Top positive review
9 people found this helpful
on October 2, 2012
As a rule, I tend to be pretty dubious of biographies written by relatives (or close friends, etc.) of the subject. They tend to be whitewashes at best and, at worst, badly written whitewashes. Big Train is a happy exception to the rule.
In one sense, this is easy - there seems to be little to no evidence that Walter Johnson had anything TO whitewash. Not a hint of scandal, boorishness, distasteful personal habit or significant vice has ever been attached to the man or his legacy. In fact, it is hard to think of another public figure who was so widely admired and respected by both his peers and his audience. Johnson was thoughtful, soft spoken, straightforward, hard working, modest and unassuming. The man was, in a sense, pretty dull. As such, he could have easily made a pretty dull subject. That he is not is a tribute to the facts and circumstances of his career, and a serious nod to his grandson, the biographer.
Exhaustively researched and noted, the book is filled with contemporary accounts that serve to illuminate Johnson's career and times. Thomas quotes his primary sources at length, but prudently, allowing us to see Johnson as his teammates, the press, opponents and other commentators saw him. If there is a tone of adulation here, it comes from those who knew and watched him, not from the author himself directly. He does a fine job of detailing The Big Train's times, on and off the field. But mostly on the field.
Perhaps the most moving chapters in the book are those detailing Johnson's World Series seasons, coming late in his career, after toiling so long and hard for mediocre (at best) teams. It is hard, even knowing the outcomes going in, not to be moved and rooting for him.
It is hard from our perspective today to really grasp Johnson's accomplishments. Just the win total alone (417) is astonishing. Realizing that he spent most of his career on bad teams makes the number all the more amazing. Consider this: Johnson lost (LOST) 26 1 - 0 games in his career. I'm not going to go on and on, but he really was amazing.
Walter Johnson is unfortunately not nearly as well known today as he ought to be. Part of this is very likely the fact that he was not a colorful, larger than life sort of character off the mound. On the mound, however, he was a giant (small g, of course) and in a class by himself. This book has a few years on it and isn't likely to start selling big at this point, but it is a very worthy addition to the baseball history shelf and a reminder that nice guys can finish first once in a while, too.