Nickname: Home Run, Dad
Positions: ss, 2b, p, manager
Teams: minor leagues (1894), Page Fence Giants (1895-1898), Chicago Columbia Giants (1899), Chicago Unions (1900), Cuban X-Giants (1903-1904), Philadelphia Giants (1905-1906), Brooklyn Royal Giants (1906-1909, 1912), Leland Giants (1910), Chicago Giants (1911), New York Lincoln Giants (1911-1913), Mohawk Giants (1913), New York Lincoln Stars (1916), Pittsburgh Colored Stars of Buffalo (1916-1917, 1919-1921), Buffalo Giants (1923)
Height: 5' 10'' Weight: 170
Born: 1874, Findlay, Ohio
Died: 1964, Buffalo, New York
In a career that started before the turn of the century, Johnson was a right-handed slugger in the deadball era. The most famous shortstop before John Henry Lloyd came on the scene, he starred with some of the most outstanding clubs of the era, including the 1903 Cuban X-Giants, the 1905 Philadelphia Giants, and the 1909 Brooklyn Royal Giants before joining Lloyd on Rube Foster's Leland Giants in 1910. After leaving Foster's team he again joined Lloyd on the Lincoln Giants in 1913. Although shortstop was his best position, in deference to Lloyd's outstanding ability, Johnson used his versatility to shift across to the keystone sack. He formed a superior middle infield combination with the legendary Lloyd when they played together.
He attended Public School 9 in his hometown of Findlay, Ohio, and is credited by one source as being a college man. Regardless of his educational status, at age twenty, he began playing shortstop for the strong semi-pro Findlay Sluggers in 1894. That season he is credited with 60 home runs and, according to one source, earned his nickname "Home Run" at that time. Later in the season he was reportedly playing professional baseball with Dubuque, Iowa, for a short stint.
In 1895 he and Bud Fowler formed the Page Fence Giants in Adrian, Michigan, and Johnson was the captain and shortstop. He batted .471 as the team ended a successful season with a 118-36 record for a .766 winning percentage. After the 1898 season the Page Fence Giants were not able to continue financially, so Johnson took most of the players with him to Chicago, and they played as the Chicago Columbia Giants in 1899. After a season as their regular shortstop, he played a year with the Chicago Unions before moving East to play after the turn of the century.
He joined the Cuban X-Giants, who were the eastern champions in 1903 but lost to the Philadelphia Giants in a playoff the following season. In 1905 he joined the Philadelphia Giants, and they won championships for the next two seasons.
He was captain of the Brooklyn Royal Giants for several years and helped guide them to a championship in 1909. But the next season he left the team in April when owner John W. Connor refused to give him an interest in the team. Subsequently a rift developed between the two men and Connor accused Johnson of attempting to influence other players to leave the Royals and go with him to the Leland Giants. Johnson did sign with Rube Foster's Lelands but did not take any other players with him.
By the beginning of the second decade of the century, he was an established veteran, and according to the press he was "a high-class ballplayer and not showing his age." At this stage in his career he was called "Dad" by other players, was a favorite with the crowds, and "his witty sayings, good playing, and good conduct won him many friends."
The star infielder was also a winner in Cuba, captaining the Havana Reds to a winter league championship, and became the first American to win a batting title on the island. During his five years there he averaged .319, with his best effort being a .424 average. Johnson hit .309 for the 1908-09 winter season but gained his greatest notoriety when he hit .412 in exhibition games there in 1910 against the Detroit Tigers, out-hitting Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford. Altogether, in 19 exhibition games against major leaguers his average was .293.
Johnson was a natural hitter, and his confidence, patient pitch selection, and superior batting eye enabled him to hit all kinds of pitching. A smart batter, he was cool under pressure, and after hitting .397 while batting in the third slot for the 1910 Lelands, he recorded batting averages in New York of .374, .413, and .371 in 1911-1913, playing against all levels of competition. In the latter season he batted cleanup behind John Henry Lloyd as the Lincoln Giants won the eastern title and outclassed Rube Foster's Chicago American Giants in the 1913 championship playoff, Owner Jess McMahon proudly proclaimed that the Lincolns could beat any major-league team. A line-drive hitter, Johnson placed an emphasis on making contact rather than swinging for the fences and, playing in the deadball era, his power was comparable to that of the Athletics' Frank Baker. And like Baker, his home runs, while not numerous, came at opportune times and reinforced the sobriquet "Home Run" for the duration of his playing career.
During the latter years of the deadball era, he played with the Pittsburgh Colored Stars of Buffalo, and managed the Buffalo Giants in 1923. He was a good instructor for young ballplayers, sharing valuable advice with the prospects under his management. In addition to hitting, he also liked to sing and had a good baritone voice. The sturdy, raw-boned infielder refrained from vices, maintained good physical condition, and continued playing with lesser teams until finally retiring in 1932 at age fifty-eight. After leaving the baseball diamond he remained in Buffalo and worked with the New York Central Railroad Company. Late in life he lost his eyesight and passed away at age ninety.
Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.