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VINE VOICEon 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.
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VINE VOICEon August 21, 2010
Henry Thomas's bio of his grandfather Walter Johnson is great example of how one can write in great detail about someone's life while keeping it interesting. Johnson's life and career are covered exhaustingly, but the book always flowed to me. Most interesting was his thorough account of Johnson's career in the western minor leagues before his major league career.

I do find Thomas's discussion of whether Johnson was "the greatest" to be superfluous. Just lay out the facts and let the readers draw their conclusion. Readers would have also benefited from a discussion about the dead ball era, during which Johnson played for the bulk of his career. The style of play was different, and knowing how pitching differed between today and that era would have added a different dimension, although some aspects come through in discussions about pitchers being expected to pitch AT LEAST 9 innings a game.

Still, a very thoroughly researched and well written contribution to baseball literature.
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Top Contributor: Baseballon December 9, 2011
This is an excellent baseball biography about one of the games greatest players. The narrative is clear and concise. It makes you feel as if you have known "The Big Train" all of your life. Very good detail about Johnson's beginnings in his baseball career. His playing days in Idaho and then moving on to Washington to become the games greatest pitcher. The book also points out how much better his statisics could have been if he had played on better teams of his time such as the A's or Yankees. If you are a baseball fan and appreciate its history, like myself, this is a must read book!
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on June 12, 2017
Great Book about baseball's greatest pitcher of the deadball and beginning of the home run era
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on April 11, 2006
I will just one particular reason why I like this book. It will seem trivial to some readers, and I will not be surprised if this review gets negative recommendations because of it. After all, the author did not deliberately intend for this "selling point" to occur, but it did. What is it? Well, Henry Thomas is a stickler for names. He insists on calling teams and places what they were called at the time instead of what we refer to them today. The Washington ballpark is not referred to as Griffith Stadium until the early 20's. References are made to the Cleveland Naps and the New York Highlanders. where am I going with this? In the third chapter, Thomas explains how the owners of the Washington American League team decide to officially change the name of team from "Senators" to "Nationals" for good luck. The name did not catch on with fans, who still preferred to call them "Senators", although "Nats" (short for both seNATorS and NATionalS) was a common nickname. Still, Thomas consistently refers to Johnson's team as the "Nationals" since that was the franchise's official name until 1956.

This book was written in 1995. Although there were fans who dreamed major league baseball would eventually return to Washington, D.C., it still seemed like impossible for many people. But eventually, the Montr?al Expos WERE moved to Washington, and Thomas' choice of words proved prophetic. Commissioner Bud Selig wanted to rename the team the "Washington Senators" after the team he remembered in his youth. D.C. Mayor Tony Williams was adamantally opposed to "Senators" since D.C. had no voting representation in Congress---he wanted the team named "Washington Grays" after the champion Negro League team that used to play at Griffith Stadium. "Washington Nationals" was chosen as a compromise.

The result is that if you are sitting in the stands at RFK Stadium watching a Nats game (perhaps the home opener, as I was doing today) and you turn to read Thomas' biography of Walter Johnson and his "Nationals", you realize that the current team is part of a long tradition of Washington baseball, and it is a proud tradition. The proudest part of the history of Washington baseball was the career of Walter Johnson. This book reminds finds why.
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on August 14, 2005
I spent thousands of hours with baseball history, and created a game, played with dice, using the best players of all time, based on their ten best years. I leveled the playing field, adding homerun power to dead ball hitters and cutting it back from modern hitters. The game has reminded other people of the movie about Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other players getting the chance to play ball once again, in Kevin Costner's back yard.

Walter Johnson is clearly the greatest pitcher who ever lived, based on his stats. His 5 best years are better than any other pitcher's. His 10 best years are better than any other pitcher's. Not only is he the toughest pitcher of all time to pitch any given inning, but he gives you a lot more innings than the other top guys.

You could make a case for Pedro Martinez. His "per inning" stats over a 5 year prime are comparable to Johnson's, but he won't give you the innings, so his value to a team is limited by the amount of innings you can use him.

Koufax would be more competition for Walter Johnson if Koufax had 10 great seasons, but unfortunately he was misused and his arm couldn't take the misuse. Still, Johnson was better. It is astonishing to actually say that someone was better than Koufax, because I remember watching Koufax when I was a kid, and the man was awesome. I wasn't even a Dodger fan. I can understand how the fan of an opposing team could get all caught up in watching Walter Johnson. It's amazing to watch a true artist at work. Koufax was the best I have ever seen.

The reason I didn't give the book 5 stars was because there's just too much repetition about what a wonderful man Walter was. Enough already. You can tell me once, twice, five times, but by the 800th time I'm tired of it. That's what happens when your biography is written by your grandson. It gives the book a sort of pathos that it can do without. It's uncomfortable. Poor grandpa is dead. He was such a nice man. Everybody loved him. Anyone who didn't is a rat. Alright, already.
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on October 30, 2008
Has there ever been a Major League Baseball star who was as nice a person as Walter Johnson a.k.a. "The Big Train?"

Even Christy Mathewson and Ernie Banks and a bunch of other guys over the years who were great people would be hard-pressed to top Johnson. Walter was about as kind and gentle as a pro athlete could ever get. That's the main thing I came away with after reading this biography of the Hall of Fame pitcher.

I knew Johnson, just from his victory total alone, was one of the greatest pitchers of all time. (Some still think he was the best.) I didn't know what high character the man had, and that everyone - including infamous nasty guys like Ty Cobb and John McGraw - loved him, too. You read the book and you'll know why Johnson was such a beloved figure.

Despite his superstar celebrity status in Washington, D.C., Johnson had a lot of disappointments and tragedies in his life, too. The book, written by his grandson Henry Thomas, tells us all of them. Being in the family, he would know a lot of family information.

Normally, I would think that since Thomas was a direct relation to the great pitcher, the book would too biased but everyone had so many good things to say about Walter, that I believe this a true account of the man.I would love to see films of him and his 100 m.p.h. fastball.

People talk about role-models in sports. Well, here is one.
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on March 24, 2017
One of the greatest, if not the greatest, pitchers the game of baseball has ever seen. Well chronicled by his grandson, author Hank Thomas. Any Washington baseball fan, or baseball historian should have this volume in their baseball library.
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on July 18, 2016
A+++ writing
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on December 26, 2011
Only real baseball fans seem to realize it, but Walter Johnson was probably the best pitcher in history. One excellent to way to look at this is to count the number of times someone led his league in some basic categories that everyone recognizes - wins, ERA, strikeouts, and WHIP. It gives you a really good idea how dominant a player was over an extended period of time, no matter what era he played in.

And Johnson did just that 29 times! The next closest pitcher is Lefty Grove, with 25. Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth were able to do the same with similar offensive categories (runs, RBIs, HRs, steals, and average) only 27 times. So, arguably, Johnson may possibly have been the best baseball player ever.

The book is particularly good at translating this into the game-to-game feats for each of the "Big Train's" individual years in the bigs. In fact, if you're not a huge baseball nut like I am, there's a possibility you could get a little bored with the shutouts after shutouts after shutouts, the winning streaks, the extra inning victories, etc.

It's not all hero worship though. The book does a good job of showing Johnsons struggles too (he often started seasons slowly, had a number of injuries and illnesses, and was a good - if not great - manager).

And it's not all stats either. A constant theme is how much "Barney" was loved, not just by DC fans, but by pretty much everyone in baseball. This is probably best shown in the Nats' winning the World Series in 1924, when Johnson was winding down his career. It seemed like everyone was rooting for him - even the opposing Giants.

This may be my favorite part of the book. 1924 was arguably one of the best Series ever (based on: going the full 7 games, the number of extra-inning games, the number of lead changes, the overall run differential, etc.), and Johnson's role in it could not have been any more dramatic.

Add to all this the fact that he was an absolutely wonderful human being to boot (he reminded me a lot of Cal Ripken) and you've got a really excellent, very inspiring tale.

The only possible criticism I have is that the author may have paid too much attention to the baseball side of Barney and not enough to his life. In particular, I would have loved to know more about his wife. She was the daughter of a real senator and quite the debutante. They seemed to have a wonderful marriage and family. Tragically, though, she died very young.

Even given that, it's an excellent book. Can't recommend it highly enough.
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