Walter Johnson was the greatest pitcher of his day – and one of the greatest of all time.
A Kansas native, Johnson – nicknamed the Big Train for his size and his overpowering fastball – became synonymous with the nation’s capital. Johnson spent his entire playing career with the Washington Nationals/Senators, managed the team after his playing career was done, and settled in the DC area, running for Congress in Maryland. In fact, a school in Montgomery County bears his name.
But for three years, he served as manager of the Indians.
After Johnson retired following the 1927 season, his name surfaced as a potential candidate to replace Jack McCallister as Indians manager. McCallister managed the Indians for one year after Tris Speaker’s resignation. Johnson was receptive to the idea, being quoted in the Milwaukee Journal as saying, “The rumor sounds good to me. I like Cleveland. I like the fans there, and I believe right now the Indians have the makings of a winning team.”
The Tribe hired Roger Peckinpaugh, a local boy. The Wooster native was discovered on Cleveland sandlots and broke in with the Naps in 1910. But Peckinpaugh’s fate was sealed in 1933 as the Indians tumbled from first place to fifth. Johnson, meanwhile, became manager of the Newark Bears in 1928, and a year later, took the reins of the Nationals (Indians general manager Billy Evans made an unsuccessful play for player-manager Bucky Harris). Johnson wasn’t retained as manager in Washington after the 1932 season, but when Peckinpaugh was fired in June 1933, Johnson was the surprise choice to succeed him.
The Indians of the 1930s were chronically labeled as underachievers, and Johnson did what he could with them. The 1933 team finished in fourth place – as Washington, led by new manager Joe Cronin, won the pennant. But the man who proved to be one of the most durable starting pitchers in major league history was blasted for his handling of the Indians rotation.
The 1935 Indians were picked by writers to win the pennant, but after losing 15 of 19 games and tumbling into the second division, Johnson’s fate was sealed. He resigned at the beginning of August. General manager Billy Evans would be finished by the end of the year as well.
Johnson’s tenure sowed the seeds of Indians players’ reputation as crybabies. The players and media ran off Steve O’Neill two years later, and finally, emotions came to a head in 1940 as Indians players clashed with Ossie Vitt, who wasn’t retained after the Indians lost the pennant in the final series of the season against the Detroit Tigers. Johnson, O’Neill and Vitt all had winning records as Indians managers.
Johnson retired to Maryland. He made an unsuccessful run for Congress and did some broadcasting for the Senators before dying of a brain tumor Dec. 10, 1946.