This Is What Walter Johnson Sounds Like Calling a Senators Game on the Radio

If you’re a long time reader of this blog—and it’s OK if you’re not, at least yet, but let’s pretend you are for the sake of the point—you know that Walter Johnson was one of a number of Hall of Fame players who did some game calling in 1939.

Walter Johnson has a credible claim to being the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball.  Second all-time in wins with 417 and first in shutouts with 110; retired as the leading career strikeout king with over 3,500 Ks; his 2.17 ERA translating to a 147 ERA+ which ties for sixth-best of all-time; fifth all-time in complete games with 531; and so on and so on.  We could cite his sublime stats ad nauseam, but most importantly he was a two-time MVP who in one of those years led his Washington Senators to their first world championship in 1924.  The Man wouldn’t have to ever take “no” for an answer in the Nation’s Capital ever again, so if The Man wants to broadcast games, than just smile, say “yes, sir” and lead him to the booth.

Walter Johnson at the mic making a point. h/t The Sporting News (Paper of Record)
Walter Johnson at the mic making a point. h/t The Sporting News (Paper of Record)

And so they did in ’39, at radio station WJSV, radio home of the Senators since 1934.  Johnson spent the season spelling the venerable Arch McDonald, who’d left the Senators for New York to call Yankees and Giants contests on station WABC, before returning to the Senators gig the following year while Johnson retired to his Germantown, Maryland farm after the 1939 season “in order to catch up on some work”.

But Johnson did get a year in at the mic for the Nats, and by our great good luck, WJSV decided to record an entire day’s broadcast schedule on September 21 of that year.  There was nothing special about the day in and of itself that necessitated the decision to record it; rather, according to a document filed at the Library of Congress:

… the idea to record this day in its entirety came from a
conversation between station manager Harry Butcher and an employee of the National Archives, R.D.W. Connor … (T)he day … was not, necessarily, an exceptional or important day; it was just a “typical” Thursday in the station’s broadcast week. But it does have the distinction of not only being the only extant full recorded day for the station but, in fact, the only extant fully recorded broadcast day for any radio station during this era of terrestrial broadcasting. 

The day’s broadcast also happened to include the Senators’ 147th game of the season, for which they hosted the Cleveland Indians at Griffith Stadium.  Johnson was on the mic, and here is what he sounded like:

The game broadcast is listed in the WJSV archives as having at started at 4:00pm, but the game itself is listed in Baseball-Reference.com as having started at 2:00pm, and the Washington Post radio listings that morning had the broadcast listed as starting at 3:00pm, so I’m going to go out on a limb and call out the WJSV timetable as being the incorrect thing here.  In any event, because the broadcast picks up the game an hour after the start time, the game is joined already in progress, in the bottom of the fourth inning.  Harry McTigue, the other Senators announcer, opens the program with a quick recapping of the lineups, and the Big Train himself picks up the mic at the 1:45 mark of the broadcast.

There is an unmistakable folksiness to the sound of Johnson’s voice, obviously the stamp of his rural Kansas upbringing.  He speaks at a quick and business-like clip, similar to other broadcasters of the time, and regardless whether he is the one influencing the delivery of McTigue, who picks up the action in the sixth, or he is following McTigue’s lead, the fact is that the two sound so much like peas in a pod stylistically that it’s somewhat difficult to tell which is which, apart from Johnson’s higher and more nasal tone, which you will definitely notice as McTigue passes the mic back to Barney for the ninth.

Walter Johnson does a creditable job on the broadcast as a baseball announcer, and I personally would think that he could have continued on in that capacity in following seasons if he’d wanted to.  But whether it was to tend to his farm or for some other unsaid reason—such as, say, running unsuccessfully for Congress in the following election— the Big Train apparently decided he’d had enough of doing baseball for a living.

3 thoughts on “This Is What Walter Johnson Sounds Like Calling a Senators Game on the Radio”

  1. I once had an audio tape of that broadcast, but it somehow got lost in a couple of office moves. The game may have started at 2:00, but the broadcast didn’t come on until later, because the time had been preempted for an address by President Roosevelt on the war that had recently broken out in Europe with the German invasion of Poland.

    Charlotte NC was Washington’s highest-level minor league team. The Senators had brought up a rookie keystone combo with the irresistible names “Quick” and “Leap.” Neither stuck in the majors.

  2. Jonathan Richman is the 4th greatest composer in music history. He wrote a wonderfully goofy song titled ‘Walter Johnson’, probably after reading Ritter’s “Glory”. I recommend it. Also, a 3-minute operatic masterpiece from the same, somewhat hard- to-find LP: ‘I’m Just Beginning To Live’.

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