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Baseball Legends

Walter Johnson and Carl Mays pitched it up in the City of Trees


Boise has a rich and colorful baseball history that spans more than 130 years. Most of our pioneers knew the game well from their school days in the East and Midwest. Nearly every small town also had its own team in the years before the Civil War.

Boise had a real cast of characters on its baseball teams over the years. Among those who played in Boise are two of the greatest pitchers of all time—one who made the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York, by a unanimous vote, and one who would never have a chance of being nominated.

Arguably the greatest pitcher of all time, Walter Johnson played for the Weiser Kids in the Idaho State League in the summers of 1906 and 1907. It was a semi-professional league with only the top players getting paid. Since most of the games were played on weekends, a powerful thrower like Johnson, a California boy, could pitch most of his team's games. He not only threw harder than anybody else in the league, but he had pin-point control.

Among the batters he "mowed down" were members of the Boise Senators, Caldwell Champions, Emmett Prune Pickers, Mountain Home Dudes, Nampa Beet Diggers, Payette Melon Eaters, and one Oregon team, the Huntington Railroaders.

Johnson's 1907 season made history and got him a contract with the Washington Senators of the American League before it was over. On May 5 he shut out Nampa and struck out 14 batters. On May 20 a large Boise crowd went to Weiser on the train to see their players "go down to 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 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 threw another shutout and struck out ten.

The papers began to notice that his string of scoreless innings was beginning to mount. June 2 he allowed one hit, no walks and struck out 14. This made 48 innings without a run, and ran his strikeout total to 127 in 72 innings. By June 9 it was 57, and on June 15, 66. The Statesman reported on June 18, 1907, that Walter Johnson had received an offer from the Washington Senators, a team called "hapless and hopeless" at the time. The team needed help and 1907 was the year they got it. Washington catcher Cliff Blankenship, out of the lineup with a broken finger, was sent west to take a look at Johnson. Pongo Joe Cantillon, Senators manager, had already received a series of letters from Idaho extolling the talents of Weiser's strikeout king. This one is often quoted in baseball histories:

"You better come out here and get this pitcher. He throws a ball so fast nobody can see it and he strikes out everybody. His control is so good that the catcher just holds up his glove and shuts his eyes, then picks the ball, which comes to him looking like a little white bullet, out of the pocket. He's a big, 19-year-old fellow like I told you before, and if you don't hurry up someone will sign him and he will be the best pitcher that ever lived. He throws faster than Addie Jones or Amos Rusie ever did, and his control is better than Christy Mathewson's. He knows where he's throwing because if he didn't there would be dead bodies strewn all over Idaho. So you'd better hurry, Joe, or you'll be sorry."

On June 29, 1907, The Washington Post and Idaho Statesman both ran the story of Johnson's signing with the Senators. The day before he had pitched another shutout, running his scoreless streak to 75 innings. The Post story was enthusiastic but exaggerated, claiming that Johnson averaged 20 strikeouts a game. It was actually about 16, but that was phenomenal enough.

On June 30, after having pitched the day before, the 19-year-old kid from California showed he was durable, as well as fast and accurate. He pitched shutout ball against Caldwell for 10 innings, only to lose 1-0 in the 11th when an error let in a run. The streak ended at 85 innings.

Five thousand people came to Boise's Riverside Park on July 4, 1907, to see the great one, already on his way to the American League. This time it was Campbell, Boise Senator pitcher, who lost a heart-breaker on an error. Each pitcher allowed but three hits—Johnson struck out 10, Campbell 13—final score 2-1. It was the only time that season that anybody outdid Johnson in the strikeout department. After Johnson tripled over the centerfielder's head in the second inning Campbell struck out the side—one reason Boise fans could claim that their man had out pitched the mighty Johnson.

Just how great was Walter Johnson? A major baseball encyclopedia rates him the greatest of all time, basing its decision on a complicated computer-crunching of the statistics—wins and losses, earned-run average, quality of the opposition, quality of the team supporting him, and so on. His 110 shutouts lead all major league pitchers, and no active player is even close. Roger Clemans's 34 is tops today, and Nolan Ryan finished with 61. This calculation rates Johnson first, Cy Young second, and Lefty Grove third. Clemens rates ahead of all active pitchers, at 14th.

Walter Perry Johnson, "The Big Train," was born in Humboldt, Kansas, and came from California to pitch in Idaho. He spent the rest of his life in Washington, D.C., where he died December 10, 1946, but Idaho will always claim him. After all, it was here that he first showed the world that he could pitch.

But what about the other great pitcher who played in Boise? His name was Carl Mays. He pitched for Boise in 1912, winning 24 and losing 9 games. Among his statistics that year, and in the 15 years he pitched in the major leagues, is one that accounts for a lifetime of hatred by opponents and the press. He hit lots of batters with pitches that came from a variety of angles. The particular incident that probably kept Mays from even being considered for the Hall of Fame came in August 1920, while he was pitching for the New York Yankees. One of his submarine fastballs hit young Cleveland star Ray Chapman in the temple. He died the next day—the only major league player ever to be killed by a pitched ball.

Carl Mays had a higher lifetime winning percentage than 15 great pitchers who are in the Hall of Fame, including Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Bob Feller, Tom Seaver, and Warren Spahn—all popular stars. Mays was not, because he was perceived as a dirty player who would throw at batters' heads to intimidate them. He finally killed a man and because of his fierce contempt for his critics refused to say he was sorry. Without that one killer pitch he would probably have made the Hall of Fame on his statistics alone.