Left-handed pitcher John Michaels had a pretty straight shot right to the major leagues, advancing through three years of minor-league baseball and signed by a Boston Red Sox team desperately in need of pitching. The first years of his professional career were with his hometown team in the Eastern League, the Bridgeport Bears, beginning in 1928 and running through 1930, though he had played very briefly for the Hartford Senators earlier in 1928, allowing only one of the ten batters he faced to reach first base in a game against Wesleyan University.1 He’d first made the Hartford Courant, the newspaper of record in the Connecticut state capital, the previous year when he pitched a no-hitter for Bridgeport’s Warren Harding High School against Wilby High of Waterbury. It would have been a perfect game, but one Waterbury boy had reached first base on an error (he was picked off). Johnny struck out 15 and walked no one.2
Michaels was born in Bridgeport on July 10, 1907, to Bohemian-speaking parents Joseph and Magdalena Michaels, both of whom had arrived in the United States in 1880 from what was then part of Austria-Hungary and is today the Czech Republic. The family name was Maco. Joseph Michaels was naturalized as an American citizen in 1894 and at the time of the 1920 census owned a saloon. "He was a saloon keeper right across the street from the ballpark in Bridgeport. I could sit up in the windows and watch all the games when I was a kid," he said decades later.3 Joseph and Magdalena had ten children: Stephen, William, Susie, Mary, Helen, and – the youngest at the time of the census – John. Four others followed John, and he outlived every one of the nine. In 1920 the two eldest worked as machinists in one of Bridgeport’s factories, and Susie Michaels worked as a bookkeeper in a retail store.
Michaels made his mark in baseball early on, throwing an 8-0 four-hit shutout for Bridgeport against the Waterbury Brasscos on September 16, 1928, in Bridgeport. In his first full year pitching for the Bears, the 5-foot-10, 154-pound Michaels appeared in 20 games and posted a 5-1 record in the Class A Eastern League. He also lost an exhibition game to the New York Yankees, 3-2 to Bob Shawkey on June 17. He enjoyed a much-improved full year with Bridgeport in 1930, earning his first headline in the Boston Globe on July 12: “Michaels Holds Allentown to Six Hits to Win, 4 to 3.” He knocked more than a full run off his earned-run average, improving to 3.60, and his won-lost totals were 16-7. At some point, perhaps in 1929, he married Katherine Vanek, whose parents were also of Austria-Hungarian birth, according to the 1930 census, and the couple were living with his cousin John Sleis, a truck driver for a department store, and John’s wife, Mary. Michaels listed his occupation as “ballplayer, league team.”
The 1931 Buffalo Bisons (Double-A) finished in last place in the International League but Johnny Michaels was 13-8 in 217 innings of work, walking only 36 batters. His ERA rose at the higher level of play, to 4.40, but he was of interest to at least one major-league team. On December 2 Red Sox owner Bob Quinn announced the signing of Michaels for his perennially last-place ballclub. Quinn traded two utilitymen, outfielder Tom Winsett and first baseman Jack Smith, to Buffalo for its standout southpaw. For a decade the Sox had hardly ever escaped the cellar in the American League. Quinn needed all the help he could get. He’d acquired Marty McManus and two left-handers, Bob Weiland and John Michaels. Of Michaels, he said, “Michaels pitched well for Buffalo in the International League, and I believe he is a good man. If so, he will have a chance to prove it.”4
Michaels reported his salary as $2,750 and says he had declined to sign the contract Quinn had sent him, returning it unsigned. When Quinn asked him why he hadn't signed it, Michaels replied, "I thought I was in the big leagues."5
As the train bearing the Red Sox party out of Boston’s South Station passed through Bridgeport on its way to spring training in Savannah, Michaels swung on board. A sizable photograph of the “promising young twirler” appeared in the March 7 Globe. His major-league debut came in the fourth inning on April 16 against the visiting New York Yankees. The Boston pitching staff was being pounded, and had already yielded nine runs to New York. The first batter Michaels faced was catcher Bill Dickey, and he hit his second triple of the game. Michaels faced three batters, giving up the three-base hit and a base on balls, and then recording an out. On April 23, with Boston behind 2-0 and facing Walter Johnson, Michaels pitched part of the seventh inning of the game in Washington. He faced five batters and gave up four hits and three earned runs, again pitching just one-third of an inning. His next four games were uneventful – a good thing for a pitcher.
On May 21 Michaels had his first start, against the Athletics in Philadelphia. It went poorly – his teammates staked him to a 3-0 lead, but then he walked the first three batters he faced. They were the only three batters he faced; manager Shano Collins replaced him with Bob Kline. Al Simmons hit a double off Kline, clearing the bases. Michaels was thus charged with three earned runs without obtaining an out, doubling his earned-run average in a matter of minutes. Though Boston lost the game, 18-6, Kline wound up being charged with the loss. On June 10 Michaels got his next start, and his first decision – a loss to the Browns in St. Louis, 4-3. He pitched well for six innings, scattering four hits without walking a man. But he tired. Even after a walk, a single, and a sacrifice in the seventh, it still appeared Michaels might escape the inning when a pinch-hitter grounded into a force out at home plate. A Texas Leaguer, another single, and a third single misplayed by Smead Jolley resulted in a four-run rally that tipped the balance in favor of the Browns.
Unfortunate support cost Michaels another game on June 15 in Cleveland. Five errors cost him seven runs, only two of which were earned. A couple of days later, Marty McManus was named manager of the team. Hard luck dogged Michaels as he dropped to 0-3 with an 8⅔-inning outing on June 21 in Detroit. He held a 2-1 lead until the bottom of the ninth. With a man on second, Urbane Pickering fumbled a ball at third base. Pinch-hitter George Uhle drove a ball into deep right field. Had Roy Johnson caught it, Michaels would have had his first win. Instead, Johnson camped under the ball and “let if filter through his hands” for a two-run, game-winning double.6 Johnson was not charged with an error; Michaels had to bear the defeat. His fourth loss was a quick one, just one-third of an inning against the Yankees on June 30.
There was a win for Mr. Michaels in the second game of a July 2 doubleheader at Fenway Park against the Yankees, who’d beat him in the brief outing just two days before. It was his only win. Michaels pitched a complete-game, 6-5 victory, allowing eight hits (neither Ruth nor Gehrig had one – the one strikeout was of Ruth) and four earned runs. He credits Marv Olson with saving him – the Yankees had pulled within one run in the ninth inning, with Joe Sewell up, Ruth on deck, and Gehrig in the hole. Sewell slashed a line drive to second base and Olson dropped to both knees to make the play. Two more losses on consecutive days (July 7 and 8 against the Browns) followed, one that saw him fail to complete the first and one that lasted eight innings in which he gave up five runs.
In all, Michaels threw 80⅔ innings and had an earned run average of 5.13 to go with his 1-6 record. He walked 27 and struck out 18; he surrendered four home runs. In 1933, before spring training, he was optioned to Montreal, traded with Bennie Tate and Urbane Pickering for pitcher Walter Brown. It was one of the last deals Bob Quinn made as owner of the Red Sox before he sold the team to Tom Yawkey.7 Michaels enjoyed a good full year with the Royals, playing again in the International League and throwing 232 innings, going 17-13 with a 4.03 ERA. After the Eastern League season, he played for Hartford’s Savitt Gems semipro team, throwing a two-hit shutout with 13 strikeouts on September 24. For three years in a row, he pitched for the Gems.
On October 25 Yawkey made a deal sending Winsett and Michaels to Rochester as compensation for Fritz Ostermueller. From 1934 through 1936, Michaels played three consecutive years with the Rochester Red Wings, though with a declining level of work due to an ailing arm in 1936 – 199 innings, 165, and then 49. His combined ERA was 3.835, and his respective won-loss records were 16-10, 9-10, and 4-2.
On December 14, 1936, Michaels was sold to the Atlanta Crackers and headed for play in the Southern Association. The diagnosis of a chipped elbow and a subsequent operation limited him to only three games and 18 innings (0-2) for the Macon Peaches in 1937. He was supposed to have been ready to pitch for Atlanta in 1938, and pitched some for them in the springtime but wound up back in semipro ball pitching for the Bay Parkways and again for the Savitt Gems in a September game against the Philadelphia Colored Giants. After the season Michaels apparently had yet another arm operation.
Michaels’ last season (1939) saw him back in the Boston Red Sox system. The year began with him signed to a Little Rock Travelers contract, and appearing in five games, but he was released in May. He hooked on with the Scranton Miners and pitched and played outfield (due to numerous injuries on the team) in late May and June. He was 3-2 for Scranton with a 3.38 ERA in 48 innings, but on July 3 the Miners sent Michaels and infielder Eddie Feinberg to the Rocky Mount Red Sox in the Piedmont League. He’d dropped from Class A-1 to Class A and then to Class B all in the period of a couple of months. With Rocky Mount, he was 2-4 in 55 innings of work. And his time in pro ball was over.
There was still semipro play which kept Michaels active. He turns up in the Hartford Courant from time to time, playing outfield for the Stratford Sikorskys in 1940 and then managing against the Savitt Gems for the renamed Stratford Flyers in the summer of 1941. The Stratford team won the Connecticut state title and then started playing independent baseball. Michaels was alternating work between first base and the mound.8 He is found pitching as late as September 1952 for the Singer Sewing Machine team of the Bridgeport Industrial Athletic League, due to pitch against Southern New England Telephone of New Haven for the State Industrial Baseball League title. For whatever reason, he didn’t pitch that day, though Singer won the game, 13-0, losing in the final game to Pratt & Whitney.
Michaels worked as a magnetic particle inspector for Sikorsky Aircraft until 1970 when he retired and moved to Florida. After losing his first wife, Katherine Vanek, in 1952, after more than 29 years of marriage, he wed Shirley Garrison of Sebring six years later, in 1958. He had two daughters and a stepson at the time of his death in Sebring, Florida, on November 18, 1996. He’s buried in Connecticut at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Stratford.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Michaels’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Hartford Courant, April 14, 1928. His November 20, 1996 obituary on courant.com says he pitched for Hartford some in 1927, though we have been unable to find any trace of that.
2 Hartford Courant, June 9, 1927.
3 Jack Lautier, Fenway Voices (Camden, Maine: Yankee Books, 1990), 15.
4 Boston Globe, December 19, 1931.
5 Jack Lautier, ibid.
6 Boston Globe, June 22, 1932.
7 Hartford Courant, February 27, 1933.
8 Hartford Courant, August 24, 1941.