Way back in the 1920s a lot of ball players barnstormed during the winter trying to make a few extra buck, trying to keep in shape for the regular season, trying to grow the game, trying to get away from the drudgery of an everyday off-season job. That made it possible for fans in places that had no contact with Major League Baseball except through the radio or local newspaper to meet big leaguers and watch them play baseball at its best level. This is the story of how my Grandfather met Walter Johnson, at least as it was told to me.
During the 1920s Johnson did a barnstorming tour or two. One of those came through Oklahoma close to where my Grandfather and Grandmother lived. They worked on a small farm owned by a man named George (last name left off because he probably still has relatives around). George owned the farm and my Grandfather was a tenant. That could be a bad combination but because both men liked each other a lot it worked out well. They spent a lot of time together, loved baseball, and George owned an old jalopy that he used to take my Grandfather around in when Granddad needed to go somewhere.
He also owned the plot of land where Uncle Joe had his still (see the article “The Moonshiner and the Church League” of 2 October 2013 for details on Uncle Joe, the still, and my Grandfather’s role in the enterprise). Of course George knew about the still and was content to let it stay where it was because he got a Mason Jar full of the “stash” every time Uncle Joe made a new batch. So the relationship between George and my family was close.
Sometime in the 1920s the word came that Walter Johnson was leading a team across country and they were going to stop in Oklahoma (Muskogee, I think, but don’t remember for sure after all these years). Well, Granddad and George wanted to see him pitch, so they decided to take a couple of days off, drive down to Muskogee (again, don’t hold me to the name of the town) and see the game. There were a couple of problems. First, my Grandmother was pregnant and getting her safely to Muskogee and back in George’s jalopy was going to be a problem (apparently she wasn’t near delivery, but was obviously pregnant). Second, Mrs. George didn’t like baseball, didn’t care who was pitching, and thought Muskogee was a long way in an old car. And finally, it wasn’t much of a car.
I never saw the jalopy. By the time I was born, it was gone, buried, and in whatever afterlife exists for things run by the internal combustion engine. But it was legendary in the family. The shocks were shot, the tires weren’t exactly bald, but they weren’t new either. There were no springs in the backseat (another reason my Grandmother couldn’t go) and George had to carry a couple of jugs of water to keep the radiator from exploding. So neither of the women wanted to go to Muskogee in what was just a few bolts short of a deathtrap.
Well, that was OK, because there was always Uncle Joe. And with Uncle Joe came the “stash.” And of course Uncle Joe was more than happy to go along (and bring a few bottles of his finest).
So sometime during the week (it was a weekday, I don’t know which) they said good-bye to the women and headed off in a car that both wives were absolutely sure wouldn’t make it half way to Muskogee, let along make it all the way back (but, of course, you do have to humor the absolutely crazy). They had the jugs of water, enough sandwiches to cover a couple of days, three bottles of Uncle Joe’s finest, a few dollars, a toothbrush, and little else. Other than stopping at every other creek on the way to fill the radiator and refill the jugs, the trip went without incident (somewhere along the line they had to get gas, but I don’t remember any stories about it). Of course the “stash” helped ease the problem of the shocks. When they got to Muskogee they had no money for a hotel room, so it was decided to park at the local fair grounds (which was where the ballpark was) for the night. Apparently they weren’t alone and that created a problem. Who got to sleep with the stash? Somebody had to or it might be stolen in the night. This is a big deal because two of the guys were going to have to sleep under the car while the stash guard got to sleep inside the car. Well, it was an easy choice; it was George’s car so he got the interior (and the stash).
The next morning it dawned on our three intrepid travelers that they couldn’t take Uncle Joe’s best into the ballpark. They also couldn’t leave in the jalopy because the damned thing didn’t lock and everyone around knew what clear liquid you kept in Mason Jars. So the chance of any of the jars (and by this point at least one would have been empty) still being there at the end of the game was tiny. They decided to hide it. I’ve never been quite sure where (the story changed a time or two when I heard it) but it seems they found what they considered a safe place.
The weather was dry, the crowd was big (for Muskogee), and the cost of the game was cheap enough even Granddad, George, and Uncle Joe could afford a ticket (I think I remember hearing “a quarter.”). They got seats part way up the visitors side. The fair grounds ballpark is gone so I have no idea how many rows that was, but it seems, from everything else they said, that it wasn’t too high up the grandstand.
Walter Johnson and his team showed up, took batting practice, signed a few autographs, then the home team took the field. Johnson pitched the first three innings and Granddad told me he’d never forget the way he mowed down the Muskogee team. No one got on base, only a couple of guys even hit the ball, and after three innings Johnson exited the game. That was the cue the crowd needed. Half the fans in the grandstand rushed the field, Granddad included. They clustered around Walter Johnson, patted him on the back, shook his hand. My Granddad managed to reach the front of the mob and got to briefly shake The Big Train’s hand. He told me he was in utter awe of having touched Walter Johnson.
The Johnson team won the game after order was restored (the score changed a time or two in the telling) and Granddad, George, and Uncle Joe started home, after recovering the stash. It was too far to get home in one night. I’ve never been sure if the distance was too far, the headlights didn’t work (or even if there were headlights), or they just wanted one more night on the road, but they stopped about half way home and pulled off into a field. Apparently the evening was taken up with talking about the game, enjoying each other’s company, and sharing the last of the stash with the farmer who owned the field where they stayed. George again got the interior for overnight.
The next morning they took off for home and arrived in the afternoon. For much of my upbringing, my Grandfather told his story. It got a little better with age (but then so do my tales), but it was one of his favorites. I met George later and he told pretty much the same story, so I always believed it was true (more or less). For my Grandfather it was the only time he actually met a big league star and he was sure it was worth every minute of the trip. Both wives were sure they’d wasted value time goofing off.