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Walter Johnson, Manager of the Cleveland Indians

As most baseball fans know, the Cleveland Indians are battling right now for their first World Series title since 1948.

That 1948 team was stacked with future Hall of Famers:  Larry Doby, Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau, Bob Lemon, Joe Gordon and Satchel Paige. But one Hall of Famer who wore the Cleveland Indians uniform in the first half of the 20th century doesn’t look natural in it at all.

Walter Johnson, the iconic face of the Washington Senators, spent parts of three seasons managing the Cleveland Indians, from 1933 to 1935.  The photographs of Walter Johnson in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum have been digitized as part of the Digital Archive Project, and seeing Walter Johnson in the Indians’ uniform is jarring.

One photo was taken on his first day as manager of the Indians, June 11, 1933, when the Indians looked for a mid-season reboot and Johnson was seen as the man who would lead the Indians to the championship.  Instead, the photo eerily captures the start of what some regard Johnson’s only failure in 28 years in baseball.

He stands with pitchers Wes Ferrell and Oral Hildebrand.  A news caption on the back of the photograph reads, “Walter Johnson, new manager of the Cleveland Indians, shows his two ace hurlers how he did it when he was the famous ‘Big Train’ of the Washington Senators.”  They stand in gorgeous, high-contrast uniforms, home-white with dark belts and plackets (which probably look better in black and white than they did in color—the large “C” and the placket down the front and around the collar were bright red, while the belt and socks were blue).  The players stand respectfully, hats off as if in church, Hildebrand with his hands behind his back, both looking at the baseball in the manager’s hand as if it were some magic orb.

On the surface, Johnson’s pitching magic seemed to work on his two starters in 1933: Hildebrand had his best season of his career, winning 16 games, and both Ferrell and Hildebrand were named to the inaugural 1933 American League All-Star team.

But in fact, both players put up much worse numbers in the second half of the season after Johnson took over.  Hildebrand was 11-5 with a 3.02 ERA in the first half, and 5-6 with a 5.12 ERA in the second. He felt part of the problem was with Johnson, who was using him as both a reliever and a starter.  At one point, Johnson walked to the mound to take Hildebrand out of the game, and Hildebrand refused to leave. He would be fined and suspended for this insubordination; it wouldn’t be the last time Hildebrand clashed with Johnson, who was known for his kindness and gentle nature.

Ferrell was not known for his gentle nature.  He was, by most accounts, a difficult person to get along with, and he was especially agitated in 1933 when he struggled with a dead arm.  His splits were even more dramatic than Hildebrand’s in 1933:  Ferrell was 8-7 with a 2.96 ERA in the first half, and 3-5 with a 6.13 ERA in the second.  Things got so bad that Ferrell, always a good hitter, was moved off the mound and into the outfield. Johnson reassured the press that, “I haven’t given up on him as a pitcher.”  But that didn’t seem to be the case; Ferrell was traded that off season to Boston.

In 1934, after the collapse of the pitching staff and a fourth place finish the previous season, fans and reporters began grumbling that Johnson, indisputably one of the greatest pitchers ever, ironically didn’t know how to handle a pitching staff. Matters weren’t helped as Ferrell rebounded in Boston, going 14-5 (and winning 45 games combined in 1935 and 1936).

The press in Cleveland never warmed up to Walter Johnson, viewing him as an outsider, and they fueled the fan’s frustration. On  July 16, the Indians lost to the New York Yankees after the Yankees scored four times on only one hit in the 9th inning, aided by six walks. The fans were apoplectic. The next day, a sportswriter for the Cleveland News wrote, “Johnson showed anything but mental alertness and managerial ability,” adding, “he fell so far short of what a wide-awake manager should do that the fans who were wont to cheer him . . . as a great pitcher, groaned in despair and booed him.” Johnson had the support of team president Alva Bradley, but that support was waning.

The next year, 1935, Johnson felt that fan-favorite third baseman Willie Kamm and catcher Glenn Myatt were leading an “anti-Johnson ring” in the clubhouse, and he summarily released them.  The press predicted a revolt among the Indians, but that never materialized.  Instead, 23 players took out an advertisement the three Cleveland daily newspapers claiming that they were “not a team split wide open by dissension arrayed against our manager.”  Outfielder (and future Hall of Famer) Earl Averill stated that “I’m 100% for Walter and I think the whole team is for him.”  Even Hildebrand supported his manager: “I’ve had trouble with Walter, but I’m for him. I think he’s OK and I think the fans should be for him. I mean it.”

His fans in Washington stuck up for their hero, too, holding a “Walter Johnson Day” when Cleveland came to town.  Sportswriter Shirley Povich wrote in the Washington Post that the “fourth-wit” Cleveland fans and writers “have been heaping abuse on Johnson because he has failed to win a pennant with a fourth-place ball club.  In Washington folks still think of Walter Johnson as Walter Johnson.”

But the end had come. In June of 1933, Bradley, upon firing Roger Peckinpaugh before hiring Walter Johnson, had said, “I hire the manager, the public fires him.” Now, two years later, the fans in Cleveland had cast their vote again. They wanted Walter Johnson gone.

Bradley had a two hour discussion with Johnson on August 2 (other reports place the meeting on July 29) to tell Johnson that he was being fired and replaced by coach Steve O’Neill. Johnson is said to have taken the news with his typical generosity and mild manner, but he did ask for one favor: he wanted the announcement to be delayed. The Indians were about to play three games on the road against the powerhouse Detroit Tigers, and Johnson didn’t want O’Neill to start his career against the defending AL champions.

Walter Johnson managed three more games; the Tigers swept the Indians. The team returned to Cleveland, and then Bradley announced Johnson’s “voluntary resignation.”

Though his stint in Cleveland is often viewed as a failure, Walter Johnson finished with a managerial record of 179 wins, 168 losses, and 2 ties in Cleveland, good for a .516 winning percentage.  Of the 43 mangers in Cleveland Indians’ history who have managed more than 3 games, Johnson is 17th in winning percentage, and the team’s average finish in the standings during his tenure, 3.3, is 10th best–respectable numbers for a man who received so much criticism.

Walter Johnson never managed again. Though he worked as a broadcaster for the Washington Senators, he spent most of his time on his farm, where he raised dairy cows and bred dogs.  The Cleveland Indians would wait thirteen more years before winning their next World Series.  And now, sixty-eight years later, the Indians have the opportunity to win another.

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