John Thomas “Jack” Johnson was a boxer and baseball player in the early 1900s. He had the misfortune of flourishing at exactly the same time as another Jack Johnson who was known to dabble in the sweet science. Consequently he became known as “Topeka Jack,” after his adopted hometown, in order to distinguish him from his famous namesake. Fittingly, given his nickname, he was perhaps the most important figure in the early history of the thriving black baseball scene in Topeka, which produced a number of players who went on to national prominence, including his brother-in-law and teammate, Tullie McAdoo. As a baseball player, manager, and league president, an early proponent of a “Negro National League” (and one of the first to use that phrase in a baseball context), and as a boxer and trainer of boxers, Topeka Jack Johnson left his mark on the history of African American sports in the midwest. And, as it happens, he was also a bit player in the life of the other Jack Johnson.
He was born on April 25, 1883, to Thomas and Sophia Johnson, a farm couple originally from Tennessee. Both were likely born into slavery (Thomas in 1847, Sophia in 1854). The family first appears in the 1895 Kansas State Census, living in Carbondale, Osage County, Kansas. Nothing is known of Jack Johnson’s youth until he graduated from Carbondale High School. By 1901 he had signed with the professional Chicago Unions, pitching and playing first base for them for that season and part of the next. Although he probably only played the last couple of months of the season, he gained a reputation as the “speediest pitcher” on the Unions. On October 20, holding down first base, Jack Johnson collected four hits as the Unions demolished the Auburn Parks 20 to 7.
At the start of 1902, the Unions’ shortstop, Dave Wyatt, had arranged for a young prospect named Andrew Foster to come north, but the Unions’ owner, Will Peters, never sent money for train fare. Although Foster was billed to pitch on opening day, Jack Johnson took his place. Foster would wind up with the Unions’ rivals, Frank Leland’s Union Giants, later that year. Johnson, on the other hand, left with a number of other Chicago ballplayers, many of them originally from Kansas, to join the Algona Brownies of Iowa.
Despite having already played as a professional, Johnson enrolled at Washburn University in Topeka in the spring of 1903 and joined the baseball team. It was reported that there was “some opposition to him owing to his color and it is not known just how far this will be carried.” In fact, Washburn had a history of accepting black athletes on its sports teams; in 1899 an opposing football team had walked off the field when Washburn announced its intention of fielding an African American named Farrar in the second half. Regardless of whatever mutterings there were, he lasted the baseball team’s whole spring season.
In May Johnson left for St. Marys, Kansas, to play ball (presumably semiprofessionally or professionally). Eventually that summer he joined Leland’s Union Giants, pitching and playing first base. In Chicago on August 30, Johnson held the Normals to four singles, striking out 13 to win 3 to 0. In November, with the Washburn baseball team considering its options for the following spring, it was reported that “Johnson, the colored man who pitched such good ball last year[,] is not now in school.” Around this time, according to some later accounts, he served as sparring partner for Jack Johnson, then an upcoming heavyweight on the west coast.
It was not surprising that Johnson would try his fists at boxing. He was 6’1” and 195 pounds, tall and strong, especially for the time. He started as a pitcher, again no surprise for someone of his height with a decent arm. In August 1903 the Iowa State Reporter remarked that he had “done service for a number of years as pitcher and change infielder.” But his career turned fairly quickly away from the mound, and more in the direction of being an everyday player, mostly as a first baseman and shortstop. “He is a big shorstop,” the Topeka Daily Capital commented, “but he is fast and covers his territory in giltedge fashion.”
He returned to W. S. Peters’s team, now also called the Union Giants, in 1904, batting cleanup and playing mostly as a first baseman. (The name “Union Giants” became the subject of a legal fight between Peters and Leland.) On July 26, they faced a young Eddie Cicotte in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, pitching for the local semipro Soo Baseball Club. Cicotte set the Union Giants down on 4 hits, striking out 10. Johnson went 0-for-4 against the future World Series-fixing member of the Chicago White Sox, though he made contact every time up. It was also during this year that he married Elizabeth McAdoo of Topeka.
By 1905, at the still tender age of 22, Jack Johnson took his first step into a leadership role, becoming the manager and captain of Peters’s team. The Unions were now the only “Union Giants” left, Leland having renamed his club the Leland Giants. According to the Topeka Plaindealer, the Unions had a “very successful season.” On April 30 they lost to the Kenosha, Wisconsin, independent team, 10 to 9, but raked the Kenosha pitcher, Lou Fiene, who would later pitch for the White Sox, for 13 hits. Johnson collected two singles. As the season wound down, the Unions engaged their arch-rivals, the Lelands, in a contest for local supremacy. A contentious series, punctuated by fights, ended in a draw, each team winning one game, with two games tied.
In August an incident occurred that Johnson would later call the greatest play he had ever seen. The African American team sponsored by J. W. Jenkins & Sons of Kansas City, Missouri, claimed to be undefeated, and traveled to Chicago to play the Union Giants for the “colored baseball championship of the United States.” During the game, with a man on first, a Jenkins batter sent a “sharply hit ball” toward second baseman Fred Roberts. It bounced once, then Roberts fumbled it, the ball dropping to the ground in front of him. Frustrated by his error, and assuming everybody was safe, he kicked the ball—right to shortstop Alex Irwin waiting at second, waist-high, a perfect double play ball. Irwin caught it and relayed to Johnson at first to complete it.
After three years of travelling with Chicago-based teams, Johnson was ready to return home. He organized a new team, the Topeka Giants, bringing a few players with him from the Unions and getting the rest from local sources, some of them his former teammates on Topeka teams such as the Nine Bees or Gaitha Page’s Giants. Johnson himself took over as shortstop, and hired his brother-in-law, Tullie McAdoo, to hold down first base.
His prizefighting career was also getting off the ground. Still only 23, according to the Topeka Daily Capital he had “won some important matches and gives promise of developing into a topnotcher if he gets into the right circles.” On April 18 he showed he could handle taking part in two professional sports simultaneously:
The Giants toured the Midwestern states. They mostly played white amateur or semipro teams in smaller towns, but in August they travelled to Chicago to take on two of the biggest African American clubs in the business, both teams Johnson had played for: the Union Giants and the Leland Giants. Behind pitcher William “Shin” Norman, the Topeka Giants beat the Lelands 4 to 2 on August 12. After this good start, Johnson’s club dropped the next decision to the Lelands, 3 to 1, and lost both ends of a doubleheader to the Unions, 3 to 2 and 5 to 0.
When baseball season was over Johnson took a meatpacking job in Topeka to keep in shape, then in December he went east to Philadelphia (the heavyweight boxing “Mecca”) to further his boxing career. A Topeka Daily Capital piece about his move contains the earliest mention I’ve seen of the “Topeka Jack” nickname, which makes it fairly explicit that it originated to differentiate him from that other Jack Johnson.
In Part II, we’ll follow Jack through the heyday of his baseball career, as manager of the Kansas City (Kansas) Giants and the Kansas City Royal Giants.