February 22, 1936
One of the more interesting aspects of historical research is the game one plays when attempting to separate myth from reality. Sometimes it takes years to truly dispel the myth, such as the one about Abner Doubleday inventing baseball. Then there are those myths that seem silly from the start.
Mason Locke Weems apparently thought that George Washington’s biography needed a little fabricating. His book The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington is responsible for the cherry tree story. Less well known, but perhaps more interesting, is the notion that Washington threw a stone across Virginia’s Rappahannock River.
The river measured 272 feet wide in 1936, when the town of Fredrickson, VA decided to invite former Nats pitching star Walter Johnson to duplicate the mythic toss on the occasion of the anniversary of Washington’s birth. While the first president of the United States may never have thrown a rock over the river, Walter Johnson threw a silver dollar safely to the other side twice on three attempts.
New York Representative Sol Bloom didn’t think the Big Train could do it, so he offered 20-1 odds on a wager. A local paper gathered a tidy sum of $5,000 collected from citizens with the understanding that any money won would go towards the purchase of Washington’s boyhood home to make the landmark into a museum.
Bloom never paid the $100,000 he owed, citing the fact that the river was wider when Washington made his throw. Bloom claimed that a Colonial map indicated that the river was 1,320 feet wide when Washington was a boy, so Johnson’s throw was nowhere near that of the first commander-in-chief, who incidentally was supposedly only 11 years old when he threw a stone almost five times as far as the greatest pitcher of all time.
Walter Johnson Pays Tribute to George Washington by Mark Hornbaker at History’s Perspective
Big Train vs Big Myth Sports Illustrated.com