- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003

When Boston Red Sox manager Grady Little left weary ace Pedro Martinez on the mound to be shelled by the New York Yankees in Game7 of the American League Championship Series, he was repeating a disastrous move involving two Hall of Famers that probably cost the Washington Nationals a second straight World Series title 78 years earlier.

The stubborn or oblivious manager on Oct.15, 1925, at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field was Bucky Harris, and the pitcher taking his lumps was perhaps the greatest in history. Fireballing right-hander Walter Johnson eventually won 417 games over 21 seasons, mostly with mediocre Washington teams. Now as his 38th birthday approached, he was hurling instead for a Nats club that had won two American League pennants in a row.

Against the New York Giants in 1924, Johnson had captured first the nation’s pity and then its admiration. After waiting since 1907, baseball’s “Big Train” finally was in the Fall Classic. But he lost his first starts before coming on to pitch four scoreless innings in relief to win Game7 in 12 innings as the Nats collected what would be their only Series title over 60 seasons.

The following year, Washington went 96-55, finishing 8 games ahead of the runner-up Philadelphia Athletics with a smart, veteran team that was favored to beat the upstart Pirates. Sure enough, the Nats sprinted to a 3-1 World Series edge as Johnson won the first game 4-1 and the fourth 4-0, allowing a total of 11 hits in two route-going performances.

Even after Johnson reinjured a leg trying to stretch a single in the second victory, his pitching was remarkable. Most observers considered his legendary fastball notably slower than in his youth, but he finished the regular season with a 20-7 record, his 12th season of 20 or more victories, and a mind-blowing batting average of .433. Now he seemed to be throwing in the Series as he did when he won 33 games in 1912 and 36 in 1913 — faster than any other man ever had.

“The way Walter was smoking them in was too much for us,” said Stuffy McInnis, the Pirates’ backup first baseman. “Do you think any club could have beaten Walter Johnson on the two days he hurled against us? Not on your life.”

But with the Nats and all of Washington primed to celebrate, the Series turned abruptly. The Pirates didn’t seem to know that no team had won it after being down 3-1 in games. They captured the fifth game 6-3 at Griffith Stadium and the sixth 3-2 at Forbes Field to force a decisive contest in the Steel City.

In his daily newspaper column, Johnson suggested that “maybe our team was a little overconfident after winning three of the first four games.” The piece obviously was ghost-written, because Washington’s gentle giant was the last man you would expect to criticize teammates, even indirectly.

After the loss in Game 6, Harris — the Nats’ so-called Boy Wonder manager at 28 — sought out Johnson in the lobby of their Pittsburgh hotel and asked if he could pitch the finale on two days’ rest with the leg still bothering him.

“I’ll be ready,” Johnson said simply.

According to “Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train,” the excellent biography written in 1995 by the pitcher’s grandson, Henry W. Thomas, Harris then turned to a gaggle of newspapermen and said, “We’ll come back with the greatest pitcher baseball has ever known. We’re stringing along with Barney [an old Johnson nickname, referring to pioneer racing driver Barney Oldfield because of Walter’s speed].”

The Nats got what seemed like a break when Game7 was rained out on Oct.14, giving Johnson an extra day’s rest. But it wasn’t really a break, because the weather the following day was worse — in fact, the worst most baseball men could remember. A New York Times reporter described the scene this way: “Water, mud, fog, mist … these were mixed up. Players wallowing ankle deep in mud, pitchers slipping as they delivered the ball to the plate, athletes skidding and sloshing, falling full length, dropping soaked baseballs. … It was a great day for water polo.”

With no television contract to honor and minimal radio coverage, why didn’t commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis postpone the game? Gathering the teams beforehand, he explained, “A lot of people have gone to a lot of trouble to come to this game, and I am not going to disappoint them.” Then he added, incongruously, “I want you to give them a good game.”

After six innings with the Nats and Johnson leading 6-4, Landis changed his mind — and just as illogically. As water continued to drench him and the 42,856 paying customers, the Judge turned to Nats owner Clark Griffith and intoned, “You’re the world champions — I’m calling this game.”

Griff’s common sense overcame his desire to win another World Series. “No, you can’t do it,” he told Landis. “Once you start in the rain, you’ve got to finish it.”

So on they slogged, and now the Nats were deserted by the good luck that had smiled on them when they won the ‘24 Series with the help of a Giants catcher dropping a foul popup after tripping over his mask and a ball hitting a pebble and bouncing over the third baseman’s head as the winning run scored.

Johnson, tired and miserable in the unholy conditions, was getting hit hard now. The Pirates tied it with two runs in the sixth inning. The Nats went ahead again 7-6 in the top of the eighth, but Pittsburgh won the game and the Series with three in a ghastly bottom half for Washington.

With two out, Earl Smith and Carson Bigbee doubled to tie the score, but Harris made no move to summon relief pitcher Firpo Marberry, Washington’s equivalent of today’s closer. Johnson then issued his first walk, and shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh made his record eighth error of the Series on a throw, loading the bases.

Still no Marberry. With slugging Kiki Cuyler at the plate, Johnson fired a fastball that appeared to be strike three — but he didn’t get the call. Then Cuyler laced a drive to right field that rolled around in the corner as all three runners scored, followed by Cuyler himself on an errant relay. The umpires ruled the ball rolled under a tarpaulin for a ground-rule double, nullifying two of the runs, but it didn’t matter. The Pirates won 9-7, gaining their first Series championship since 1909 and their last until 1960.

After Johnson got the third out, he trudged off the field with his arm around the disconsolate Peckinpaugh, a longtime teammate and friend. Baseball’s premier pitcher allowed nine runs, 15 hits, nine extra-base hits, eight doubles and 25 total bases — all World Series records.

And you thought Pedro Martinez had it tough.

“I feel pretty bad about it all,” Bucky Harris said in the Nats’ clubhouse, and well he might. He went on to manage 29 seasons in the major leagues, including three tours with Washington, and lost 2,228 games — second on the all-time list. But that terrible day in Pittsburgh certainly brought the worst of them — and his worst judgment.

Johnson, of course, didn’t blame his manager. “I gave all I had, but it wasn’t enough,” he said. They beat us, and I guess that’s all there is to it.”

When the team’s train reached Union Station, this message for Harris was waiting from American League president Ban Johnson: “You lost the World Series for sentimental purposes.”

Bucky fired right back: “I have no apologies or alibis. I went down with my best.”

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