Ten years into his career, Walter Johnson already had a considerable reputation. Entering 1917, he’d led the league in victory four consecutive years, and the year before that streak, he went 33-12 with a AL-best 1.39 ERA. He’d been the strikeout king for five years running, and had three more years to hold that ttle.
Yet 1917 had been an uncharacteristically slow start from the Big Train. He entered today’s game with a 3-5 record and a 2.78 ERA, which was more or less league average. He’d given up 14 runs (12 earned) over his previous three outings, and the Browns battered him for five runs on 10 hits over just five innings in his most recent outing way back on May 19.
The weeklong layoff was unusual for Johnson, and Washington’s Evening Star reported that the Senators star hadn’t been his best self.
Chicago fans who have been coming out to Comiskey Park daily in hope of seeing Walter Johnson work probably will not be disappointed again tomorrow, for Manager [Clark] Griffith this evening said he probably would start his high-priced star in the Sabbath contest. According to Griff, the reason for Walter's poor showing recently can be attributed to a sore arm, the effect of having caught cold in it.
Eddie Cicotte, meanwhile, had never been stronger. He rolled into this start posing a threat to Johnson’s claim as the American League’s best, having already beaten Washington in the series opener with a complete game (Griffith accused him of throwing a shine ball). He was 7-2 with an 0.78 ERA, and had allowed just one earned run over 452⁄3 innings in May.
Johnson responded to the challenge, going the distance while scattering just six hits and allowing just one earned run. Yet that wasn’t good enough to beat Cicotte and the White Sox, who were just a little better in every facet of the game and sealed the series with a 4-1 victory as a result.
Even though it was approaching Memorial Day – then more commonly called Decoration Day – the weather was still windy, cold and damp (which, again, was better than elsewhere in the Midwest, where tornadoes didn’t stop). The conditions put a premium on defense, and the Sox held up better in this regard.
Washington shortstop Sam Crane had problems. The Chicago Tribune said the White Sox scored their first run by testing him.
[Joe] Jackson opened with a hit that squizzled off Crane’s wrists and made second on [Happy] Felsch’s out. [Chick] Gandil soaked another too hot for Crane to handle and while the ball was being recovered Jackson scored.
Likewise, the Sox scored two insurance runs in the eighth because Crane dropped a wind-altered pop-up behind short with the bases loaded and two outs. The Sox only scored one run on their own – Nemo Leibold doubled, Eddie Collins singled him home in the third – and that’s reflected in three of Johnson’s four runs being unearned.
Cicotte didn’t need the insurance. The Retrosheet box score says he gave up six hits; the newspapers said he only allowed five, and one by Johnson shouldn’t have counted.
Chicago had a margin of only one run when Johnson opened the eighth with a liner of third base. Every one except McCormick, who was working behind the plate, thought it lit just outside the foul line, but the arbiter called it fair and gave Walter a two base hit. It was our idea that with three umpires working it would be up to the judge at third base – Connolly in this case – to watch the left field foul line, otherwise why subject three arbiters to the rigors of the 1917 brand of weather?
But if it was up to Connolly McCormick did not wait for his associate judge, but gave the decision himself, and, of course, Tom could not cross a pal by reversing it. The drive hit in the soft earth and left a visible dent, which McCormick was asked to inspect, but he refused, and after various relays of kickers had been waved away from the plate the game went on.
Fortunately, Griffith played for the tie on the road by having Joe Judge bunt the pitcher to third. Cicotte then stepped up and recorded the other two outs on a pair of soft pop-ups.
Cicotte improved to 8-2 with a 0.80 ERA, while Johnson fell to 3-6 with a 2.61 ERA. While there was still plenty of season remaining, Johnson wasn’t going to be able to make up that kind of ground.
Record: 26-13 | Box score