But Johnson didn’t share his fellow Republicans’ killer instinct. He hardly campaigned, and when he did, he often focused on local issues and spoke in platitudes. He refrained from going negative. President Trump would have called him low energy.
“In all my political life, I never met an opponent like Walter,” said Johnson’s Democratic opponent in that 1940 election, Rep. William Byron. “He never said one unkind or uncomplimentary thing about me.”
Years earlier, Johnson had made the same impression on baseball players — including Ty Cobb, who admitted he took advantage of Johnson’s good nature by crowding the plate, knowing the kindhearted pitcher hated to hit batters.
Before seeking a seat in the House, Johnson had spent 21 years as a Senator, pitching for the old Washington Senators. He led them to their only World Series title in 1924, when fans from around the nation rallied around the team and its popular, aging pitcher. Johnson finished as baseball’s career leader in strikeouts (a record later broken by Nolan Ryan), and went on to manage the Senators and Cleveland Indians from 1929 to 1935. Three years after resigning as Indians manager, Johnson won a seat on the Montgomery County Commission in 1938 despite running as a Republican in what was even then a blue county.
That impressive rookie performance and Johnson’s name recognition convinced Republicans to recruit him to challenge Byron, a freshman Democrat, in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, which included some D.C. suburbs and western Maryland.
When Johnson announced his campaign in January 1940, he offered this characteristically understated explanation: “I’ve been thinking of it for some time and decided to see whether the people around here want a new representative.”
Johnson’s grandson and biographer, Henry Thomas, said that when GOP officials approached Johnson about running, he got them to agree that he wouldn’t have to make any speeches. Johnson came close to literally fulfilling that.
“Gee whiz, the folks certainly have been nice about this whole thing,” he said after winning the Republican primary in May 1940. But Johnson’s immense popularity with voters and reporters alike helped him overcome a lack of political charisma.
“Mr. Johnson, now 52, is the handsomest of the old-time stars, and ought to do well in politics,” the Washington Evening Star predicted. “He is a red-hot Republican, and in his box score the New Deal is just so many goose eggs. He preaches old-fashioned Republican doctrine and promises a New Deal shutout if he gets elected. Mr. Johnson says he’s all for saving and against spending.”
Although he was a political novice, Johnson was no stranger to politics. In June 1914, he had married the daughter of Rep. Edwin Roberts, a Nevada Republican, with the Senate chaplain presiding. A few hours before the wedding, Johnson pitched a four-hit complete game victory over the Philadelphia Athletics, as “newsies” shouted, “Walter Johnson to be married tonight.”
A quarter-century later, the popular ex-pitcher seemed out of sync with the polarized political environment of 1940, when isolationist Republicans railed against FDR for breaking with tradition by seeking a third term, and, in their formulation, scheming to get the U.S. into World War II. (The election was the setting of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, “The Plot Against America” — and this year’s HBO miniseries of the same name — which imagines isolationist and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh winning the Republican nomination and then defeating FDR.)
In real life, the GOP nominated Wendell Willkie, a businessman with no political experience. When he delivered the opening speech of his campaign in Coffeyville, Kan., party leaders chose Johnson, who had grown up in the area and was known as the “Kansas Cyclone,” to introduce him. The crowd, which numbered in the tens of thousands, gave him a thunderous cheer when he took the stage.
“You were my boyhood hero when I lived in Coffeyville and you are my hero now,” Willkie told Johnson, a line the presidential candidate would use several times during the campaign. “A great baseball player. I hope you will be throwing them out of Congress.”
He then offered the red meat that was lacking in Johnson’s own campaign.
“I charge that here in America, [Roosevelt] has strained our democratic institutions to the breaking point,” Willkie said, warning that if the president won reelection, “you will be serving under an American totalitarian government before the long third term is finished.”
The Post called it “one of the most furious attacks in the history of American presidential campaigns.”
Johnson, meanwhile, ran such a low-key campaign that for much of it, he didn’t even have a phone. It wasn’t until the race’s final months — “unwillingly and only under severe pressure” from his campaign managers, as one newspaper story put it — that he relented and installed one at his farm near Germantown. He was annoyed by the intrusion and suggested his animals were too: “The dogs and chickens are not used to that darn thing yet.”
About a week before the election, the GOP ran a newspaper ad for a Willkie rally at Washington’s Willard Hotel, headlined by former U.S. Solicitor General Thomas Day Thacher and Johnson. The ad described the former pitcher as an “Idol of Washingtonians and lovers of clean sport everywhere.”
That rally encapsulated Johnson’s reticence to jump into the roiling waters of the presidential race. While Thacher attacked FDR’s record, the 800 people at the rally heard Johnson vaguely promise policies that would help Maryland farmers find a market for their products.
But Johnson wasn’t even able to keep on message on that hyperlocal issue. Rep. Joseph W. Martin, who would go on to become speaker of the House, recalled in his autobiography that he tried to coach Johnson during the campaign.
“I am afraid my effort backfired,” Martin wrote. “Since Johnson was an utterly inexperienced speaker, I got some of the boys to write two master speeches for him — one for the farmers of his district and the other for the industrial areas. Alas, he got the two confused. He addressed the farmers on industrial problems, and the businessmen on farm problems.”
Still, on the eve of the election, The Post wrote that Republicans had a strong chance to flip the seat, because Johnson’s baseball heroics from 1907-1927 were still remembered by fans in the region:
In the Sixth District, which includes Montgomery County, there is only one big factor and that was created years ago when the long frame of Walter Johnson was pitching shut-out ball for the Washington Senators. The factor here is hero worship and the enduring admiration of the Big Train’s neighbors for a man who makes no pretense for statesmanship, no show of political ambition, who makes as few speeches as possible and who moves about the district “a plain and simple man” who loves to talk about raising crops and breeding horses.
The Washington Post, 1940
In the newspaper’s analysis, Montgomery County would be key. Even though Democrats in the county outnumbered Republicans 3-1, The Post said that Johnson’s popularity with voters who remembered his baseball exploits might help offset the Democrats’ numerical edge.
But in the end, the Hall of Famer’s star power wasn’t enough, as Byron narrowly carried Montgomery County and won reelection with 53 percent of the vote to Johnson’s 47 percent. Meanwhile, Roosevelt won a third term in a landslide, outpacing Willkie in the electoral college, 449-82, and easily taking Maryland.
“Johnson’s alliance with the Republican platform of isolationism and opposition to Roosevelt’s big-government ‘dictatorship’ swayed the heavily Democratic electorate against him, giving the victory to the able and popular young incumbent,” Johnson’s grandson wrote in “Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train.”
In a tragic postscript, Byron was killed in a plane crash less than two months into his second term, in February 1941, and was succeeded by his widow, Katharine Edgar Byron, Maryland’s first female member of Congress.
The U.S. entered the war later that year after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, effectively ending the isolationist movement in this country. And in August 1942 — two years after running for Congress with an isolationist party — Johnson returned to the baseball diamond to contribute to the war effort. He pitched to Babe Ruth in an Army-Navy relief exhibition at Yankee Stadium, which raised more than $80,000. As Johnson warmed up in his signature sidearm style, the Yankees’ 24-year-old shortstop, Phil Rizzuto, exclaimed from the dugout, “My gosh, he’s throwing sidearm. A fast-baller throwing sidearm!”
The portly Ruth, 47, homered off the still trim Johnson, 54, between games of a Yankees-Senators doubleheader, delighting the 69,000 fans in attendance. (Here’s a great film of that exhibition.) As the two men walked off the field, Johnson shook Ruth’s hand, and Ruth put his arm around Johnson.
“Nice going, Walter,” Ruth said, “and how are things down on the farm?”
Frederic J. Frommer is the author of You Gotta Have Heart: Washington Baseball from Walter Johnson to the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals, and Head of Sport PR at the Dewey Square Group, a public affairs firm in Washington.