Daily Archives: Sept. 30, 2013

Indian Bob Johnson (stories from the minors)

Who is the best major league baseball playeryou never heard of?

I’m going to guess Bob Johnson, whose nickname was unfortunate but a sign of the times, would get a

Bob Johnson

few votes, except I’m not sure how you would vote for a player you never heard of. I guess we’ll figure that out.

Anyway, I’m continuing my blog series this week on major league baseball players who spent some time in Wichita playing minor league ball. And Bob Johnson did so, spending part of the 1929 season playing for the Wichita Aviators in the Western League, where he was a teammate of Woody Jensen, who would go on to become a long-time bowling proprietor in Wichita.

Johnson played in 66 games for the Aviators that season and hit 16 home runs while batting .273. It was a sign of good things to come for Johnson, a power-hitting corner outfielder who played 13 years in the majors.

He finished his career with 2,051 hits, 1,239 runs, 396 doubles, 95 triples, 288 home runs, 1,283 RBIs, 96 stolen bases and an OPS (combined slugging and on-base percentages) of .899. I found only six players in major league history who topped Johnson in all eight of those categories: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Harry Heilman, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.

Johnson had a great set of tools and was a seven-time American League All-Star. There might be a legitimate excuse as to why you never heard of him. Perhaps you don’t follow baseball that closely.

I do and have since the mid-1960s. So there’s no excuse for me, but I confess to having no knowledge of Johnson, who finished his MLB career by playing a season with the Washington Senators and two with the Boston Red Sox.

From 1935-41, in the prime of his career, Johnson put up these offensive numbers with the Philadelphia A’s:

1935 – .299, 28 homers, 109 RBI

1936 – .292, 25, 121

1937 – .306, 25, 108

1938 – .313, 30, 113

1939 – .338, 23, 114

1940 – .288, 31, 103

1941 – .275, 22, 107

Not bad, huh?

Interestingly, Johnson didn’t stop playing when he stopped playing – at least in the big leagues. His last season in the majors was in 1945, when he was 39. But Johnson returned to the minor leagues, something that would never happen with a star player today. Then, though, the salaries weren’t as different as they are now between a big leaguer and a top minor-league player.

Johnson played for Milwaukee in 1946, two seasons in Seattle in 1947 and 1948, Tacoma in 1949 and finished up with a season in Tijuana, Mexico, in the Southwest International League in 1951, when he was 45.

A late bloomer, Johnson didn’t start his big league career until he was 27, having spent four years in the minor leagues. Yet he became one of the American League’s best hitters over a long stretch.

Playing in an era that included American League stars Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Earl Averill, Jimmie Fox and others, Johnson consistently ranked among the top 10 in various offensive categories.

A native of Pryor, Okla., where he was born in 1905, Johnson spent most of his adult life in the Seattle area and died there in 1982, at the age of 76.

His brother, Roy, had a productive 10-year major league career with the Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Boston Braves, during which he batted .296 and accumulated 1,292 hits.

I never heard of him, either.


Baseball thoughts

* I like Joe Maddon, the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. I like that team, in fact. I’ll be watching tonight when the Rays play at Texas in the play-in for the play-in American League game that will determine the team that gets to travel to Cleveland for a chance to then travel to Boston. I like the two wild-card system in the big leagues, but it has the potential to be cumbersome. We’re witnessing that in the American League this week.

* Back to Tampa Bay. While I like the manager and the team, I can’t stand the fan base. It’s not a fan

A rare big crowd at Tropicana Field, the St. Petersburg, Fla., home of the Tampa Bay Rays.

base. And it’s certainly not a fan base that should be treated to winning baseball, which the Rays have given them for several years now. Tampa Bay this season ranked dead last in American League attendance at just 18,465 per game. That’s embarrassing. And while I understand that the ballpark in St. Petersburg, Fla., is outdated, how come Tampa gets to hold on to its MLB team?

* In the previous 12 seasons, from 2001 through 2012, Tampa ranked 28th, 28th, 29th, 29th, 30th, 29th, 29th, 26th, 23rd, 22nd, 20 and 30th among the 30 teams in average attendance. Baseball fans in Tampa obviously are few and far between. I’m for uprooting the Rays and sending them to Charlotte, Portland, Las Vegas or somewhere else where fans might actually show up.

* I’m surprised veteran Detroit manager Jim Leyland is going with Justin Verlander as his Game 1 starter in the American League Divisional Series against Oakland on Friday night. Verlander has had a down year, plain and simple. Yes, he’s been a dynamic ace for the Tigers for several seasons. But that role now belongs to Max Scherzer, a right-hander who was 21-3 this season. And the case can be made – a strong case at that – that Anibal Sanchez has been Detroit’s second most effective starter. Detroit does open on the road in the ALDS and Verlander has more big-game experience than either Scherzer or Sanchez. But I would prefer having Scherzer available for two games in the series.

* Getting home field advantage in the National League, especially, was a big deal. The St. Louis Cardinals, who ended up with a one-game edge over Atlanta for the best record in the National League, have been a very good home team this season. So have the Braves, who will now have to go on the road in the NLCS should they advance to play the Cardinals. Atlanta hasn’t been a great road team in 2013, so if those teams play that’s a big edge to St. Louis.

* The following rookie pitchers have made big contributions to the Cardinals this season: Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Seigrist, Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness, Tyler Lyons. The following rookie pitchers have also contributed: Sam Freeman, Keith Butler, John Gast, Michael Blazek. Blazek was sent to Milwaukee at the end of July in the trade that brought veteran John Axford to St. Louis. But can any team in baseball history claim that 11 rookie pitchers made contributions?

* Predictions? You want predictions?

* OK, I say Tampa Bay beats Texas tonight in Arlington behind left-hander David Price. Then, with a depleted pitching staff, the Rays lose in Cleveland, which means the Indians play Boston in the NLDS. I’m so pulling for the Tribe if that happens, but suspect that the Red Sox win the series. Although there’s something about Cleveland that can’t be overlooked. Terry Francona’s return to playoff baseball in Boston, only this time as the opposing manager, will have a lot of intrigue. I think Detroit beats Oakland, even though the A’s are the best no-name bunch I can remember. It won’t be easy. And I like the Tigers over Boston in the ALCS.

* In the National League, Pittsburgh beats Cincinnati in the play-in game Tuesday night. Then the Pirates take on St. Louis, which for Cardinals fans like me means a whole lot of stress. Pittsburgh is a tough team and has given St. Louis fits all season. But I’ll pick the Cards, who have the home-field edge and are playing well. Plus, they would miss Pirates ace Francisco Liriano at least until Game 4 since Liriano is starting the play-in game against the Reds. Braves-Dodgers? Atlanta is at home, but LA is a better team. Close, but I’ll pick the Dodgers. St. Louis wins the NLCS in seven over LA, although it could be argued that’s a homer pick.

* St. Louis vs. Detroit in the World Series. Don’t make me pick. Please. My pick means nothing because I have to pick the Cardinals. It’s mandatory. OK, St. Louis in seven, since you insisted.