Saturday, April 2, 2016
I had the opportunity and good fortune to interview former Negro League All-Star Ernie Johnson a few years ago. Ernie was one of those guys who was perhaps just a few years ahead of his time.
Johnson signed with the legendary Kansas City Monarchs in 1949 as a 20-year-old pitcher. His salary was $200 a month with about 3 bucks a day for meal money. He switched to the outfield in 1950 and became known as a powerful hitter. It was a time of change for the Negro Leagues--several teams had folded and the others were doing anything they could to stay afloat. "The league was dying by 1953," he said. "The Black community had accepted that with Jackie and those guys moving to organized baseball, the Negro League wasn't as important as before. Looking back, I didn't get too excited when Jackie signed with the Dodgers. I didn't have the knowledge of what might be coming or what that might mean for me."
Johnson's manager with the Monarchs was the inimitable Buck O'Neil. O'Neil would eventually become the foremost sweet-talking ambassador for baseball and the Negro Leagues and, after his performance in Ken Burns' Baseball in 1994, become a rock star. In 1953, O'Neil was simply the most respected man in the Negro League. In addition to possessing a great baseball mind, O'Neil knew how to manage men. "Buck O'Neil was a wonderful person," said Johnson. "If you played the game the way he thought, he was OK with you. If you didn't, he had a problem." O'Neil knew which players needed a carrot on a stick in front of their nose and which ones needed the stick turned around and used on their backsides. "He was a good teacher, but he didn't have any coaches." O'Neil had to do it all--manage the team on the field, organize the road trips and, if the bus broke down, round up cars to get the team to the next game. In spring training Dizzy Dismukes might work with the pitchers, but otherwise O'Neil was on his own.
As a youngster, Johnson quickly realized, along with the other players, that a new guy was there for one reason--to take someone else's job. "The older players didn''t help me. I had to pick up most things by myself." Once a new guy proved himself to be a solid member of the team, the other guys came around. "We really got to be good friends. We spent so much time together. I enjoyed the guys we were traveling with. If you didn't get along, you would have been gone. Buck would have gotten rid of any troublemakers. But we never really had any."
"We didn't spend much time in Kansas City, maybe a few weekends, then we'd be on the road most of the time. We played every day and in a different town every day. Often we traveled with the [Indianapolis] Clowns. I didn't think about anything but playing baseball. I didn't mind the conditions or the travel. It wasn't a bother to me. We didn't really sleep on the bus as much as people think. We almost always had hotel accommodations. I loved to play baseball. I was happy to get to play every day. I was able to see a lot of the country; parts I would have never seen. Parts most people never get to see. So we learned a lot about the country."
The 1953 Kansas City Monarchs. Johnson is second from the right. Far right is O'Neil. Ernie Banks is the sixth from the right
The Monarchs were unchallenged in those years. "We had the best team in the league," said Johnson. "I really believe we could have beaten any team in the minor leagues at the time." The Monarchs had winning streaks of 14 and 16 games and finished the 1953 season in front by 20 and a half games.
Johnson hit .296 with a league-leading 11 home runs for the Monarchs in 1953. His 22-year-old teammate, Ernie Banks, was third in the league with a .347 batting average. By mid-season, Banks, who had missed the previous two years while in the Army, was the talk of the league. "I thought Ernie Banks was a good ballplayer," said Johnson, "but I never visualized him becoming the great player he became. He was good, but I don't remember him being that much better than everyone else. Of course, I never idolized any of the guys I played with or against. I just thought I was as good as any of them." Johnson wasn't just being arrogant. Buck O'Neil once told a reporter he thought Johnson was the best hitter on that team.
"I played in the East-West game in 1953 in Comiskey Park. We didn't call it the All-Star game, we called it the East-West game. I grew up in Chicago and I remembered the game from growing up when it was a really big deal. So it was a great experience to get to play in one."
Played annually in Comiskey Park since 1933 (with a few exceptions in the early years when it was played elsewhere) the East-West game was the pinnacle of any Negro League season and had once been a major social event in Black America. With attendance swelling to more than 50,000 in the mid-40s, they outdrew the major league All-Star game several times. Players were chosen for the East-West game by fans voting in the nation's two largest Black newspapers, the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. As stated by Buck O'Neil in I Was Right On Time: "Our game meant a lot more than a big-league game. Theirs was, and is, more or less an exhibition. But for black folks, the East-West Game was a matter of racial pride. Black people came from all over to Chicago every year." The Illinois Central Railroad would put on a special coach from New Orleans to Chicago to pick people up all through the south and bring them in for the game.
While the East-West game had once boasted talent as rich as any major league game, by 1953 most of the premier names had been sold to the majors and major league teams were beginning to bypass the Negro League altogether and sign their own young Black players. Johnson's 1953 East-West teammate Ernie Banks would be the last player to appear in a Negro League All-Star game and later play in a major league All-Star game. Attendance at the 1953 game was a mere 10,000. Banks made several flashy plays at short stop and Johnson had a big two-run single to help the West, managed by O'Neil, to a 5-1 victory.
All the players at the time were hoping to be the next player from the Negro Leagues signed to the majors. "When Ernie Banks was first spotted, the scout, Tom Gordon, came to Columbus [Georgia] to see me," said Johnson. "He saw Ernie Banks at short stop and forgot all about Ernie Johnson." Banks was signed by the Cubs and went straight to Wrigley Field in September, 1953.
Johnson was sold to the St. Louis Browns in 1954, but his opportunity in organized ball never gained traction. He was injured and released later in the year, but the Cubs signed him and he was sent to Thetford in the Provincial League where he hit .288. The next year he was sent to Macon, Georgia and landed in a difficult situation. Macon had never had an African-American player before. Johnson and teammate Sammy Drake were the pioneers that year. While the local Black community was supportive, Jim Crow was alive and well. The two endured taunts, on the road and at home, along with the indignities of having to stay in separate facilities and eat their meals on the bus. Competing in professional baseball is difficult enough without the added stress of breaking social ground in a place that doesn't want change. After a month in Macon, Johnson was sent out to Des Moines.
Johnson enjoyed several good years in Des Moines and Souix City, hitting .320, .300 and .308. Despite the numbers, he was never given a chance to move much higher. He ended his career in 1959 with Charleston.
Johnson allows no regrets for what might have been. As far as the segregation of the time, he said, "To me, that's just the way life was. We didn't know any better. It never occurred to me that things could be different. I never had any anger about things, that's just the way it had always been. And like I said, we just didn't know any better. But we lived a pretty good life as ballplayers; better than the average Black person. We were doing a job we enjoyed, we stayed in some of the better hotels that were owned by Blacks. I got to play baseball and got to travel all over this country and got paid to do it."
No regrets. Ernie Johnson, professional baseball player. Just a few years ahead of his time.