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Thinking of Baseball in the Cold of Winter and Remembering a Kansas Great

Saturday is Kansas Day, when the state celebrates its 161st birthday. That has Commentator Rex Buchanan thinking about some of the state's interesting and noteworthy people, including an athlete from a small town in southeast Kansas.

Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, author and director emeritus at the Kansas Geological Survey. The Lawrence resident is coauthor of the book Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills, published by University Press of Kansas. The book Rex reviewed is called: The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski, published by Simon and Schuster.

Check out Humboldt, Kansas, hometown of Walter "Big Train" Johnson!  

And check out this report from our friends at KCUR Radio:
How Humboldt, Kansas, Became a Must-See Destination for 2022


It’s a long time to baseball’s spring training, and a baseball labor dispute that may delay the season even longer. But there’s a terrific new book that may help you until baseball is back. It’s called The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski, formerly a sportswriter at the Kansas City Star. The book is Posnanski’s somewhat subjective ranking of the 100 best baseball players of all time.

Coming in at number seven on Posnanski’s list is a Kansan. Walter Johnson. Johnson was born in 1887 on a farm northwest of Humboldt, near a big bend in the Neosho River. You can still visit that spot, marked by a plaque.

Johnson started pitching for the Washington Senators in 1907, when he was 19.  He played on some bad teams in Washington, teams that inspired the saying “first in war, first in peace, last in the American League.” Still, Johnson won 417 games, the most in modern baseball. That record should be safe for a while, given today’s penchant for removing starting pitchers early in games. His 110 shutouts are also a record.

Though the Senators weren’t much good most of the time he was there, they did win the World Series in 1924, and Johnson won the seventh and deciding game.

Obviously Walter Johnson pitched a long time ago, in a far, far different baseball galaxy. Why is he still so intriguing?

Maybe in part because he threw so hard. His fastball was famous, a pitch that Ty Cobb said, get this, “hissed with danger.”

Maybe because of his nickname. “Big Train.” According to Posnanski, several dominant players had that nickname during his baseball era. It only got pinned on Johnson toward the end of his career. But it’s pretty much been his, and his alone, ever since.

Maybe I like Johnson because he just seems so elementally Kansan. He persevered, in spite of playing for notoriously bad teams, season after season. He was careful, asking for a return train ticket home when he tried out for the big league club, just in case he didn’t stick. And, by all accounts, he was famously nice, “supremely nice,” according to Posnanski. He refused to throw inside to move batters off the plate because he didn’t want to hit anybody. He wouldn’t take money to endorse cigarettes because he didn’t want to encourage smoking.

And maybe I like Johnson because, like me, he grew up on a farm in Kansas.

Late last summer, my son and I visited the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. There, prominent in a room filled with plaques from the inductees into the Hall of Fame, was Walter Johnson’s plaque. He was one of the original five members inducted into the Hall in 1936. Listen to the others: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Honus Wagner. Right there with them, Walter “Big Train” Johnson.

We wandered around the rest of the Hall and I enjoyed the burnished brown bats and balls, the faded uniforms. But somehow the room with the plaques was more meaningful. I think, because of the stories those plaques tell.

Maybe that’s what I like about baseball most of all. The stories. Like the ones in Posnanski’s book. And the one about a Kansas farm kid with a blazing fastball.