Henry W. Thomas did not know much about his grandfather...


June 15, 1995

Henry W. Thomas did not know much about his grandfather, who died of tuberculosis soon after Thomas was born. He knew Walter Johnson was a famous pitcher for the Washington Senators early in the century. Thomas didn't know how famous until he discovered the Walter Johnson family scrapbooks at his mother's Virginia home. The scrapbooks taught Thomas a lot about Johnson, but he knew there was more. Thomas quit his job as a nightclub manager and began researching his grandfather's life. His work culminated with the private publication of Thomas' book, "Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train." The author discussed his work recently with Sun staff writer Brad Snyder.

Q: What was your interest in baseball as a child?

A: I've always been a baseball fan. I was a Senators' fan in the '50s and '60s. I kind of lost interest when they moved to Minnesota when I was about 18.

Q: Why didn't your mother and her brothers tell you much about Johnson's life?

A: I think they were very much like he was -- just a modest guy. I don't think he ever thought it was a big deal. He did what he did and it's done. [When they were children], his baseball career was coming to a close. They knew him as a dad, as a farmer and as a politician. They were always aware of his background in baseball, but they didn't see it firsthand. I was one more generation removed.

Q: Growing up, what did you think about being Johnson's grandson?

A: I always knew and I always thought it was cool, but it was never really something that sunk in.

Q: What have you learned by writing a book about him?

A: Two things became clear. His stature in the game was untouchable. I grew up thinking he was one of the great pitchers. That was not the case. He was the greatest pitcher. He was it. And there was just as much affection for him as a human being. They called him Sir Walter. It was almost as if he was regarded as somewhat of a saint.

Q: How does a former nightclub manager get the urge and the talent to write a book?

A: The short answer is, I don't know. It comes from mom. She was a reader. I can remember when I was 10, 11 years old. She'd finish a book and I'd pick it up. I was a reader. I never had any problem writing. When there was something that needed to be written up [at work], they would have me do it.

Q: What did you conceive of when you started researching Johnson's life, and when did you realize it could be a book?

A: I had no idea how far I would carry it. I knew I could do the research. Then I had to make it happen. I thought I'd show it to a bunch of people and see what they thought. I got a lot of feedback and kept going.

Q: Who were your major influences in writing this book?

A: I grew up with [the Washington Post's] Shirley Povich. I read his column every morning. He's going to be 90 next month. I look at a guy like him and that keeps me from getting too inflated about [my book].

Q: Your book is meticulously documented with footnotes. Why was that so important to you?

A: Baseball research has gotten scholarly enough that I think it's necessary. Baseball's not the most important thing in the world, but if it's worth writing a book about, it should be documented.

Q: Do you plan on continuing to write about baseball?

A: I don't know if I can make a living at it, but I'd like to. I've sold 1,500 books out of 5,000, and it's only been about two months.

Q: Where can the book be purchased?

A: It sells for $24.95 at American Baseball Classics in the Inner Harbor or it can be purchased by writing Phenom Press, P.O. Box 1210, Arlington, Va. 22210.

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