Friday, July 01, 2005

 

July 1st, 1920

Washington Plays at Boston


I wrote, very briefly, about Kevin Brown's would-be perfect game earlier in the year. In that game Brown took the perfect-o into the eighth inning before hitting a Marvin Benard in the foot and having to settle for a no-hitter. Probably the most bizarre circumstances to ever lose a perfect game was another story I've done, that of Harvey Haddix. But Walter Johnson's July 1st, 1920 pitching performance is worthy of a story as well.

On his son's fifth birthday, Johnson took the hill against the Red Sox. Although just two years removed from a World Series title, the Sox (managed by Ed Barrow) were struggling, having sold Babe Ruth in the off-season previous and would finish more than twenty-five games out of first place. 1920 was not a good season for Johnson either; it was a mediocre season by his standards. Coming off two seasons of ERAs more than one hundred and ten percent better than league average while averaging more than three hundred innings, Johnson would pitch just one hundred forty-three innings with an ERA less than twenty percent above average as he suffered what a biographer described as "the only serious sore arm of his career."

On this day however, Johnson had some pretty good stuff, despite taking the mound feeling ill. For six and two-third innings, Johnson shut down the BoSox, allowing neither a hit nor walk. He was just seven outs from pitching only the third twentieth century perfect game in baseball history to that point--and it would still only be the seventeenth in history. However, Red Sox left-fielder Harry Hopper hit a routine chance to shortstop Bucky Harris who booted the ball, ending the perfect game. Johnson allowed no further base runners going to the ninth. Down only 1-0, the Red Sox sent up two left-handed pinch-hitters in an attempt to even the score, but "The Big Train" retired them both by strikeout. That brought up Hooper who told Senators' catcher Val Picinich "I'm going to bust one out of the park if I can." Instead, he hit a screamer down the first base line. It was fielded by first baseman Joe Judge deep into foul territory, one writer said as far as fifteen feet, who speared the ball and tossed to Johnson who beat Hooper by a step to preserve the no-hitter. Hooper reportedly told Johnson "I'm glad to lose that hit for your no-hit game," a moment of class from an opponent who had wanted to do all he could to see his team win but was willing to admire an individual accomplishment once the game ended.

Despite having lost his perfect game to an event that was no fault of his own, something not even Brown (who hit the batter) or Haddix (who would surrender a home run after the error) could claim, Johnson remained true to his personality of extreme modesty. When his he teammates demanded a speech, Johnson managed only "goodness gracious sakes alive, wasn't I lucky!" He received a congratulatory telegram from his wife, but both of them were more interested in Walter Jr's birthday. However, for baseball history, this day is most important for Johnson's start, maybe the nearest "would-be" nine inning non-perfect game in baseball history.





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