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.