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ON HISTORICAL GROUNDS

Bucky and the Big Train
By Bruce Markusen and Ron Visco

 

The Senators infield in 1924. Left to right: Ossie Bluege, Roger Peckinpaugh, Bucky Harris, and Joe Judge.
Original credit: Acme Newspictures

By the time 1924 arrived, our nation's capital had fielded many Major League Baseball teams, but Washington re-mained the only city in either major league not to have experienced a championship. A National League team beginning in 1886 and a member of the American Association for one year, Washington spent most of the nineteenth century in the cellar or close to it. With the inception of the American League in 1901, Washington was granted a new franchise, but matters hardly improved. The team, nicknamed the Nationals (and later the Senators), could not finish higher than sixth in the eight-team league in its first six years.

In 1907, a nineteen-year-old pitcher, Walter Perry Johnson, made his debut for Washington. He was a modest, friendly, unassuming youngster, born on a farm near Humboldt, Kansas. His first pitching assignment was a start against the Detroit Tigers on August 2. The Nationals were on their way to another last-place finish, while the heavy-hitting Tigers were on their way to the first of three consecutive pennants. The inimitable Ty Cobb was the primary instrument of Johnson's 3–2 defeat that day, largely due to daring base running and three outfield assists. However, Cobb immediately recognized the

ability of the young pitcher who would later be nicknamed "The Big Train": "The first time I faced him, I watched him take that easy windup—and then something went past me that made me flinch. I hardly saw the pitch, but I heard it. . . . Every one of us knew we'd met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ballpark."

Despite the Big Train's gradual maturation, Washington continued its dismal record, finishing last or next-to-last each of Johnson's first five years with the club. In 1912 Clark Griffith was named manager, and the Nationals immediately improved under his leadership. They rose to second place for the next two years, but struggled throughout the rest of the decade primarily because stingy management did not provide "Griff" with enough quality players.

In 1919, Griff took the train to Buffalo, New York, to watch a young second baseman, Stanley "Bucky" Harris, play in a doubleheader. In eight plate appearances, Harris had six hits, a walk, and was hit by the pitcher. After the game, Griffith noticed Harris removing tape from his fingers and realized that the scrappy infielder had been playing with a broken finger. Bucky was soon playing in a Washington uniform and picked up the nickname "The Boy Wonder." Many years later, Griff would call Harris "the smartest player I ever had."

By the early 1920s, Walter Johnson knew he was on the downside of his career. After fighting illness, he came down with a sore arm. Worse for Johnson, in July 1921, his father died of a stroke. Yet the greatest tragedy came in December: He and his wife lost their little girl to influenza. As a result, Johnson considered retirement.

Meanwhile, Griffith had finally found a financial backer. After the 1920 season, he withdrew from managing and took control of the Washington team. He tried different managers each of the next three years. Under manager Donie Bush in 1923, Washington finished in fourth place with a 75–78 record. Walter Johnson had gone 17–12, an improvement over the previous three seasons but still a far cry from his days of glory. The outlook for 1924 was not rosy: Washington had little power, finishing last in the American League with twenty-six home runs. As a result, the Washington Post picked their hometown team to finish seventh in 1924. The preseason prognostication failed to take several key factors into account:

• Griffith, seeking a new manager for 1924, looked close to home. He offered the job to his own second baseman, Bucky Harris, who was still the second-youngest starter on the team. Harris jumped at the chance, working closely with his players, as well as Griffith, throughout the season.

• In 1923, Washington had picked up a young, hard-throwing right-hander named Firpo Marberry, who pitched in a handful of games. However, it was Bucky Harris who gave him an historic role in 1924, making him what writer Henry Thomas called a "relief-pitching pioneer." As sportswriter Shirley Povich put it, "The relief pitcher was invented by Harris."

• By 1924, Walter Johnson had recovered somewhat from the grief of losing his father and daughter, and his problems with a sore arm had ended. Although he was now the oldest pitcher in baseball, Harris used him well.

Washington started the 1924 season true to form, dropping to seventh place. However, under the brilliant leadership of Bucky Harris, they fought back. By mid-August they had pulled into second place, ahead of the Tigers. Washington went on a nine-game winning streak to pull even with the Yankees on August 25. Then the team traveled to New York for a four-game series. In the first game, Washington rallied from a 6–3 deficit with eight runs in the eighth inning. Incredibly, the fans at Yankee Stadium began cheering for Washington, a remarkable occurrence that would repeat itself in ballparks around the country over the last month of the season. Fans everywhere began openly pulling for the Big Train to appear in his first World Series. When Johnson defeated the Yanks later in that series, the fans went wild. Washington took three of four games and pulled into first place.

On September 5, President Calvin Coolidge invited the Nationals to the White house to congratulate them on being in the pennant race. Washington then embarked on a three-week road trip to end the season. Washington played magnificently, but could not shake the Yankees. After a loss to Boston on September 26, Washing-ton's lead was one game. In the next game, the Fenway Park fans cheered openly for Washington, even booing their own pitcher. The Nationals surrendered four runs in the first, but Harris brought in Marberry to stem the tide, and Washington rallied to win 7–5. Meanwhile, the Yanks lost. The next day, Washington clinched its first pennant with a 4–2 victory.

In the heat of the team's first battle for a pennant, Johnson won thirteen games in a row. By season's end, the Big Train led the American League in wins, strikeouts, and earned run average. Bucky Harris had managed brilliantly, while performing in the clutch on the field.

The nation's capital went wild with celebration. On October 1, the city held a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, where the president presented Harris with a key to the city. A splendid banquet was held for the team that evening. "This is the happiest moment of my baseball career," said Clark Griffith. "When I came [here] in the old days . . . I was called a fool. But I have always had Walter Johnson to lean on."

In his wonderful book Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train, Henry Thomas noted the anticipation and preparation made for the World Series. "Western Union alone had run 75,000 miles of cable to 125 scoreboards in cities around the country, while the wire services were hooked to another two hundred or so." Sportscaster Red Barber recalled, "In front of our newspaper office, a man with a megaphone got up on a table and shouted the pitches and the hits and the errors and the runs as the dots and dashes came in from the ball park. People walked downtown and stood there all afternoon to get the news." Fans in eight cities, including Washington and New York, would hear play-by-play radio broadcast over commercial radio, then in its infancy.

The World Series would be played on seven consecutive days, starting on October 4. Washington's opponent was a New York Giants' team that had won two world titles in the last three years; this was their fourth consecutive pennant. The Giants averaged .300 for the season and outscored every other team in the major leagues. The roster included seven future Hall of Famers: Ross Youngs, Frankie Frisch, Travis Jackson, Hack Wilson, Bill Terry, Freddie Lindstrom, and George Kelly. The Senators had a starting outfield of "Goose" Goslin, Sam Rice, and Earl McNeely. The infield was Joe Judge at first, Bucky Harris at second, shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh, and third baseman Ossie Bluege, with Muddy Ruel behind the plate.

Prior to the opening game, Walter Johnson was approached by so many people who offered good wishes that it interfered with warming up. In addition, the fans presented him with the most expensive automobile then made in the United States: an $8,000 Lincoln touring car. In the presidential box were the President and Mrs. Coolidge, the secretaries of war and state, and the Speaker of the House. Spalding's Base Ball Guide added, "High officers of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps and diplomats from many foreign countries were there." Moreover, after all these years, Johnson's mother, Minnie, was attending her first major league ballgame.

These attentions put tremendous pressure on Johnson. As opposing pitcher Art Nehf said, "I felt sorry for him when we shook hands because his hand trembled so. I knew what he was thinking. He was thinking he mustn't let down the fans all over the country who were rooting, even praying for him."

The first inning passed quietly. George Kelly, the major leagues' RBI leader, led off the second for the Giants and drove the ball to deep left-center, "the ball striking on the field and bounding over the fence," wrote Spalding's Guide, a home run at the time, and the Giants led, 1–0. In the fourth, Bill Terry added a homer to increase the Giants lead to two runs.

The Senators scratched out a run in the fifth, and the score stayed 2–1 until the bottom of the ninth, when Peckinpaugh doubled in a run. The pitchers fought into the twelfth, when the Giants scored twice with the aid of some fielding difficulties by McNeely in center field. In the bottom of the twelfth, Harris drove in a run and reached third base with two out. On a disputed play at first, Goslin was called out by umpire Bill Klem, and the game was over.

Johnson, who had lost his first appearance in a World Series by a 4–3 score, was dejected. The next morning, Johnson visited Walter Reed Hospital to boost the spirits of disabled soldiers. They spent more time consoling him. As he left, a soldier with no hands told the Big Train to "cheer up."

The next day's game was another nail-biter, with Tom Zachary pitching well for the Senators. It went to the bottom of the ninth tied 3–3, when Peckinpaugh drove in the winning run for the Senators. The teams headed to New York with the Series tied. The Giants took the third game 6–4, but the Senators came back to snare the fourth game by a seven to four margin.

Johnson took the mound again for the crucial fifth game. The game stayed close until the bottom of the eighth, when New York hit Johnson hard, handing the Big Train a six to two defeat. After this second loss, Johnson was inconsolable. He told catcher Muddy Ruel, "I would have cut off my right arm to win that ball game today. But I failed. And I've failed twice." Although Ruel did not imagine there could be another chance, he told Walter, "Never mind, old man, you'll beat Žem yet."

Back in Washington for the sixth game, Roger Peckinpaugh made a brilliant diving stop behind second base in the ninth inning, flipping to Bucky Harris for a game-saving forceout. Peckinpaugh injured his leg on the play; he was carried off the field and missed the rest of the Series. Bucky Harris knocked in two runs, and that was all Tom Zachary needed; the Senators took the victory, 2–1, and the teams headed to a seventh game the next day.

October 10, 1924 was a beautiful day for a baseball game. The pitching for both teams was sharp, and the game was scoreless after three innings. In the fourth, Bucky Harris homered, his second of the Series (he hit only nine in his entire career) for a one to zero Washington lead. In the sixth, however, the Senators' defense came unglued and allowed the Giants to score three times. The game remained 3–1 heading to the bottom of the eighth.

With one out, pinch hitter Nemo Leibold doubled and Muddy Ruel singled, putting men on the corners for the Senators. At this point, Walter Johnson emerged from the dugout and headed for the bullpen, generating even greater tension among the capacity crowd. Following a base on balls, McNeely flied out. The bases were loaded for Harris with two outs. As he had done so often before, Harris came through, singling over Lind-strom's head at third and driving in two runners. The game headed to the ninth tied 3–3.

When Walter Johnson walked to the mound to take over the pitching chores in the ninth, the fans erupted with excitement, though some feared a possible tragic outcome. Retired pitching legend Christy Mathewson said, "Poor old Walter, it's a shame to send him in." Manager Harris came over to the Big Train on the mound and told him, "You're the best we've got, Walter. We've got to win or lose with you."

Johnson retired only one batter before catastrophe hit: The fleet-footed Frankie Frisch smashed a ball deep to right center. Only sharp play by McNeely held Frisch to a triple. With the lead run on third, Harris chose to have Johnson walk Ross Youngs and pitch to George Kelly, who had homered off Johnson in the first game and hit safely in each contest. Everyone knew he was a fastball hitter, but the Big Train reached back and challenged Kelly with three straight fastballs. Kelly swung at each one and missed them all. Irish Meusel then hit a hard grounder toward third base where Ralph Miller was filling in because Ossie Bluege had moved to shortstop in place of the injured Peckinpaugh. After fielding the ball, Miller threw wildly to first, but Joe Judge saved the game with a great stretch. In the bottom of the ninth the Senators put two men on base, including one on third, but Miller grounded into a double play to send the game into extra innings.

In the bottom of the tenth, Johnson sent a long fly deep to left-center, but Hack Wilson caught up to it just short of the fence. In the eleventh, the Giants threatened again. Veteran Heinie Groh led off with a pinch-hit single. He was replaced by a pinch-runner and Lindstrom sacrificed him to second. With one out and a runner in scoring position, Johnson again faced the heart of the New York lineup. The Big Train got two strikes on Frisch, then fooled him on a curve, and he went down swinging. Ross Youngs walked again, bringing George Kelly to the plate once more. This time, when Johnson got two strikes on the first baseman, he threw him a curve; Kelly swung and missed to end the threat. In the bottom of the eleventh, Washington put two on with two out, but Bluege grounded out. The game went to the twelfth. Once gain, New York's leadoff hitter reached base, with Meusel banging out a single. But Johnson fanned Wilson and retired the next two batters to end the top of the inning.

The bottom of the twelfth started poorly for the Senators, as Miller grounded out. Next up, Muddy Ruel lifted a routine pop foul behind the plate. Giants' catcher Hank Gowdy started back for it, flipping away his mask. Just then, a breeze began blowing the ball back toward the plate. As he stepped back to catch the ball, Gowdy stepped right into his mask, which stuck on his foot. He stumbled and missed the foul ball. Given a reprieve, Ruel drilled a ball into the corner for a double. Johnson now came to the plate and hit a grounder to the right of Travis Jackson. The Giants' shortstop bobbled it and Johnson was safe at first while Ruel held second.

Earl McNeely then hit a solid grounder toward Lindstrom at third, a tailor-made double-play ball. For the second time in the inning, fate took a hand. "Whatever McNeely's ground ball hit, a pebble or a divot or a minefield, it took a freak high hop over Lindstrom's head into the outfield," wrote Shirley Povich. Left fielder Irish Meusel, anticipating that Lindstrom would field the grounder, got a late start getting to the ball. Incredibly, when he did reach it, he made no throw but put it in his glove and ran off the field as Ruel, the slowest man on the Senators, rounded third and steamed toward home. With Johnson standing on second base, Ruel scored the winning run. Washington and Walter Johnson had taken the victory 4–3 in twelve innings, and with it the world's championship.

Famed sportswriter Grantland Rice summarized the unlikely victory: "Those last four innings of the world series comprise beyond all question

The 1924 World Champion Senators. Manager Bucky Harris is seated in the center of the first row; Walter Johnson is next to him on the right. Earl McNeely, the man who stroked the famous "pebble" grounder, is seated on the far left. Courtesy of Tom Goldstein

the most dramatic stretch that sport has ever known. . . . In the space of two hours, Walter Johnson had come from a lone, dejected and broken figure in the shadows of the clubhouse to a personal triumph that no other athlete had ever drawn in all the history of sport."

A sea of humanity engulfed the field. Hardened newspapermen cried. Johnson, with a smile broken out on his face and with tears welling up in his eyes, walked through the throng toward the dugout, hindered by a constant stream of hugs and handshakes. President and Mrs. Coolidge stopped to congratulate him. Even Giants' manager John McGraw, who hated losing, came to the Washington locker room to congratulate the Big Train.

Outside the ballpark, the nation's capital erupted in noisy celebration. The Associated Press reported: "The firing of small cannon, the crack of pistols, the bang of firecrackers, the honk of automobiles and the overworked lungs of half-crazed baseball fans were blended into a deafening roar." As sportswriter Fred Lieb recalled, "In a city that still was strongly segregated, there was no sign or feeling of race."

While many of his teammates joined in the merriment, Johnson quietly ate dinner with his wife. Soon afterward, Johnson, turning down lucrative offers, boarded a train with some teammates for Rochester, New York. There, the next day, the Big Train would pitch the opening innings of a benefit game to raise money for an elderly couple. It was a classy way to celebrate for a true world champion.

—EFQ

RON VISCO is a teacher in the education program at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and has a Ph.D. in research and statistics. BRUCE MARKUSEN is the author of Roberto Clemente: The Great One and Baseball's Last Dynasty: Charlie Finley's Oakland A's, the winner of the Seymour Medal presented by the Society for American Baseball Research in recognition of the best baseball book of 1998.

© 2000 Bruce Markusen and Ron Visco

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