When Walter Johnson tossed a coin across the Rappahannock River

Helmar Brew advertisement featuring Walter Johnson

On February 2, 1936, a committee in Cooperstown, New York announced that Walter Johnson was one of the first five players elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Even though the museum that would house the Hall of Fame wouldn’t open for three more years, the fanfare around the announcement thrust Johnson’s name back into the headlines.

At that same time, the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, was planning their annual celebration of George Washington’s birthday, and seized on Johnson’s popularity. They asked the former pitching legend to recreate the Washington feat of tossing a coin across the Rappahannock River. Old George had never done such a thing, but no matter: it was the stuff of legend.

With prodding from the good people of Fredericksburg, Johnson’s legendary right arm was enlisted to fire a silver dollar across the Rappahannock. Newspapers reported on the 48-year old’s preparations. A week before the festivities, Johnson sent a telegram:         

“I am practicing with a dollar against my barn door. Arm getting stronger, barn door weaker.”

On February 22, Johnson appeared on the snow-covered banks of the Rappahannock River wearing a long-sleeve shirt and tie. More than one thousand citizens were on hand. News reporters and photographers huddled to stay warm. As many as three thousand people were on the other side of the river.

A Virginia state politician donated a silver dollar, and in his remarks he placed the odds at 20-1 against Johnson being able to throw it across the river. The shy, long-limbed Johnson smiled and played along. When he got up to throw, Johnson was presented with three dollars, the first two for practice, the last one inscribed with his name serving as the “official” dollar.

Johnson’s first toss ended up in the middle of the river. His second throw cleared it easily, and his third, the “official” toss, sailed well into the crowd on the other side of the Rappahannock. A young fan, a boy from downriver in Little Falls, took the special silver dollar home with him, a memento from a Hall of Fame pitcher.

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