"Where are the balls,?" I asked.
A stony silence followed, my host clearly having trouble with the question. He stared at the open mahogany box, brow heavily furrowed, shaking his head in consternation. Finally, and reluctantly, he stammered, "Oh, I'll bet they've put them in storage. We're building a new wing, you know, and some of the exhibits are being rearranged. They're probably in storage," he repeated. I knew something was terribly wrong.
It was October 1977, and I was standing in the middle of the Presidential Room at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. , where a staff member was giving me a private tour. It was the first time I had been there, and they were treating me as though I were a Hall of Famer myself. I wasn't, despite having hit .348 one year at Woodrow Wilson High School in the District, but my grandfather did have a bronze plaque in the "Hall of Immortals" there. Walter Johnson, in fact, was a member of the first class elected to the Hall of Fame in 1936, along with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson. "The Big Train," they called him, for the power of his fastball.
Baseball Hall of Fame official Jeff Idelson holds four of the balls from the collection of Walter Johnson during an April 12, 2001, news conference at FBI headquarters in Albany, N.Y. The signatures are, clockwise from top left, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge and William Howard Taft.
(Jim McKnight - AP)
Of all the keepsakes from Walter Johnson's storied career (experts agree that he was among the greatest pitchers ever to toe the rubber), the most treasured of all was his collection of baseballs signed by U.S. presidents. Not any ordinary baseballs, these were the very balls thrown out by a succession of chief executives to start various Opening Day games during Johnson's 25 years with the Washington Senators as pitcher and manager. As pitcher for the home team, he was supposed to nab the toss from the commander in chief and use the ball to start the games. But even as a callow 22-year-old in 1910, the year President William Howard Taft inaugurated the tradition, my grandfather was smart enough to put the president's ball aside and grab another one for the game. The next day, a friend of his took the ceremonial ball to the White House, where Taft signed it with this inscription: "The White House, Washington, D.C. For Walter Johnson, with the hope that he may continue to be as formidable as in yesterday's game. Wm. H. Taft, April 15, 1910."
My grandfather had defeated the Philadelphia Athletics, who would become World Champions that season, 3-0 -- before the largest crowd ever to see a Senators game to that date. He gave up only one hit, when a player collided with a fan; otherwise, the crowd and the president would have been treated to a perfect game. Over time, as the leaders of the free world came and went from Washington, and he stayed, the great pitcher acquired autographed Opening Day baseballs from Presidents Wilson, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover.
At some point, a velvet-lined mahogany box, with compartments for each of the five balls, was built to house the collection, and after my grandfather's death in 1946, my uncle Ed Johnson kept them at his farm near Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland. In 1968, Uncle Ed donated the collection outright to the Baseball Hall of Fame, where it could be displayed and enjoyed by the masses.
My trip to Cooperstown hadn't been to see the balls specifically, but rather to start a research project that would culminate years later with the publication of Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train, my biography of my grandfather. But I certainly wasn't going to turn down a guided tour. As my guide led me into the Presidential Room, I looked around to see the walls ringed with large blown-up pictures of every president from Taft to Carter, in the motion of throwing an Opening Day ball out to the field. The exhibits included some artifacts and letters, most notably FDR's "Green Light" letter authorizing the continuation of baseball during World War II. And there, sitting in the middle of the room, the centerpiece exhibit, was a glass display case through which I could see the open mahogany box. As I approached the case, however, I was greeted by an amazing sight. The baseballs were gone.
I stared at the box, trying to make sense of it. Inside, there were some signed cards and pens from Taft. Beside the box, a magazine had been opened to reveal a picture of the presidential balls. I looked at my guide, but his face was blank. I can only imagine the expression on mine.
The staff member's apparent surprise at the discovery, and his speculation about the location of the balls, weren't making me feel any better about the situation. Finally, I reminded him that I would be working in the library for several days, and would appreciate it if he would let me know when they had found the balls. Oh yes, and I'd also like to see them.
I HAD COME TO A CURIOUSLY LATE APPRECIATION OF MY GRANDFATHER'S STORY. But he had died when I was just 8 months old, so I hadn't known him, and my grandmother, his wife, Hazel, had passed away some years before that. I was close to his children (in addition to my mother, Carolyn Johnson Thomas, there were her sister, Barbara, and my uncles Ed, Bob and Walter Jr.). But Walter and Hazel Johnson might as well have been 19th-century ancestors to me, little more than strangers in old black-and-white pictures on the wall.
It's not that I was unaware of Walter Johnson's stature as one of the all-time baseball legends and the hero of Washington's only World Series championship, in 1924. I was a big baseball fan in the 1950s, and on my frequent trips to Griffith Stadium to root for the Senators, permanent residents of the American League cellar in those days (I was a younger version of Joe Boyd in "Damn Yankees," forever hoping for some kind of a miracle), it was always a thrill to stop by the memorial they had erected in his honor. President Truman had come from the White House to dedicate that monument, after all, and that was my grandfather up there in life-size bronze. "A CHAMPION ON AND OFF THE FIELD," it said.
At an event to commemorate my grandfather in 1955, when I was 9, I met Clark Griffith, the legendary owner of the Senators who mortgaged his ranch in Montana to buy into the then-losing ball club in 1912. Today, it's amazing to think that I actually knew this man, this titan of baseball history and Washington icon, who was born four years after the end of the Civil War. This was just months before he passed away, and I vividly remember him leaning down, with his brilliant shock of silver hair, to gently talk to me and see if I needed anything. He took me by the hand, and we rode together, just the two of us, in a tiny elevator that went all of one floor up to his office. When I found out later just how close Griffith was to my grandfather, and what they had meant to each other, I understood. Griffith had been like a father to Walter Johnson, visiting him in the hospital every day for eight months until my grandfather finally succumbed to cancer, then picking up the full medical tab.
And on a sweltering August day in 1959, I found myself standing along the first-base line representing Walter Johnson on Old-Timers Day, surrounded by his graying comrades from countless battles on long-ago ballfields -- Sam Rice, Bucky Harris, Joe Judge, Ossie Bluege, his catcher Muddy Ruel, the ancient coach and clown Nick Altrock, and others. I remember feeling mortified as my buddies from Alice Deal Junior High School started jeering and yelling at me from the upper deck, which was practically on top of the field at the tiny old ballpark.
Basically, though, I took it all for granted, never pondering the memorabilia that filled our house or stooping to pull one of many scrapbooks off the bottom shelf of our living room bookcase. These 30 oversize volumes, containing thousands of articles, letters, telegrams, photos and other materials, collected and meticulously assembled by my grandmother, went largely undisturbed for decades.