In 1924 on this day, MLB pitcher Walter Johnson, nicknamed “Barney” and “The Big Train” among others, was awarded the American League Most Valuable Player award. It was his second MVP award, the first having been received in 1913, and was quite unsurprising given Johnson’s performance in the 1924 season. Moreover, the award stands out as the mark of Johnson’s last great year in a career replete with records that would stand for decades. Let’s take a closer look at why Johnson, revered for his gentle nature and sportsmanship as much as his arm, was worthy of the honor.
There are some basic facts to understand about Barney prior to reviewing his stats for the 1924 season. First, he was 36-years-old at the time, well beyond the prime age of pitchers; with the exception of Nolan Ryan and a few other notable greats, rarely do the longevity of pitchers extend into their late 30s, especially those of MVP caliber. Second, Johnson was famous for his side-arm delivery despite being a fastball pitcher. Throughout baseball history, side-arm throwing has never been the proper way to achieve high speeds. Yes, some pitchers like Randy Johnson were able to exceed speeds of 100 MPH with a semi, if not completely side-arm delivery, but there were other factors at play — like said Johnson standing at 6 feet 10 inches. By and large, the formula is simple: Overhand pitchers tend to throw harder, side-arms tend not to. The combination of his unique delivery and exceptional speed may have been responsible for the dominance he still exhibited in his later years.
Now that the preface has been established, let’s review the achievements. Johnson finished the ’24 season with an American League-leading 23 wins, a leading win-loss percentage of .767, a leading ERA of 2.72, a leading 38 games started, a leading six shutouts and a leading 158 strikeouts. In short, across the major statistics used to measure the quality of a pitcher, Johnson was leading the American League, if not the entire MLB. Admittedly, it wasn’t as good as his 1913 season (36 wins, 1.14 ERA, 11 shutouts, my god this guy could pitch) but again, he’s 36 in 1924. His performances helped the Washington Senators finished with a 92-62 record, the best in the AL, and ensured their successful run through the playoffs and into the World Series to face off against the New York Giants.
The 1924 World Series warrants its own full-fledged review due to the sheer drama that surrounded the seven game contest between the Senators and the Giants. It was Johnson’s first World Series appearance and it didn’t start off well as he lost his first two starts. To be fair to Johnson, in Game 1 he struck out 12 batters through 12 innings but also gave up four runs; how someone pitches 12 straight innings still eludes me. Nevertheless, Johnson returned two days later to pitch in Game 3, which he also lost, this time giving up six runs. The Senators wised up, stopped pitching him, and the teams exchanged wins back and forth until Game 7 arrived. Held at Griffith Stadium (Senators’ home field), the game extended into extra innings with a 3-3 tie. Johnson was brought in, this time as a relief pitcher, in the top of the ninth and remained in through the 10th, 11th and 12th innings. Across those four innings he held the Giants scoreless. In the bottom of the 12th his teammate Earl McNeely singled to score Muddy Ruel for the Senators’ series-winning run.
Johnson led the pitching world in every category that defined a quality pitcher and, despite a rocky start, helped his team win the World Series. In review, it seems clear why the 1924 AL MVP award is so obvious in its selection. As mentioned, 1924 proved the last great season for Johnson; while still a formidable pitcher in 1925, 1926 and 1927, his wins per season fell off and his ERA rose as age seeped into his arm and hitters gained the upper hand.
He would remain in baseball however, serving as a manager for the Senators from 1929-32 and the Cleveland Indians from 1933-35. In 1936, he was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame as one of its “First Five” inaugural members, alongside Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson.
Johnson is remembered for a lot of reasons, some of which have been mentioned. The aforementioned Ty Cobb commented on his first meeting with then-rookie Johnson in 1907, stating: “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.”
Cobb would also take note of Johnson’s gentle disposition on the ballfield; while other batters would setup far from the plate, Cobb would “dig in” against Johnson, knowing the pitcher feared accidentally hitting a batter with his pitches.
In the end, that’s where Johnson’s legacy lies — not in his fastball, but in his demeanor. He respected the game and its players, was a kind-hearted man with a love for the sport and a passion to pursue it as best he could.
Perhaps it stemmed from his growing up on a farm in Humboldt, Kansas. Perhaps it was simply his nature. Whatever the reason, Johnson became a symbol of sportsmanship, his name synonymous with friendly competition; I have to say, when you boast career stats like he does but are still remembered for your attitude, that’s possibly the greatest achievement of all.