Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Walter Johnson's 16-Game Win Streak Ends August 26, 1912

On this day in Baseball History August 26, 1912: Walter "Big Train" Johnson's 16-game win streak ends in a 3-2 loss against the St. Louis Browns under controversial circumstances. Before I go into the particulars of the controversy, I wanted to touch upon the win streak itself.

Johnson was aiming for the Major League record of 19-straight victories which is held by Rube Marquard of the New York Giants who established the record earlier in that 1912 season. Johnson would tie for the American League record with Smoky Joe Wood of the Boston Red Sox who also won 16-straight games in 1912. Two other American League pitchers would reach the 16-straight wins plateau set by Johnson and Wood in 1912. Lefty Grove of Philadelphia Athletics did so in 1931 and Schoolboy Rowe's 16-game accomplished the feat in 1934 for the Detroit Tigers. For an interesting breakdown on winning streaks from 1900-1977, I recommend you read the article Winning Streaks by Pitchers by Ronald G. Liebman from the SABR Journal Research Archive. Now for the controversy.

I was lucky enough to be able to access the box scores of both the New York Times via its TimesMachine feature and Washington Times 1902-1939 through the Chronicling America website of the Library of Congress. This game shows us how different the game of Baseball was back in 1912 compared to today.

The Washington Senators were facing the St. Louis Browns and starting pitcher Tom Hughes be responsible for two runners in top of the seventh when Johnson came in to relieve him. Here is how the article Nationals Break Even in Double Bill With Browns from the The Washington times., August 27, 1912, LAST EDITION, Page 10, Image 10:
The seventh saw the final tally counted for the Climbers, and a batting streak nipped bv Burt Shotton. With one down Ainsmith bounced one past Austin. Johnson walked. Milan, after fouling to the right field fence close to the chalkline, breezed. Foster's clean single scored Ainsmith and put Johnson on second. Then came Laporte's great drive and Shotton's greater catch.

Wallace walked In the fifth and Krichell scratched a safety to Foster, who lost the ball In the sun. Hamilton's sacrifice sent them up a cushion, and Wallace scored on Shotton's single to right Krichell came over on Compton's long hoist to Shanks.

Again Wallace and Krichell did the dirty work in the seventh, scoring the runs that won the game. Wallace singled and Krichell walked. Hamilton's bunt was a little pop to Hughes close to the line, and then came Walter Johnson into the battle with one gone and two on. Shotton never saw the ball and fanned weakly. A wild pitch had put Wallace on third, and Krichell on second and both rushed over when Compton burnt a safety to center, Williams was called out on strikes.

After that seventh the Browns could do nothing with Johnson. But they had done enough for they had put Johnson's great winning streak in danger, and It will take mature reflection on the part of the league boss, conferences with Umpires Evans and Egan and a persual of the official score to determine whether or not the defeat should be charged to Johnson or Hughes.
Now it seems with the score 3-2 in favor of the Senators with two runners on base which were the responsibility of Hughes when Johnson came in. Now here is where the game was different then from now.

Senators manager Clark Griffith is bringing in his ace to shutdown the game in the seventh inning. To put that in a modern context, that would be similar to Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon bringing in Felix Hernandez to hold a lead in the seventh inning. What I find amazing is that Johnson was to start the next game on the August 27 against the Browns. Though by today's rules, the runs that scored would be charged to Hughes and the loss given to him. But in Ban Johnson's American League of 1912 that was not to be so.

In the article Johnson Explains Strange Decision by "The Senator" from the The Washington times., August 28, 1912, LAST EDITION, Page 10, Image 10:
Ban Johnson, the boss of The American League, and interpreter of its rules, has at last explained his line of reasoning in charging Monday's defeat to Walter Johnson instead of to Tom Hughes.

"While he did not allow the two men, who scored and thereby assured St. Louis its victory, to become base runners at his expense, Johnson was, nevertheless, responsible for the fact that they did score," says the archon of the league.

"He allowed a hit and was guilty of a wild pitch. He had a chance to win the game by saving it. He failed. Therefore, he is entitled to shoulder the blame. I have announced officially that Johnson's winning record concludes with his sixteenth straight triumph."

"I believe in pitchers earning their records. Naturally, I would like to see Johnson or any other pitcher in my league honor it with a record, but he must earn it if he does. I will stand for no subterfuge."
And people complain about Bud Selig. Imagine a decision like this coming down today in the era of social media and instant news. To further add to the point, The Senator continues:
The painful thing about Ban Johnson's decision is that what he says goes. Johnson must rest with his sixteen straight games, even though Hughes is responsible for Monday's defeat in the minds of all fair-minded fans. He rules contrary to precedent of years in the National League, the parent body of the national game.

John A. Heydler, of this city, secretary of the National League and a recognized authority on the interpretation of baseball rules, says that it has been an invariable rule to charge such a defeat to the retiring pitcher. When it comes to an issue between Heydler and Johnson, few followers of baseball will lean toward the boss of the American League. They believe that Heydler knows more about the matter than does Johnson.

"My ruling In such cases has always been just opposite," said Heydler today. "I have always held that if a first pitcher leaves the game with a man on base one or more and a score is made by the men off the second pitcher it is charged against the first."

"That is my rule and always will be. I don't know of any exact precedent. If President Johnson says the record is broken it is broken. He is the one to decide in his league."
What did Walter Johnson think of the decision? The Senator continues:
Walter Johnson, who stood an excellent chance of bettering Rube Marquard's mark of nineteen straight victories, smiles and says nothing regarding the decision of Ban Johnson. Walter does not work for records particularly. He cares little whether or not he wins twenty in a row so long as he wins the twenty. That suits him. He refuses to discuss the decision, saying it has little interest for him.
Here is the box score for the controversial game:

 Published August 28, 1912 The WashingtonTimes 
In the end, Johnson would lose his next start the old fashioned way against the Browns. The New York Times listing for the game with box score describes the games activities. What I find interesting in this post (as you'll see down below) is that the post says that this loss broke Johnson's win streak, rather than the decision by Ban Johnson as I highlighted above from the Washington Times articles.

In the end, Johnson would finish the 1912 season with a 33-12 record with a 1.35 ERA. I could go into listing the incredible statistics that Johnson put up that season. I'll put it here as a picture courtesy of Baseball Reference.com. Just don't drool while you sit with you mouth open when looking over the stats ;)

Walter Johnson's Career Statistics from Baseball Reference.com

Will we ever see another stretch like Walter Johnson's in term of a consecutive game winning streak by a starter? Guess we'll have to wait and see if it ever happens.

Until Then Keep Playing Ball,
Baseball Sisco