Weiser (pronounced "weezer") was a town of some 3,000 inhabitants on a bend in the Snake River in Southwestern Idaho, not far from the Oregon border. A hundred years earlier Peter Weiser, an original member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, had returned to the area with a party of fur trappers to chart it for Clark's map of the Northwest. The thriving mining and farming region was proudly called "The Fat Land of Weiser" by local boosters. In the heart of the Rocky Mountains, it was a wild and scenic place, surrounded on all sides by spectacular, rugged peaks and gorges. Weiser's population was equally picturesque, a melting pot of gold and copper miners, sheep and cattle ranchers, apple, potato, and sugar-beet farmers, cowboys, Shoshone Indians, Chinese railroad laborers, and a bit of everything else. "A big-hearted, hard-fisted town," Walter Johnson called it. The fifteen saloons and several opium dens in operation there notwithstanding, "It kept itself in surprising order," he remembered. "There were few, if any, drunks to be seen on the streets." (Maybe so, but exactly one week after his arrival there, the Weiser World reported that "While engaged in a hilarious spree, an individual proceeded to shoot a hole through the index finger of his left hand in the Eagle saloon.")
Early in April, 1906, six towns accessible to each other by the Pacific and Idaho Northern (variously called the "Pin" and "Pony") and Oregon Short Line railroads formed the Southern Idaho League (variously called the "Southwestern Idaho," "South Idaho," and Idaho Southern" Leagues) with games to be played on Sundays and holidays. An old baseball field next to the racetrack in Weiser was spruced up and fenced in so a 25-cent admission could be charged. A manager was appointed by a committee of town leaders, ballplayers were recruited, and practices begun. Their only pre-season game was lost to the Payette "Melon Chewers" (nicknames reflecting the principal industries of the towns), and on April 28 Weiser's official season opened at home with a dismal 23-11 thrashing at the hands of their arch-rivals, the Caldwell "Countyseaters." In the next two weeks the Weiser boys defeated the Nampa "Sugar Beeters" and lost to the Boise "Senators" in close, low-scoring games. For the Boise game Weiser had a new man, Clair Head, playing third base. In its "All Around the Town" column on May 19 the Weiser Signal noted that "Walter Johnson of Los Angeles was among city arrivals yesterday."
"I was broke the day I landed at Weiser, Idaho. Not only that but I was hungry," Johnson remembered. "I stopped a stranger and asked for directions to baseball headquarters. 'Which team do you want?,' he asked. That sounded encouraging. This must be some town, I thought, to support more than one baseball team. But I soon discovered one was the high school team and the other represented the town." Johnson ran into Clair Head in front of the hotel, and by the next day had himself a job with the Bell Telephone Company of Washington County at a salary of ninety dollars a month. He did work there some in a clerical capacity, making himself useful around the office, but the job was really part of the business community's support for the team. "I was assigned to what you might call the baseball department," Johnson explained. "My duties consisted of pitching for the town team every Sunday."
He started earning his pay two days later, on Sunday, May 20, when the team journeyed south to the state capital of Boise. This time, with a new pitcher and catcher, Weiser trounced the Senators, 17-1, in front of a crowd of 1,000. Johnson ran into trouble in the first inning when two Boise hits and an error loaded the bases with one out. But a strikeout and groundout closed off the threat and the rest of the way was a breeze, Johnson allowing four hits and a walk while striking out seven. He scored three runs himself with three hits in five trips to the plate.
The Boise newspaper, the Idaho Daily Statesman, mentioned Johnson's Weiser debut only in passing, however. It was fascinated instead by his catcher, a 250-pound, 53-year-old Weiserite playing ball again for the first time after a 15-year hiatus from the game. His name was E. Cornelius Uhl, but in Weiser everyone knew him as "Foxy Grandpa." Adding intrigue to the story, Uhl played under the name "Miller" and Johnson was listed as "H. Smith." Clair Head appeared in box scores for most of the season as "Roy Patterson." The phony names might have been used because these men had played ball elsewhere and teams in the league were supposed to be made up of local talent. But according to the Statesman, Uhl was a Weiser resident, making the pretense unnecessary in his case, at least. He was also the star of the game, in the newspaper's opinion, and deserved much of the credit for Johnson's sterling performance also. Under the headline, "Old Timer Who Can Play Ball," his remarkable story was told:
"It was all the fault of 'Foxy Grandpa' Miller, who did the backstop act for the visitors. There was a time, so the old-timers in the baseball world assert, when Foxy Grandpa used to play ball regularly. But some 15 years or so ago, he felt his bones stiffening and he concluded to stop the strenuous life. He moved out to sunny Idaho, and established himself on a farm near Weiser. Just as a reminder of the old times, Foxy Grandpa went to town last Sunday and saw the game between Boise and Weiser. He was disgusted to think the Weiser team would be beat by such an aggregation as that from the capital. 'Huh,' he said, 'I am old and fat and grey-headed, but I can play ball enough yet to beat that bunch.' And Monday morning he began training, with the result that he was given a place behind the bat in yesterday's game. He coached up young Smith [Johnson] until the latter kept his head all the way through. Every time a Boise man got on a base -- and there were very, very few -- Foxy Grandpa would pull off some sort of an unexpected play and catch the runner napping."
Neither did Johnson's 12-0 one-hitter with a dozen strikeouts against Payette the following week catch the newspaper's attention in its continuing astonishment at the exploits of the ancient Weiser catcher, who went four-for-five at the plate. "'Foxy Grandpa' Miller was the star performer," the Statesman insisted, "the same as he was last week. He made a sensational long hit and, although he is not shaped for a sprinter, he reached third on it." But it was Johnson the large crowd had come to see, according to the Weiser World. "Everyone awaited the beginning of the game with intense interest," it reported, "to see Weiser's phenomenal pitcher, Johnson, twirl the ball over the home plate. The game began amid a roar from the spectators, which was occasioned by Payette's star batter striking at the first ball and Foxy Grandpa Miller holding it up to show him he had caught it several seconds before." At Emmett the next weekend, Weiser inexplicably dropped back-to-back games Saturday (an exhibition) and Sunday to the last-place "Prune Pickers." Johnson's 2-0 defeat in Sunday's official contest, despite twelve strikeouts, would be his only loss of the season.
On June 10 the Weiser team and several hundred fans took the 50-mile train trip to Caldwell for the big game against their long-time rivals, who were undefeated in six games. From the start the Caldwell crowd voiced disdain for the third-place Weiser club and their 3-3 record. The blatant partisanship of the Caldwell band still amused Neil Uhl -- Foxy Grandpa -- years later: "Part of the band got in the stand, the other part got behind me," he remembered. "Whenever Walter started his delivery, the drums, trombones and other instruments would let out an awful howl. I stood it for some time and then when Walter let one of his fast ones loose, I made as if it was low to the right. It hummed by me and banged into a trombone and carried it clear across the road. I begged the gentleman's pardon and the small contingent of the band found its way back to the bandstand."
Four innings into the game Weiser held a surprising 4-0 lead. As Johnson walked to the mound for the fifth, several Caldwell rooters came down from the stands and walked onto the field, verbally accosting the first baseman, Weiser deputy sheriff Lafe Lansdon. He gave it right back to them, but more fans came over and a shouting match ensued. Lansdon's brother Bob, the Weiser sheriff and manager of the baseball team ("both fine big western types," Johnson described the Lansdon brothers), walked over to order them away. Suddenly Lafe Lansdon was struck in the eye, and he retaliated. Set upon by two others, he knocked them to the ground, whereupon a general pandemonium broke loose. "A free-for-all if there ever was one," Johnson characterized the fight. He stayed on the mound while the action swirled all around him. "'You ain't much on roughin' it, is you?,' was the remark of a hard-looking customer who walked up alongside of me in the box," he remembered. "'To tell the truth, my friend,' I replied, 'I just joined the club, and I don't know which are our players and which are yours.'"
The Caldwell sheriff and his deputies finally brought the melee under control, arresting the Lansdon brothers and another Weiser man in the process. Things turned ugly again when one of Caldwell's leading citizens began parading up and down in front of the Weiser section of the grandstand, shaking his fist. "There is not a respectable man or woman here from Weiser," he told them. "You are all toughs, hoodlums and prize fighters." In spite of the provocation, the visitors held their tempers and eventually got even. This man owned the hotel in Caldwell where more than 100 of the Weiser visitors had planned to have dinner. Instead, they went to the neighboring town of Nampa after the game, and gave their business to the hotel there.
The game itself ended in an easy 8-1 Weiser victory, after which the team was ordered by Caldwell's Justice of the Peace to a nearby barn for a "trial" where the guilty parties -- all of them Weiser citizens, not surprisingly -- were assessed a $10 fine. It came out later that the fight had been arranged by gamblers with heavy bets on favored Caldwell, in an attempt to remove some Weiser players from the game. Seeking to capitalize on Caldwell's shock over losing the game, and the strong feelings generated by it, several Weiser citizens offered to wager up to $1,000 each on their team in a rematch. On Monday, Johnson was summoned to the office of Weiser's mayor. "Young fellow," he inquired, "do you think we can lick these fellows if we play another game?" Johnson replied that he thought they could, then listened as the mayor phoned his counterpart in Caldwell with the challenge, which was turned down.
A week after the Caldwell episode, Johnson held Emmett to three hits and struck out 13 in a bottom-of-the-ninth 1-0 win. The "long, lean, lank Weiser pitcher," as the Emmett Index called him, won his own game with a double in the final frame, stealing third and coming home on Lafe Lansdon's single. "It was then pandemonium broke loose and fellows forgot their girls and husbands their wives and began hugging somebody else's sweethearts and wives, even men hugged each other," the Weiser Signal reported. "It was undoubtedly the prettiest game ever witnessed on the Weiser diamond and is no doubt the best played by the South Idaho League teams so far." In its account of the game, the Index colorfully described the trepidation with which their team had ventured into Weiser after hearing about the riot of a week earlier:
"We went to the 'Fat Land of Weiser' with fear and trembling after reading the report of the Caldwell episode. In one pocket we had a Gatling gun, in a stocking leg was hid a corn knife, while concealed about other portions of our person were bombs and dynamite and Chinese stinkpots galore. Even then we expected to be eaten alive by the Weiser cannibals. But instead we found a bunch of gentlemanly fellows, and Mayor Moulton not only turned over the keys of the city to the Emmett crowd, but assisted in locating the key hole... After the ball game the Emmett crowd was royally entertained at a rarebit luncheon and vaudeville performance, in which several of the Weiser players did stunts that kept their guests in a continual roar of laughter, and the boys have been laughing ever since they returned home."
More laughter undoubtedly accompanied the playing of an upcoming weekday game according to a notice in the Signal: "On next Friday a ball game will be played on the Weiser diamond between the fats and leans of the city and it is expected to be one of the most interesting and spiciest contests of the season. Some of the rules governing the contest are no member of the lean nine shall weigh more than 150 pounds and no member of the fats shall weigh less than 220 pounds."
As for the team of normal proportions, on June 24 Johnson shut out Nampa, 6-0, with a season-high 14 strikeouts, followed by the worst game he would ever pitch for Weiser, a 6-4 win at Payette in which he gave up the most runs and hits (8) and registered "only" 9 strikeouts. The Weiser World claimed that Johnson was saving his arm for an upcoming "purse game," but in any case the Payette contest brought an end to the official league season, won by Caldwell with its 9-1 record to Weiser's 7-3.
In the money game for $250 against Emmett on July 4, "'Too much Johnson' was the result," according to the Signal. "He didn't do a thing but pitch, say nothing and chew gum." In reality it was Emmett that didn't do a thing as Johnson no-hit them in a 5-0 win. The game was part of a spectacular day-and-night Fourth of July celebration for which a crowd of 5,000 people, "the biggest crowd ever gathered within her gates," poured into Weiser. Both teams marched in between floats in a grand parade down the main street to a pavilion where U.S. Senate candidate William Borah (who would be the model for the Washington team's "Mr. Senator" logo in the 1950s, coincidentally) made a speech, after which the assemblage went over to the ballpark to see Johnson blank Emmett.
Another unofficial game on July 8 turned into a 13-8 slugfest over Huntington, but with sparse reporting it's unknown whether or not Johnson played in it. From the score it seems unlikely that he pitched. Caldwell was issued another challenge, this time to a purse match on neutral grounds for $1,500, but got "cold feet," according to the Signal, which lamented that the first games of the season had been played "before the Weiser team was thoroughly organized. 'Kid' Johnson is regarded here as the greatest pitcher in Idaho," it added. On July 10, with no more baseball scheduled in Southern Idaho, he went home to California. Johnson's 1906 Weiser record consisted of seven wins against one loss, with four shutouts. He allowed 8 runs in as many games and struck out 79 in the 7 games where those totals were given.