September 17, 2019

Walter Johnson in Weiser, Idaho in 1907

March 13, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

A few weeks ago I came across a book from the mid-’90s called Boise Baseball: the First 125 Years, by Arthur A. Hart. In one of the early chapters, Hart talks about Walter Johnson’s time spent playing in the semi-pro Idaho State League in 1907. Johnson was on the Weiser Kids: he was 19 years old.

As you might expect, he was too much for the Idaho ballplayers. The Big Train threw either 77 or 85 straight scoreless innings (sources differ) over May and June and struck out an average of 16 hitters per game. He signed with the Washington Senators at the end of June, 1907, but wasn’t done in Idaho yet. Johnson followed the signing by throwing his last two games in the scoreless streak, 19 innings worth, in two straight days. The streak ended on an 11th inning error that got Johnson beat, 1-0, on June 30.

The season’s end in Idaho was highlighted by a 5000-person crowd in Boise on July 4th to see Johnson duel against a Boise pitcher named Campbell. Johnson tripled off Campbell and won 2-1. Then, on July 7, Johnson was a “picked” player for Payette, which signed him on to pitch a single game against Caldwell that had heavy betting on it. In his book, Hart explains that Payette “loaded up” for the game by signing several other Weiser stars as well. It worked: Payette beat Caldwell 4-2.

Weiser wound up winning the Idaho State League crown, but the Mountain Home team challenged it to a three-game postseason series. Weiser and Mountain Home put up $2500 each of winner take all stakes, and Johnson won the last two games of a Weiser sweep to win the $5000 for Weiser. Walter then went straight to the Senators. At the end of the 1907 season, with its greatest player gone, the Idaho State League reorganized by halving its eight teams to four and banning the borrowing of players and teams “loading up” for individual games.

One of the interesting things about this story is that baseball in Idaho was clearly intricately wrapped up in gambling. Johnson, whose reputation for being an upstanding player is so sizable, obviously didn’t see anything wrong with participating. Apparently people simply accepted the situation at the time, and it’s obviously likely that players were paid extra by teams hoping to load up.

When Johnson was pitching for the Weiser Kids, one local wrote this letter to Pongo Joe Cantillon, Washington Senators manager: “You better come out here and get this pitcher. He throws a ball so fast nobody can see it and he strikes out everybody. His control is so good that the catcher just holds up his glove and shuts his eyes, then picks the ball, which comes to him looking like a little white bullet, out of the pocket. He’s a big, 19-year-old fellow like I told you before, and if you don’t hurry up someone will sign him and he will be the best pitcher that ever lived. He throws faster than Addie Jones [Joss] or Amos Rusie ever did, and his control is better than Christy Mathewson’s. He knows where he’s throwing because if he didn’t there would be dead bodies strewn all over Idaho.”

You can read much more about the Big Train in Idaho here. And by the way, the next famous player I know of to call Idaho his professional baseball home, however briefly, was Rickey Henderson in 1976.

Arne Christensen runs Misc. Baseball, a blog assembling eclectic items about baseball’s history, and 1995 Mariners.

Comments

2 Responses to “Walter Johnson in Weiser, Idaho in 1907”
  1. Kenny says:

    What about Harmon Killebrew, Payette Idaho. Grew up in Payette Idaho, held homerun records playing for Minnesota Twins.

  2. @Kenny As Kenny mentioned, Harmon Killebrew was from Payette.

    Also, Vern Law was from Meridian. While Law’s career stats were slightly lower than Hall of fame caliber, he is famous for his years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, particularly 1960. He was the ace pitcher, all-star, and Cy Young winner for the 1960 Pirates. They beat the heavily favored Yankees in the World Series. The huge upset was capped by a game seven that many consider the best game ever played. Bill Mazeroski hit the only walk off home run to ever win the World Series. Law won two games in the 1960 Series and left game seven with a 4-1 lead (due to an ankle injury), which the bullpen blew setting up the later game heroics by the hitters.

    Vern Law’s son Vance, born in Boise, played 11 years in the major leagues as an outfielder. Vance was an All Star for Chicago Cubs in 1988, the year they had a then-record 6 players elected to the team.

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