George Howard “Chief” Johnson was born on the Nebraska Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) Reservation to an Irish father and a mother who was likely only half Native American, yet like almost all players of his era with any tribal blood, he was branded “Chief.”
Johnson began his pro career at age 23 in 1909 with Sioux City and Lincoln in the Western League, after having played for several seasons with Guy Green’s barnstorming Nebraska Indians team.
Johnson constantly battled weight and alcohol issues; “The Chief is not noted for the care he takes of himself,” is how The Milwaukee Sentinel put it—but after a 23-10 record for the Saint Joseph Drummers in 1912, he was purchased by the Chicago White Sox.
Johnson appeared destined to make the Sox pitching staff according to The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Examiner, but was released before Opening Day by the Sox and signed with the Cincinnati Reds. His release by Sox Manager Jimmy “Nixey” Callahan was explained the next season in several newspapers, including The Milwaukee Journal:
“The Chief…had shown ability and class; he had behaved well, but when Callahan learned that he was a Winnebago he decided to turn him away.”
The story, a tour de force of early 20th-century bigotry, went on to say:
“For many years the Winnebago tribe has been under a blacklist by all circuses, Wild West shows and film companies. There are plenty of Winnebagoes, very conveniently located; they are fine-looking people, and, as a rule educated, so they would be the finest material for show purposes. Nevertheless, the reputation of the tribe for love of firewater has been such that managers shun their reservation, and they can’t get work in the professions which yield big wages to the Sioux, Pawnees and Chippewa’s.”
I’ll include another chapter in George Johnson’s short and eventful life next week.