George Washington, Baseball Player?

I find that February, though it has the fewest days, can be the longest month of the year. The novelty of winter has worn off and, often, I simply seem to be enduring until the first glimpses of spring in March. I do, however, look forward with excitement to two moments in February: George Washington’s Birthday and the day that Major League Baseball’s pitchers start their spring training. In a way, these two events are connected by more than their close proximity to one another on the calendar.

After the familiar cherry tree tale, the second most popular story about George Washington’s youth is the story of him throwing a rock the size of a silver dollar across a river. This legend has changed several times over the years but it may have some truth.

The earliest version appears in The Life of Washington by Mason Locke Weems, who notes that George’s cousin remembered seeing him “throw a stone across [the] Rappahannock, at the lower ferry of Fredericksburg.”[1] George Washington Parke Custis, Martha’s son, provides a bit more detail for this toss, noting that the rock was actually “a piece of slate, fashioned to about the size and shape of a dollar, and which, sent by an arm so strong, not only spanned the river, but took the ground at least thirty yards on the other side.”[2] Archaeologist Phil Levy estimates “that could have been a distance of anywhere from a staggering 440 feet (professional baseball fields vary from 390 to 435 feet at the centerfield wall) to an impressive 340 feet.”[3]

We’ll never have the evidence historians need to say with certainty that young George actually threw a rock across the Rappahannock. It is a plausible story, however. So, each February at Ferry Farm’s birthday celebration, visitors try and duplicate George’s feat, provided the day’s weather or any lingering snow on the ground doesn’t prevent us from traipsing down to the river.

A visitor attempts to throw a rock across the Rappahannock River during the George Washington Birthday Celebration at Ferry Farm.

The feat has actually been duplicated, most famously by Walter “Big Train” Johnson, celebrated pitcher for the Washington Senators, on a Depression-era February day in 1936. Officials in charge of that year’s birthday celebration at Ferry Farm challenged the retired Major League right-hander, raising the ire of Congressman Sol Bloom of New York, who believed the story of Washington’s toss, to be “preposterous.” Quoted in the February 18, 1936 edition of The Free Lance Star, Bloom felt the feat “physically impossible” because “Washington was about 10 years old when the miracle was supposed to have happened.” Perhaps, he forgot that George lived at Ferry Farm well into his late teens?

A few days before the celebration, reporters found Johnson training for the toss by throwing a coin at the barn on his Germantown, Maryland farm. “‘Maybe I can’t throw that far,’ he drawled, ‘but there’s one thing certain—if George Washington did it, I can too.’”

Walter Johnson poses as if in mid-throw on the icy bank of the Rappahannock.

Finally, the day came. On the front page of the February 22, 1936 edition, The Free Lance Star’s banner headline trumpeted “‘Big Train’ Duplicates Washington’s Feat.” Standing on the Ferry Farm side of the river at 2:30 p.m. that day, Johnson took two practice tosses. The first plopped into the water just five feet short of the bank while the second made it across. Then, he attempted the official throw. Johnson “drew back his famous right arm and with a powerful heave let fly a silver dollar that sailed high into the air, spanned the 273 foot stream and plunked on the opposite bank.” Bloom graciously wired his congratulations and invited Johnson to stop in Washington and celebrate with him on his way back to Germantown.

Front page of The Free Lance Star, February 22, 1936

The attempt became something of a national sensation with newspapers in Michigan, Florida, Connecticut, Kansas, Missouri, and beyond reporting the story. A live radio program on the Columbia Broadcasting System beamed a description of the throw into countless homes across the nation.

Although it doesn’t garner the attention it did in 1936, the Stone Throw Challenge remains a centerpiece of Ferry Farm’s annual Washington’s Birthday Celebration when the weather allows it. On that day, which is usually about the time that today’s aspiring Walter Johnsons are starting to prepare for their seasons, I think of a day during the Great Depression when a big league pitcher added to his own legend by duplicating the prodigious feat of the most legendary American of all. As I watch our visitors attempt their throws, I think of the “Big Train” and I also always wonder just what kind of ballplayer George Washington might have been.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Join us at Ferry Farm on Saturday, February 14 for our George Washington’s Birthday Celebration, when – weather permitting – we’ll see if anyone else can throw a stone across the Rappahannock River. Along with the Stone Throw Challenge, enjoy crafts, games, exhibits, live history performances, and birthday cake! Visit www.kenmore.org/events.html for more details about the Birthday Celebration along with Archaeology Day on Monday, February 16!

[1] Mason Locke Weems, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, Macy-Masius Publishers, 1927: 39.

[2] George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, Philadelphia, J.W. Bradley, 1861: 482.

[3] Phil Levy, Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013: 226.

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