The 1907 Chicago Union Giants. Standing L to R: Will Horn, Topeka Jack Johnson. Seated, middle row, L to R: Albert Toney, Joe Green, Jimmy Smith, George Hopkins, Ginney Robinson, unknown. Seated, front row, L to R: unknown, Sam Strothers.
The puzzle about Topeka Jack Johnson is that, although you can outline his career in detail (at least for some years), it’s not really possible to figure out how good a baseball player he was. Currently there’s a grand total of 42 games for him against top flight black opposition in the Seamheads Negro Leagues DB. In these games he hit .247/.333/.331, for an OPS+ of 118—which sounds good, but it’s only 42 games, 178 plate appearances, scattered over 8 seasons. At best we have a very crude assessment that he was an above-average hitter in a little more than a month’s worth of games. Which is pretty much the same as saying we don't’ know anything.
Defensively, he’s even more out of focus, playing 19 games at second base, 12 at first, 8 at shortstop. He was tall and strong, sometimes described as a power hitter (relative to the times, of course), and probably had a decent arm (though he rarely appeared at third base). He tended to bat cleanup and play wherever he decided his team needed him. Aside from a few stints in Chicago, he played almost all of his whole career far from the hotbeds of blackball activity. He went to the east coast to box (once), but never to play baseball. He was never signed by any of the top teams of the time (the Philadelphia Giants, Leland Giants, Cuban X-Giants, etc.), He never went to Cuba. You’d have to concede that there’s not really any good evidence that he was anywhere near the class of the Pete Hills or Harry Buckners or the John Lloyds of the world. Maybe he was that good, but if so, the surviving record doesn’t back it up.
Instead, his significance rests on two other things: 1) his managerial career, most notably with the Kansas City (Kansas) Giants, who (with at least some justification) claimed the colored championship in 1909, and 2) his leadership in various efforst to organize black baseball leagues. His greatest achievements in both areas came during the 1909-1912 period.
We’ll pick up his story in 1907, after he returned from Philadelphia early in the spring. In March a scheduled fight in Omaha with the heavyweight Jim McCormick (the same guy he’d fought right before a game in 1906) was broken up by the police. A month later it was announced that Johnson was leaving Topeka and going back to the Chicago Union Giants as player/manager, although he still retained a partial interest in the Topeka Giants.
The Unions split their time between barnstorming trips through Illinois and surrounding states, and home stands in Chicago, where they played that city’s strong white semipro clubs, which often featured past or future major leaguers. On July 7, the Unions defeated the Artesians in Chicago 4 to 0, with Johnson swatting a home run. In the opposing lineup was a young Fred Merkle, playing third base. A week later Johnson got five hits off former Brooklyn Superbas pitcher Joe Koukalik (one of only nine major league players born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, unless I've missed somebody) as the Unions defeated another white semipro team, the Oak Leas, 7 to 2. At season’s end the Unions played their only known game against black opposition in 1907, defeating the St. Paul Gophers 10 to 4, Johnson contributing a double and a single to the cause.
Continuing his pattern of changing teams every year, Topeka Jack moved north to the Twin Cities for 1908, joining the Minneapolis Keystones (right) along with three of his players from the Unions: infielders Alex Irwin and George Hopkins, and pitcher Charles Jessup. Known in Minnesota as Chicago Jack, his main position was first base, but he appeared at all four infield positions plus right field. Todd Peterson was able to find box scores for 32 games against all opposition; Johnson batted .269 and led the team in triples and home runs. Facing off against the rival St. Paul Gophers, the Keystones lost the series 3 games to 2; in the three games that have box scores, Johnson hit 3 for 12 with a triple.
His next stop was Kansas City—Kansas, that is, where some local businessmen wanted to defeat the Kansas City Monarchs (from the Missouri side; the original club, not the one founded by J. L. Wilkinson in 1920). They built a new club with Johnson and several Topeka Giants, most notably Tullie McAdoo and the Norman brothers (third baseman Big Jim and pitcher Billy, also known as “Chin” or “Shin”), as the core. Johnson added some of his old Union Giants teammates as well as an Albuquerque catcher named Bill Pettus, whom he might have gotten to know through his boxing connections, as Pettus was also a promising fighter who had been to the west coast.
The Giants inaugurated the season by beating the rival Monarchs 8 to 3, getting 16 hits off their pitcher, a 17-year-old from Lexington, Missouri, named Bill Lindsay. His team may given the youngster a torrid time, but Johnson saw something in Lindsay, and would remember him later in the year. By April 29, the Kansas City Journal reported that the Giants had not yet lost (though the paper didn’t say how many games they had played). A couple of days later the Journal declared that “if Jack Johnson of the Kansas Giants could apply the whitewash brush, or send his men through a bleaching process, the chances are such men as McAdoo, J. Norman, Skinner and Pettus would not be in our midst very long.”
The Giants kept winning through the summer, playing mostly in the Kansas City area with a couple of road trips to St. Louis and Oklahoma. In June they faced Bill Lindsay and the Monarchs again, prevailing 1 to 0 after thirteen innings. On July 27, on the eve of the Giants’ biggest journey of the year, to Chicago, the Kansas City Journal reported that they had won 54 and lost none on the season. I’ve been able to document 29 wins, no losses, and 1 tie during that time (mostly due to the work of Patrick Rock in combing the Kansas City Journal for reportage on the Giants).
The 1909 Kansas City Giants, from the Kansas City Gazette Globe (August 21, 1909). The photo is mostly too blurry to allow for easy IDs, but I think the middle row is, L to R: Tullie McAdoo, Dee Williams, Tobe Smith, Topeka Jack Johnson, Tom Sterman. The player in the front, on the left side, might be Bill Pettus.
On July 28, en route to Chicago, the Giants defeated the Moquoketa, Iowa, team, 2 to 1. Arriving in the Windy City, they played their first game at Logan Square Park against the stiffest opposition they had faced that year, the Cuban Stars. In a pitching duel between Billy Norman and Cuban ace José Muñoz, the Cubans came out on top, 2 to 1. If the Journal’s earlier report was accurate, this ended their undefeated streak at 56 games (55 wins, one draw). In any case, it’s certainly the first loss of the year I’ve found for them.
The Kansas City Giants’ two weeks in Chicago gave them a dose of reality. They dropped 8 of 12 games against the Cuban Stars, including two pretty brutal losses to the legendary José Méndez, who struck out 21 Giants in 18 innings. They also lost twice to white semipro teams, most notably to the River Forests and their pitcher Arthur “Doc” Hillebrand, a college star who famously refused to play in the majors, despite many offers.
One might think that the Giants returned chastened to Kansas City. They had come out well under .500, and they hadn’t even played the true kings of the hill in Chicago, Rube Foster’s Leland Giants. The two teams had scheduled a five-game series, but for whatever reason, that didn’t happen. Instead, the Lelands came to the Giants’ Riverside Park in Kansas City, Kansas, in late August, for a three-game series. Jack Johnson and his team had their shot at redemption.
The 1909 Leland Giants. Standing L to R: Pete Hill, Andrew Payne, George Wright, Walter Ball, Charles Dougherty, Bill Gatewood, Rube Foster. Seated L to R: Danger Talbert, Harry Moore, Frank Leland, Bobby Winston, Sam Strothers, Nate Harris.
The Lelands took the first game, 5 to 2, as Walter Ball shackled K.C. on two hits. In the second game, Jack Johnson unveiled his newest acquisition: Bill Lindsay, now 18, whom he had poached from the Monarchs. The young hurler had the Lelands at his mercy, striking out 16 and allowing only a single unearned run. With the score tied and bases loaded in the eighth inning, Jack hit a Texas leaguer to bring in two runs, and the Giants won, 3 to 1. In the third game, another eighth inning rally netted Kansas City a 5 to 4 win. “Kansas Giants Champions,” trumpeted the Kansas City Journal. The Kansas City Giants subsequently claimed the “colored baseball championship of the United States.”
The Giants continued to win, though not quite at the frenzied pace they’d kept up before the Chicago trip. In September the San Antonio Black Bronchos of the Texas Colored League came to Riverside Park. The two teams split a four-game series, with the Giants defeating the Bronchos’ ace, Cyclone Joe Williams, 4 to 2 in the last game. (Jack Johnson went 0 for 4.) Overall, the Giants won 11 and lost 12 against top-flight black teams. The Leland Giants were 17-13 against similar opposition, not to mention champions of the tough Chicago City League, despite an injury-plagued season in which no fewer than three players (Rube Foster, Bobby Winston, and Joe Green) suffered broken legs. It’s difficult to take the Kansas City Giants’ two out of three victory over the Lelands as evidence of superiority.
The 1909 St. Paul Gophers (from Early Black Baseball in Minnesota, by Todd Peterson). Standing L to R: Steel Arm Johnny Taylor, Sherman Barton, Bobby Marshall, Phil Reid, Johnny Davis, Will McMurray, Dick Wallace. Seated L to R: Rabbit McDougall, Eugene Milliner, Candy Jim Taylor, William Binga, Julius London.
Not only that, but earlier in the season the Lelands had lost 3 games to 2 to the St. Paul Gophers in St. Paul, and the Gophers (11-2 overall against the best black opposition) subsequently claimed the informal colored championship. Rube Foster, at the end of the season, dismissed the Gophers’ claims. “These were only exhibition contests,” he claimed, “and no man who ever saw the Gophers play would think of classing them as world’s colored champions, or would think the playing ability of the other clubs was very weak. No doubt they need advertising” (Indianapolis Freeman, November 13, p. 7). He didn’t even mention the Kansas City Giants.
That’s enough for this post. In the next one I’ll talk about Jack Johnson’s role in founding (or attempting to found) various leagues as well as his career in boxing (and further encounters with the “real” Jack Johnson).