Walter Johnson tested George Washington myth in Rappahannock coin toss

On Feb. 22, 1936, a crowd of thousands gathered at George Washington’s boyhood home near Fredericksburg, Va., to celebrate the 204th anniversary of his birth.

The main attraction of the day’s festivities at Ferry Farm, which included the dedication of 200 cherry trees to be planted along the boulevard leading to Fredericksburg, took place at 2:30 that afternoon, when former Washington Senators pitching great Walter Johnson attempted to throw a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River. Legend had it Washington accomplished the feat as a young boy.

Johnson, 48, who had been elected to the inaugural five-man class of the Baseball Hall of Fame earlier that month after resigning as manager of the Cleveland Indians the previous year, successfully cleared the river twice.

“He threw it over with the same easy grace he once used in fanning Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and “Ping” Bodie, and so doing he brought to Fredericksburg something of that joy that was denied to Mudville when the mighty Casey struck out,” Edward T. Folliard, staff correspondent for The Washington Post, reported from the scene.

Thanks to a politician’s bold wager and Johnson’s participation, the stunt — while doing little to clear up the veracity of the legend — sparked controversy and attracted national interest.

‘Why, it’s preposterous’

The apocryphal tale of Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Rappahannock can be traced to Washington’s original biographer, Parson Weems, who attributed the story to one of Washington’s first cousins. In an 1826 essay, George Washington Parke Custis, Washington’s step-grandson, recounted the tale of Washington throwing a piece of slate roughly the size and shape of a dollar across the Rappahannock. In the legend’s retellings, the river was often changed to the Potomac.

Johnson, who retired as a player in 1927 and went on to manage the Senators and Indians until 1935, was familiar with the tales of Washington’s physical prowess.

“The famous story of throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac, true or fiction, indicates that Washington as a boy was highly respected as an athlete,” Johnson said in a 1932 interview with The Post, in which he added he would encourage his five children to enter the newspaper’s George Washington bicentennial essay contest.

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Four years later, Johnson accepted an invitation from Fredericksburg officials to attempt to reenact Washington’s feat on the father of our country’s birthday. He agreed to participate in the celebration, which was organized by the Fredericksburg Chamber of Commerce, under the conditions that someone else furnished the dollar and he wouldn’t be asked to wear a colonial costume.

Virginia Gov. George C. Peery and other state officials were already scheduled to attend the celebration in Fredericksburg, but the event became a national fascination after New York Rep. Sol Bloom offered 20-1 odds that Johnson would not succeed in his attempt.

Bloom, director of the George Washington Bicentennial Commission, believed the myriad myths about Washington, including the story of him chopping down a cherry tree, actually diminished his legacy. Bloom made it his mission to “explode all fallacies” about the United States’ first president, and in 1934 he wrote a book of questions and answers concerning Washington. In it, Bloom asserted that Washington didn’t throw an object across the Potomac or the Rappahannock.

“Why, it’s preposterous,” Bloom told reporters. “It’s ridiculous. Not only is it physically impossible, but if you boil down the fable you’ll find that Washington was about 10 years old when the miracle was supposed to have happened.”

In Fredericksburg, officials initially estimated the width of the Rappahannock at the point near Ferry Farm where Johnson would attempt his throw as between 350 and 375 feet. The longest baseball thrown on record was 426 feet, by former major league outfielder Larry LeJeune at a 1910 contest in Cincinnati.

“Maybe I can’t throw that far,” Johnson said, “but there’s one thing certain, if George Washington did it, I can.”

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Bloom was overwhelmed by phone calls and telegrams from people interested in taking him up on his wager, including Fredericksburg Chamber of Commerce President Ben Pitts, who deposited a certified check for $5,000 in a local bank. Bloom sought to clarify the terms of the bet. According to him, the Rappahannock was closer to 1,500 feet across when Washington was a boy and had gradually become narrower in the intervening years. Bloom produced a London cable saying that measurements on Virginia maps in the British public record office listed the river as more than 1,300 feet wide in Washington’s day.

“Maybe Johnson or someone else can throw a dollar over the river today, but they couldn’t do it over the river that ran by the farm in Washington’s day,” Bloom said. “And that’s my bet. Washington didn’t do it and no one else can. The bet still is open for any one who can throw 1,300 feet.”

“If Bloom wants Walter Johnson to throw a silver dollar 1,500 feet and the natives of Fredericksburg expect him to throw it 375 feet or less, it would appear that all bets are off,” The Post reported.

Meanwhile, Johnson was training for the throw at his farm in Germantown, Md.

“I am still practicing with a dollar against my barn door,” Johnson wrote to Fredericksburg officials. “Arm getting stronger, barn door getting weaker.”

Two days before the celebration, Fredericksburg residents “showered bushels of iron washers” into the Rappahannock in failed attempts to reach the other side. Surveyors had calculated the span of the river where Johnson would attempt his throw as 272 feet. There was a buzz in town ahead of the Hall of Famer’s arrival.

“Tense excitement pervaded this gayly bedecked little city tonight, on the eve of what promises to be a momentous test of an American legend,” the New York Times reported. “Some visitors arrived today, but the influx was nowhere near the proportions expected tomorrow forenoon. Local merchants are looking forward to a flourishing business when the visitors swell the town to twice or three times its normal population.”

Johnson spent the day practicing on the Potomac River in D.C., and he reportedly tossed a silver dollar 300 feet. Bloom, who wouldn’t make the trip to Fredericksburg for Washington’s birthday celebration, sent Johnson a silver dollar coined in 1796 to use for the occasion.

“Walter, there is no one in the world who wishes you more success tomorrow than I do at Fredericksburg when you will try to throw a silver dollar across the Rappahannock,” Bloom wrote. “After you have warmed up and have two strikes and three balls on the other fellow, use this dollar, because I believe that as the eagle on this dollar is in flight it might bring to you the good luck that millions of people throughout the country are wishing you, and the eagle in its flight might assist in carrying this across the Rappahannock.”

On the big day, with Senators broadcaster Arch McDonald providing play-by-play from the muddy banks of the Rappahannock for a national audience on CBS Radio, Johnson made two practice throws. His first attempt fell about 10 feet shy of clearing the river. His second attempt was greeted with a cheer from the thousands of onlookers on the other side and sent a group of people scrambling after the souvenir.

Pitts then handed Johnson a silver dollar for the official toss.

“Johnson dug his toe in the mud, leaped forward a couple of times, whip-lashed his arm as he used to do in the old days, and the silver dollar sped across the Rappahannock,” The Post reported. “It glinted in the sun as it traveled. It landed against a gasoline tank and was picked up by Peter Yon, a stonemason.”

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“Well, that makes a bum out of Sol Bloom,” a local said.

H.J. Eckenrode, a Virginia historian and the chief judge of the event, estimated the dollar traveled 317 feet. Bloom, who didn’t pay out any bets, sent Johnson another telegram.

“Congratulations Walter,” he wrote. “Stop over in Washington on your trip home and let’s celebrate. I sincerely hope that my dollar is the dollar that did the trick.”

Johnson had left Bloom’s coin at home. Instead, he tossed a Roosevelt dollar inscribed with “Walter Johnson threw this dollar across the Rappahannock River, February 22, 1936.”

“The wind was against me and I didn’t know whether I could make it or not,” Johnson said afterward. “… I’m glad I could prove George did it, especially after Sol Bloom made a campaign issue out of it.”

The New York Times reported that only about 200 people stuck around for the dedication of the cherry trees.

Folliard, who covered Johnson’s toss in Fredericksburg for The Post, went on to cover the White House and World War II for the newspaper and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1947. Years later, as documented by Shirley Povich, he told a crowd at the National Press Club that witnessing Johnson’s feat was among the highlights of his career.

“As man and boy, that was my biggest thrill,” Folliard said. “You see, I was the fellow who held Walter Johnson’s coat.”

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