SABR

Rankin Johnson

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

In just three big-league seasons, right-handed pitcher Rankin Johnson pitched for five big-league teams: the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Chi-Feds, Chicago Whales, Baltimore Terrapins, and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Experienced historians will recognize three of Johnson’s teams as Federal League teams, and thus can pin down the era as primarily 1914 and 1915.

He came from quite a family, his father a noted Civil War military leader, his son serving for eight years as president of the Eastern League, and his grandson pitching in the low minor leagues for a few years in the 1960s.

Adam Rankin Johnson was born in Burnet, Texas, in the Hill Country northwest of Austin, on February 4, 1888, one of nine children born to Adam R. and Josephine (Eastland) Johnson. Oddly, one of the other children was also Adam R. Johnson, born in 1872, perhaps an older brother who had died. Father Adam was listed in the 1880 census as a “land and collecting agent” – but he had been a lot more than that. He was known as Stovepipe Johnson, who had moved from his native Kentucky to Burnet County in 1854. When the Civil War broke out, Stovepipe returned to Kentucky and became a scout for Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Given his own unit to command, Johnson often operated behind Union lines and was involved in a number of skirmishes or battles, including the first capture of a Northern city by a Confederate unit, when he took Newburgh, Indiana, with just 12 men and two fake cannon created by a couple of sections of stovepipe, wagon wheels and axles (earning him his nickname). A colonel at the time, he was blinded by an accidental shot fired by one of his own men during a battle in August 1864. Captured and imprisoned, he was returned to Texas near the end of the war.[1]

Not one to sit around inactive, Johnson even founded his own town in 1887, the year before his baseball-playing son was born. The town was Marble Falls, in the Hill Country, within 10 years home to 1,800 people. Johnson died in 1922. Being blind, he never saw his son play baseball.

Rankin Johnson attended two years of high school in Marble Falls, and started playing organized ball in 1908 for the Austin Senators of the Class C Texas League. For each of his first six years, he played for a different team:

1908 Austin Senators (4-6)

1909 Galveston Sand Crabs (12-21)

1910 Dallas Giants (10-7)

1911 York White Roses (11-9)

1912 Binghamton Bingoes (32 games, record not known)

1913 Syracuse Stars (20-7)

He was never much of a batter, with an ultimate 12-year minor-league average of .168. (In the major leagues it was .125.) Johnson’s reported salary increased from $150 a month with Galveston and Dallas to $225 a month with Baltimore and Syracuse.

He caught the eye of the Boston Red Sox when he held them to five hits during an exhibition game in Syracuse on August 27, 1913, an 8-1 win for the Stars. He had also beaten the New York Giants that year in another exhibition game. The Red Sox drafted him on December 27.[2] He was 6-feet-2 and weighed 180 pounds when he reported to spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The Red Sox paid him $400 a month, but he wasn’t with them that long.

In 1914 Johnson’s major-league debut came on April 20. The Red Sox were playing in front of a large crowd of more than 26,000 fans at Fenway Park in a dual-admission doubleheader. They dropped the first game to the Philadelphia Athletics, 8-2, and were losing the second game 5-0 after eight innings. Manager Bill Carrigan had put himself in to pinch-hit for pitcher Rube Foster in the bottom of the eighth; he asked Johnson to throw the ninth. Johnson did, giving up a double to Amos Strunk. Johnson himself fielded a ball and threw out a batter at first. A single scored Strunk, then two force plays ended the inning. Boston lost, 6-0.

Johnson’s first of 13 starts for the Red Sox came three days later, in Washington. It was Rankin Johnson vs. Walter Johnson. And the Johnson who threw a 5-0 shutout was rookie Rankin. He held the Senators to six hits, only three getting as far as second base, with the only base on balls being an intentional one, according to Tim Murnane’s account in the next day’s Boston Globe. Murnane, the dean of Boston sportswriters of the day (and a former major leaguer himself), wrote, in part, about how Rankin Johnson had been “cool as ice” and how – subjected as he was to hooting by the large Washington crowd hoping to rattle him – he had responded as though he had nerves of stone. Murnane enthused, “His all-round performance here today, everything considered, was the finest showing ever made by a pitcher in his first major league game, in my experience, covering more than 30 years.”[3] One couldn’t have asked for higher praise. Rankin also had two singles in four at-bats.

He lost his next two starts, and then came a rematch with Walter Johnson in the first game of a five-game visit by the Senators to Boston. Both pitchers were in good form. Rankin again allowed six hits, but Walter allowed Boston only two and won the contest, 1-0. The two Johnsons matched up again on June 1, in the fifth game of the visit, and it was another 1-0 game. This time, Rankin Johnson reclaimed the edge; each pitcher allowed his opponent just five hits.

The Senators finally got to Rankin Johnson in their fourth attempt, making him “look like an exploded Roman candle” in hammering him for five runs in the first five innings, on their way to a 12-0 rampage. The Johnsons met up a fifth time in 1914, just three days later and this was another 1-0 win, by Walter. They had faced each other down five times and one or another earned a shutout, three by Walter and two by Rankin. The rest of the league was another story. Rankin finished his Red Sox season at 3-9, though with a decent 3.06 earned-run average. His season ended on July 28 when he was traded to Cleveland along with Fritz Coumbe and Ben Egan, all three for Vean Gregg.

Johnson never pitched for Cleveland, however. He couldn’t come to terms with Cleveland, and jumped his contract. On August 5 it was announced that he was a member of the Chicago Chi-Feds, having signed a deal with the Federal League ballclub.[4] The rest of the Gregg deal stood, since there had been some anticipation that a player might bolt; the Red Sox had to give Cleveland the pre-agreed $1,500.[5] Johnson’s first start for his new team came in Brooklyn on August 8, a 2-1 victory. He was 9-5 with a 1.58 ERA for the Chi-Feds. The team, now known as the Chicago Whales, invited him back in 1915, and he went just 2-4 (4.42 ERA) before they sold him to the Baltimore Terrapins, another Federal League team. He won 7 and lost 13 for Baltimore, with a 3.35 ERA. Johnson finished out of the money; the Whales finished in first place, and the Terrapins finished in last place. Not that there was money; the whole short-lived league folded after the 1915 season.

There was a “peace agreement” reached after the closing of the Federal League, and players who had jumped their contacts to go with the new league were returned to their previous teams. Johnson was thus property of the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox were riding high after winning the World Series in 1915 and didn’t feel they needed him, or any other discordant FL elements. Given that they won the Series again in 1916, their assessment was correct. Johnson was sold to the Fort Worth Panthers and played in the Texas League again, winning 15 and losing 12.

He was drafted by Milwaukee of the American Association in October 1916 and put on their reserve list, but apparently let it be known that he would not play for the Brewers and on August 22, 1917, was reported to have jumped to play semipro ball in Hayden, Arizona. He was suspended by Fort Worth, and didn’t play in Organized Baseball in 1917, instead taking a job as a clerical worker with the Ray Consolidated Copper Co. of Hayden, Arizona.

Somehow or other, Johnson found his way onto the St. Louis Cardinals in 1918, and threw 23 innings in six games (one start), finishing 1-1 (2.74), his final game being on June 18. Johnson was traded to the Phillies on that date, acquired to take the place of pitcher Dixie Davis, who had been called to military service.[6] Johnson never appeared for the Phillies, and the next know transaction has him signing with the Triangle Factory League in Dayton, Ohio, on August 2.[7]

Johnson seems to have left baseball for several years, and at the time of the 1920 census was working as a bookkeeper in a dry-goods store. In 1923 and 1924 he managed in the Texas Association for the Austin Rangers and the Temple Surgeons, respectively. He pitched to an 11-7 season with Austin in 1923.

He took a position in the New York/Penn League and managed the Harrisburg Senators in 1925 and the beginning of the 1926 campaign. It was a job he took seriously, staying in Harrisburg over the winter rather than returning home to Texas.[8] He worked the mound some, too, but not that effectively (4-8 and 1-4). Johnson is shown as pitching for the Class D Blue Ridge League Chambersburg Maroons (4-3 in 52 innings) in 1926. That appears to be his last association with the game as player or manager – though his son Adam Rankin Johnson Jr., who had been the batboy in Harrisburg, played seven seasons in the minor leagues beginning in 1935, and had a month with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1941 (1-0 in 10 innings spread over seven games).

Rankin Johnson’s grandson (Adam Jr.’s son) Joseph E. Johnson pitched for parts of four seasons in the low minors from 1966 (Rookie League ball) through three seasons with the Auburn Twins in the New York/Penn League. He had a combined 9-8 record.

Rankin Johnson wasn’t finished with baseball, however. We don’t know his full career trajectory, but in the first half of the 1950s he was league secretary of the Eastern League for eight years, and in January 1961 became its executive secretary “with presidential powers.” He served for at least five years, and was retired by 1967. Johnson lived until July 2, 1972, when he died in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, at the age of 84. He’d still kept his hand in, however, right to the last, working from 1968 into early 1971 as general manager in Williamsport and then in April 1972 taking a position as an assistant to Mike Kavanaugh, the new GM of the Williamsport team.[9]

August 21, 2011

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Johnson’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the online SABR Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.




[1] Texas State Historical Association website, which adds, “He worked to develop the water power of the Colorado River, founded the Texas Mining Improvement Company, and served as a contractor for the Overland Mail.” In 1904 Johnson saw his memoir published: The Partisan Rangers of the Confederate States Army. A great-grandson was former White House Press Secretary George Christian, Jr.

[2] Boston Globe, December 28, 1913. The article reported his won/lost record with Syracuse.

[3] Boston Globe, April 24, 1914

[4] Boston Globe, August 5 and 6, 1914

[5] Boston Globe, February 24, 1916

[6] Chicago Tribune, July 18, 1918

[7] Chicago Tribune, August 3, 1918

[8] The Sporting News, February 18, 1926

[9] The Sporting News, April 15, 1972

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