Born in Humboldt, Kan., on Nov. 6, 1887, Johnson spent his days throwing baseballs around as most young country boys did at the time. But unlike most boys, Johnson developed into a tall, imposing figure, with unusually long and strong arms. By the time he was a teenager, he was already whipping his pitches past overmatched batters with blinding speed.
In the summer of 1907, Senators manager Joe Cantillon received a telegram about a 19-year-old who was blowing away the Idaho State League with his unbelievable fastball. Intrigued, Cantillon sent injured backup catcher Cliff Blankenship to Idaho to see if there was any truth to the news. Needless to say, the catcher-turned-scout was immediately impressed. He signed the right-hander up to pitch for the Senators, and even included a return ticket home at Johnson's behest, in case things didn't work out.
Of course, things worked out. American League batters were as awestruck as Cantillon when they first saw the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder. Though he possessed an easy delivery, the right-hander sidearmed the ball to the plate with startling velocity. Earlier pitchers, like Hall of Famers Amos Rusie and Cy Young, had been renowned for their fastballs. But neither came anywhere close to matching Johnson for sheer heat.
On Aug. 2, 1907, Johnson took the mound to face the Detroit Tigers in his first Major League game. In many ways, that contest was a microcosm of his first few seasons. Though the Tigers were led by future Hall of Famers like Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford and would go on to take the AL pennant, they were unable to touch Johnson over the first few innings. Gradually, though, they realized that the lumbering rookie pitcher had trouble fielding bunts, and they scratched out a few baserunners that way. The Senators were unable to get their own offense going, and Johnson was saddled with the 3-2 loss.
Over his first three seasons, Johnson's high-octane fastball always made for a good show, but rarely translated into wins. With the Senators usually finding themselves at the bottom of the standings, Johnson went just 32-48 despite turning out a terrific 1.94 ERA over that period.
On Opening Day of 1910, Johnson served notice that, one way or another, he was going to become a big-time winner. Shortly after William Howard Taft threw out the first pitch -- the first time a president had done so -- Johnson surrendered just one hit in a 3-0 shutout of the Philadelphia Athletics. It was the starting point for his first overpowering season, as the right-hander went on to win 25 games with a 1.36 ERA and a career-high 313 strikeouts.
Two seasons later, Johnson won 16 straight games -- an AL record -- en route to 33 for the season. By this point, he had come to be known as the "Big Train" for the way his fastball plowed down the pike at top speed. And not only was he probably the most feared pitcher in baseball, he also swung the bat well for a man who made his living with his arm. Thanks to his dominance, the Senators won a franchise-best 91 games and finished in second place in 1912.
The following year, the Big Train went on a season-long express run that ranks among the greatest in pitching history. He went 36-7, leading the league in wins, innings (346), strikeouts (243), shutouts (11) and ERA (1.14). Along the way, he hurled 56 consecutive scoreless innings, a record that would last until Don Drysdale stretched it to 58 2/3 frames in 1968. The ERA was also a record that would last until 1968, when Bob Gibson finished a shade lower at 1.12.
Though the Senators won 90 games to finish in second place again that season, they couldn't keep up the winning pace, sinking to seventh by 1916. Still, Johnson remained his usual dominant self, ranking among the league leaders in most major categories.
1920 marked the beginning of a new, offensive-minded era of baseball, and it also marked an end to the unfettered dominance enjoyed by Johnson. As far as personal milestones went, it was a season to remember for the Big Train. He won his 300th game on May 14, and threw his only complete-game no-hitter on July 1. But he also came down with the first sore arm of his career the day after his no-no, and finished just 8-10 with a 3.13 ERA for the season. It was the first time since 1909 that Johnson had fallen short of 20 wins, and the ERA -- though hardly reproachable -- was the highest mark of his entire career. At 32, the 14-year veteran was seemingly heading over the hill.
Johnson slogged along at a sub-standard pace for the next three seasons, going a combined 49-42 with a 3.32 ERA. But he bounced back to go 23-7 with a 2.72 ERA in 1924 and, for a change, had the personnel behind him on the field. With Hall of Fame outfielders Goose Goslin and Sam Rice leading the offense, the Senators won 92 games and beat out the Yankees for the AL pennant. For the first time in his long career, Johnson would get the chance to pitch in the World Series.
Game 1 brought to mind old memories of Johnson trying to go at it alone. After giving up two early runs, the Washington ace settled into an extra-inning pitching duel with the New York Giants' Art Nehf. But the Giants nicked Johnson for two runs in the 12th, and the Senators lost after getting only one back in the bottom of the inning.
Four days later, Johnson was back on the mound for Game 5, but was roughed up for six runs on 13 hits.
Fortunately, the Senators had managed to win without their ace on the mound, setting the stage for his Game 7 redemption. With the Series on the line, the Senators scored two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to tie the score at 3. Johnson then entered the game with just a full day's rest, and proceeded to shut the Giants down over the next four frames. In the bottom of the 12th, a couple of New York misplays and a bad-hop grounder enabled the Senators to chalk up the final run, giving Johnson and his teammates an emotional World Series-clinching win.
One year later, Johnson led the Senators back to the Fall Classic on the strength of his 20-7 record. This time, however, the outcome was reversed. After dominating the Pirates in his first two starts, Johnson was battered for 15 hits in a Game 7 loss. Though it wasn't entirely his fault -- the contest was played in a virtual rainstorm, making it impossible to control the ball -- it was nevertheless a crushing defeat for the aging Train.
Johnson got off to a fine start in 1926, though it was clear before long that the end was nigh. After winning his 400th game in May, Johnson dropped seven in a row and finished with a mediocre 15-16 record. The next season, he never fully recovered from a broken foot suffered in Spring Training, and was knocked around to the tune of a 5.08 ERA. Realizing he could no longer get the job done, Johnson wisely called it a career a few weeks short of his 40th birthday.
Though Johnson pitched mostly in a time when runs came at a premium, the numbers he left behind are simply staggering. His 417 wins are second only to Young, and he ranks among the top 10 all-time in strikeouts (3,509), innings (5,913 2/3), starts (666) and complete games (531). Several of his records took decades to break, like when Nolan Ryan became the new strikeout king in 1983. And one of his records -- 110 career shutouts -- is likely to gather dust in a permanent position at the top of the list.
As one of the five original players inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1936, Johnson certainly ranks among the greatest players ever to play the game. But when it comes to baseball in Washington D.C., there's no question that the crown rests solely on the engine of the Big Train.