July 22, 1923, was the city of Cleveland’s 127th birthday. A reporter for the Plain Dealer rode the street car down Euclid Avenue and asked people how – or if – they were celebrating.
But the real milestone was at East 66th Street and Lexington Avenue, where Walter Johnson was pitching for the Senators in the finale of a five-game series. It had been a hard-luck series for Washington, manager Donie Bush said, with injuries taking such a toll on his infield that he was forced to play again (he would appear in 10 games that season, his final as a player).
Johnson, too, was on the downslope of his career. He had made his mark as a power pitcher, and held the career strikeout mark, obliterating the record of 2,297 set by Christy Mathewson, but as his velocity – estimated at more than 90 mph in 1917 – started to fade, he augmented it with a certain craftiness, which the Plain Dealer said was on full display that day at League Park.
“The great speed monarch never pitched a cannier game of ball,” wrote Henry Edward. “In fact, he seemed to be using some of the head work that characterized the pitching of Christy Mathewson during the latter’s waning days as a hurling master.”
The Indians got eight hits – including four doubles – but could only push across one run in the third inning, when Joe Sewell singled home Homer Summa. Ultimately the Indians stranded 11 runners, with Johnson giving up four walks in addition to the eight hits.
“It is easier to reach first base with Johnson pitching than it used to be,” Edward wrote, “But it never was more difficult to score on him than it was at Dunn Field yesterday.”
In the sixth inning, Rube Lutzke singled for the Indians, and Frank Brower doubled, putting the tying and go-ahead runs on base. But Johnson bore down and struck out Steve O’Neill – No. 2,999 – before fanning Indians pitcher Stan Coveleski for the milestone strikeout. Charlie Jamieson flied out to end the inning, stranding two more runners.
There was no mention of the 3,000th in the next day’s papers, but the day after that, the Plain Dealer noted the milestone. Billy Evans, a former Youngstown Vindicator sports editor who continued to moonlight as a sportswriter during his Hall of Fame umpiring career, interviewed Johnson shortly after the milestone (as the Indians general manager a decade later, Evans would hire Johnson as manager, with both departing in 1935). “Just so long as the ball continues lively, I don’t believe many pitchers are going to hang up a better than 3,000 strikeout mark for their major league careers. Naturally, I’m proud of my record and hope it stands.”
Evans said the record would stand for a long time, possibly forever. He was right on the first count. It took more than 50 years for the next pitcher to reach 3,000 strikeouts – Bob Gibson in 1974. But he couldn’t touch Johnson’s career mark of 3,508.
But in 1983, three pitchers broke the record – Nolan Ryan, then with the Astros; the even more traveled Gaylord Perry and Steve Carlton – in rapid succession. In fact, Carlton and Ryan traded places at the top of the list regularly. Ryan was asked about the milestone, and he said he was reading up on the Big Train.
“I found it interesting that Johnson pitched 21 years,” said Ryan. “I don’t believe I’ll make 21.”
Ryan pitched for another 10 years, ending a 27-year career in 1993 with 5,714 strikeouts – a record regarded as even more unassailable than Johnson’s mark.