Vic Johnson

This article was written by Bill Nowlin

Left-hander Vic Johnson could feel good about his 1945 season pitching for the Boston Red Sox. Unfortunately, the one season was bracketed by two others that had to be disappointing. He was 6-4 with a 4.01 earned run average in 1945, appearing in 26 games and facing 384 batters, for a Red Sox team that finished in seventh place (71-83). Only three pitchers on the team had more wins – the remarkable nova that was Boo Ferriss that year (Ferriss was 21-10, 2.96), Mike Ryba (7-6, 2.49), and the 8-11 Emmett O'Neill, who struggled with a 5.15 ERA.

Life started and ended for Johnson in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He was born there on August 3, 1920, and named Victor Oscar Johnson. His parents were immigrants from Norway, both arriving in the United States in 1884. His parents, Ole S. Johnson, who worked doing meter work in an Eau Claire paper mill, and Sophia (Grosvold) Johnson, raised one daughter followed by seven sons. Victor was the seventh-born of the eight Johnson children.

Vic went through the Eau Claire school system, grades 1 through 12, graduating from Eau Claire High School. He was unbeaten in four years of high school baseball. He also attended Eau Claire State Teachers College, where he pitched for the baseball team. At the time of the 1940 census, the year he turned 20, he was working as a laborer in the paper mill. His older brother, Marcus, was a press man at the mill. Vic played amateur baseball in Wisconsin in 1941. Vic and his brother, Don, both worked at Lake Hallie Golf Course for a while. Don later became a golf pro.

In 1942, the year he turned 22, he pitched for manager Rosy Ryan and the Eau Claire Bears in the Class-C Northern League. The Bears finished first in the standings with a record of 81-41. Johnson was 18-7 with a 3.08 earned run average, his 18 wins leading the league. Ryan became a scout that year, and probably signed Johnson for the Red Sox; Ryan later moved on to work in player development for the New York Giants.1

In February 1943, the Louisville Colonels added Johnson to the roster, as well as Eau Claire teammate, first baseman Roy Fontaine. Johnson started the season with the Single-A Scranton Miners (Eastern League) and racked up a 5-1 record with a 2.78 ERA. Promoted to Double-A Louisville, he joined a Colonels team that did not have a good 1943 season, finishing 70-81 for fifth place. Johnson had a good 3.02 ERA, but a won/loss record of 6-12. Manager Bill Burwell gave him a solid recommendation.

Classified 4-F in the draft due to a hearing defect, Johnson reported at Tufts College in the Boston area in February 1944 for early spring training, heading the next day to Baltimore.2 He got a chance to pitch just one day before leaving Boston, but he made an impression. Manager Joe Cronin said, "That kid Vic Johnson looked pretty good out there on the mound today. The boy has an easy delivery and nice action for a southpaw. He looks as if he learned quite a little at Louisville last year."3

Johnson was a lefty, but he batted right-handed. He stood an even six feet tall and was listed at 160 pounds. He didn't bat that often, though. Once, Red Sox teammate Eddie Lake purportedly ribbed him, "How do you hit anyway, right or left?" He replied, "[It’s been] so long since I came up to bat, I've forgotten."4

On March 10, 1944, he married Arlene Nelson in Ladysmith, Wisconsin.

He made the team. Johnson's debut was a start against the Washington Senators on May 3 in Boston. The Sox won the game, but it was a struggle. Johnson was hit hard, lasting just 2 2/3 innings and giving up six hits, two walks, and three runs. Four-run innings in the fifth and sixth turned things around and spared Johnson a loss. A good two-inning relief stint on May 11 earned him another start on the 16th and he worked a long 11 innings, only giving up three runs – but manager Joe Cronin left him in an inning too long and he was hammered for four runs and a loss in the top of the 12th. He only pitched 11 more innings the rest of the season, spread over four more appearances. There were two more losses in there and he finished his season 0-3 with a 6.26 ERA. He was sent to Louisville on June 24, to make room on the roster for Lou Finney.

With the Colonels, he was 5-3 with a 3.60 ERA the rest of the way.

In 1945 he spent the full season in Boston. Johnson got into 26 games (nine starts), with a 4.01 ERA and a 6-4 record. His first win only required pitching to two batters and getting one out before Boston scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth in the second game of the May 30 doubleheader against visiting Cleveland. His second win came in relief against the Yankees on August 1; he gave up only one hit over six innings, while the Red Sox overcame a five-run deficit to win, 7-5. "He simply walked out to the rubber and took charge," wrote Ed Rumill in the Monitor.5 It was "a nice bit of rescue hurling," allowed the New York Times.6 The Boston Globe suggested that Joe Cronin had finally discovered he had a "fancy portside flipper" who'd been sitting on his bench all season.7

"Vic was not a fastball pitcher," said Howie Bullock, who had caught Johnson back when he was with Eau Claire. "He was a control pitcher. He had a curve and sinker than came in to a right-hand batter."8

His best game was a four-hit 1-0 shutout at Yankee Stadium on August 29, though he tempted fate by walking six in the game, one intentionally. It was his third outing against the Yankees in 1945; he still hadn't given up a run to them after 16 2/3 innings. One of his losses was a 2-1 complete game against St. Louis on September 13, losing on a throwing error by Sox shortstop Eddie Lake. Johnson had no special pitches – just a fastball and a curve, and control. But waiting him out patiently sometimes earned the batter a base on balls. By season's end he'd struck out 21 but walked 46.

On December 12, 1945, Cronin announced that the Red Sox had traded Johnson and a reported $5,000 cash to the Cleveland Indians for pitcher Jim Bagby. It was to be Bagby's second stint with Boston. The Indians needed a left-hander. Johnson’s only start was a disaster – five walks and five hits in 3 1/3 innings on May 2 at Yankee Stadium. He was charged with the loss, his only decision of the season (and the last of his major-league career). Johnson pitched in nine games in all, the last on June 11, with an earned run average of 9.22. A couple of weeks later, he was optioned to Baltimore (International League). He only appeared in two games, for a total of three innings, for Baltimore.

In 1947 and 1948, and into 1949, Johnson pitched for the Double-A Oklahoma City Indians (Texas League). He was 7-12 in 1947, and 10-11 (despite a very good 2.83 ERA) in 1948, and had a no-hitter to his credit; the opposing pitcher was future Brooklyn Dodgers star Carl Erskine. It was said to have been a dominating performance, with the ball never getting out of the infield.9 But the Cleveland club won the pennant and the World Series in 1948, and they didn't really need him. Johnson was 2-2 for Oklahoma City in 1949, then was sent to the Anniston Rams in the Class-B Southeastern League. There he was 12-8.

Johnson retired after the 1949 season, though he returned to semipro ball as player-manager at Colfax and with Leif's Conoco Oilers of Eau Claire. After his playing career, he served for more than 20 years as the Physical Director of the Eau Claire YMCA. He also worked for the recreation department at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, heading up their intramural program for the next 15 years. He also helped form Little League in Eau Claire, and was one of the managers in its first year. But he said, "I've always told people that I never worked a day in my life. I always was in sports."10 He excelled at any number of sports, and was the leading scorer in the Y's basketball Senior League.

Johnson suffered a stroke that impaired his speech significantly in his final years. He died on May 10, 2005, in Eau Claire, and is buried in the city's Lakeview Cemetery. He was preceded in death by his wife, Arlene, and was survived by their daughter Vicki and one of his brothers.

 

Sources

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

Thanks to Joe Ziemer, sports editor of the Leader-Telegram of Eau Claire, for providing important information for this biography.

 

Notes

1 Thanks to Rod Nelson of SABR's Scouts Committee for this information.

2 The reason for his exemption from military service was reported by Craig Smith, "Brushes with Greatness," Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wisconsin), August 19, 2003.

3 "Johnson Wins Cronin Praise in Tufts Finale," Boston Herald, March 26, 1944: 72.

4 Craig Smith.

5 Ed Rumill, "Johnson Earns A Starting Chance on Sox Staff," Christian Science Monitor, August 2, 1945: 11.

6 James P. Dawson, "Yanks Collect Early 5-Run Lead, But Lose to Red Sox in Seventh, 7 to 5," New York Times, August 2, 1945: 23.

7 Hy Hurwitz, "Introducing Vic Johnson: Sox Spot Yanks 5 Runs, Rally Behind Southpaw's Great Hurling to Win, 7-5", Boston Globe, August 2, 1945: 14.

8 Ron Buckli, obituary, Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wisconsin), May 12, 2005.

9 Ibid.

10 Craig Smith.