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Walter Johnson and his Fox Hounds

Even on its surface, it’s a compelling photograph. The inscription dates the image to 1926, but even without it, one could guess the era: the sepia finish, the rugged faces, the fedora on one man, the flat “newsboy” cap on the other. Even the weathered faces and wood-slat barn suggest an earlier age.

There is an elegant symmetry, too: the two dogs standing on the table, nose-to-nose, heads and tails held high with an assist by the men behind. One senses the dogs are well-practiced in this pose, their tails needing only the slightest adjustment. They stand patiently, indifferent to the trophies and ribbons they have apparently earned.  The men, too, are symmetrical, each leaning in towards the other, suggesting a familiarity; they even tilt their heads inwards at similar angles.

In other ways, the image is unremarkable. There is something commonplace about it, as if it could have been taken anywhere, at any county fair or local dog show. Though the men have so much character in their faces, they also seem ordinary; one a businessman, perhaps, with a suit and bow tie, slipping away from work to show his dog. The other a farmer maybe, with a country jacket, a well-worn glove and a more rugged face.

But if one looks more carefully, that rugged face may become familiar, the lantern jaw and slightly furrowed brow, with the kind, gentle eyes. That unremarkable country farmer is actually one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball.

Walter Johnson was one of the First Five–one of the five members of the inaugural induction class at the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.  He is second only behind Cy Young in all-time wins with 417, an astonishing 110 of which were shutouts, a record that will almost certainly never be broken.  He is remembered for striking out batters in an era when strikeouts were uncommon.  His career record for strikeouts–3,508 when he retired in 1927–lasted for 56 years until Nolan Ryan broke it in 1983.

But in some ways, Walter Johnson, the person, is lost to time. He is a collection of otherworldly statistics, a player in a baggy uniform in grainy black and white photos, and the subject of quotes that add to his legend (Ty Cobb memorably said of Johnson, “His fastball looked about the size of a watermelon seed and it hissed at you as it passed.”). Even his famed submarine-style of pitching is mysterious.

But the Digital Archive Project at the National Baseball Hall of Fame helps to change that. Materials that were previously available only by special appointment in Cooperstown, New York, are now accessible to anyone with an internet connection.  The Hall of Fame has released collections related to the First Five class, including the photo file of Walter Johnson.  The file includes images of him in his baggy uniform on the baseball field, but especially evocative are the images of Johnson out of uniform.

We see him standing beside a convertible, one foot up on the running board, hat in hand, leaning on his elbow behind the front seat, where his wife sits with a satisfied smile and a cloche hat riding low on her head.  We see him squatting down with his hands gently around his son, a toddler in summer shorts who dips his head in suspicion. Or we see him in a snowy field, inexplicably tossing his hat onto the ground.  And through all these images, a person starts to emerge: more than just a ballplayer, but a flesh-and-bones human being with complex relationships and a variety of interests.  For Johnson, one of those interests was fox hounds.

Johnson spent his earliest years on the family farm in Kansas, where he learned to fish and hunt and where he was surrounded by farm animals, including dogs. Though his family moved to California to work in the oil fields when Johnson was 14, the allure of farm life never left him.

By 1910–his fourth season with the Washington Senators–Johnson bought a farm near his childhood home in Kansas, where he raised dairy cows.  “While I may be a ballplayer by profession,” he said, “still I’m a farmer at heart.”  He also kept dogs, especially hounds, which helped keep the raccoons and coyotes off his land. He explained his growing collection of dogs in his typical, low-key manner:  “Some of them have been wished on me, some I have bought, some I have borrowed, and the rest have just strayed in.”

In 1925 he bought an 8.5-acre estate in Alta Vista, Maryland (now near Bethesda), with orchards and gardens. He made coops for breeding prize birds and put in a ball field. Then, with his friend Joe Engel, he built a kennel for raising hound dogs.

Joe Engel first met Johnson in 1907 when Johnson was a rookie with the Senators and Engel was the batboy.  Five years later, Engel joined the team as a 19-year old pitcher, and the two became roommates on the road.

They developed an unlikely friendship–Engel was outgoing and fun-loving, whereas Johnson was unassuming, quiet, and gentle. But they were both kind men, and they shared an interest in hounds. Said Engel, “I spent many happy hours in his company, especially when we’d go on hunting trips at the end of the season. We both were proud of our packs of fox hounds. And after the hunts, we’d sit around the fire, talking . . . ”

Joe Engel’s career lasted seven seasons, during which he lost more games than he won. But Senators owner Clark Griffith was impressed by Engel’s baseball savvy, and Engel began a second career as a scout.  He would eventually become the owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts, where he earned the nickname “The Barnum of the Bushes” for his bold publicity stunts, such as raffling away a fully furnished house.  He also signed one of the first women to appear in a minor league game. Jackie Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game; days later, commissioner Judge Landis voided her contract and prohibited women from playing.

During his first year as an owner, Engel suffered the greatest loss of his life–his only child was killed in a car accident.  Engel threw himself into his work.  He built a new stadium with his own private funds, then sought to have the stadium be a vital part of the community.  During the Depression, the stadium became a soup kitchen that served over ten thousand people. At Christmas, he gave presents to thousands of needy children who might otherwise not have anything to open. The present was a baseball board game featuring Walter Johnson.

The same year Engel’s son died, Johnson, too, suffered the greatest loss of his life: his wife died from heatstroke at age 36.  While Engel found solace through his work in Chattanooga, Johnson sought comfort from his family and from his farm.

Within a few years, he moved with his five children (ages 7-19) and his mother to a 550-acre farm in Germantown, Maryland. “What a relief,” he said at the time, “to get back to the country, to get away from it all.”

He ran a dairy farm that produced 100 gallons of milk a day. He raised turkeys and chickens, as well as prize birds like peacocks and quail. And, of course, he bred his dogs; Walker Foxhounds were his favorite. The land included 150-acres of forest, which he used to host fox hunting outings with friends as well as official field trials. Johnson would go hunting by himself several times a week, though the thrill was in the chase–he typically let the trapped animals go free. Other times, he just rode his horse around the property, frequently giving neighborhood children a ride.

Across the years, through it all, Joe Engel and Walter Johnson remained friends, bound by memories of games played together and by times spent hunting and camping. Bound by grief, too. And bound by their affection for the dogs they raised together, dogs that they sometimes took to field trials, and that sometimes won trophies and ribbons, and that they sometimes posed with, their eyes fixed on the camera, their hands holding the animals’ heads up high.

Many of the quotes here are from Henry W. Thomas’s excellent biography, Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train.

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