By Kerri S. Barile
On February 22, 1936, over 3,000 people gathered on the banks of the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg and Stafford County, Virginia, to witness history. Former Major Leaguer Walter “Big Train” Johnson attempted to recreate George Washington’s monumental feat of throwing a coin across the river (Photo 1). Many believed that this small metal fragment, a silver dollar, could not sail across the water; they said that the Washington story was a fabrication. But was it? If anyone could recreate this throw, it was Johnson—an All Star pitcher and a member of the very first class inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. From Washington’s boyhood home in Stafford County, Ferry Farm, Johnson launched the coin in the air and successfully landed the object on the opposite shore near Fredericksburg’s City Dock (Barile 2020:28; Richmond Times-Dispatch 1936). This act secured the place of two American legends.
The story of Walter Johnson’s coin toss across the Rappahannock River is just one of many incredible historical tales uncovered during recent research on the history of baseball in Fredericksburg. Commissioned by the Fredericksburg Nationals (the FredNats, an affiliate of the Washington Nationals), Dovetail Cultural Resource Group (Dovetail) and the Fredericksburg Area Museum partnered together to complete extensive research on America’s greatest pastime in the Fredericksburg region. From local Native Americans playing a game called “chunkey” to Civil War soldiers engaging in the game of baseball when not on the battlefield, ball games have a vast history in the community. Fredericksburg’s first baseball club was founded in 1866 (The Fredericksburg Ledger 1866:3) (Figure 1), and our first professional team was established in 1908, the White Sox (The Daily Star 1908:3) (Photo 2). The data derived from the research is being used to create a History Pavilion at the new FredNats stadium to share the significant history of baseball with all patrons. The History Pavilion will open in late May 2020. A corresponding exhibit containing an amazing collection of baseball memorabilia is being created at the Fredericksburg Area Museum. Dovetail is honored to be part of this project.
Whether it is a fragment of metal in the form of a coin thrown across the Rappahannock or a fragment of leather from a nineteenth-century baseball used in town, the research and artifacts related to this topic are vast and inspiring. We invite you to read more about the History Pavilion here. A brief video on the Walter Johnson coin toss can be found here. We give our profound thanks to the FredNats for their support of this project, as well as Germanna Community College—the incredibly generous donor who made this project possible.
Barile, Kerri S.
2020 “An Ideal Stage for the Great National Game”: A Research Compendium of Baseball in Fredericksburg (Year 1). Dovetail Cultural Resource Group and Fredericksburg Area Museum, Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Baseball History Comes Alive
2019 Special Washington’s Birthday Feature: “I Cannot Tell A Lie…But I Can Sure Stretch the Truth!” Electronic document, https://www.baseballhistorycomesalive.com/special–washington-birthday-feature-i-cannot-tell-a-liebut-i-can-Sure-stretch-the-truth/, accessed January 2020.
Daily Star, The [Fredericksburg, Virginia]
1908 “Help the Ball Team.” July 3. Page 3.
1924 “Fredericksburg White Sox.” 18 August.
Fredericksburg Ledger, The [Fredericksburg, Virginia]
1866 “Base Ball Club.” 2 November. Page 3.
Richmond Times-Dispatch [Richmond, Virginia]
1936 “Fredericksburg, Feb 22.” 23 February. Page 17.