When the White Sox paid to keep Walter Johnson in a Washington uniform

Walter Johnson Colgan’s Chips Helmar Baseball Card

Any baseball historian worth a bag of Cracker Jack will tell you that Walter Johnson is the greatest pitcher in the history of the game. Johnson threw the ball harder than anyone before him, and his fastball was so intimidating that it placed fear in the minds of opposing batters.

The story goes that Duffy Lewis, the fine Boston outfielder, was at the plate facing Johnson during a game and fell behind quickly 0-and-2, hopelessly watching fast pitches blaze into the mitt of the catcher. Lewis whirled and made his way to the dugout. The home plate umpire hollered at the Boston star, “You have one more strike, Duffy.”

“Keep it,” Lewis told the ump, “I can’t do anything with it anyway.”

When he arrived to the Senators from Idaho, Johnson brought with him one of the most marvelous right shoulders ever constructed to throw a sphere. He struck out 303 batters in his third full season, the first of a record twelve times he led the American League in strikeouts. But he nearly left the league at the peak of his powers. Had it now been for a rival team, Johnson could have left the Senators and become property of a fledgling circuit that ended up flaming out after only a few seasons.

In 1914, the American League and National League, bound together by the National Agreement to honor each other’s player contracts and engage in a postseason series, came under attack by a third baseball circuit: the Federal League.

What was the Federal League?

In 1913, the Federal League played as an independent six-team minor league, headed by John T. Powers, who wished to carve his way into the profitable professional baseball industry. That season the Federal League operated teams in Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Covington, Kentucky. But the following offseason, Powers set his aim on competing directly with the AL and NL, and he wanted famous baseball figures to do so.

Powers encourages his owners to hire former major league stars to manage the Federal League teams. This strategy attracted Joe Tinker, Three-Finger Brown, and Bill Bradley. Soon, the Feds started to lure active players with hefty signing bonuses and contracts.

Hal Chase, Bill McKechnie, Al Bridwell, and Doc Crandall were some of the MLB stars who jumped to the Federal League in 1914. There were also huge contracts offered to Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and even a young Boston pitcher named Babe Ruth. But none of them chose to break their existing deals to go to an unproven league. Not so for Johnson, who signed a three-year deal with the Chicago Whales of the Federal League for a reported $10,000, nearly double what the Senators were paying their ace.

An unlikely benefactor to the rescue

Coming off a season in 1913 when he won 36 games and the pitching triple crown, the 25-year old Johnson was in his prime and demanded top dollar. But while he was motivated by financial success, Johnson also valued loyalty. After agreeing in principle to a deal with the Whales, the pitcher offered the Senators a chance to match the contract.

Washington owner Clark Griffith didn’t have the money to keep Johnson. The $10,000 price tag (more than a quarter million in 2021 dollars) was way too steep. But he thought he knew where he might get it.

The wealthiest owner in the league was Charles Comiskey, who owned the Chicago White Sox. Comiskey was frugal and domineering to his players, but he knew how to turn a profit. Griffith knew that Comiskey wouldn’t like the idea of baseball’s best pitcher suiting up for a team in his own city. He appealed to Comiskey to loan him part of the money he needed to keep Johnson in a Senators uniform and in the American League.

Comiskey may have been miserly, but he was no fool. He recognized the challenge a Johnson-led Chicago Whales team meant for the Sox. With Griffith practically on his knees asking for help, Comiskey wrote a check for the entire $10,000 and handed it to the Washington owner. In the end, league fraternity was more important than team rivalry, and Comiskey’s action kept “The Big Train” in Washington.

Johnson pitched 14 more seasons for the Senators, winning his 400th game in 1926. In 1924, he led Washington to their only World Series title. He was one of the first five players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

While Comiskey probably didn’t enjoy the 63 wins that Johnson recorded against his team, he ended up winning the war: the Federal League folded under financial strain after the 1915 season, and the American League never again faced a legitimate challenge from a rival league in Old Charlie’s lifetime.

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