. That there was no mask or other protective equipment, and that he had to stand ten feet behind the batter as a result, didn't discourage Walter. But Frank Johnson, seeing the speed his son could put on the ball, suggested he try being a pitcher instead. At first, Walter resisted the idea, telling his father how much he liked catching. "And Papa," he argued, "they don't ever steal when I'm behind the bat."

During the summer of 1904, Walter's opinion of pitching changed. Twenty years later, he recalled the moment: "One afternoon, two surrey loads of youngsters drove up with a noisy challenge. A game was soon underway and I was behind the plate, as usual. The visitors, absolute strangers, were a smart crowd and pretty good players for their ages. After using three different pitchers, I went into the box in the fourth inning. It was my first taste of real competition. I soon found there was just as much pleasure in whipping the ball to the catcher as in shooting it to second base. And, as one after another retired on strikes, I found the pleasure even greater. I pitched the remaining five innings and a dozen of the boys struck out. Anyway, we won the game and I was through with catching."

As he readily admitted, Walter Johnson's gift for pitching was not of his doing, but God-given: "From the first time I held a ball," he explained, "It settled in the palm of my right hand as though it belonged there and, when I threw it, ball, hand and wrist, and arm and shoulder and back seemed to all work together." His style of pitching -- a short, "windmill" windup followed by a smooth, sweeping sidearm/underarm arc -- was unique, his signature. Grantland Rice called it "the finest motion in the game," for its simplicity and grace. But despite its effectiveness, it was years before older pitchers stopped trying to persuade Johnson to change his delivery, that it would never do in "fast company". Although the speed was there from the beginning, Walter wasn't satisfied with his control. He began to gather up empty cans, keeping a supply of them in his wagon. During lunch breaks he set the cans up on the wagon and, from a distance of about ninety feet, aimed stones at them. This was the full extent of Johnson's "training" to develop his pitching skills, and all he would ever need.

Meanwhile, Johnson continued striking out the boys on the flat, and soon there was talk about it in the stores and around the oil derricks, where baseball was always the main topic of conversation. Joe Burke, a bookkeeper with the Santa Fe railroad (and later the Los Angeles District Attorney), had been a player and manager with earlier incarnations of the Olinda Oil Wells team. He still suited up on occasion, and his continuing interest in the team led to his being the original "discoverer" of Walter Johnson. At the peak of Johnson's success in 1913, Burke described it:

"Some of the boys got to talking in the office about the enthusiasm in the flat, and Jack Burnett [Olinda's best hitter, who would make it to the St. Louis Cardinals] and I decided to go down and have some fun with the lads. Somebody told us that they had a notion that Frank Johnson's kid, Walt, was some heaver. Jack and I sauntered down and found Walt idly throwing to another kid alongside the store. I gave Jack a wink and asked Walt to throw us a few. He blushed, but was willing. I stepped to the imaginary home plate, posed a bit, and told Walt to let 'em come. They came. I made an attempt to bunt, missed, thought it an accident, tried another, missed it, got another and missed it. I gave way to the slugger. Jack squared away to put a crimp in the young bloods, and the way he fanned the air has never been equalled in front of Walter Johnson from that day to this. Jack Burnett was the most surprised man in California, except myself and maybe Walt. He took it all as a huge joke. He was never anything else than good-natured, easy-going and smiling. We walked back up the hill, and Jack and I confided to each other that we were glad we had not invited the bunch down to watch us make monkeys of the kids."

Previous Intro 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Epilogue Stats Next
Idaho article