This article was published in the 1995 issue of Grandstand Baseball Annual1. As was the case with its companion article, the author had accumulated more material during his research for Walter Johnson's biography than he could use in the book, so decided to turn an article over to Joe Wayman for publication in the 1995 Grandstand Baseball Annual, which is now out of print.
welcomes your comments on his article, especially if you have more information on any
of the events described here.
"It was wild country in those days. Whenever I go to the movies and see a picture showing so-called 'hard-boiled westerners', I just think of Idaho back in 1906 and wish some of those Hollywood directors had been with me up there." -- Walter Johnson
Johnson took a train to Los Angeles for the connection north. He carried a leather satchel full of sandwiches his mother had made and a package with the new suit necessary, she insisted, for meeting one's employer. It cost him twelve dollars, the savings of a lifetime. Arriving in Tacoma, Johnson ducked into the gent's room of a hotel near the station to change clothes. But along the way he had tucked the suit into the satchel, which was opened now to reveal a disaster. The beautiful garment had turned into a wrinkled rag. "If I'd slept in it a month, it couldn't have looked any worse," Johnson remembered. And if that wasn't bad enough, one of the sandwiches had broken free of its wrapping and saturated the suit with jelly. He reported to the baseball field in the clothes on his back.
At that time there was another catastrophe on everyone's mind, of far greater consequence than a kid's mishap with a new suit. In fact, it was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States -- the San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 18-20, 1906, occurring just days before Johnson's arrival in Tacoma and not far away. As it would do for so many others in the area, the earthquake changed the course of his life. There was no hint of that at first as he signed up with Tacoma, joining a roster that listed only two other pitchers: 33-year-old veteran Ike Butler, who had blown his one chance in the major leagues with a 1-10 season at Baltimore in 1902, and Irv Higginbotham, who was ten years younger and would be moving up to the St. Louis Cardinals later in the year. The Tacoma Tigers, recently shorn of their Pacific Coast League franchise, were newcomers this year to the Northwestern League, a circuit of four cities in the state of Washington: Tacoma, Spokane, Aberdeen, and Grays Harbor.
Johnson was with Tacoma by April 24 at the latest, when his presence there was first reported by the Spokane Spokesman-Review. The Tacoma Ledger carried a similarly brief mention the next day, adding only that he had played in the "California State League." Newspapers were taken up largely with the earthquake and its consequences, even the sports section, where there was much speculation about the fate of the Pacific Coast League. San Francisco had been the league's flagship franchise, its largest city, and the season was apparently over there. Fires still raged out of control as W.H. Lucas, president of the Northwestern League, told the Portland Oregonian that the Seattle and Portland PCL clubs would be welcome in the Northwestern League "should the Coast League find it impossible to continue."
Tacoma's season opened on April 28 with a series against the Grays Harbor Warriors. Higginbotham and Butler won the first two games, the hitting star of which was Tigers first baseman Jack Burnett with two hits in each, including a home run in the first game and a double and triple in the second. A day off was scheduled for Monday, April 30, but the teams volunteered to play an unofficial exhibition game to benefit the Red Cross earthquake relief fund. Walter Johnson pitched and lost a 4-3 thriller, giving up ten hits and a walk while striking out seven, a creditable first effort for the 18-year-old. Higginbotham played third base, replacing injured player-manager Mike Lynch, and first baseman Jack Burnett batted third in the lineup, going one for three. $68 was raised for the charity.
The next day an article adjacent to the Ledger's account of the game reported the demise of the Pacific Coast League. Announcing the disbanding of his club, Los Angeles Angels owner Jim Morley declared that there was no chance the league would last another week. The Northwestern League was said to be reorganizing, adding the Seattle and Portland teams and picking up new players for the existing teams. "The circuit will begin to strengthen immediately from the defunct Pacific Coast League," the Ledger stated, "the pick of the players being taken." Tacoma owner George Shreeder added: "The managers of the Northwestern teams will look over the field and pick the men they want."
In anticipation of this flood of PCL talent, Mike Lynch released his young pitcher, Walter Johnson. And with his mind on the bigger things seeming to be in store for him, perhaps, Lynch didn't bother with any care for the boy's feelings. "He told me that so far as pitching was concerned, I would make a better outfielder," Johnson recalled. As things worked out, the timing couldn't have been worse. Within days after he was let go, Northwestern League teams and their fans had second thoughts about adding the much stronger PCL clubs. Then the Pacific Coast League pulled itself together with financial assistance from the major leagues. In the end, both circuits continued on as before. Lynch did replace Johnson with a pitcher from the PCL, a youngster named Finney who had failed at Seattle and would contribute little to the Tigers' pennant chase -- certainly not enough to compensate for the damage to Lynch's reputation later when he became known as the man who had let Walter Johnson slip through his fingers.
The abrupt release from Tacoma was a crushing blow. Johnson had just begun to consider the possibility of a career in baseball, but within the space of a few months now he had been summarily rejected by three of the most influential baseball men on the Coast, all of them veterans of the major leagues. He also found himself a thousand miles from home with forty dollars, his week's pay at Tacoma, to his name, and nowhere to go. The old job driving a team of mules in Olinda looked pretty good to him, but he wanted to stay in baseball if possible. So instead of going home, Johnson stayed in Tacoma, and once again a telegram from an old Olinda teammate came to the rescue. Oil Wells shortstop Clair Head had become a baseball itinerant, passing through the Southwest in the spring and the Northwest that summer trying to hook on with a team. Following a three-game tryout with Tacoma a few days after Johnson's release, Head had moved on again. His telegram was from the town of Weiser, Idaho, and he wanted Johnson to join him there.
1 "Copyright 1995 by Joseph M. Wayman - ISBN 0896-5501... articles printed in GBA are the author's, publication, etc. -- permission to quote or reprint must be received by them..."