Next to the apocryphal story about George Washington and the cherry tree, the most familiar tale told about the Father of Our Country involves what he threw across the Rappahannock River. It was even mentioned on the iconic Beach Boys’ album, All Summer Long, in 1964.*
Unlike the essential details of young George chopping down his father’s cherry tree, the story about Washington’s mighty heave has been passed down over years full of a variety of different accounts, starting with the location itself. Many people who have heard the story believe he threw a silver dollar clear across the much wider Potomac River. Nobody knows what it was or even when Washington is supposed to have thrown an object from the river bank. Some sources say he did it when he just 11 years old.
Silver dollars were not minted as U.S. currency until 1796, but so-called Spanish dollars and colonial dollars were around when Washington was a younger man. The grandson of first lady Martha Washington, a widow when she re-married, wrote that a young George Washington had thrown a piece of slate across the river.
In any case, on February 22, 1936 – the 204th anniversary of Washington’s birth — Walter Johnson successfully threw two silver dollars across the Rappahannock. He did it at a spot that was part of Washington’s boyhood home near Fredericksburg, Va., close to where young George supposedly had done it.
Johnson’s effort drew national attention, including CBS radio coverage and front-page stories in thousands of newspapers. He had been enlisted to try to duplicate Washington’s feat as part of a larger day of events commemorating the first president’s boyhood at a farm on the banks of the Rappahannock.
Johnson, a year after he resigned as manager of the Cleveland Indians, was 48 and had just been selected as one of the first five inductees into baseball’s new Hall of Fame. The winter of 1936 was the first time since he reached the majors that he wasn’t preparing to head to spring training.
Officials in Fredericksburg apparently invited Johnson to their planned festivities and, thanks to Representative Sol Bloom of New York, head of the George Washington Bicentennial Commission, Johnson’s planned toss became the center of attention.
Bloom was a great champion of Washington but firmly believed that the cherry tree and Rappahannock tales were fictions that somehow diminished the memory of the first president. Bloom offered 20-to-1 odds that Johnson would not be able to throw a silver dollar to the river’s opposite bank. The catch, it turned out after $5,000 was deposited to take up him up on those odds, was that Bloom insisted that 18th-century maps depicted the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg to be more than 1,300-feet wide – farther than Washington or anyone could throw a coin. City officials pooh-poohed that claim about the river’s width.
Johnson visited the spot where his throw was to be made and determined he might be able to do it. He began limbering up at his Germantown, Md., farm. He wrote in a message to Fredericksburg officials, “I am practicing with a dollar against my barn door. Arm getting stronger, barn door weaker.”
People in Fredericksburg, who were told the river there was 372 feet wide, began trying without success to do it using lead washers. Other sources reported that the distance from one bank to the other where Johnson’s throws were made was just 272 feet, but that’s probably inaccurate.
On a typically cold winter day, Johnson was ready to give it a try. Crowds, estimated at a few thousand to 10,000 or more, depending on the source, gathered on both sides of the river. With $100 promised to the person who retrieved the official silver dollar, more folks gathered on the opposite side from Johnson and the official entourage.
Johnson came dressed in a suit. The footing was icy and muddy. He took off his suit jacket for his attempts. Johnson’s first toss fell several feet short, but his second clearly made it all the way across. He then said he was ready to throw the officially designated dollar. A 31-year-old stone mason from Italy — Peter Yon in most accounts, but Pietro Yon in the next day’s New York Times — ended up with the coin.
Many people told reporters they believed Johnson’s toss lent credence to the George Washington story. Bloom remained unconvinced and didn’t pay off on any bets. Whether Washington did it or not, Walter Johnson on February 22, 1936, forever became part of the story.
- * “Our Favorite Recording Sessions” — Brian Wilson: “Hey, will you take off that hat? You look like George Washington!” Mike Love: “I’ll throw you across the river…. I threw a silver dollar across; I can throw you.”