Two late sports legends and friends, Major League Baseball pitcher Walter Johnson and Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich, have been caught forever in conversation – depicted in bronze, life-size statues unveiled Saturday at Shirley Povich Field in Cabin John Regional Park.
Family members, officials and others at the event recalled the legacies of Johnson, whose playing career spanned from 1907 to 1927, and Povich, who wrote for the Post from the 1920s until his death in 1998. The memorial appears on a plaza at the stadium.
The monument was designed by Toby Mendez, whose other works include the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., a memorial to former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Annapolis and bronze sculptures of several Baltimore Orioles in the Hall of Fame outside of Camden Yards. The sculpture of Povich and Johnson was funded with private donations.
Mendez said on Saturday that his current work brings together the subjects he often depicts in sculptures – sports figures and civil rights icons. He noted that Povich, who wrote for the Post for 75 years, advocated for integration in sports in his writing.
“Shirley prodded and provoked Major League Baseball to desegregate, and he prodded and provoked what were the Washington Redskins (now the Washington Football Team) to do the right thing and integrate. So he’s my hero,” he said.
Johnson’s grandson, Hank Thomas, said that Povich was “a wonderful human being” and that he started reading the newspaper at the age of 10, because he wanted to know what Povich thought “about anything and everything.”
Thomas’ grandfather won 417 games as a pitcher with the Washington Senators (now the Minnesota Twins) and also won 529 games as a manager for the Senators and Cleveland Indians. Thomas said his grandfather was a great manager despite not winning a pennant, and noted that his teams had to face elite teams of the 1930s such as the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Athletics. But Povich was quick to defend Johnson, Thomas said.
“There are many many columns where Shirley is saying to the critics ‘what are you talkin’ about?’ What do you want?’ He won over 90 games three years in a row, and that was a tough thing to do,” he said.
Also present at Saturday’s ceremony was Povich’s son, famed talk show host Maury Povich. The younger Povich recalled that his father and Johnson once went to Griffith Stadium in D.C. around 1936 to watch Indians’ pitcher Bob Feller in action. When Povich asked Johnson if Feller was a faster pitcher than him, Johnson paused and without bragging, said simply ‘no.’
That type of humility was why Povich loved Johnson, Maury Povich said.
“It was the fact that he was the most honest, the most humble and the most humane of any athlete he had ever been around. And that’s why he was so marvelously attached to Walter both on the field and off the field,” he said.
Several Montgomery County officials, including County Executive Marc Elrich, also spoke on Saturday. Elrich said Johnson was an “artist of a pitcher.”
“You talked about his great accomplishments, but the thing that struck me was three starts in four days, and winning all of them. It’s a struggle to get a pitcher to come out on three days’ rest now,” he said.
Elrich said he always enjoyed Povich’s writing, because it was “insightful and interesting.”
“He had a good touch. He conveyed the humanism of everybody he was writing about. And he made being interested in sports fun,” he said.
Those in attendance Saturday honored Johnson at the end of the ceremony by singing “Happy Birthday” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” to mark what would have been his 134th birthday.
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org