"At what point Cantillon came to a decision to give some credence to Johnson's admirer is not known, but it could well have been when he read: 'This boy throws so fast you can't see 'em... and he knows where he is throwing the ball because if he didn't there would be dead bodies strewn all over Idaho.'" -- Shirley Povich
Walter Johnson had enjoyed Weiser and its people from the beginning. But on top of that, in 1907 he returned as something of a celebrity after his earlier successes there. "Weiser people began calling me 'Pardner' instead of 'Sonny'," he recalled later. As wild as the town could be, it never tried to entice him into the vices so widely available there, something he looked back upon with appreciation. "They never teased me to drink," he said, "though I could have had any saloon in town after some of the games I won for 'em. When they found out I had never tasted hard liquor, they said, 'Good boy, keep away from it always.'"
The wild parts of Weiser Johnson did enjoy were the mountains and rivers, and the great hunting and fishing to be found there. Quail were everywhere, as in California, but there were also pheasant, a prized bird for sportsmen. Wise enough to stay away from the grizzly bears found at higher altitudes, he nevertheless got a big kick out of the tales spun by the iron-nerved hunters who did go after them. The cold mountain streams were alive with trout, beautiful to look at and delicious to eat, and on one expedition Johnson and three companions caught over 200 in a day.
Coming with him to Weiser this year, in addition to Clair Head (still playing as "Roy Patterson" for some reason), was his catcher from the Olinda Oil Wells, Guy Meats, and Billy Elwell, Olinda's second baseman. The Weiser American offered this profile of Meats: "...a husky young fellow, new to Weiser ball fiends. In the tryouts and practice games he has demonstrated his ability to fill the position at every stage of the game. He is a sure and powerful thrower, and the runner who steals a base on him will be entitled to all he gets."
Interest in baseball was at a fever pitch as the season approached. "The people thought, talked, and dreamed of nothing but the game," Johnson remembered. The ballfield had been greatly improved, the grandstand enlarged, and new navy-blue flannel uniforms ordered for the team. Never having picked up a nickname the previous year, they were now being called the "Kids," with none of them older than 25. The Idaho State League, as it was now called, had expanded to eight teams with the addition of the Mountain Home "Dudes" and the Huntington, Oregon, "Railroaders."
Excitement in Weiser intensified after a win in the lone practice game with Huntington and lopsided victories in the first two games of the season, 13-1 over Payette on April 14 and 19-0 at Huntington a week later. In the two contests Johnson gave up five hits, walked none, struck out 27, and made four hits himself. "Too Much Johnson," was the American's headline of the win over Payette. He showed little sentimentality in striking out Foxy Grandpa Uhl, who was catching for Huntington this year after paring down to a slim 197 pounds, twice in three trips to the plate. Uhl's Weiser replacement, Guy Meats, threw out four Huntington "engine wipers" trying to steal.
Suddenly telegrams began arriving from Tacoma, offering Johnson another chance with the Tigers. He ignored them, making Mike Lynch even more determined until eventually he offered Johnson $350 a month, top of the scale for the minor leagues. This, too, was disregarded, as Johnson explained later: "I said from the start that I would never play again with Tacoma for people who, when I was with them, had never given me a fair chance to make good. I am sure I would not have gone back if my entire major league career had depended on my going."
On April 28 the Caldwell "Champions" (in honor of their victorious 1906 campaign) came to Weiser for the first big game of the year. A crowd of 1,500 turned out to witness a stirring battle taken by Caldwell, 2-1. Johnson had 17 strikeouts, but Weiser left seven men on base to Caldwell's three. In spite of the strong feelings between the teams and their fans, the Weiser Signal noted, "The game was cleanly played, there being little rag-chewing and no gabfests or mid-diamond mass meetings."
The Kids returned to form the next week with a 10-2 pounding of Nampa in which Johnson struck out 14. The runs would be the last scored against him for almost two months. The first in a long string of shutouts came against Boise on May 19, a 6-0 one-hitter in which he struck out 19, including 8 of the first 9 batters. "The Boise players went down before the mighty Johnson like grass before a reaper," said the Daily Statesman. Of his great strikeout record at Weiser, where he averaged almost 14 a game, Johnson said in 1914: "In those days I could pitch as swift a ball as I can now. Many batters don't care for speed, especially if the pitcher is a trifle wild. Many of the players were delighted when the umpire called them out on strikes. Others would take three weak swings, for fear the umpire might not call them strikes."
With Weiser and Boise tied for second place behind unbeaten Caldwell, the competition heated up in earnest. "All the league teams are strengthening up, and the Southern Idaho League promises to furnish as fine ball playing as any league in the Pacific Northwest," the Signal reported, adding, "but Johnson and the Kids are losing no sleep." Boise imported their own 19-year-old pitcher from California, "Specs" Harkness, who had blanked Olinda for the Los Angeles Hoegees in an 11-inning, 0-0 tie two months earlier. In three years he would be pitching for Cleveland in the American League, but in Boise on May 26 Harkness showed none of this ability, giving up eight runs in five innings of a 12-0 Weiser romp before a crowd of 1,800, the largest of the year in the capital. The following Sunday Johnson made Huntington a 5-0, two-hit victim. "They are a game bunch of losers and do not kick or complain at their fate, although the cellar yawns to receive them," the Signal complimented the Oregonians.
Monday morning, Johnson got a call from Nampa asking if he was available to pitch for them in a special game against Mountain Home that afternoon. For many years these towns had been engaged in a rivalry even more intense than that between Weiser and Caldwell, and Nampa, seeking immediate revenge for a close loss at Mountain Home on Sunday, had put up a $1,000 purse for a rematch. Johnson agreed, and with only five minutes to catch a freight train going to Nampa he tossed a few things into a bag, ran for the station, and jumped on the train as it was pulling out. When the conductor -- a Nampa boy -- discovered the pitcher's mission he told the engineer to stoke it up, and Johnson was delivered just in time to a frenzied scene. "In all the world series games I have pitched I never saw more enthusiasm than on that Monday afternoon," he recalled.
A crowd of 1,100, including the Mountain Home band and 200 of their fans, had packed the Nampa ballpark. Stores closed for the day, and a holiday atmosphere had taken over. But it turned out to be no holiday for the Mountain Home Dudes as Johnson permitted them a lone base on balls -- and no hits -- in pitching Nampa to a 5-0 victory. With the $1,000 prize and another $3,600 from side bets in their pockets, Nampa partisans were in a mood to celebrate. "The Nampa fans were so delighted that a banquet was tendered our modest Walter at the Dewey Hotel, and the whole city was dressed in gala attire," the Signal reported. Johnson said later: "Believe me, the tar barrels burned in Nampa that night. Everybody was happy, from the babies in their cradles to the grey-haired grandmothers."
His fourth shutout in a row (and second in two days) focused attention for the first time on Johnson's consecutive scoreless innings streak, although it was miscalculated by the Signal at 48 instead of the actual 40. (This overstatement of 8 innings would be perpetuated throughout the streak by the Signal and repeated by many others.) The Weiser paper ran a prophetic profile of Walter Johnson at this crossroads in his career:
"[The streak] certainly means something to a young man of Johnson's disposition -- quiet, unassuming, sober and industrious. He is a coming man of the baseball world. His services have been sought by the big[ger] leagues... and the bait would have dazzled the eyes of most youngsters, but not so with Walter. He is but 19 years of age, but he turned it down for the reason that he thought himself too young. Too many youngsters are too willing to flutter around a manager's candle and fall at the first tryout, but Johnson knows himself and knows baseball. He plays as though there were no glory or excitement in it, but goes up against a game like it was a business proposition. He will break into the big leagues yet and when he does his good right arm will earn him thousands of dollars annually."
On June 9, Johnson pitched his second no-hitter in a row (and the only perfect game of his career), striking out 18 in an 11-0 Weiser rout of the Emmett Prune Pickers. In 27 innings from Sunday to Sunday he had given up two hits and one walk while striking out 44. Picking up the Signal's error, the Idaho Daily Statesman boldly claimed that Johnson's 57 straight scoreless innings (actually 49) had broken the "world record" of 54, while failing to mention the basis for this assertion. (Doc White of the White Sox held the major-league record with 45). Record or not, a 4-0 blanking of Nampa the next Sunday extended the actual streak to 58 innings. Three days later Weiser took on a "colored" team from the Rastus Rufus Minstrel troupe in a game Johnson didn't pitch, but may have appeared in. If he did, it would be the first of a handful of games against black teams in his career.
With Johnson's accomplishments piling one on top of another, notice of them eventually overcame both the remoteness of the region and a scant regard among baseball professionals for great records achieved in loosely-organized town leagues. The minor-league clubs of the Northwest were the first to be alerted of something special happening in their midst, and they responded, but by then Johnson had made up his mind not to go back to Tacoma nor, apparently, to anyplace else in the vicinity. In the first two weeks of June the Signal carried reports of "flattering offers," and Johnson's rejections of them, from Spokane of the Northwest League and Portland of the Pacific Coast League.
In time tales of his prowess made their way farther afield, however. "Every now and then," Johnson recalled, "after watching me pitch a game some stranger would tell me that he liked my pitching, that he was from the east, and that he intended writing to the manager of this or that club about me. In two or three months, I think a hundred stray spectators paid me that sort of compliment, and a good many of them told me I ought to be in the Big League. I regarded that possibility, however, as quite too far away to give it any serious consideration."
On June 17 a telegram arrived that required such consideration. "Walter Johnson, Weiser's phenomenal pitcher, today received a telegram from Joe Cantillon, manager of the Washington, D.C. club in the American League, asking him if he would accept a pitcher's position with the Washington team," the Daily Statesman reported. "The telegram stated Cantillon would pay Johnson's transportation to the national capital and gave Johnson assurance of a good salary. Johnson was asked for an immediate reply. He gave it and it was that he would stay with Weiser in the Idaho State League."
Johnson's caution now seemed to be bordering on the extreme, even if the Daily Statesman found much to admire in "this wise course, failure to observe which has spoiled many a young pitcher." Jack Burnett had no such reservations, however, and five days later the St. Louis Cardinals bought him from Tacoma for the largest price paid for a player in the Northwestern League to that point. Burnett had been a tremendous success at Tacoma, a fan favorite and the league's leading hitter and best first baseman. Meanwhile, Walter Johnson carried on with Weiser, running his scoreless innings streak to 67 on June 23 with a 17-0 crushing of the Payette Melon Eaters.
On Friday evening, June 28, Johnson was strolling back to his boarding house from the ballfield, where members of the team gathered each night after dinner to practice for an hour or so before the sun went down. Suddenly a man stepped up to him, saying, "You had a lot of stuff on the ball this evening, but you were a little wild." Johnson was somewhat confused by the statement, because his control had been good as usual. (He had walked three batters in 11 complete games.) The man then introduced himself: Cliff Blankenship, a catcher with the Washington club of the American League. He wanted to know if Johnson would care to go to Washington to pitch for them. When Johnson answered that he didn't think so, Blankenship was incredulous. "Ain't you glad to get a chance in the East?" he asked, and was surprised again when Johnson said he had been there before. What team had he been with, Blankenship wanted to know. "No team," Johnson replied. "What I meant to say was I've been East before. I was born in Kansas." Expressing doubts about his ability to make good with Washington, Johnson added that he didn't want to go all the way there only to fail. Blankenship told the youngster to think it over some more and meet him again later that night.
Johnson talked it over with Guy Meats. "Walter didn't want to go," the catcher recalled. "He just couldn't believe he was ready for the big leagues. He thought he might be pushing himself too fast." He would have to wire for his parents' advice, Johnson told Blankenship -- hoping, according to Meats, that his parents would say no and end the matter there. But the next day the answer came back from Olinda; Frank and Minnie Johnson had no objection to their son going to Washington. After mulling the proposition over some more, Johnson decided to take a chance, even though the idea still frightened him. "I was nothing but a green country boy," he said later, "and jumping to a city the size of Washington was a real sensation to me. I was about as nervous as it would be possible to be."
Blankenship wanted to take his recruit with him immediately, but Johnson refused to leave until the end of Weiser's season two weeks hence. He also insisted on enough money in advance to get back home. A railroad man figured out it would take $250 to get east and back to California. Blankenship wired the team for that amount, but turned over only $100. "I never did find out who got the change," Johnson later joked. No contract was ever signed between them (contrary to a much-repeated but apocryphal tale of an agreement written out on a meat wrapper); surprisingly, there was no documentation of the arrangement at all. "They'll fix your salary up when you land in Washington," Blankenship assured. The Washington catcher then left Weiser, preferring to be elsewhere when the townfolk discovered that their star was being taken away. Blankenship had pressed Johnson to make a decision the previous evening, in fact, in an attempt to depart without so much as spending the night.
If the day he agreed to go to Washington was one of the most important in the life of Walter Johnson, the next day, Sunday, June 30, was without a doubt the biggest in the annals of southern Idaho baseball. At the top of the league with a 9-1 record, Weiser stood a game ahead of reigning champion Caldwell, who had inflicted the Kids' only loss this year. The tight race combined with years of rivalry and bad blood between the towns to turn the contest into an event of major proportions. A "Special Dispatch" in Sunday's Daily Statesman described the scene:
"Like the clans of the olden country came pouring in from every nook on their great fete days, so the people flocked to Caldwell today to see the greatest, fastest, and all-important game of baseball yet played in the Idaho State League or, for that matter, ever played anywhere in the state. The people, anxious to see the pitcher's battle they knew would take place on the Caldwell diamond today, flocked here in immense crowds from every nearby town. The Weiser special train was crowded to the guards and brought people from nearly every town on the railroad in Washington County. More than 2,000 persons crowded the ball grounds."
Betting, a prominent feature of any game in this league, reached unprecedented levels -- $10,000 worth, in Johnson's estimation. All week, Weiser partisans offered odds to all takers, even going to Caldwell to drum up more bets. So much money was riding on the game that Caldwell's gamblers held a council and decided to invest some more to improve their chances. Caldwell captain Eddie Hammond traveled to Butte, Montana, to sign up three Northwestern League stars, including Johnson's old Tacoma teammate Irv Higginbotham, who had pitched Aberdeen to the top of the league. (He would finish the season at 29-12 with 295 strikeouts.) In addition, Caldwell arranged for Nampa to cancel its game with Payette and release "Big Leaguer" Hanson, the best catcher in the league, so he could sign with Caldwell to catch Higginbotham. Weiser's complaints about their opponent's "loading up" for the game fell on deaf ears, as it had become an increasingly common practice. Johnson had done it himself when he pitched for Nampa.
The game turned out to be the exciting pitcher's duel everyone anticipated. Higginbotham, who had shut out Spokane on June 21 and Butte on the 25th before losing to Butte, 2-0, on June 28 -- just two days earlier -- was invincible. Fast, with a knee-buckling curve, he struck out eight of the first nine batters, 17 altogether, and allowed only two hits in 11 innings. Johnson walked two in the first inning but escaped harm with the help of a great catch by Weiser rightfielder Tommy "Hungry" Higgins. He settled down to pitch a great game himself, giving up five hits and striking out 15 of the Champions. After ten innings the game was still a scoreless tie.
In the top of the 11th Weiser had a man on third with two outs. As Hungry Higgins, a good hitter, set himself in the batter's box, Weiser's doctor suddenly rushed out from the stands. "$750 is yours if you score that man from third," he screamed to Higgins, waving the cash in his hand. Weiser players ran out from their bench and grabbed the doctor, who, it turned out, had bet $1,500 on the game. Rattled by the commotion, Higgins took a strike down the middle. On the next pitch the runner took off for the plate, but left too soon; having gone most of the way down the line, he turned around and headed back to third. But when Higginbotham's pitch got by the catcher momentarily, the runner reversed himself again, bolted for the plate, and was tagged out inches short of it after a spectacular slide.
Johnson, who had allowed Caldwell only three hits to that point, gave up back-to-back singles to start the bottom of the eleventh. The next batter hit an easy grounder to third, but in a desperate attempt to get the runner at home the third baseman drilled the ball squarely into his back instead. The run scored, Weiser lost the game, and Johnson's streak ended at 77 straight scoreless innings.
The remainder of the Idaho State League season deteriorated into a travesty that made it impossible to determine the championship. There was much "loading up" and gambling all around, and more wrangling in the courts and editorial pages of the papers than actual play on the ballfields. Johnson was true to his team, trying to stay until everything got straightened out. He beat Boise, 3-2, before a holiday crowd of 5,000 in the capital on July 4, and three days later got revenge against Caldwell by pitching Payette to a 4-2 win over them in a game for which most of the Weiser team switched to Payette after flooding their own field to make it unplayable. Johnson shut out Mountain Home two days in a row, July 14 and 15, to win a three-game purse match for $2,500, then waited another week for a champion to be crowned and the season declared over. But when the league couldn't even figure out when that had occurred, Johnson decided it was time to go.
After a final game against a team from Vale, Oregon, on July 21 (he didn't pitch, perhaps saving his arm for the big leagues), a large crowd of friends and admirers came to the Weiser depot on Monday evening, July 22, to see him off. As Johnson said goodbye to Guy Meats and his other pals, there were tears in his eyes. A group of Weiser fans had tried to convince him to stay, offering to set him up with a cigar store in the town square. Johnson thanked them sincerely but allowed as how the Washington offer might mean more to him in the future. "You know how you are at 19," he explained later. "You want to see things."