April 21, 2019:
Walter Johnson’s 1913 season ranks with one of the best ever by a pitcher. The Big Train went 36-7, leading both leagues in victories, complete games (29), innings (346), strikeouts (243), shutouts (11) and earned run average (1.14). The ERA figure is retrospective because the American League had just begun to use it as an official statistic and did so under different scoring rules for inherited runners.
Nonetheless, once calculated, that ERA stood as the lowest ever complied by a pitcher who threw 300 or more innings. The mark was challenged by Bob Gibson’s 1.12 earned run average in 1968, a year when pitchers so dominated the game that the mound was lowered and the strike zone reduced for the next season. At that point, Johnson’s ERA average for 1913 was generally thought to have been 1.09, the figure listed in the first edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia (“the Big Mac”), published in 1969 and repeated through the ninth edition in 1993.
As good as Gibson was, his mark wouldn’t eventually be recognized as lower than Johnson’s, were it not for a game played for amusement on the final day of the 1913 season. The Senators had clinched second place, so manager Clark Griffith decided to have some fun as he had on the last day of the previous year. He started Johnson in center field against Boston and put other players in unfamiliar positions. Griffith put Jack Ryan, a 43-year-old coach whose big league career ended in 1903, in to catch and even pitched an inning himself. Griffith had ended his pitching career in 1907, other than single-game novelty appearances like this one at age 43. Three position players also pitched for Griffith’s team in the game. Neither team paid much attention to the score or the number of outs, although the Red Sox players took their normal positions on the field.
Henry W. Thomas wrote in his 1995 biography of his grandfather, Walter Johnson, Baseball’s Big Train, that Johnson was summoned to pitch “at the demand of 1,000 cavalry soldiers attending the game as guests of the Nationals…. Lobbing pitches over, Johnson was touched for two quick hits before going back to center field in mock disgrace.” Of course, the two runners ended up scoring when catcher Eddie Ainsmith, who replaced Johnson on the mound, yielded two more hits. The runs (eventually) were charged to Johnson. (Under the scoring rules of 1913, the runs were charged to Ainsmith.) Into the 1990s, Johnson’s recognized ERA remained at 1.09, but now is officially 1.14.
Johnson was the Most Valuable Player in the A. L. in 1913, but his ERA mark, which immediately was the record, lasted just a year. In 1914, Hubert “Dutch” Leonard’s ERA over 224.2 innings for the Red Sox was 0.96, which remains the lowest ever by a league leader.