Johnson will forever be known as the backbone and heart and soul of the Washington Senators franchise. Though the franchise had its share of Hall of Famers, including Sam Rice, Goose Goslin, Joe Cronin, Bucky Harris and others, there was nobody that represented greatness for the Washington Senators franchise that Mr Johnson. What some people do not know is that 100 years ago today, Johnson was about to leave the Senators and the American League all together.
On December 4, 1914, Johnson signed a three year contract with the Chicago Whales of the Federal League. One of the brief competitors to MLB, the Federal League was considered a threat after a successful first season. Unfortunately, the league folded after the 1915 campaign. Johnson's three year contract was for $17,500 a year, a big salary for the times and the reason a lot of other players had left either the American of National Leagues. Remember, the security of playing AL baseball was not a thought as the league had only been around itself for 14 years. Owner Clark Griffith, as well as many other AL owners, were known for being cheap, even in regards to their best players.
Rather than let him walk, Griffith used a bullying tactic when he claimed he had already reserved Johnson's option for the 1915 season. For years, the reserve clause allowed teams to sign their players to contracts for the next season, with an option for the following year that was generally exercised after the playing season had ended. Griffith claimed that Walter Johnson was property of the Washington Senators and therefore, could not be claimed or tampered with by another ball club.
What made matters more interesting is the fact that AL President Ban Johnson actually took the side of The Big Train. According to Ban, Walter was "damaged goods worth getting rid of." It made no sense how the AL President could be in favor of one of his top pitchers leaving the American League all together, but seemed to be the stand taken by one of the more controversial figures of his time.
Griffith would then travel to Kansas to meet with Walter Johnson, claiming that the option clause was binding and legal. When Johnson didn't stand down, the two came to an agreement on a new deal. He was given a three year contract, something not common at that time but also not forbidden. Griffith would pay his star pitcher $12,500 a season, $5,000 a year less than he would have gotten from the Chicago Whales, who played their home games at Wrigley Field. According to baseball reference, Johnson made an estimated $239,250 in his 21 year career. And while Johnson was indeed given a three year contract to remain with the Senators before the 1915 season, it looks like he got a raise after 1915. He made $16,000 a year from the years of 1916-1919.
Imagine if Walter Johnson left the Senators to sign with the Chicago Whales. He would have pitched for them in 1915, but after the season the league folded. Through the 1914 season, Johnson had 159 career wins. At this point, he was right smack entering the prime of his career. Lets say he won 20 games for the Whales in 1915 (he won 27 for the Senators in 1915). Many players from the Federal League were purchased, including several players from the Chicago Whales team going to the NL's Chicago Cubs. Imagine Johnson pitching the second half of his career in the NL for the Cubs. Maybe the Cubs win another World Series title. They made it to the Fall Classic in 1918. Having Johnson on the staff would have likely been enough to put them over the top. Then the Red Sox would have gone between 1916 and 2004 between WS Championships. Perhaps the Cubs win another one or two during the time of Johnson's remaining career.
What if the Red Sox picked him up? Well... if that was the case, then his stay in Boston would not have been long. The Red Sox won the World Series in 1915, 1916 and 1918 without Johnson, so they would have been favorites to win in 1919 and 1920 with him. It would likely be around that time when cheap owner Harry Frazee would have sold him somewhere, maybe to the Yankees... I can do this all day, the bottom line is any team that had Walter Johnson on it would have been in much better shape than they were.
Though a lot of the Senators teams Johnson played on were not very good, he did finally win a World Series in 1924 and an AL Pennant in 1915 with Washington. Had Griffith not fought his attempt to jump to the Federal League, the Senators would not have won their World Series and two Pennants. Without Walter Johnson, the Washington Senators may have never won a Pennant or World Series in their entire history.