V. "The Weiser Wonder"

The August 2, 1906, issue of the Anaheim Gazette reported that: "Walter Johnson, who pitched ball up in the northwest league this season, has returned to his home in Olinda."; "some of the Olinda baseball fans are agitating [for] the reorganization of the ball team."; and that Tom Young had sold his barber shop and moved his family to Los Angeles. This was all the news of Olinda baseball for nearly four months, and there are only a few tantalizing clues as to what Johnson did in the meantime. It would appear that he played in several games for a team representing Olive, a rural hamlet between Anaheim and Orange. His favorite catcher, Guy Meats, was an Olive native. Eddie West, whose father Roy played with Johnson and Meats later at Santa Ana, wrote in a Santa Ana Register article in 1957: "At the time (he attended business school), Johnson was pitching and Meats catching for Olive's town team every Sunday. He drove down by horse and buggy from his parents' place at Olinda."

The Anaheim Gazette mentions an August 5 game between Olive and an even tinier rural community, Loara, which was only newsworthy for an Olive player breaking his arm in a collision at second base. Olive was leading at the time by a 19-1 score, but the Gazette neglects to give names of other players or the final score of the game. The Huntington Beach News' story of the game on August 12 tells how Walter's former high school pitching opponent, George Coleman, "gathered a nine of picked players from Santa Ana, Anaheim and Olive and came down to hang it on the Huntington Beach team. George has pitched many a game for the home lads while making his home here and helped win many a hard fought battle for them. He therefore thought he knew all the little weak spots in the personnel of the team. He infused into the minds of his picked team the idea that it would be just like picking the pockets of a blind man to come down and wrest a victory from the celery growers. But he missed his guess by a mile." The News goes on to crow about the 8-2 trouncing which the beach team administered to the invaders at its Seal Gardens home field and gives lineups, but no statistics, for both teams. The "picked team" lineup of "Olive" included Johnson and Meats, with George Coleman at second base. The Huntington Beach lineup included two members of a local family, the Malletts, which produced at least six ballplaying brothers.

After the Huntington Beach game, there was no news of the Olive team's activities until the Santa Monica Outlook reported a game on October 21 in which "...the Santa Monica baseball team went out on the polo grounds yesterday to make a meal of the Olives, the champions of Orange county, but the 'champs' were too much for them, and it was the other way around." The Outlook mentioned that the visitors won by a 9-0 score, but gave no details on who played for either team. The Los Angeles Times briefly noted a game between the locals and a team from Olive with a battery of Johnson and Meats. The following Sunday, at Olive, a team known as Myers Juniors, which was organized by the manager of Pasadena's semipro team, Harry Myers, as a second team, was defeated by an Olive team with a battery of Johnson and Jones by a 6-3 score, with Johnson allowing four hits and striking out eleven.

Beyond these limited accounts, there is only conjecture about the performances of Walter Johnson or the Olive team. The only other hint we have is a letter printed in the Huntington Beach News on November 8 in which the Olive manager, one John McCoy, challenges Huntington Beach to a series of three games "for the championship of Orange County" to begin on November 25. In his letter, McCoy states that Olive has lost only two of nineteen games, those being to Huntington Beach (the August 12 contest?) and to the Los Angeles Reliance team. There is no evidence that this series ever took place. We can only surmise that most of the Olives' seventeen victories were over teams from the tiniest of rural communities, of which Loara was typical. Baseball games involving such teams were mentioned from time to time in the Orange County newspapers and it is likely there were dozens of other teams in action all over Southern California whose games were never reported in any newspaper.

The Anaheim Gazette of November 29, however, was full of news, including a box score and account of "the initial game of the winter schedule" between the Oil Wells and the L.A. Pacifics. Johnson outdueled another youngster, 18 year-old "Specs" Harkness (Cleveland A.L. 1910-11), 5-4, giving up 11 hits but striking out 13 of the Pacifics. He survived a bases-loaded jam with none out in the seventh (two K's and a groundout) and another in the ninth. "Johnson was in fine form," the Gazette advised, "but in the absence of Meats [still with Olive?], his regular catcher, had to ease up a bit at times during the game." Joe Burke tried to catch Walter, but quickly gave way to Mott; Meats returned for the next game and the rest of the season.

The paper also caught its readers up on the recent (and future) travels of the ballplayers: "Mott played all season with Seattle, where he made good. He has the reputation of being the best bunter in the Coast League; Johnson pitched for Wisser [sic], Idaho last season. He made a fine record and will go back there next season; Head played with Tacoma, Wisser, and Parks, Utah. He learned much about the game, and will play with Pueblo, Colorado, next season; Jack Burnett will not be with us this year, as he is now working for a railroad in Tacoma. Jack made a great record for himself. He batted .300, had 32 stolen bases, 26 two-baggers, and 9 home runs. He has been drafted by the Montreal, Canada, team, and will next year play in the eastern league." (Burnett would also be in 59 games for the Cardinals). Joe Burke, now managing the Oil Wells, announced that they "will be admitted to the Southern California League, and will henceforth be known as the Anaheim Oil Wells." The Gazette commented, "Name sounds good, Joe."

The "Southern California League" didn't get underway for a while, however, and the next report of any Olinda Oil Wells activity was on Christmas Day, when they traveled to Santa Ana to beat the locals, 4-1. Bill "Dutch" Hinrichs (Wash A.L., 1910) was Johnson's opponent. Several years later Walter took Hinrichs, a big pitcher like himself, to Washington, and he made the club. But, tragically, Hinrichs came down with infantile paralysis shortly after the start of the season and returned to California.

After four days' rest, Johnson then pitched two complete game victories in two days. The first was against a team from Alhambra that was alleged to have won 70 of 77 games the year before. After a 12-2 pasting in which the Oil Wells got 16 hits and Walter struck out 15, the Gazette chided the visitors, "Who they played is not mentioned, but it must have been nines just over from Foo Chow." The Alhambras evidently didn't force Johnson to exert himself, because the next day, New Year's Eve, he shut out the Pacifics, 4-0, and struck out 21.

The 8-team Southern California League finally got started in mid-January of 1907. Teams representing the cities of Anaheim, Pasadena, San Diego, and San Bernardino were included along with four Los Angeles clubs: Tufts-Lyon, Hamburgers, Morans, and Hoegees. Rainouts and a two-week illness (possibly the flu, to which he was susceptible throughout his life) delayed Johnson's first appearance for the now "Anaheim Oil Wells" until February 3. No ill effects were apparent, however, as he blanked Tufts-Lyon, 3-0, before a crowd of 1,000 at Athletic Park.

An even stronger performance came a week later in San Diego against the Pickwicks, a semipro power in the region, whose name reflected their sponsorship by a popular San Diego theater. After the long train trip, Johnson held the Pickwicks to a single scratch hit and struck out 10 in a 2-1 victory. He walked just one, and the only run was the result of Oil Wells' errors. The Pickwicks, even more formidable now with the .390 slugging of their sensational new catcher, Jack "Chief" Meyers (N.Y. Giants, etc. 1909-17), a full-blooded Indian of the Mission Tribe in San Bernardino, were shocked at the defeat. The San Diego Union expressed admiration for the unknowns from the north, and was beside itself over the performance of the young pitcher:

"Hats off to the 'rubes'. Oh, what a surprise it was," the Union exclaimed. "There was nothing about the appearance of the visitors to indicate that they were ballplayers extraordinary...It is to Johnson that the big share of the honors of the day must be given. Without Johnson it is more than likely that there would be a different story to tell. Just where Anaheim managed to pick up such a twirler is something that the San Diego fans would give a good deal to know. There are some who maintain that he is a ringer who was brought to San Diego especially for the purpose of trimming the Pickwicks. This is denied by the Anaheim boys, who say he belongs in their neck of the woods and that he is not a ringer in any sense of the word. From the start of the game Johnson showed that he was going to make the Pickwick sluggers look like 'thirty cents.' He had an easy delivery and apparently did not exert himself in the slightest in throwing the ball. But nevertheless the sphere came to the plate like a shot out of a gun. Besides this Mr. Johnson had the benders and shoots of a Mathewson, and with it all excellent control."

A 4-1, 2-hit win February 24 over the Morans and their pitcher, Elmer Rieger (St. Louis N.L., 1910) was followed a week later by Walter's only loss of the season after seven wins in a row. In a thriller at Pasadena in which he fanned eleven and his mound opponent, a spitballer named Gilroy, struck out eight, the game went into the bottom of the ninth with no score. With two out, the Pasadena first baseman, Hart, doubled and came home on two wild pitches by Johnson. The Pasadena Daily News recognized Johnson's "performing brilliantly" and his teammates as "the fastest bunch seen here for some time." The season ended in style on March 10 with an 11-inning scoreless tie with the Hoegees. Specs Harkness and Fred Snodgrass made up the Hoegees battery, with Rube Ellis in centerfield. There was little to choose between Harkness and Johnson, the former giving up two hits to Walter's six, but striking out "only" ten of the Oil Wells while Johnson fanned 17 Hoegees. Anaheim finished the short Southern California League season with an "official" record of 3-3, placing them in the middle of the pack with San Bernardino taking the flag. That Johnson's pitching had clearly progressed to a higher level is reflected in the numbers for his third (and last) round with the Oil Wells. In nine complete games, his record was 7-1-1. In 83 innings, he allowed 10 total runs, or 1.1 per game. He averaged 5 hits, 2 walks and 12 strikeouts in the games for which those figures were given.

Now several months past his 19th birthday, his gawky adolescence behind him, Walter had grown to a height of 6 feet, one and a half inches, with his large frame filling out rapidly. Bob Isbell recalled, "He was a magnificent athlete, weighing about 175 pounds, with long arms and powerful shoulders. He had the perfect delivery. His back muscles did all the work."

Opportunity was the only thing lacking now, but for a while it kept slipping away -- or rather, Johnson let it. Rube Ellis, starting his second season in the P.C.L. with Los Angeles, talked him up to the manager, Pop Dillon. Perhaps remembering Johnson from his scouting trip to Anaheim the year before, Dillon told Ellis to have Walter come to Los Angeles and meet him at the Hoffman, a cigar store and billiard parlor. Also there was Hen Berry, owner of the L.A. team.

"I was on time for the appointment and sat near the door where they would enter," Johnson recalled years later. "They came in a little while after I arrived and immediately started playing a game of billiards. They didn't ask for me and didn't seem to be much concerned whether I had come or not. I didn't feel as though I ought to go up and interrupt such important men. Pretty soon their billiard game was finished and they left without knowing I was present."

Ellis recognized a diamond in the rough and tried several times to interest others. "I've always remembered Rube Ellis for the kindly interest he took in me," Johnson wrote of him. "He predicted I would be a star when no one else could see me."

But Johnson's modesty and reserve, such an appealing and widely-admired aspect of his personality when he was famous, was now threatening to prevent his moving up in the baseball world. He went to Chutes Park, where the New York Giants were in spring training. Joe Burke and others had urged Walter to get a tryout with the Giants, and that such a tryout was scheduled was hinted at in the Pasadena Daily News' coverage of the February 3 game, but it turned into a replay of the billiard parlor episode:

"One morning I went to the ballpark alone," Johnson recalled. "Naturally, no one knew me as I took a seat in the old wooden grandstand and watched Christy Mathewson and all the famous stars go through their practice. I made several feeble starts in McGraw's direction, but at each move it seemed some Giant player would step up for a few words with his manager. As the big league players worked out and new baseballs went sailing around the field, I turned the matter over in my mind. Continuing with Weiser was a 'sure-thing', and trying out with New York was a gamble. I decided to stick to Weiser, and left the Los Angeles ballpark without so much as meeting John McGraw."

So instead of Los Angeles or New York, and the higher leagues, it was back to Weiser, this time accompanied by Guy Meats and Billy Elwell, the Oil Wells' shortstop. Walter liked Idaho, and he got a substantial raise (to $150 a month) for this season, but returning there must have seemed like a dead end. Of course, it turned out to be anything but. His friends and former teammates must have read with great interest the June 19 Fullerton Tribune, telling how Walter had just broken the "world's record", pitching 57 straight scoreless innings for Weiser. "Orange county has developed an unusually large number of big baseball timber. No one need be surprised to see Johnson climb into the national league," touted the Tribune, "his future is assured." These bold predictions, although surely taken with a grain of salt by the hometown readers, appeared remarkably prescient three weeks later with the stunning news that Johnson was going to Washington to pitch in the American League.

This latest development was reported by the Tribune on July 10. After pointing out his "record" of 75 consecutive scoreless innings in Idaho, it followed with the astounding claim, "while in California, playing with the Olinda team, he pitched 49 innings without a hit being scored by the opposing team." More accurate was the paper's description of Walter's demeanor: "Johnson is modest. He goes about his work on the diamond in a business-like way and is good natured throughout, never questioning the decisions of the man with the indicator. He has the characteristic California faith in himself...coupled with headwork." The Tribune repeated its unbridled optimism regarding Walter's career: "The coming year will see the young Californian at the head of the pitching ranks in the National [sic] League."

Although Johnson went to Washington from Idaho, there was a strong California connection to his discovery. Joe "Mickie" Shea, an itinerant sign painter traveling the coast, had seen Walter pitch for the Oil Wells. Shea had been a shortstop and pitcher in the California League in the 1880's and 90's. At Oakland in 1891-92 he was friends with second baseman Joe Cantillon, now the manager of the Washington Nationals. Shea wrote his old teammate about Walter, but the lowly Nationals couldn't afford to send a scout to California to look at some semipro phenom. That summer Shea wrote again, having seen Walter in Idaho this time, and Cantillon responded. By now word was getting around about Johnson, with his scoreless innings streak getting some press outside of Idaho. Cantillon, desperate for help for his abysmal ball club, wired Walter to come to Washington -- position and salary guaranteed. The manager must have been astonished to receive a telegram back declining the invitation (Johnson's caution again). But Cantillon wanted to buy Clyde Milan from Wichita anyway, so he dispatched an injured catcher, Cliff Blankenship, on what must rate as the most productive scouting trip in the history of the game. The veteran catcher was skeptical, however, and as he left Wichita he told Milan, "I've got to go up in Idaho and inspect a pitcher named Johnson. He's probably some big busher that isn't even worth the car fare to scout."

As the hometown papers followed Johnson's dizzying rise in the baseball world, much attention was given to his reaction -- or more accurately, the absence of any. In August the Tribune commented: "Walter Johnson of Fullerton, the wonderful pitcher, is more than making a hit with the Washington team of the American League, and eastern papers are heralding him as the greatest find in many years and filling the sporting columns with such nice things about him as have ever been said about any ballplayer...[but] He is not of the kind that swell up and get chesty and he will not be carried away by the many compliments he is receiving." In October, the Anaheim Gazette reported that "Johnson returns loaded with laurels from Eastern baseball centers. He wears the same sized hats, and is the same gentlemanly, unassuming ballplayer he was before he went away."

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