By Glen Sparks
The Baseball Hall of Fame did not officially open in lovely Cooperstown, N.Y., until June 12, 1939.
Baseball writers, though, elected the Hall’s first members in 1936. Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner were chosen.
Members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America cast 226 votes, according to an article written by Matt Kelly on the HOF’s web site. Nominees needed 170 votes, or 75 percent of the total, for election. Writers sent in their votes by Jan. 25; Hall officials announced its first class Feb 2.
Cobb received the most votes with 98.2 percent, followed by Ruth and Wagner (95.1 percent each), Mathewson (90.7) and Johnson (87.6). The next five, eventual Hall of Famers but not members of that first class, were Nap Lajoie (64.6), Tris Speaker (58.8), Cy Young (49.1), Rogers Hornsby (46.4) and Mickey Cochrane (35.3). Everyone in the top 24 in the voting eventually made it into Cooperstown. Hal Chase, a solid hitter and smooth fielder at first base for the New York Highlanders and other teams, was the lowest finisher who is still on the outside looking in. (I’ll be writing a post on Chase later this week.)
This is a brief overview of that first class. You’re probably already familiar with these guys.
Cobb played 24 seasons (1905-28) and retired with a .366 batting average and 897 stolen bases. The center-fielder hit better than .400 three times and won 12 batting titles, including nine in a row. Cobb mostly toiled during the Deadball era and hit just 117 career home runs. He led the American League in 1909 with nine homers and topped the circuit in RBI four times. The left-handed batter, known as the Georgia Peach, played 22 seasons for the Detroit Tigers and two years for the Philadelphia A’s. Cobb batted .240 over 150 at-bats as a 19-year-old rookie in ’05. His next lowest season-ending batting average? .316.
Quote: “The great American game should be an unrelenting war of nerves.” (Source: baseball-almanac.com)
Born in rural Kansas, Johnson grew up on the plains. His family left for California shortly after young Walter turned 14 years old. Scouts spotted him during his high school days at Fullerton Union High School. Johnson, a.k.a. the Big Train, played his entire career (1907-27) with the Washington Senators. He retired with a lifetime won-loss record of 417-279 and a 2.17 ERA. The two-time A.L. MVP won the pitching Triple Crown (leader in wins, ERA and strikeouts) three times. All told, he led the league in strikeouts 12 times, wins six times and ERA five times. He retired with 3,508 strikeouts.
Quote: “I throw as hard as I can when I think I have to throw as hard as I can.” (Source: baseball-almanac.com
Baseball people called Mathewson “The Christian Gentleman.” He did not smoke, drink or even cuss at a time when practically every other player did. Mathewson employed a fastball, screwball and pinpoint control to take care of batters. He sported a career won-loss record of 373-188, pitching mostly for the New York Giants (1900-16). He topped the National League in wins and ERA five times each and hurled two no-hitters. In four World Series, the right-hander from Factoryville, Pa., went 5-5 but with a 0.97 ERA over 101.2 innings. He won all three of his starts in the 1905 Classic against the Philadelphia A’s. His lungs seriously damaged after exposure to chemical weapons during training in World War I, Mathewson died from the effects of tuberculosis in 1925 at the age of 45.
Quote: “A boy cannot begin playing ball too early. I might almost say that while he is still creeping on all fours, he should have a bouncing rubber ball.” (Source: christymathewson.com)
Like Matthewson, Wagner grew up in Pennsylvania. The son of German immigrants took the American game of baseball to heart. He broke in with the Louisville Colonels in 1897 and was sent to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1900. Wagner hit .329 lifetime and recorded 3,430 hits. He won eight batting crowns and five RBI titles. The shortstop could run, too. Wagner led the league in steals five times. Fans called him “The Flying Dutchman.” Wagner retired following the 1917 season. His 1909-11 T206 baseball card, rare for debatable reasons, fetches north of $2 million at some auctions.
Quote: “There ain’t much to being a ballplayer, if you’re a ballplayer.” (Source: honuswagner.com)
Where do you start? George Herman Ruth Jr., the troubled youth from Baltimore, the kid who ended up at the St. Mary’s Industrial School for boys, the teenager who learned the finer points of baseball from a Roman Catholic brother, the young man who signed with the Boston Red Sox to pitch, who turned into one of the game’s best hurlers, who was sold to the New York Yankees because the Red Sox owner liked Broadway more than baseball, who quit pitching because he wanted to play every day, who slammed 60 homers in 1927, more than any other team hit in the league, who crushed 714 career home runs, twice as many as anyone else when he retired … His story is incredible, unbelievable and 100 percent true in every way that really matters. The Bambino, the Big Bam, the Sultan of Swat, the Colossus of Clout. He remains an American legend.
Quote: “If I’d tried for them dinky singles I could’ve batted around six hundred.” (Source: baberuth.com)
By Glen Sparks
Ty Cobb, one of the fiercest players of all-time, confessed that the great Walter Johnson’s fastball “hissed with danger” and “made me flinch.” Johnson threw with such force that opponents called him the “Big Train.”
Born on this date in 1887 in rural Humbolt, Kansas, the side-arming right-hander won 417 games in his 21-year career, all of it with the Washington Senators. Below is a look at Johnson’s life, career and legacy in 10 bullet points.
- Walter Johnson left with his family in 1902 for the booming oil economy in southern California. He graduated from Fullerton Union High School in Orange County. The prep phenom once struck out 27 batters in a 15-inning game against Santa Ana High School.
- Johnson played semi-pro ball in California and in Weiser, Idaho. He went 14-2 with a 0.55 ERA in his second season in Idaho. A scout for the Washington Senators discovered and signed the so-called “Weiser Wonder” in 1907.
- It didn’t take long for Johnson to see some action with the big club. He finished just 5-9 as a 19-year-old rookie with the Senators in 1907 but had a sparkling 1.88 ERA (129 ERA+).
- In his first 10 seasons, Johnson had just one with an ERA above 2.00 (2.22 in 1909). In 1910, he went 25-17 with a 1.36 ERA (183 ERA+) and led the American League in starts (42), complete games (38), innings pitched (370) and strikeouts (313).
- Teammates, opponents and sportswriters always complimented Johnson for his gentlemanly approach to the game. The columnist Shirley Povich once wrote: “Walter Johnson, more than any other ballplayer, probably more than any other athlete, professional or amateur, became the symbol of gentlemanly conduct in the heat of battle.”
- The Big Train enjoyed his best season in 1913. He finished 36-7 with a 1.14 ERA (259 ERA+). He threw 11 shutouts and posted a 14.6 WAR. Not surprisingly, Washington’s ace won the MVP.
- Johnson won at least 20 games every season from 1910-19. He had seven seasons with WARs above 10.0. The Big Train ranks first all-time among pitchers with 152.3 WAR points.
- Arguably the greatest pitcher ever finished with a 417-279 won-loss record (.599 percentage) and a 2.17 ERA. He struck out 3,509 batters and threw a record 110 shutouts. He posted a career ERA+ of 147. Baseball-Reference.com features a stat called Black Ink Points. If a player leads the league in a category, he gets a Blank Ink point. Johnson has 150 points, more than any other pitcher. Bill James uses a formula he uses called the Hall of Fame monitor. Basically, it judges a player’s worthiness for selection to Cooperstown. Johnson has 364 points, tops among pitchers.
- Following the 1927 season, Johnson retired. He managed Newark of the International League for one season and then skippered the Senators from 1929-32. Johnson also managed the Cleveland Indians from 1933-35. Although criticized for his laid-back style, the great pitcher had a .550 winning percentage as a manager. He spent his last years on a farm in Montgomery, Md., and died of a brain tumor Dec. 10, 1946, at age 59.
- Walter Johnson High School opened in 1956 in Bethesda, Md. Newsweek named it one of “America’s Best High Schools” in 2013. Aspiring journalists write for the school newspaper, The Pitch; student-athletes compete for the Wildcats. (Really? Not the Big Trains? Missed opportunity.) ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian is a Walter Johnson H.S. alum.