During the baseball season of 1970 -- ages removed from the time when batters faced a tall, blond, kid pitcher, and watched open-mouthed as the ball streaked by in a blur, hissing as it went past to land in the catcher's mitt with the crack of a rifle shot -- a group of old men, in their eighties now, gathered to talk about the kid, their teammate, Walter Johnson. For a story about Johnson, Los Angeles Times reporter Earl Gustkey had found Hollis Knowlton, Rufus Porter, Bob McFadden, and Stanley Chapman, all still living in Fullerton, California, where they grew up and played baseball for Fullerton Union High School. They all remembered the black mare Johnson rode to school, and the huge sunflowers that towered over the road between Olinda and Fullerton. There were stories about the poker games in the back of the general store, and, of course, tales of the speed with which he could sail a baseball through the air.
There was the story of Hollis Knowlton's discharge from the army in 1919, after the great war:
"I took the train across the country back to Fullerton," Knowlton remembered, "but first I stopped in Philadelphia to see Walter pitch against the A's. He beat them, and I jumped down on the field after the game and tried to see him. There was a lot of milling around on the field and I could only get within 20 feet of him. I yelled, 'Hey, Walt!' He turned around and said, 'I hear my old friend Hollis Knowlton, but I can't see him.' We went out to dinner that night and he introduced me to all his teammates. We talked about the old Fullerton days. He never forgot me."
And California hasn't forgotten Walter Johnson, although we must know where to look for traces of his legacy some ninety years after his first reported appearance in a game of baseball and seventy years after his last local game at the Brea Bowl.
Starting at Anaheim Stadium, we visit the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame behind the right field grandstand. As we enter, we see on our right a life-sized photograph of Walter and the Babe which was taken at the Brea Bowl game. Ironically, to our left, there is a large color photograph of the man who eventually broke Johnson's career strikeout record -- Nolan Ryan. Both are enshrined in this Hall, along with athletes and coaches from several sports who either started their careers in Orange County or who achieved sports immortality on its playing fields. Walter is well-represented in a panel of baseball photos and, as a charter member of the Hall, his plaque is in the first group we encounter.
A few miles away to the north, we stop at Fullerton Union High School, whose oldest existing buildings date to 1912, just after Walter Johnson's return to Kansas. Several of the houses in the neighborhood were obviously built at the turn of the century and look just as they must have appeared to Walter while he was attending FUHS. Inside the main office of the school, there is a "Wall of Fame" which commemmorates a hundred years worth of distinguished FUHS alumni. A photo of Walter in his Washington uniform is in the middle of this display. Richard Nixon's picture is just above and to the right, and there are generals, admirals, athletes, entertainers, scientists and civic leaders all around them.
Continuing north, we find that the site of the old Brea Bowl is being developed into the Brea Gateway Shopping Center. But at Craig Regional Park, also in Brea, we discover that the half-dozen ball fields where kids are playing Little League baseball comprise the Walter Johnson Athletic Field. Surely Walter would be amazed at the well-manicured appearance of the playing fields, a far cry from the makeshift field scraped out on the "flat" at Olinda in his time. A plaque at one of the diamonds states that they were "dedicated to the youth of the county in his memory by the Orange County Board of Supervisors." A shady picnic grove nearby is named the "Walter Johnson Group Area". It is appropriate that the park was named for an Orange County Supervisor, Ted Craig, who was one of the kids who joined Walter in his first Olinda Oil Wells game in 1904.
When we drive up into the hills at the northernmost edge of Orange County in search of Olinda, we are disappointed. The once-bustling village was abandoned and razed long ago. The area it occupied has returned to its natural state, but here and there, small oil wells greedily suck some of the remaining "black gold" out of the ground. A sign on Carbon Canyon Road proclaims that the land is the property of the Santa Fe Energy Resources Company, a descendant of the employer for whom so many of Walter Johnson's family members once labored. There is a California historical marker at the entrance to what is now Carbon Canyon Regional Park, about a half mile to the east, commemmorating the boomtown village. Although Olinda's significance in the world of baseball isn't mentioned on this plaque, its entry in California State Historical Landmarks goes into more detail and does tell us that this is where Johnson grew up.
Aside from these few visible signs of Walter Johnson's presence, it would be hard to imagine that he once performed his pitching heroics on California diamonds. An occasional newspaper or magazine article may allude to some aspect of his local playing days such as the 27-strikeout game against Santa Ana High School. A few conscientious local librarians have put together folders of old clippings and photos which we can browse through if we think to ask for them. And there are a few local citizens, now well advanced in years, such as Lester Slaback's son, Lecil, who can proudly produce a scrapbook or repeat the stories once told them by a father who long ago played on the same team with a young man who went on to become one of the most admired figures in the history of American sports.
It is the authors' hope, in gathering the evidence of Walter Johnson's early playing days together for the first time, to reveal to future generations of baseball fans, especially in Southern California, not only the rich baseball heritage of this area but the crucial role it played in shaping Walter Johnson's career.
Printer Layout and Preparation: Alice Carey
The authors are grateful for the immense resources available in the Library of Congress' files of newspapers on microfilm, as well as to the many librarians whose unfailing courtesy, patience and assistance made it possible for us to locate, read and photocopy the news items which went into this story, especially at the following libraries:
Anaheim, Fullerton, Huntington Beach, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, San Diego, Santa Ana, Santa Monica, Ventura, Whittier, and California State University Fullerton.