In 1908, Walter Johnson, the greatest pitcher of all time, shut out the New York Yankees three times. In four days. Johnson had pitched back-to-back games when — after one day off — he had to step in again when the Senators’ other pitchers got sick. He blanked the Yankees in all three games, and the third game was a two-hitter.
Last week, the Washington Nationals announced that they were benching their 24-year-old star pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, for the rest of the year because he’d reached his “innings limit.” That means the division-leading Nationals will have to go without Strasburg during the first playoff appearance in the club’s history.
Why won’t the Nationals allow Strasburg to pitch? Is this another indication of the end of men?
The Nationals are protecting Strasburg, who injured his arm in 2010 and had a year of rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery. Yet there may be something else going on here. There may be an element of helicopter mom overprotectiveness on the part of the Nationals’ management.
I realize that back when Walter Johnson was playing (1907-1927), pitchers didn’t bear down on batters as much as they do today. But I also know that in terms of training, diet, medicine, and pay, Johnson practically played in the Middle Ages. It’s revealing, shocking even, when one reads accounts of what players back then endured — players like my grandfather Joe Judge, who played with Johnson and whose life I recount in my book “Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington’s Only World Series Championship.”
No air conditioning. Wool uniforms. Baseballs so covered in dirt and tobacco juice that players could barely see them. Ty Cobb, with his spikes pointing up as he stole a base. If someone had told my grandfather to wear elbow and shin protectors, which require a timeout to remove after a hit, he would have laughed. These were men.
It went well beyond the game itself. Here’s a story from spring training in 1924, the year the Senators won the World Series. The Senators held preseason camp in Tampa. One of the coaches was former pitcher Al Schacht, who was known for his sense of humor and would go on to become “the clown prince of baseball,” entertaining fans at games. One day Bucky Harris, the Senators’ manager, told Schacht that he, Harris, had met a couple beautiful women who were staying in town and that they wanted to meet Schacht.
Schacht got a shave, put on his best suit, and arrived at the house to meet the ladies. When he knocked on the door, a man answered. The man then produced a revolver, accused Schacht of trying to break up his home, and fired two shot at him. Schacht collapsed off the porch as more shots rang out from the bushes. Yet Schacht wasn’t hit. He scrambled to his feet and ran back to camp as fast as he could.
When he got back to camp, he learned that he had been set up. The team was behind the entire thing, including the blanks that had been used by the man who answered the door.
Now imagine something like that happening today. Imagine the manager of a Major League Baseball team setting up a prank where a player is sent to meet a woman, and is instead met with a hail of gunfire. This playful, innocent prank, a loud form of male bonding, would be endlessly psychoanalyzed by tut-tutters on cable shows — even the sports ones — and condemned by people like Matt Lauer. “These are guns, coach. Guns. What about the children?”
Enough about the children. In his career, Walter Johnson won 417 games and pitched 110 shutouts — 38 by the score of 1-0, which is still a record. A lot of these games were played before the era of the relief pitcher. He pitched 531 complete games.