More “Chief” Johnson

30 Aug

Last week I told you about George “Chief” Johnson’s release from the Chicago White Sox in the spring of 1913, allegedly because of his affiliation with the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) Native-American Tribe.

Cincinnati Reds owner August Garry Herrmann and manager Joe Tinker were apparently more concerned with a good arm than the so-called “Winnebago ban,” and signed Johnson.

George “Chief” Johnson

Through the first month of the season, Johnson was the only effective Reds pitcher, winning three games (including two shutouts) for a team with a record of 5-16.

The New York Times took notice in an article, the racist tone of which was typical of the era:

“Big Chief Johnson of the Winnebagos [sic] is copper-colored and fat. At bat he displays as much activity as the wooden Redmen who hold forth at the doors of countless cigar stands. But on the mound this latest Indian to edge his way into the select circles of major leaguedom can deal out ciphers with as much success as the more illustrious Johnson of Washington.”

Johnson ended the season 14-16, with a 3.00 ERA for a team that finished 25 games under .500.

In 1914, the Federal League came calling.  Otto Knabe, Manager of the Baltimore Terrapins sent a telegram to Johnson asking for his terms.  According to Knabe, Johnson replied with a telegram sent collect saying “Will sign for $10,000 bonus and reasonable salary.” Knabe telegrammed Johnson collect “Asked for your terms, not Walter Johnson’s”

Otto Knabe

Johnson signed the following month with the Federal League Kansas City Packers for a more modest $3000 advance and $5000 salary; the only problem was that Johnson had already signed a contract with the Reds for 1914.

Johnson’s 1914 season was highlighted by a series of injunctions and court rulings that kept him sidelined for much of the season while organized baseball battled the upstart Federal League.  (The saga of the Federal League has been rehashed in numerous books and blogs, no need to reinvent the wheel here—I recommend this book)

Johnson played for Kansas City in 1914 and 1915 posting records of 9-10 and 17-17.  Throughout his tenure in Kansas City Johnson had numerous run-ins with the law over his drinking and was cited for desertion and non-support of his wife. Additionally, his weight ballooned to well over two hundred pounds.

Johnson’s major league career was over after 1915, but he pitched three more seasons in the Pacific Coast League.  Pitching for the Vernon Tigers near the end of the 1916 season Johnson was so out of shape that it was reported in the Los Angeles Times that the Portland Beavers chased him from a game in the third inning by having several hitters in a row lay down bunts that the overweight pitcher was unable to field.

Johnson reportedly returned in better shape in 1917 and was 25-23 pitching for Vernon and the San Francisco Seals.  Johnson returned  in 1918, posting a 2-6 record, and was joined in San Francisco for a short time by his brother John who appeared in one game for the Seals.

After his release by San Francisco Johnson barnstormed with a variety of teams throughout the Midwest and West and sold “snake-oil” in a traveling tent show.  On June 11, 1922, Johnson was in Des Moines, Iowa with his tent show when he was killed in a dispute over money during either a dice or poker game (news accounts varied).  Johnson’s killer, an African-American gambler named Ed Gillespie, was originally charged with first-degree murder, but the charges were reduced to manslaughter based on eye-witness accounts that claimed Johnson was “drunk and belligerent.”  He was buried at the Winnebago Cemetery in Winnebago, Nebraska.

A postscript.

A few days after Johnson’s death a small item appeared in Iowa newspapers; it was about a druggist in Des Moines who had agreed to put a display in his store window to promote Johnson’s tent show. The story said:

“Anyone anxious to own a nice horned rattlesnake may have one by taking the one left in his show window by the late Mr. Johnson.”

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2 Responses to “More “Chief” Johnson”

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