On May 14, 1914, Washington Senators pitcher Walter Johnson throws his 54th consecutive scoreless inning in Sportsman Park, Illinois, leading his Washington Senators to victory over the St. Louis Browns, 10-5. With the win, Johnson broke a 1910 record set by Jack Coombs of the Philadelphia Athletics, who threw 53 innings in a row without letting up a run.
Johnson, a Weiser, Idaho, native, was discovered by scouts while pitching semi-pro ball in the West. In an era before the modern radar gun, Johnson’s fastball was thought to be the fastest in the world. Though he was dubbed the “Big Train,” the ferocity of his pitches was a stark contrast to his gentlemanly manner on and off the mound. In an era when ballplayers were typically profane and more than a little rough around the edges, Johnson was pious, soft-spoken and dignified.
Johnson’s scoreless inning streak in 1913 began on April 10, and lasted 55 and 2/3 innings pitched. He threw an impressive six shutouts in a row before finally being scored on by the Browns on May 14. 1913 was just one of Johnson’s many dominant seasons. Over the course of his career, he led the American League in strikeouts 12 times. At retirement, he led the American League in complete games with 29, led in ERA with a 1.14 and had pitched 11 shutouts and struck out 243 batters on his way to 36 wins and an .837 winning percentage.
Though Johnson’s 417 career wins make him second only to Cy Young, he also lost 279 games, mostly because of the ineptitude of his team. His career ERA of 2.17 ranks seventh all-time, but his .591 winning percentage is relatively low, as he spent the majority of his career with a perennially losing ball club in Washington. Fans often said of the Senators: “first in war, first in peace, last in the American League.”
Upon his retirement in 1927, Johnson held the career record for strikeouts with 3,508, a record that would stand for 56 years. His record of 110 career shutouts, 20 more than the next closest pitcher, is likely to stand forever. Johnson was a charter member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.
Johnson’s record of consecutive scoreless innings stood for 55 years until 1968 when Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers put together 58 and 2/3 innings without allowing a run. Orel Hershiser of the Dodgers bested them both in 1988, with 59 consecutive shutout innings.