- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2003

The meager Fenway Park crowd of 3,000 was about to erupt with two out in the bottom of the ninth as Harry Hooper stepped into the batter’s box. “Tell Walter he’s got to pitch to me,” the veteran Boston Red Sox outfielder muttered to catcher Val Picinich. “I’m going to bust one out of the park if I can.”

On the mound, the tall right-hander looked in for Picinich’s sign and whipped his famous fastball with an easy sidearm motion. Hooper smashed a hard grounder down the first-base line that bounced over the bag and hooked foul by as much as 15 feet, according to one estimate. It appeared to be a sure hit, and the spectators groaned in unison.

But no! Joe Judge, the Washington Nationals’ slick first baseman, somehow leaped high to glove the ball and fired to the pitcher covering to nip Hooper by a step.

It was July1, 1920, and Walter Johnson — arguably the greatest pitcher in baseball history — had the only no-hitter of a 21-year career that would yield 417 victories, 110 shutouts and a lifetime 2.21 ERA for mostly mediocre Washington teams.

Ironically, the 1-0 triumph came in the midst of one of Johnson’s worst campaigns. Bothered all year by colds and a sore arm at 32, he would finish his 14th season with an 8-10 record after averaging 26.5 victories over the past decade.

Johnson was a sweet-tempered man beloved even by opponents. After Judge ran to Johnson and pumped his hand, Hooper was the next to offer congratulations, saying, “I’m glad to lose that hit for your no-hit game.”

In the steamy clubhouse, the rest of the Nationals (they weren’t the Senators then) pounded Johnson’s broad back, and someone yelled, “Speech!” Johnson’s response was typically modest: “Goodness gracious sakes alive, wasn’t I lucky?”

Soon the telegrams began pouring in, including one from Johnson’s wife, Hazel: “Eddie doing fine today. Hooray for your no-hit game.”

The reference was to one of their young sons, both sick. Johnson had stayed in Washington until the day before the game to help look after the boys, then took a night train to Boston. Now the children were better; in fact, the no-hitter was a birthday present of sorts for Walter Jr., who was 5 that day.

Johnson had another motive, too. As Burt Whitman wrote floridly in the next day’s Washington Post, “There may have been lurking in the back of the great Walter’s head the idea that it was about time to show Boston that he was not a ‘has been.’ In other cities, too, it has been rumored and whispered that the cyclone had blown its worst and was dwindling to spring zephyr classification. … But he was back in the seat of the mighty yesterday.”

In the Evening Star, beat writer Jack Nye was similarly lyrical, as well as apparently being able to see into the future. The lead on his game story said Johnson “mounted to the highest pinnacle in the baseball hall of fame today.” This was pretty prescient considering that the Cooperstown shrine didn’t open until 19 years later with Johnson, of course, as one of the charter inductees.

Clark Griffith, himself a star pitcher as baseball’s Old Fox in the 1890s, was in his ninth season as the Nationals’ manager and his first as principal owner. In discussing Johnson’s gem, Griff uncharacteristically tried a little humor: “Walter always took [pitching] as a joke until today. But he went out today and tried.”

The day after the game, Griffith was more serious. “His fastball was just like the old times and so good that the Red Sox knew it was coming, laid for it, yet could not touch it. There was too much talk about Johnson being all through. I imagine this got under Walter’s skin. … I never saw him so eager to come through.”

In his previous start, Johnson also had flashed his old form with a three-hit shutout of the Philadelphia Athletics that required only 72 pitches. Yet Johnson was still trying to shake off a chronic cold. On the day of the no-hitter, he didn’t feel well enough at first to play but then told Griffith he would pitch the first inning and see how it went.

To his surprise, Johnson found his curve breaking sharply, his changeup keeping the Red Sox off balance and his famous fastball humming along with the speed that a few years earlier had caused a batter to head back to the dugout after watching a pitch zing by at presumably well more than 100 mph.

“Hey, come back,” the umpire said. “You have another strike coming.”

“You can have it,” the player said. “It won’t do me any good.”

Now Johnson was older but just effective, at least this day. Through six innings, he was locked in a scoreless duel with Boston’s Harry Harper, a former Washington pitcher and Johnson’s good friend. The Nationals finally broke through in the top of the seventh on a run-scoring single by Bucky Harris, the second-year second baseman.

Meanwhile, Johnson had retired 18 straight batters, and visions of a perfect game were dancing before the eyes of onlookers. But with one out in the bottom half, Hooper hit a hard grounder to Harris, who booted the ball. Undeterred, Johnson retired the side and continued to hold the Red Sox at bay until Hooper came up again in the ninth as the final batter.

“It was almost impossible for the Boston batters to see his fastball,” Harris wrote several years later. “His control was well-nigh perfect [10 strikeouts, no walks]. His curveball was breaking beautifully.”

One of the fans in the center field bleachers rooting for Johnson and against the hometown Red Sox was a 7-year-old named Thomas “Tip” O’Neill. Sixty-seven years later in his autobiography, the former Speaker of the House wrote, “At one point, I watched in amazement as Johnson retired 6 Boston batters on 6 consecutive pitches. … Through my career in politics, I was known as a guy who knew how to count. Who knows? Maybe it all began with counting Walter Johnson’s pitches at Fenway Park.”

The aftermath of the no-hitter, as related by Johnson’s grandson, Henry W. Thomas, in his 1995 biography, “Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train,” was nearly as astounding. The pitcher’s next scheduled start was in Washington against New York on July5, and Griffith — anticipating a large crowd — advertised the doubleheader heavily. But Johnson was unable to pitch against the Yankees and Babe Ruth. His tender arm had bothered him since Boston, and he had pulled a leg muscle while practicing before the game. Desperate for a sacrificial lamb, Griffith asked for a volunteer in the clubhouse and found one in 27-year-old Al Schacht, who would win only 14 games in three major league seasons.

As Schacht told the story in his autobiography, Griffith handed him the ball, gripped his shoulder and said, “If you win this game today, Al, as long as I have anything to say about this ballclub, you’ll have a job with me. … I don’t care if you don’t win another game this season, you’ve got to win this one.”

And Schacht did win it 9-3, striking out Ruth at one point with the bases loaded before a record Washington crowd of 18,821. Four years later, Griffith fired one-time pitching great Jack Chesbro as a coach and brought Schacht back to the Nationals in time to enjoy their pennant-winning seasons of 1924 and ‘25. For years afterward, Schacht and Nick Altrock formed baseball’s greatest comedy team while working for Griffith.

Johnson’s arm continued to bother him for the rest of the season. Although he won a total of 49 games over the next three years, rumors continued that he was on the downside of his career. But in 1924, as the Nationals won their first pennant and only World Series, he went 23-7 in the regular season and was voted the American League’s Most Valuable Player. And after losing his two starts in the Series, he pitched four scoreless innings of relief as Washington broke through to defeat the New York Giants in the 12th inning of Game7 on Earl McNeely’s famous “pebble hit.”

The following year, the reverse was true. Johnson beat Pittsburgh twice but lost Game7 to the Pirates on a horribly gloomy and rainy day at Forbes Field. When American League president Ban Johnson criticized manager Harris for leaving Johnson in too long, Bucky replied, “We went down with our best.”

And Walter Johnson was never better than on July1, 1920, at Fenway Park.

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