It started out as part of a tree planting ceremony to honor George Washington’s birthday but by the time February 22, 1936 came around, Walter Johnson was back in the national news, nine years after his last big league pitch.
The Big Train came down from his Maryland farm to Fredericksburg, VA at the request of city leaders who planned to plant 400 cherry trees and wanted to have some fun with the mythical story that our first president had one thrown a silver coin across the Rappahannock River as a young boy. If anyone could do it, they figured the former Washington Senators great would be the right man to try.
When word began to spread, Johnson quickly became a much bigger attraction than the saplings coming from the Upper Midwest and Japan. CBS Radio broadcast the event live and reporters showed up after wagers were made and publicized. New York Congressman Sol Bloom even laid 20-1 odds against Johnson. A local newspaper called that bet and put up $50 of its own. A reward was issued for the return of the coin should Johnson connect with the other side. Lou Gehrig tossed a coin across New York’s Harlem River to prove it could be done.
Not many photos of the event exist today but RMY Auctions is offering one in its current auction. The 6 ½” x 8 ½” image shows Johnson making his heave across the flowing river as a crowd of onlookers checks to see if the silver dollar would land on the other side. It’s part of an auction of vintage photos up for bid through May 11.
Johnson practiced at home, then reported to the riverbank where a huge throng of spectators are said to have turned out on both sides. His first practice throw fell five feet short. A second practice toss made it to the other side. The third throw had been designated as the “official” toss and Johnson cleared the snow and ice-covered bank on the other side by some 20 feet according to reports. A man named Peter Yon scooped up the coin and went off to collect his reward, now up to $150.
While controversy swirled around whether the river was as wide in 1936 as it had been in Washington’s time, Washington’s toss was measured at 286 feet, six inches. Not all that impressive, maybe, but not bad for a 48-year-old farmer.