Washington’s baseball team suddenly morphed into a big winner after years of futility. Across the capital region, fans came out of the woodwork and cheered as it repeatedly atoned for past sins by beating the ears off longtime tormentors.
The year was ‘12 — 1912, that is. As it would a century later, the national pastime unexpectedly became a subject of major interest as the nation’s capital endured another torrid summer.
From its inaugural season of 1901 through 1911, this seemingly accursed franchise finished sixth twice, seventh five times and eighth four times with an overall record of 610-1,008 (.377). Its unrelieved incompetence gave birth to a popular vaudeville slogan: “First in war, first in peace and last [or thereabouts] in the American League.” Ouch!
The key to the current Nationals’ sudden rise, of course, has been the exploits of a marvelous pitching staff headed by former No. 1 overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg. The same thing happened 100 years ago, but in this case most of the effective hurling was done by one man. His name was Walter Johnson.
Five years earlier, Johnson arrived in Washington from a semipro team in Weiser, Idaho, with a straw suitcase and the swiftest pitches ever seen. He gained national acclaim in 1908 by shutting out the New York Yankees three times in four days, but after four-plus seasons Johnson’s record was only 82-78 because of the woeful casts surrounding him.
Then came 1912 and two major developments. Proven winner Clark Griffith was hired as the Senators’ manager, and Johnson, at 24, became the game’s best pitcher. His feats that season all but defy description: A 33-12 record including 16 wins in a row and seven shutouts, 1.39 ERA, 34 complete games in 37 starts, 303 strikeouts in 369 innings.
Johnson’s sidearm fastball, virtually his only effective pitch, literally whistled. When he was scheduled to work, especially on overcast days, opposing batters discovered life-threatening hangnails. His speed during the game’s dead-ball era was legendary.
BATTER: “I didn’t even see that pitch.”
UMPIRE: “Neither did I, but it sounded like a strike.”
Johnson would spend 21 seasons pitching for Washington with a 417-279 record that made him a charter member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. The following year, 1913, he had an even better season (36-7), and he was the Game 7 winner in relief in 1924 as the Senators captured their only World Series. But 1912 was when his name began to emerge from the lips of baseball cranks (as fans were called then) around the country.
Oddly, Johnson lost his first start on the road but then shut out the world champion Philadelphia Athletics in the home opener although President William Howard Taft skipped the game because of the Titanic sinking several days earlier. It took the Senators a while to get rolling, but after a 17-21 start, they won 18 straight in June, 10 straight in July and nine of 10 in one August stretch.
Johnson also streaked along, winning his 16th in a row, a league record, on Aug. 23. Teammate Bob Groom (24-13) was the only other pitcher to win more than 13 games, and only center fielder Clyde Milan (.305, 88 stolen bases) and first baseman Chick Gandil — yes, that Chick Gandil (.306) — contributed consistently with the bat.
The Senators had no chance of catching the Red Sox, who finished 14 games ahead of Washington with a 105-47 record. Yet they finished one game ahead of Connie Mack’s perennially strong A’s for second place. Their 91-61 record represented a 28-game improvement over the 64-90 sad sacks of 1911.
Although the Senators finished second again in 1913 and remained a contender for several more seasons, they didn’t win a pennant until 1924. It remains to be seen whether the upstarts of 2012 can beat that timetable.