Baseball pitcher Walter Johnson had the sport’s first super-speed fastball

Walter Johnson - Baseball pitcher

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Walter Johnson, affectionately known as “The Big Train,” played his entire 21-year major league career with the Washington Senators, from 1907 to 1927.

Why is he so well-remembered? He had a fastball that topped out over 90mph, almost entirely unheard-of speed in his era.

Putting up a win-loss record of 417-279 along with a lifetime ERA of just 2.17 and 3,508 career strikeouts, it’s no surprise he was one of the first five players elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in its inaugural year, 1936.

Following his stellar playing career, Johnson was the manager for Washington from 1929-1932, and ran the show for the Cleveland Indians from 1933-1935. He even ran for a congressional seat in Maryland’s 6th district in 1940, though he came up short in that endeavor.

Walter Johnson passed away of a brain tumor on December 10, 1946, at the age of 59, but his legend lives on.

Walter Johnson - Swiftest pitcher's amazing record (1913)

Swiftest pitcher’s amazing record (1913)

Walter Johnson, wonderful hurler, who can snap the ball 122 feet a second — prevents the mightiest batsmen of the American League from making a run for 56 consecutive innings – throws a baseball faster than the best speed of the Twentieth Century Limited

“How do they know what Johnson’s got —
Whether he uses a curve or not —
Whether his break is set?
How can they tell how his outshoots fall?
Whether his incurve’s big or small?
How can they tell what he’s got on the ball?
Nobody’s seen it yet.”

So sang a minor poet of the major leagues.

The hero of this baseball epic was Walter Johnson, the marvelous pitcher of the Washington Club, who has just beaten all records by hurling the ball for fifty-six consecutive innings with such skill and cunning that not a batsman of an opposing club has been able to score a run.

Speed was the great factor in the achievement – dazzling, sizzling speed! The big Idahoan’s delivery is like the flight of a shell. The mightiest hitters of the American League are as helpless as town lot players when Johnson turns loose his fastest ball; “Ty” Cobb, “Home Run” Baker and Jackson alike are babes in his hands.

Johnson’s amazing swiftness in pitching is no mere fancy. It has been scientifically measured. In the testing room of the Remington Arms Company at Bridgeport, Conn., Johnson showed that his right arm could hurl the baseball at the rate of 122 feet a second!

It was acknowledged he could do even better, because in athletic parlance he was not warmed up. It is well known that a hurler gathers speed as a game progresses.

Baseball pitcher Walter Johnson

Baseball Pitcher Walter Johnson

Johnson flung the sphere through an aperture in a frame of wood about two feet square. Running from top to bottom were ten very delicate and filmy copper wires. These were broken by the ball, and by an electrical device the moment of passage was accurately timed.

Five yards away was a steel plate and the impact of the ball on this barrier again caused the electric clock to register. Thus the exact time of the ball’s flight was mathematically determined.

The velocity obtained by Johnson is all the more extraordinary when it is known that a bullet from the new government’s .45 automatic pistol travels 800 feet per second.

A high-power hunting rifle, .35 caliber, auto-loading, travels 2,000 feet per second.

The Twentieth Century Limited, the fastest long-distance train in the world, makes the 978.7 miles from New York to Chicago in just twenty hours, or an average speed of 48.9 miles every hour. This means a velocity of nearly seventy-two feet a second.

ALSO SEE: Joe DiMaggio’s baseball record: 56-game hit streak (1941)

Suppose Johnson’s speedball kept on traveling at 122 feet a second right on toward the Windy City at its own hurricane speed. It would eat up the 5,163,840 feet to Chicago in just 11 hours and 48 minutes. The ball would beat the train to Chicago by 8 hours and 12 minutes.

In other words, the catcher who received the ball could go to bed, have a full night’s rest, get up and into his uniform again, and be on hand in the morning to meet the Twentieth Century as she rolled into Chicago.

Putting it another way — the train leaves New York at 2:45 pm daily. Time is set back at Buffalo by just an hour, so that the onrushing train gains sixty minutes on her Westward journey. Eleven hours and forty-eight minutes after the start Johnson’s bender has reached Chicago, or at 1:33 am Chicago time, the roaring locomotive has just plunged through Cleveland with stopping, more than 350 miles away.

The striking energy of Johnson’s missile was shown to be 160 foot pounds. That means that it possessed approximately half the force in impact of a bullet fired from a .45 automatic pistol!

According to these figures, it takes less than half a second for a ball thrown by Johnson at his high speed to travel from his fingers to catcher’s glove!

That is why he bewilders even the quickest witted batsman. He isn’t able to guess whether it is a straight ball, an in or an out curve, a drop, or whether the sphere is going to jump up into the air in defiance of the law of gravity.

Baseball pitcher Walter Johnson

“Any time you get a hit off Johnson,” declared Napoleon Lajoie, himself one of the most formidable wielders of the bat that the game ever knew, “you must not think that you’re smart. Just figure that you’re lucky — lucky that you were able to make that blind swing at just the right spot.

“There never was, and I doubt it there ever will be, a pitcher as great as Johnson. If he turned loose his very hardest throw with his best curve on it no catcher could get down in time to receive the ball.

“Every ball he throws has stuff on it that can’t be solved. Some of the hops that his swiftest ones take are bigger curves than a man ever threw before. I’ve seen him slam balls up to the plate that didn’t look larger than a pinhead.”

Not surprising, is it, that Johnson is such a terror?

MORE: Why baseball has survived & thrived for more than 100 years

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