At Last, Bound for Glory
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
When he stepped off the train from Idaho, there is every indication Walter Johnson meant to record each of his accomplishments in the District, where he would transform from hayseed to historic figure. Scribbled in the notebook section of a scrapbook he cobbled together are the beginnings of the story: "Arrived D.C., July 26, 1907."
Yet there is no other entry. History, it seems, would be left to others. And when baseball left Washington, part of Johnson's legacy left, too. At Yankee Stadium, Babe Ruth's memory is kept alive in Monument Park. Ted Williams's No. 9 will never come down from the facade on the upper deck in right field at Fenway Park. Even places where major league baseball arrived within the last half-century -- Minnesota and San Diego and Seattle -- have public displays honoring past heroes.
Washington's history is murkier. One hundred years ago tomorrow, Walter Johnson -- one of the greatest pitchers ever to step to the mound -- threw the first of his 802 major league games, all in the uniform of the Washington Senators. But when the Senators departed the city -- not once, but twice -- in the 1960s and '70s, Johnson's legacy had no place to thrive.
"It was," said Carolyn Johnson Thomas, one of Johnson's six children, "a cultural loss."
"The Big Train," as he came to be known not so long after that first start against the Detroit Tigers, lived in the District, then Bethesda, then out in Germantown. Carolyn Thomas has lived in the same house in upper Northwest for 52 years, raising her own family there. And for years, perhaps the best history of her father the legend resided in the bottom cupboard of a built-in bookcase, behind a sign hanging from one of the knobs that says, "A spoiled-rotten West Highland Terrier lives here."
There sit perhaps 30 scrapbooks of Johnson's career, assembled by his wife, Hazel. Faded and curled newspaper clippings, some photos, accounts of so many of those 417 wins, those 531 complete games, those 110 shutouts.
For years, those family scrapbooks served as the District's best record of Johnson's accomplishments. Eventually, Thomas's son Henry -- "Tom" to his mother, "Hank" to his friends -- fished them out, began reading them over. He had a degree in accounting and ran nightclubs in Georgetown. He grew up a baseball fan and walked by the statue of his grandfather that once stood outside Griffith Stadium, long since demolished. But he had never connected with his own lineage. In the late 1970s, with no baseball in Washington, that changed.
"It started as a hobby," Hank Thomas said. "I would come over, and for several years, it was like a library. I'd take a couple of scrapbooks and bring them back."
The Baltimore Orioles, with their own heroes and own history, were the closest team to Washington then. With each passing year, fewer people who had seen Johnson pitch -- he lasted 21 years with the Senators, the hero of the city's only World Series champion, in 1924 -- remained in town, or on earth. Hank Thomas kept reading those scrapbooks and began taking notes on 3-by-5 index cards.
"There hadn't been any interest in him for years," Thomas said. "There wasn't a team. I think interest in baseball history had waned a little bit. This wasn't quite the big deal that it had been for my generation."
Johnson died of brain cancer the year Henry Thomas was born, 1946. The only interaction between the two that Carolyn Thomas can remember is when she went to the hospital to see her father. She was told he was in a coma. Yet when she arrived, he said, "How's that fine baby boy?"
And eventually, Walter Johnson became an obsession for his grandson. Those trips through the family library grew into the book, "Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train." Henry Thomas wrote it, in large part, because with baseball gone from Washington, no one else would.