Adventures in Baseball Archeology: the Negro Leagues, Latin American baseball, J-ball, the minors, the 19th century, and other hidden, overlooked, or unknown corners of baseball history...with occasional forays into other sports.
Here, courtesy of John Russell, is a brief sketch of Grant“Home Run”Johnson’s career up to 1913, with details supplied by Johnson himself—plus a photo I’ve never seen before of Johnson in the colors of the Royal Poinciana Hotel team of Palm Beach, Florida.
A quick rundown on Grant“Home Run”Johnson’s credentials as a great player and manager and significant historical figure:
• On October 7, 1893, Johnson, having just turned 21, hit two home runs off Tony Mullane to lead his hometown Findlay, Ohio, club to a 5 to 4 win over the Cincinnati Reds.
•Hit 60 home runs for the independent professional Findlays in 1894, earning the sobriquet “Home Run Johnson.”
•With Bud Fowler co-founded the Page Fence Giants of Adrian, Michigan, in 1895. From that year through 1912, Johnson would serve as captain and field manager of nearly every team he played for, excepting only the 1905 Philadelphia Giants and the 1911 Chicago Giants.
•Captained at least five teams that claimed the colored world’s championship, and played for at least three more.
•Captained pennant-winning Habana teams in the Cuban League during the 1908/09 and 1911/12 winter seasons.
•Of the 392 games compiled for these stats, 350 (89%) were played after Johnson turned 33 years old.
Home Run Johnson was certainly the best black ballplayer between Frank Grant and the emergence of John Henry Lloyd in the late 1900s. It’s also worth pointing out that he was perhaps the first great African American professional who never appeared in “organized baseball.” Before him Frank Grant, George Stovey, Sol White, Robert Higgins, and Bud Fowler all played in otherwise all- or mostly white minor leagues (and the Walker brothers appeared briefly in the majors). Beginning with Johnson, however, several generations of the best African American baseball talent, from Rube Foster and Pete Hill all the way down to Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, would be locked out. Grant Johnson was, in a sense, the first of the Negro leaguers.
I’ve written before about Grant “Home Run” Johnson (in my opinion the best segregation-era African American ballplayer not inducted into the Hall of Fame) and Howard Henry’s effort to memorialize his grave at the Lakeside Cemetery in Hamburg, New York. Howard’s work is coming to fruition soon, as a headstone and roadside plaque honoring Johnson’s achievements will be placed on June 24, 2014.
Even if it’s a bit late to make plans to attend, you can help Howard cover the nearly $1000 cost for the two markers. Donations are tax-deductible. Make out checks to the Forest Lawn Heritage Foundation, and in the memo section write “Designated to the Grant ‘Home Run’ Johnson Marker.” The mailing address is:
Forest Lawn Heritage Foundation 1141 Delaware Avenue Buffalo NY 14209
I know about the Buck O’Neil and Minnie Miñoso controversies, but for my money the biggest omission in the 2006 election of Negro leaguers to the Hall of Fame was Grant “Home Run” Johnson—the best African American ballplayer of the 1890s and early 1900s, the biggest star in black baseball before Rube Foster (and probably co-equal with Rube for a few years in the 1900s), organizer and manager of great teams from the Page Fence Giants to the Cuban League champion Habana B.B.C. in the 1911/12 winter season, and still one of the best hitters in black baseball in his late thirties and early forties.
I’m happy to report that, through the efforts of Howard Henry and Jeremy Krock, Johnson will be getting a marker for his grave at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York. As part of this effort I recently supplied Howard with some photos of Johnson, so, for no particular reason, here are a few:
Grant Johnson with the 1894 Findlay Sluggers, an integrated team that also featured Bud Fowler.
The 1896 Page Fence Giants, with Johnson standing second from right.
Johnson from a photo of the 1904 Cuban X Giants.
Photos of Pete Hill and Grant Johnson from the Philadelphia Inquirer (April 23, 1905), one of several items on the same page promoting the Philadelphia Giants. This image of Johnson would later be reprinted in Sol White’s History of Colored Base Ball (1907).
The 1905 Philadelphia Giants, with Johnson standing at far left, next to Rube Foster (for some reason his name is not written on the photo like the other players).
A photo of Johnson published in the Brooklyn Standard Union, October 18, 1905.
The 1906 Brooklyn Royal Giants, with Johnson standing third from left.
Several players from the 1911/12 Habana Base Ball Club of the Cuban National League, from the 1911 Spalding Baseball Guide, Spanish American Edition.
A hitherto unknown episode in the late career of Grant Johnson. From the New York Age (April 17, 1920), in an article about the Bacharach Giants’ spring training camp in Jacksonville, Florida:
The minister of the 2nd Baptist Church was about the most surprised citizen in Florida when he discovered many of the Bacharachs’ players occupying pews in his place of worship. It seems as though the suggestion to attend church was offered by “Home Run Johnson.” Capt. Dick, to show that he was no more heathen than the “home-run king,” agreed to accompany him. Many of the other players followed suit. The Bacharach team was already very popular in Jacksonville, but nothing could have brought them more into the public’s good graces.
“Capt. Dick” was the club’s new player-manager, Dick Redding (and the Age really liked this nickname, which it said had been coined by the players). The 45-year-old Johnson was probably not in the Bacharachs’ camp primarily to exude holiness; the team’s hotshot young shortstop, Dick Lundy, had failed to report, holding out for higher pay. Unfortunately, Johnson couldn’t give the Bacharachs much bargaining leverage. In its report of an early-season doubleheader against the Tesreau Bears, the Age described his performance thusly:
All through both games Home Run Johnson had shown that he was no short stop even though he was stationed in that section of the garden….It must be said that the Bears were helped along considerably by the costly errors of a few of the Bacharach men and by some questionable decisions. Principal among the fumblers was Home Run Johnson who seemed altogether out of place at short. He was also largely at fault for String Bean’s mishap in the first encounter and threw away the last game when Capt. Dick had it all sewed up. (New York Age, May 8, 1920)
By the time of another doubleheader a couple of weeks later, this time against Guy Empey’s Treat ‘Em Roughs, Lundy was at his accustomed spot as shortstop. No mention was made of Johnson, who had presumably returned to the Buffalo Stars of Pittsburgh. None of the standard reference books today lists his brief and inglorious stay with the Bacharachs.
This is the latest I’ve seen the near Hall-of-Famer in box scores so far: at the age of 47, he played second base and batted cleanup for the 1922 Buffalo Stars. In three games against the NNL Cleveland Tate Stars (June 24-26), Johnson hit 4 for 11 with two doubles and one walk. He had 8 putouts, 6 assists, and one error at second base. His team was outclassed by the Tate Stars, a very poor NNL club, losing all three games (14-3, 6-0, and 5-1).
Riley’s Biographical Encyclopedia lists him with the “Pittsburgh Colored Stars of Buffalo” for 1919-21, and the “Buffalo Giants” for 1923. Clark and Lester’s Negro Leagues Book does have Johnson on the roster for the 1922 Buffalo Stars.
According to the Chicago Defender (9-16-16), he was playing for a club called the “Pittsburg Colored Stars,” apparently based in Buffalo, New York; I believe he was still playing for this club as late as 1921. Having just turned 42, he was still at shortstop and batting cleanup.
Near Hall of Famer Grant “Home Run” Johnson is sometimes put on the Lincoln Stars’ roster for 1916. I haven’t seen any evidence he played for them, though. There was a “Johnson” or “Johnston,” who was listed for at least one game as “G. Johnson,” but based on the following, it’s clear it was not the veteran Grant:
From the Indianapolis Freeman, May 20, 1916:
Captain Pettus of the Lincoln Stars landed the find of the season when he signed this boy Johnston for shortstop. Johnston, who played on a high school team at Youngstown, Ohio, last year is the best looking shortstop seen in New York since Lloyd broke into fast company.
And, from another article:
Charleston and Johnston, the newcomers of the Stars, made a good impression with the fans…the latter fielding his position like a Honous [sic] Wagner or a John Lloyd. Watch these boys; they are there with the “hello stuff.”
Grant Johnson would have been 42 and quite well-known in the baseball world at this time; it’s very hard to believe that the Freeman or the Defender would not have commented on his presence in the Stars’ lineup when they traveled west in July and August. But there’s not a peep; just bland references to Johnston, the Lincolns’ second baseman, when he’s mentioned at all.
I’ve elected in my compilation to go with “Johnston,” as I think it’s likelier for the “t” to get lost occasionally, resulting in “Johnson,” than it is for the “t” to be added by accident. The initial he was given most often is “C.,” so I went with that for now. He also appeared once as “J. Johnson.” I’m fairly certain this was all one person, as Johnston appears regularly from June through August, without many interruptions, batting fifth until the end of July, then batting first the rest of the season. Also, two Johnsons or Johnstons, or a Johnson and a Johnston, never appear in the lineup at the same time. With small Negro League rosters, that’s pretty much a solid tipoff that this is a single person, and not multiple guys with the same or similar last names.
Anyway, the Youngstown connection might be a lead for somebody to pursue and try to pin down his identity.
Also: I’ve never seen this bit of slang before (the “hello stuff”). That’s one of the reasons I love reading old newspapers.