Past Time: Walter “The Big Train” Johnson

On August 2, 1907, a great disturbance was felt by all Major League hitters.

Ty Cobb said this of Walter Johnson, the 19-year-old rookie who debuted that day:

“The first time I faced him, I watched him take that easy windup. And then something went past me that made me flinch. The thing just hissed with danger. We couldn’t touch him. … every one of us knew we’d met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ball park.”   -Ty Cobb 

Johnson would come to be called “The Big Train,” due to the forceful dominance of his fastball in the early 20th century.  He walked away from the the game 20 years later, his entire career spent with the Washington Senators.  All he did was set the all-time record for strikeouts at 3,509.

But his 3,509 K’s hardly begin to tell of the legend that is Walter Johnson. He hurled 531 complete games in his career, good for 5th on the all-time list. This is actually a mind boggling stat, when you think about it.  To put this in perspective, the active career leader in complete games is C.C. Sabathia… with 38.

Perhaps even more impressive than either the strikeouts or the complete games is that he remains to this day the all-time leader in Shutouts with 110. That’s 20 more than second place Pete Alexander, and 34 more than the immortal Cy Young.

Johnson would finish his career with a record of 417 – 279, and an astounding 2.17 ERA.  His wins are 2nd all-time behind Young. Between 1910 and 1919, a stretch of 10 seasons, he had an ERA over 2.00 only once.  And by all accounts, he was also one of the most gentlemanly people to ever play the game:

“He was not only a legendary pitcher, but the incarnation of the athletic virtues of decency, charm, and style.”  – Bill James

For anyone who seeks value in the new age of the Sabermetrics, well… here’s a stat for you.

Walter Johnson is third on the All-Time list in WAR with a career total of 165.6. The only two players ahead of him are Babe Ruth and Cy Young. His WAR is higher than Bonds, Mays, Ryan, Cobb, or Aaron.

His strikeout record of 3,509 would stand for almost 60 years, when — oddly — it was broken by three pitchers in the 1983 season (Nolan Ryan, Gaylord Perry, and Steve Carlton).

The Big Train remains one of the most enigmatic players to ever play baseball.  It’s easy to talk about Nolan Ryan or Hank Aaron or Ty Cobb.  It’s natural to think of Randy Johnson or Greg Maddux or Cy Young.  The Babe is always present in any conversation. Ted Williams, Willie Mays.

Don’t forget Walter Johnson, easily among the upper echelon of legendary ballplayers in the game’s great history.


  1. Very interesting read. I am amazed that his record was broken in 1983, more amazing by whom. Every time I read your piece I learn something, a part of “history” as you say. Heck I was in the elevator with Nolan Ryan and didn’t even know that he is legend…


    • Thanks Norma! That’s why I love baseball. Such a rich history and a bottomless well of nostalgia. It’s a game of stats and I’m kind of a nerd, if you have yet to notice 😀


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