February 22, 1936:
In celebration of George Washington’s 204th birthday, Walter Johnson hurls a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River, estimated to be a 386-foot toss. The spectacle—it took place in the backyard of Washington’s childhood home in Fredericksburg, Virginia—was one of several events staged by townspeople in celebration of all things Washington, especially the mythological tales of Parson Weems. Congressman Sol Bloom of New York, who donated a 1796 silver dollar for the occasion, declared the feat impossible, putting the odds at 20 to 1 against it. (The Chamber of Commerce wagered $5,000; Bloom refused to pay up, claiming that the river was wider in colonial times.)

A few days before the event, the 48-year-old Johnson sent a lighthearted telegram to city leaders: “I am practicing with a dollar against my barn door. Arm getting stronger, barn door weaker.” On February 20, The Associated Press reported: “Unable to wait until Saturday, when Walter Johnson tries his arm against the legendary prowess of George Washington . . . citizens are trying to settle the matter among themselves—but with iron washers, not silver coins. All tries have fallen short.”

After hearing exaggerated tales about the width of the Rappahannock, Johnson expressed doubts as to whether he could make good. Big Train’s old battery-mate, Gabby Street, wasn’t worried. “After working so closely for so many years with such a brilliant performer as Walter Johnson,” he explained, “one is inclined to back him in any reasonable throwing feat he might undertake, even now.”

Despite the frigid conditions (27°F), around 4,000 people gathered along the snowy riverbank on the morning of the 22nd. “It looks like a mile across,” exclaimed Johnson, as he cast aside his overcoat. “The Big Train” took a moment to stretch his much-celebrated right arm before giving the all-clear to the photographers on hand. He was allowed two practice throws before being presented a third coin, inscribed with his name and the date, for the official attempt. Johnson’s first toss fell short, splashing down six feet short of the bank (a man in a boat attempted to recover it); his second throw barely cleared the water. Determined to impress on his final attempt, he heaved the “pay dollar” across the river, some 20 feet onto the bank. Over 2,000 boisterous souvenir seekers scrambled for the prize.

“Well, I guess I made it,” Johnson sighed, sounding more relieved than triumphant.

It was official, Washington’s seemingly apocryphal childhood feat was “possible,” though silver dollars weren’t minted until the time of his presidency. As for the much-coveted coin, it was recovered by a man named Peter Yon, who turned out to be quite a card. “What are you going to do with the dollar,” asked a reporter. “I’m gonna put ’em in the bank,” said Yon, smiling mischievously. “That’s what the picture men said I should do. But if you ask me again, I should have to say: ‘I cannot tell a lie, I’m gonna sell it to the highest bidder!’ ”

✍️ Bobby King II ~ Baseball Americana

Sources: https://rmyauctions.com/ + https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/ + http://articles.latimes.com/ + https://dcbaseballhistory.com/

 

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