Brad Eastland, The Sports Philosopher: FORGET MARCH OF 2010….LET’S PRETEND IT’S SEPTEMBER 30th, 1927!

March 28, 2010
Share this story:

      The lull is taking longer than I thought, people.

      I mean the February-is-always-a-dry-sports-month lull I mentioned in this column a few weeks ago, which has now extended deep into March.   Sports is in a slump.   Dryness is everywhere.   Nothing is going on.  My jaw is set in a perpetual yawn.   I’m depressed.

      The funny thing is, as bland as February and March have been, I know we’re in for a great sports April.   Zenyatta runs in the Apple Blossom.   The college hoops title game finally gets played.   The NBA playoffs finally arrive.   Tiger Woods finally returns to golf, at the Masters, and won’t that be a hoot?   Talk about a carnival.   Instead of the traditional Green Jacket, I hear Augusta National is offering a bought-and-paid-for young blonde indiscreet loudmouthed money-grubbing former hooker as first prize, and ever since this was announced the Tiger of Tail has reportedly been practicing his putting and popping his penile potency pills at a prodigious pace.  (Okay, that might be just a rumor, but in the sports world the line between rumor and fact is pretty blurry these days….)


Arguably, the two greatest to ever play the game, Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth.



      And of course April always means Opening Day!   It’s this coming Sunday!   Uh, you know.   Baseball.   In the old days nobody had to add the word “baseball” when uttering the words “Opening Day”, but baseball isn’t what it used to be.   It’s still the greatest game, just no longer the National Pastime.   So yes, in case it’s no longer obvious, I mean baseball.

      Anyway, I was thinking.   While we wait out the interminable dryness of March, and in honor of baseball itself (which along with the Civil War is one of the two genuinely interesting things that has ever happened in this country), I thought it might be a good idea as your loyal Philosopher o’ Sport to educate and entertain you with a review of a pretty cool baseball game—not the best baseball game—but possibly the most fascinating single baseball game ever played.   At least with respect to coincidence and quirkyness.  

      The date was September 30th, 1927.   First of all, let me say up front that September 30th is a special day for me anyway.   It’s the day, in 1996, that my kid was born.   That was a pretty good day.   Furthermore, since I often double as this paper’s Dr. of Ancient Filmology, I should mention that it is also a tragic day, at least as it pertains to American film history.   Because in 1955, September 30th was the day the great and promising actor James Dean was killed in a car crash.   Bummer.  

      But way back in 1927, September 30th was a day of pure joy, unfettered praise, and celebration.

      The praise was for Babe Ruth.   For it was the previous day when the Sultan of Swat had tied his own record of 59 home runs in a season, and now, on the season’s penultimate afternoon, September 30th, 1927, in the old Yankee Stadium (appropriately nicknamed for all time “the house that Ruth built”) he was trying to do for his adoring fans what was then unthinkable—hit a 60th home run.   

      Let’s put this into perspective.   In 1927 the home run was not yet the ho-hum staple of baseball it is now.   In fact, the Bambino basically invented the home run, being the first player to ever hit 30, 40, or 50 ‘taters in a single season.   Now he was trying to be the first to hit 60.   Also in 1927, his teammate Lou Gehrig wound up 2nd in the American League with 47 home runs.   But to get to the man who hit the 3rd most home runs in the A. L. in 1927, you have to drop all the way down to Tony Lazzeri (also of the Yankees), who pounded out….wait for it….18.   Yes, that’s right.   The 3rd most home runs in the entire American League in 1927 was a whopping 18 round-trippers.   (A couple guys who you never heard of managed to hit 30 over in the National League.)   So you can see that all this makes what Ruth and Gehrig were doing in 1927 the equivalent of, oh I don’t know, Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard each hitting about 100 home runs this year, or next year or last year, or something equally hard to believe.

      Ruth stepped to the plate in the 8th inning to face Washington Senators lefty Tom Zachary, who had retired him all three times they had squared off that day.   With the count either 1-1, 2-1, or 3-2 (historical accounts vary) the Babe tied into a Zachary curve ball and slammed one high and hard and far down the right-field line.   The gods were kind.   The ball stayed fair by about six inches.   Maybe. (Zachary said later, regretting his choice of a curve, “I should have thrown a fast one at his big fat head.”)   Fair or foul, Babe Ruth had just belted his 60th home run of the season.   The Babe was his usual meek, modest self afterwards: “Sixty, count ‘em sixty!   Let’ see some other son of a bitch match that!” he said.   Zachary maintained for the rest of his life that the ball was foul…. 

      If that’s all that happened on that blustery autumn day in 1927, it would have been well worth the approximately one dollar & twenty-five cents admission, don’t you think?   Even adjusted for inflation.

      But something else happened that day which takes that game from the great to the celestial.

      On September 30th, 1927, in Yankee Stadium, on the same day that Babe Ruth broke the single season home-run record, Walter Johnson played in his final major league baseball game.   

      Who is Walter Johnson, you ask?   Nobody special.   Merely the greatest pitcher to ever throw a baseball.

      That’s right.   Better than Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell,  Bob Feller, Dizzy Dean, Satchel Paige, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, or Roger Clemens.

      Really?   Again, yes.   For serious baseball historians (like LaVerne Online’s very own T.S.P., thank you very much) this is almost a no-brainer.   The “Big Train” won 417 games, pitching mostly for pathetic, 2nd-division teams.   Only Cy Young won more, and he played many more years for far better teams.   Johnson pitched 110 complete-game shut-outs, still the record.   He once pitched a shut-out in a game that lasted 18 innings, thus allowing no runs over the course of the equivalent of two full 9-inning games.   That’s also a record.   Consider this: During the 2nd half of the last century, three of pitching’s mightiest records fell: Gibson broke the record for lowest single-season ERA (that’s code for “earned run average”), Don Drysdale broke the record for most consecutive scoreless innings, and Nolan Ryan shattered the record for total career strike-outs.   All three records had been held by Walter Johnson.

      I suppose these are the accomplishments one might expect from a pitcher whose fastball has been reckoned, by many experts, to be the speediest spheroid ever propelled by the arm of mortal man.

      Did any of Johnson’s contemporaries think the compulsively moral, princely Johnson was the greatest?   Again, yes-indeedee.   Hall-of-Famers Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, Sam Crawford, the peerless Ty Cobb, and even Ruth himself, all judged Johnson to be the finest slabman they ever faced.   Among sportwriters of the day, no less luminaries than Grantland Rice, Fred Lieb, and Ring Lardner all judged Walter to be the best.   In the case of Lardner, it provides an amusing anecdote: In 1933, as he lay dying, Lardner was visited in the hospital by the other great sportswriter and ironist of that time, Damon Runyon (who also wrote “Guys and Dolls”).   Fittingly, the last conversation these two most cerebral of scribes ever had, indeed their last argument, was over who was the greater pitcher.   Neither was in a hurry.   These two wordsmiths were also known for their famous long silences.   After sitting silently together for nearly half an hour—Lardner in his deathbed, Runyon on it—Lardner finally asked, “Damon, who was the greatest pitcher in the world?”   “Matty,” Runyon said, referring to his idol, Christy Mathewson.   Lardner shook his head and rolled his eyes in disgust, rolled over onto his side and away from Runyon, responding with, simply, “Good-bye, Damon.”   “Good-bye, Ring,” Runyon replied.

      Ironically, when Runyon himself died 13 years later, on December 10th, 1946, Water Johnson died on the exact same day.   Perhaps that was Runyon’s way of saying he’d changed his mind….


 (One of these days, I need to do a whole column on Walter Johnson.   This tall, raw-boned Kansan with the sweeping sidearm delivery was one of those rare athletes who was admired as much for his moral rectitude as for his strength of limb.   He came to embody “gentlemanly conduct in the heat of battle,” as acclaimed sportswriter Shirley—father of Maury—Povich once put it.   They were maybe the two greatest players ever, but off the field Johnson was the polar opposite of Ruth.   Beyond the diamond the Babe was a drunken, foul-mouthed, woman-chasing, irresponsible spoiled child.   Johnson was an unimpeachably honest man, temperate in his habits, soft-spoken, scandal-free, a loyal family man blessed with a storybook marriage.   When his beloved wife Hazel died, Johnson didn’t eat sleep or leave the coffin’s side for three full days.   Not terribly religious, still he remarked at the time, “I can’t understand how God could do this to me.”  Neither can I.)


      But back, now, to that storied game of September 30th, 1927.   What made Johnson’s final appearance in a baseball game so weird is that it was not as a pitcher.   It was as a batter.    Odd.   But it does allow me to point out that among the Big Train’s many records is his incredible achievement of once hitting .433 over the course of an entire season, by far the highest-ever batting average for a pitcher, a record that will doubtless last at least until the 22nd century.   On this day, he pinch-hit for Zachary in the 9th, the latter still fuming over having given up Ruth’s 60th homer an inning earlier.   A casual fan (or a talentless screenwriter) might have insisted that Johnson end his career with a dramatic home run, to the awe and delight of the crowd.   But wouldn’t a much better story have been if the greatest pitcher of all time ended his career by flying out to the greatest hitter of all time?

      Well, if you agree with me, you’re in luck.   Because that’s exactly what happened.    In his final plate appearance, in his final act as a major league baseball player, Walter Perry Johnson flied out lazily to shallow right field….where the ball was caught by….George Herman “Babe” Ruth.

      Gives me chills just typing it.  

      Want more chills?   Here’s a YouTube of Walter pitching to the Babe in a World War II benefit game, in 1942, long after both players had retired:  .  

      And here’s Walter in his prime, throwing side-arm, that fluid, whip-saw motion in full flower: .

      Well I don’t know about you, but that was fun.   A thrill.   Just to have the opportunity to merely talk about the grand old days of Sport.   But wouldn’t it be great if, during the occasional dry days of “modern” Sport, we could actually transport ourselves, ‘go back in time every so often to days like that?   To games like the one that took place in the old Yankee Stadium on September 30th, 1927?   Wouldn’t that be great?

      Well, you can.   I do it all the time.   In my head.

Brad Eastland

Brad Eastland


The Sports Philosopher!

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, baseball zealot, and sports nut, in no particular order.   Brad’s other recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    Brad has also written four novels and over 20 short-stories.    Samples of his best fiction work can be discovered within the links below :







One Response to “Brad Eastland, The Sports Philosopher: FORGET MARCH OF 2010….LET’S PRETEND IT’S SEPTEMBER 30th, 1927!”

  1. Great column Brad … way to make lemonade!

Leave a Reply