Professional Baseball’s Last HBP Death

1 Aug
On June 2, 1951 at Peanut Stadium in Headland, Alabama, John Ottis Johnson an outfielder with the Dothan Browns of the Alabama-Florida League stepped to plate with 10 home runs and a .394 average in 155 at bats. The pitcher for the Headland Dixie Runners, Harry Repard “Jack” Clifton had just returned to professional baseball after an eight year layoff. Clifton had been a good hitting outfielder and occasional pitcher from 1940-43 playing in the Coastal Plaines, Bi-State and Piedmont Leagues.

Johnson was born April 5, 1923 (incorrectly listed as 1926 on Baseball Reference) in Alabama and was in his second season with Dothan, having hit .313 the previous year. His brother Edsel, who was attending the game that evening, had played for Brewton in the Alabama State League in 1948.

Clifton threw an inside fastball that froze Johnson and he was struck in the head, fracturing his skull. Johnson, who was a high school teacher in Midland City, Alabama, never fully regained consciousness and died eight days later. He left a wife and child. It was the last instance of a player being killed by a pitched ball in professional baseball.

Jack Clifton

The fallout from Johnson’s death nearly resulted in the folding of the Alabama-Florida League. Dothan owner Charles Smith forfeited two games against Headland in the following weeks when Clifton was slated to pitch. The franchises in Ozark, Panama City and Enterprise threatened to pull out of the league and form a four team league with Dothan if Headland did not release Clifton and suspend manager Bubba Ball. Johnson’s wife supported Clifton, telling reporters “We’re willing to forget the accident, the rest of the people ought to be broad minded enough to do the same.”

As negotiations continued to keep the league intact, Clifton continued pitching. As late as June 30 newspapers were reporting the league would fold, but on July 5 an agreement was finally reached that allowed Clifton to continue pitching and kept the league intact.

4 Responses to “Professional Baseball’s Last HBP Death”

  1. Nancy Wilson June 26, 2014 at 8:31 pm #

    My name is Nancy Lynn Johnson Wilson the eldest child of Ottis, daddy was 28 not 25 when he was killed & I was 2 1/2 yrs old and had a brother 1 year old John Ottis Johnson Jr., our mother and daddy were expecting another baby in December so 6 months after daddy died Bonnie Joann Johnson was born. We all live in Pensacola, Fla. We lost our precious mother Mary Louise Johnson 24 years ago at age 61, she was our rock, she was an amazing mother, looking so forward to being reunited in heaven with them both when that time comes. Praise The Lord

    • Thom Karmik June 26, 2014 at 8:42 pm #

      The newspaper articles at the time listed his age incorrectly. Thank you very much for providing the correct the information.

  2. Scott Parks March 3, 2018 at 1:59 pm #

    My name is Scott Parks, and from 1990-2002 I had a website on Deep South Class D baseball, which included the Alabama-Florida/ Alabama State League, the Flint River League, and others.. When I took the website down, I kept hundreds of news clippings photos, etc. I had interviewed close to 100 former players and had been to every city that had a team. I wrote a book in 2016 titled “Bottom Rung: The Deep South Class D Baseball Scrapbook”. It includes my interviews with Jack Clifton, Edsel Johnson (Ottis’ brother) and Edsel Johnson Jr. It’s available through Amazon or from the publisher, Vabella Publishing (link below). If you buy from Vabella, the current edition contains my interview with Virgil Trucks, which was left off the original edition. The book doesn’t show on the site, but contact them about it.


  1. Joe Jerger « Baseball History Daily - November 26, 2012

    […] Unlike other pitchers who were involved with hit by pitch deaths, the name confusion meant that the incident did not seem to follow Jerger.  I cannot find a reference to Jerger in any newspaper article after 1906 that mentions Burke’s death. […]

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