Walter Johnson, ca. 1910
There’s a lot going on in August. But on Friday, August 2, we should be celebrating “Walter Johnson Day.” There was such a day in 1913, 1927, and several other years. I think there should be more.
As a Washington Nationals fan and Baseball Sociologist, I should know more about Walter Johnson than I do. But it’s hard to get excited about a player who was born in the 19th Century and finished his playing career before even my parents were born. Nonetheless, when I stumbled upon a few references to “Walter Johnson Day,” I have to admit my interest was piqued.
Walter Johnson, known as the Big Train, is arguably the most famous Washington Senator. Born in Humboldt, Kansas, on November 6, 1887, Johnson made his debut with the Senators on August 2, 1907. After two decades, he retired from Major League Baseball as a Washington Senator on September 30, 1927. He would then manage the Newark Bears of the International League in 1928, the Washington Senators from 1929 to 1933, and the Cleveland Indians from 1933 to 1935.
On August 2, 1913, the Washington Senators celebrated “Walter Johnson Day.” I’m not sure if this was because he was so beloved, or if they just celebrated everyone. I couldn’t even verify if this was the first time the Senators celebrated Walter Johnson Day. We know about this one, however, because President Woodrow Wilson was in attendance that day. According Baseball Reference and the New York Times, the president attended the game to celebrate Johnson’s 6th anniversary. At the game, Johnson was presented with a silver cup filled with 10-dollar bills totaling $500.
President Calvin Coolidge and Walter Johnson, ca. 1920s (photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)
It wasn’t clear if Walter Johnson Day was celebrated every year in the years that followed, but it was celebrated again by the Senators on August 2, 1927, Johnson’s 20th anniversary with the team and last season as a player. At that event, Johnson was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross (with 20 diamonds), a silver tea set, and $14,764.05. According to Ted Leavengood’s biography of Clark Griffith (owner of the Senators from 1920 to 1955), a “Walter Johnson Day Committee” was put together for the event, chaired by then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Leavengood notes, “Clark Griffith brought out every dignitary that he could find to mark the career of the Big Train.” The emcee for the event was Secretary of State Frank Kellogg.
Curiously, the Boston Red Sox had celebrated “Walter Johnson Day” a year earlier at Fenway Park when the Senators were in town on September 4, 1926. Were they predicting his retirement in 1927? Perhaps other teams honored the pitcher as well, like teams celebrate the careers of retiring superstars today? I have so many questions about Walter Johnson Days, for which I was unable to find sufficient answers.
In fact, it seems that “Walter Johnson Day” actually dates back to 1909 when Johnson was playing in the California Winter League with Connie Mack’s barnstorming team, the “All-Nationals.” According to Johnson’s grandson Henry Thomas, in his biography of Johnson, Johnson joined the team in late October after taking some time off after the regular season. Two weeks after his 22nd birthday, on November 15th, “Johnson Day” was held at Chutes Park in Los Angeles. Later, on December 26, when Johnson was with the Santa Ana Yellow Sox, his team held “Johnson Day” and handed out photographs of Johnson to 2,000 fans attending the game. A few years later, during the 1912 off season, Johnson began an annual tradition of hosting charity games in Coffeyville and Humboldt, Kansas. These events also became known as “Walter Johnson Day.”
In 1928, Johnson became the manager of the Newark Bears of the International League. On May 16, when the Bears were in Rochester to play the Red Wings, the city held Walter Johnson day “to repay his act of kindness there in the 1924 World Series,” after which he pitched in a charity game in Rochester, helping raise money for an elderly couple. A month later, Walter Johnson Day was held in Newark, New Jersey, on June 23, 1928, “to honor the great pitcher and to welcome him as new manager of the local International League club,” according to Robert Peyton Wiggins of the Society of American Baseball Research. The final Walter Johnson Day held during his career occurred in Washington on July 22, 1935. According to Thomas, thousands of fans and “old friends” showed their support for Johnson when he was “’under fire’” as the Cleveland Indians’ manager. (Johnson’s “voluntary” resignation from the Indians came a few weeks later.)
On August 2, 2007, 100 years after Walter Johnson’s Major League debut, the Washington Nationals held another “Walter Johnson Day” to honor Johnson’s contributions to the city and its first Major League Baseball team. I don’t recall them celebrating it since. They did, however, add him to their “Ring of Honor” when it was established in 2010. (Of course, Jayson Werth is there, too, soooo…)
Why don’t we have Walter Johnson Days any more, or days honoring current players, for that matter? Sure, there are bobblehead nights, but is that really the same thing? Of course, now that I know more about him, I think the Nats should do a Walter Johnson bobblehead!
So, this Friday, let’s celebrate Walter Johnson Day, or Thurman Munson Day, or whoever you want to celebrate! And next year, let’s make it official!