Shirley Povich wrote about sports for The Washington Post for 75 years, until the day he died -- June 4, 1998. With the 20th century drawing to a close, a review of Povich's columns from the past seven decades provides a picture of the people and events that dominated the century of sports in America. With great pleasure, we'll present some of these columns, beginning today with Povich's column of Oct. 17, 1927, on the retirement of the great Washington Senators pitcher, Walter Johnson.
Walter Johnson has asked to be released. That name, Walter Johnson, is intriguing. That name epitomizes all that is good and true in a baseball player and in the same man in private life. It is inspiring. It breathes of goodness and pureness that has endured. Walter Johnson leaves baseball and he leaves behind him a record of achievement and conduct that has stamped him as one among thousands of colleagues who have blossomed and faded from baseball and among others who still play.
The passing of Walter Johnson is a plaintive, simple climax to such a baseball career as his. Twenty years of stardom, deserved idolatry, found another milestone in the late days of last week when Walter Johnson sought out President Griffith, of the Nationals, and asked that he be allowed to retire from the major leagues. It was an earnest request that he be allowed to leave so that, in his own words, he "would not be in the way next season."
Walter Johnson there demonstrated his greatness. There was no intimation on the part of Washington club owners that Johnson no longer was wanted. It was an accepted fact that Johnson could wear a Washington uniform as long as he desired. That no limits had been placed upon his service.
But Johnson demurred. He would no longer serve with a team that he could not serve with the same degree of efficiency that had earned him the title of baseball's greatest pitcher. It was best that he leave and his request was granted.
Off the field, in President Griffith's office, Walter Johnson was the same. Ever tolerant, solicitous of the welfare of others, he said he would not burden the Washington club with his own presence. He would appreciate his release. The request to President Griffith was small, indeed. He had asked little from his teammates during his 20 years of labor for them, and he asked little from the man who owned the team and for whom he had pitched so industriously.
President Griffith granted the request of Johnson with the same magnanimity that had actuated the famous pitcher in his asking. The release of Johnson entailed a large personal loss for the Washington club. His baseball value still was marketable, and the gain that he represented in gate receipts was no small item during a season's play. He was well worth the salary he commanded.
It has not been the fortune of any other ball player to be held in the same regard by the people of a nation as Walter Johnson. Walter Johnson's popularity was not of his own seeking. It was not spontaneous. It was a slow, gradual, fomentation of popular favor, in which a nation found itself gripped as the seasons passed, and which generated from the natural love that a people will learn for a man who personified an ideal.
Twenty seasons of baseball have witnessed the rise to popularity and subsequent decline of scores of ball players. The breath of scandal has tarred more than one of these idols. Others have fallen into disfavor by untoward personal actions. Few have been able to retain and solidify the regard in which they have been held.
Walter Johnson, among all others, remains a universal idol. In the phraseology of one of our billboard advertisements, "Such popularity must be deserved."
Walter Johnson has done much to deserve the praise and favors heaped upon him. His service, so faithful, has endeared him to the fans and public alike as an exemplification of a man who serves to the beat of an unflagging ability. Punctuating these 20 years of service are individual feats and achievements, mechanical records, which attest to the manner in which he has worked.
Walter Johnson's career on the baseball field has been hand in hand with a private life that is a true index of his personality. A home-loving, sober gentleman, father of four children, valuable citizen of the community. Walter Johnson has come to be loved both as a man and a ball player.
The record of Walter Johnson is as spotless as the new-fallen snow. Not a challenge is there to any honor that is claimed for him. On and off the baseball field his conduct has been above reproach. His has been a truly great career, exemplifying every successful attribute of a gentleman and ball player.
There can be no greater gauge of any man's esteem than the light in which he is held by his colleagues. Baseball players oft times are unappreciative. Often they are given over to petty jealousies and wrangles. They do not hasten to praise each other. They hold Walter Johnson in high respect.