Some of the most famous baseball players of all time played for Idaho teams before going to the major leagues, where they had long and impressive careers. Two of them were pitchers with outstanding won-lost records but with very different public images. Walter Johnson, who played for Weiser in 1906-07, was always popular, but Carl Mays, who pitched for Boise in 1912, was disliked by most and even detested by some. We’ll tell his story in a later column.
Walter Perry Johnson, “The Big Train,” was born on a farm 4 miles west of Humboldt, Kan. When he was 14 his family moved to Olinda, Calif., where he attended the public schools, played baseball, rode horses and worked in the oil fields. While pitching for Fullerton Union High School in a 15-inning game against Santa Ana High, he struck out 27 batters.
In the spring of 1906 Johnson came to Weiser, where he worked for the telephone company and pitched for Weiser in the newly formed Southern Idaho League, with teams from Boise, Caldwell, Emmett, Nampa, Payette and Weiser. This was a semi-professional league, with only a few of the top players getting paid.
Before coming to Boise for a game at Riverside Park in July 1906, Weiser fans boasted that they had the best team in the Southern Idaho League, and that “Kid Johnson is regarded here as the greatest pitcher in Idaho.” Boise fans hadn’t seen him yet, but in 1907, when the same teams competed in the new Idaho State League, they would become believers. If that league had no other claim to fame it would be memorable for having sent Walter Johnson directly to the big leagues in the summer of 1907. Even though some baseball historians have written that the great Washington Senators pitcher made the majors “without having spent a day in the minor leagues,” that is true only because the Idaho State League was semi-professional and not eligible to join the National Association of Professional Leagues, the governing body of the minors.
The Idaho State League was made up of a colorful and highly competitive group of teams, representing most of the towns in southwestern Idaho. And what wonderful names they had: Boise Senators, Caldwell Champions, Emmett Prune Pickers, Mountain Home Dudes, Nampa Beet Diggers, Payette Melon Eaters, Weiser Kids and one Oregon team, the Huntington Railroaders. All of these towns except Emmett were on the Oregon Short Line main line, but Emmett was connected to it in 1901 by Col. William H. Dewey’s Idaho Northern. Since teams and their fans traveled to games by train in those days, transportation linkage was vital to a league’s success.
The 1907 season was a short one, with nearly all games played on weekends. This allowed a hard-throwing youngster like Walter Johnson to pitch most of Weiser’s games that season. On May 5 he shut out Nampa and struck out 14 batters. On May 20 a large Boise crowd went to Weiser and saw their players “go down before the mighty Johnson like grass before a reaper.” He allowed one hit and struck out 19 in a game that lasted only an hour and 20 minutes. The Idaho Statesman said “Johnson is undoubtedly in a class of his own and no pitcher in Idaho can approach him in speed and deceptive curves.”
On May 27 he pitched another shutout and struck out 10. About this time the papers began to notice that his string of scoreless innings was mounting. On June 15 it reached 66, and just two days later Johnson received an offer from the Senators, a team called “hapless and hopeless” at the time. For years an oft-repeated quip was “Washington — first in war, first in peace, last in the American League.”
Johnson did his part to make the team a contender again. He pitched for the Washington Senators for 21 years and later managed the team. More than 90 years later he still leads all pitchers with 110 shutouts and is second in wins with 417. He led the American League in strikeouts a record 12 times.
He was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1936, one of the first five members so honored. Idaho will always claim him because it was here that he showed the baseball world that he could pitch.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.