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Thomas was recently named the general manager of the Bethesda Big Train, an expansion team in the Clark Griffith League that will begin play this summer in a stadium now under construction at Cabin John Regional Park. The league, a local amateur baseball confederation for college-age players, was founded 54 years ago by its namesake, the former owner of the Washington Senators. The new team, meanwhile, takes its handle from Walter Johnson, nicknamed “the Big Train” by a Washington Post scribe in 1915. Baseball scholars generally rate Johnson as the best pitcher in baseball history and surely the greatest Senator of all time. He was also Thomas’ grandfather.
Thomas was born in 1946, the same year Johnson died. As a youngster, Thomas had no real urge to learn about Johnson, but back when D.C. had a baseball team, it was impossible to escape the Big Train’s celebrity. He picked up tidbits of Johnson’s greatness at the old-timers games and Opening Day functions the family attended at Griffith Stadium, usually as guests of the owner. And, like most baseball fans, Thomas could quote many of the more amazing stats Johnson put up during his career, which lasted from 1907 to 1927 and was played entirely in Washington: 416 wins, 3,508 strikeouts, 113 shutouts, with a 2.17 earned run average and 12 20-win seasons. (Take that, Kevin Brown!) Asked to explain Johnson’s dominance over even the best hitters of his day, Ty Cobb said, “You can’t hit what you can’t see.” Johnson was named to the storied freshman class of the Hall of Fame in 1936, along with Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner.
When Thomas played youth baseball in the ’50s, it was with a team sponsored by the Broad Branch Market…in the Walter Johnson League. During his days on the diamond, Thomas’ family connection often proved an albatross. The last strike came at Wilson High School, where the manager tried to make him fill his granddad’s giant cleats.
“When coaches found out who I was, they were always intent on making a pitcher out of me,” Thomas laughs. “I couldn’t pitch, no matter who my grandfather was.”
So rather than make a living as a boy of summer, Thomas took up nightlife as a profession. Over a career that lasted a little more than two decadesor about as long as Johnson’s stint with the SenatorsThomas managed several bars and clubs around town (including the late and maybe lamented New Wavers’ hangout Poseurs). And, for a time, he didn’t think much at all about Johnson.
But when Thomas read The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence Ritter’s classic 1966 compendium of transcripts from his interviews with old-time baseball players, many of whom had played with or against Johnson, he no longer wanted to keep his distance.
“I was in my 30s when I picked up a copy. Reading all these great stories, so many of them about Walter Johnson, got me excited,” Thomas says. “I found myself thinking, ‘Hey, this guy sounds really neat! This guy…who happens to be my grandfather!’ And I wanted to know more about him.”
He didn’t really need to buy a book to find out how Johnson’s peers had felt about the Big Train. All Thomas had to do was ask his mother. “When I was young, Babe Ruth summoned me just to tell me I should never pay attention to anything bad the reporters wrote about Dad, because he was a wonderful person,” says Carolyn Johnson Thomas, Johnson’s daughter and Hank’s mom, who still lives in Chevy Chase. “That was nice of him to say, but he didn’t have to convince me.”
So, while he kept working nights, Thomas began spending his days at the Library of Congress, poring over microfilms of newspapers and other periodicals from Walter Johnson’s times, just for kicks. He learned all about Johnson’s early days in Washington, when he lived at 1848 Irving St. NW, a row house in Mount Pleasant. And about how Grandpa met and married a Congressman’s daughter, his stint as the Senators’ manager, and how he moved the family to a small farm in what is now Bethesda, where the locals thought so much of Johnson that, after he died, they made him the first baseball player to have a school named in his honor: Walter Johnson High School.
All those years of bookworming first paid off a decade ago, when Bruce Adams, a former chairman of the Montgomery County Council and a real baseball nut (he’s got seats from Griffith Stadium in his living room), used Thomas’ research when trying to convince fellow councilmembers that Johnson’s house on Old Georgetown Road should be designated as historic. Turns out that Adams, too, has family ties to Johnson.
“When my dad was a young boy, he lived near Walter Johnson in Bethesda,” Adams says. “When he was managing the Senators, Walter used to drive his son and my dad with him down to the ballpark for games. I’d heard those stories about the great Walter Johnson my whole life.”
Adams, as part of his council duties, went to Walter Johnson High School for a celebration of Johnson’s 100th birthday in 1987. When some students told him the Hall of Famer’s old farmhouse still stood nearby, he decided to make sure the property was protected from developers.
“Walter Johnson is still the most famous guy who ever lived in Montgomery County,” Adams says.
The house was indeed declared a historic site. Thomas continued going to the Library of Congress, now taking notes, intent on putting together a biography of his grandfather. In 1995, he published Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train. Thomas also convinced Ritter to allow him to produce an audio version of The Glory of Their Times, now available on cassette and CD.
Over the years, Thomas and Adams, who has also put out a baseball book (Fodor’s Ballpark Vacations, written with Margaret Engel, his wife), kept up mainly through coincidental appearances at area baseball shows. They ran into each other at the most recent Senators’ reunion, held in Fairfax in November, and Adams used the opportunity to make Thomas an offer he couldn’t refuse. Adams was heading a nonprofit corporation he’d formed to start up a Clark Griffith League team and build a small, old-fashioned, 550-seat baseball stadium, complete with a hand-operated scoreboard, inside Cabin John. He showed Thomas sketches of the stadium and presented an incredibly impressive lineup of benefactors, including members of the car-dealing Ourisman family and the Povich family, Pepsi, and the Washington Post, which had donated more than half a million dollars to fund the venture. Most of the positions would be voluntary, Adams said, but the team still needed a general manager. Did Thomas want the job?
Oh, and a couple more things before you answer, Adams added: The stadium will be named after Shirley Povich, the legendary Post columnist and a personal friend of Walter Johnson, and the team will be named after your grandfather.
“It was an incredible moment for me,” Adams says. “Here I was, trying to hire the grandson of my father’s hero to run a team that will carry on the great legacy of Walter Johnson. I think it took Hank about one second to say yes.”
“Bruce asked me, and I had the time, so I took it,”
Adams will continue to take care of most of the financial chores. Thomas’ job description includes, among other things, procuring players for the new team and, because they’re all unpaid amateurs, procuring day jobs for the players. Clark Griffith ain’t the majors that Johnson knew. It ain’t even the minors. But, hey, it’s baseball, and Thomas’ mom couldn’t be more satisfied with the symmetry.
“Oh, he’ll be perfect,” she says. “He likes everybody, and everybody likes him, just like Dad. And, well, baseball’s always been a family thing.”Dave McKenna