Johnny Lucas played for the McCook Generals of the Nebraska State League in 1929 and 1930. McCook was the county seat of Red Willow County, not far north of the border with Kansas. Lucas played center field and some right field. He appeared in 83 games in 1929 and hit .308 with five homers.
He was scouted by Steve O'Rourke of the Boston Red Sox and McCook sold his contract to the Red Sox in August 1930. The Boston Herald announced the signing of "Lucky Lucas" to readers in Greater Boston, saying he was batting .362 at the time.1 A right-handed batter who threw left-handed, he was said to be 6 feet tall and 185 pounds (later statistics report him as 5-feet-10 but with essentially the same weight.) "This boy from the sticks has been driving the ball hard and for many extra bases, being the second hardest slugger in the league. He has 10 homers to his credit and has stolen 13 bases," the Herald said.2 Lucas was due to report in the spring of 1931.
John Charles Lucas was typically given the nickname Buster. He was born in Glen Carbon, Illinois, on February 10, 1903. He came from German ancestry, the son of Anton and Anna Wernsing Lucas. Anton Lucas was a brickyard laborer at the time of the 1900 census.
Coal mining might have been Johnny's future. By 1920 the family was living in Collinsville, Illinois, and Anton was working as a loader in a local coal mine. Johnny was the eldest of five children in the family and already working at age 16 as a trapper in a coal mine. He had attended school for eight years, which served as his formal education.
The Red Sox really needed help, from anywhere they could get it, and they hoped Lucas would help them get out of last place, where they'd finished six years in a row. Lucas was one of 15 to 20 prospects brought to spring training at Pensacola, Florida.5
They knew Lucas probably wouldn't be ready in 1931 – Melville Webb of the Boston Globe said he was a "chunky earnest outfielder who looked good at bat and like a real contestant. Lucas is far from ready, but is likely to be very much a prospect for later in the year."6 He did open the season with the big-league team, however.
A resident of Maryville, Illinois, at the time, Lucas debuted with the Red Sox on April 15, 1931.7 During spring training, in a game against the House of David team, the Boston Herald had dubbed him Coal-Oil Johnny, saying he'd "smashed one over the left field fence in the general direction of downtown." The Herald said he was "beginning to look better every day and is certain going to make several of the veteran outfielders show cause why he should not be in the regular lineup."8
Lucas did make the team, and his big-league debut came in the second game of the 1931 season, on April 15, after center fielder Tom Oliver had been lifted for a pinch-hitter in the top of the eighth in a game at Yankee Stadium. Lucas was one of 20 Red Sox players whom manager Shano Collins used in the game. The Red Sox lost the game, 8-7, in the bottom of the ninth.
Four days later, on April 19 in Washington, Lucas got his first two at-bats. By the end of the third inning, the Senators held an 8-0 lead so Collins figured he might as well give Lucas a chance to play a little more, in left field in place of Russ Scarritt. He was 0-for-2, with a strikeout, and handled the one ball hit his way in left field. The 8-0 score stood up. Lucas next played on April 21 against the Senators, who won the game, 12-3. Lucas pinch-ran for Al Van Camp in the fifth, but did not stay in the game. He wasn't used again, and on May 6 was optioned to Galveston.
Lucas played in 30 games for the Texas League Galveston Buccaneers, batting .257 with one homer. He was dealt to the Richmond Byrds in the Eastern League and played his first games in the doubleheader at New Haven on June 14, going 0-for-4 in the first game and 3-for-4 in the second. He was praised for his fielding in both games.9 In all, Lucas played in 90 games for Richmond, batting .282 and he homered three times, one of them an inside-the-park home run on August 31 that tied the game against Hartford when the fielder fell down and the ball got past him.10
Lucas joined the Red Sox again in the spring of 1932, but it was understood from the start that he might benefit from another year of seasoning.11
On April 16 Lucas got into his one and only major-league game of the year, and the last major-league game of his career. It was the only one in which he'd played at Fenway Park (all three 1931 games being on the road), a 14-4 loss to the Yankees. He batted for pitcher Bob Weiland, the fifth Boston pitcher of the game, in the bottom of the ninth, and made an out. He thus was a career 0-for-3 at the plate, but the one putout he'd made in 1931 gave him a 1.000 fielding percentage.
On April 28 Lucas was released on option to Hazleton of the Class-B New York-Penn League. He got in a good full season, playing in 140 games for the Mountaineers and hitting for an average of .266. He homered four times.
Lucas played in 15 games in 1933 for the Reading Red Sox, the new farm team for Boston in the New York-Penn League. (Hazleton did not field a team in 1933.) He hit .200 (9-for-45). On May 23 – cut-down day – Reading manager Nemo Leibold gave Lucas his unconditional release.12
It was perhaps time to leave the game and take up another occupation. On January 1, 1933, Lucas had married Croatian-born Helen Lipolsky. The two had their first child, John, later in the year. In 1936 they had a son, Thomas, and in 1938 another son, Ronald.
Lucas found work as a receiving checker at a Ford and Mercury dealership and also became chief of police in Maryville, Illinois, a position he held until his death on October 31, 1970, in Maryville due to an acute coronary occlusion.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Lucas's player file and his 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.
1 Boston Herald, August 23, 1930, 7. The Omaha World Herald announced the sale on the same date.
2 Boston Herald, August 23, 1930.
3 La Prensa, December 16, 1903, 8.
4 Boston Globe, September 11, 1930, 24.
5 Boston Globe, December 4, 1930, 27.
6 Boston Globe, April 12, 1931, A47.
7 His hometown of Maryville was noted in the Morning Star (Rockford, Illinois), January 17, 1931, 13.
8 Boston Herald, March 22, 1931, 22.
9 Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican, June 15, 1931, 4.
10 Richmond Times Dispatch, September 1, 1931, 8.
11 See, for instance, the Baton Rouge Advocate, which said just that in its March 30, 1932, edition.
12 Boston Globe, May 24, 1933, 22.