April 20, 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).
That last figure stood as the lowest ever complied by a pitcher who threw 300 or more innings until 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.
As good as Gibson was, his mark would not have topped 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 charged to Johnson raised his ERA from 1.09 to 1.14.
Johnson was the Most Valuable Player in the A. L. in 1913, but his ERA mark — immediately the record for a starter in the season that ERA became a recognized statistic — 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.