Johnson reaches 400 wins in 20th season

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Craig Muder

The milestone was a major one, as only one big league pitcher had ever before reached the 400-win plateau.

But when Washington’s Walter Johnson defeated the St. Louis Browns 7-4 on May 12, 1926, for his 400th career victory, there was little to indicate how rare this accomplishment would become.

Baseball fans are still waiting for the next 400-game winner.

And there is no sign the drought will end any time soon.

Johnson was one of baseball’s brightest stars of the early 20th Century.

The lanky right-hander with the blazing fastball dominated the dead-ball era from 1910-1919, winning at least 20 games every season and posting an earned-run average over 2.00 just once.

“The first time I faced him, I watched him take that easy windup, and then something went past me that made me flinch,” said Hall of Famer Ty Cobb. “The thing just hissed with danger. We couldn’t touch him. Every one of us knew we’d met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ballpark.”

In the 1920s, Johnson’s fastball lost a bit of its steam – but the Kansas native made up for it with guts and guile, leading the Senators to their only World Series title in 1924 and winning 20 games in 1925 – at the age of 37 – en route to another American League pennant for Washington.

In 1926, the ageless Johnson started the season 5-1 to climb to 399 wins, then tossed a complete game against St. Louis for what was then recognized as his 400th victory. Research since then has credited Johnson with more victories, meaning his real 400th win occurred earlier in the 1926 season. But at the time, his May 12 victory was recognized as the milestone win.

On that historic day, Cy Young was – as he still is – far and away the leader in career victories with 511. And with Christy Mathewson at 373 wins and Pud Galvin at 365, Johnson’s quest for 400 might have seemed extraordinary – but not impossible.

Since then, however, only two pitchers – Grover Cleveland Alexander and Warren Spahn – have reached the 360-win plateau.

Johnson remains the only big league pitcher with a final victory total between 400 and 499.

Johnson’s totals: 417 wins, 279 losses, a 2.17 career ERA and a record 110 shutouts. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1936 with the inaugural class that included Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Cobb and Mathewson.

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series