John Stone

This article was written by Cort Vitty and Michael See

As the Washington Senators’ 1938 spring training got underway in Orlando, Florida, no player was more anxious to get started in the warm air and brilliant sunshine than veteran outfielder John Thomas Stone.

A respected American League veteran, John Stone had enjoyed a successful campaign in 1937, posting a .330 batting average in 139 games for the Senators. But the winter that followed had been an extremely difficult time for Johnny; he spent the off-season fighting a persistent cold, coinciding with mysterious weight loss and what he called a funny feeling of weakness.1 Despite the hard work and long hours devoted to his usual pre-season regimen, he nonetheless got off to a poor start in 1938 and the steady play rapidly wore him down.

Johnny was hitting an uncharacteristic .192 when the team began a series against Cleveland. On May 5, 1938, facing Indians right-hander Mel Harder, the left-hand hitting Stone painfully fouled a ball off his front right foot. Limping back into the batter’s box, he settled down and drove the next pitch on a wicked line to right-center. Johnny, with his foot throbbing, raced around the bases for an inside-the-park grand slam home run.

Back on the bench, Shirley Povich wrote, “teammates jeered him pleasantly for being out of condition, and some suggested he get in shape, but the kidding stopped when startled teammates realized his desperate gasping for air was not fun and games but something much more serious than just a shortness of breath.”2 When he collapsed; shaken teammates realized that “Rocky” (as he was nicknamed) was ailing from something far more serious than simply being out of shape.

Born on October 10, 1905, John Thomas Stone was the youngest child of John and Luella (Ervin) Stone., following his brother Horace and sister Lillis. His parents married on May 21, 1899 in Moore County Tennessee; were of Irish and English decent and owned a modest working farm in a rich and fertile section of Mulberry, just outside of Lynchburg, Tennessee.3

Sandy haired with freckles, Johnny’s ability to hit a ball farther than any of his contemporaries gained him early notoriety playing “town-ball” in the little crossroads community of Polecat, Tennessee. After attending Booneville grammar school, he moved on to Morgan Prep, where he excelled academically while playing baseball and football and running track.

The next stop was Maryville (TN) Collage, where his effective right-handed pitching, along with his potent bat, helped lead the “Fighting Scots” baseball team to an impressive 15-2 record during his senior year in 1928.

Scouts became increasingly interested in the versatile and speedy youngster. He especially attracted the attention of Bob Coleman and Billy Doyle, both hunting talent for the Detroit Tigers. Coleman ultimately decided to pass on the youngster, but Doyle disagreed and was persistent in his efforts to get Johnny’s signature on a professional contract. Persevering through a long, tedious car trip into the hinterlands of Tennessee, Doyle stopped at a dilapidated general store for directions. He was taken aback when the proprietor recommended abandoning his car and switching to a mule before continuing his journey.4

Doyle eventually located Stone and presented him with a contract, which Johnny agreed to sign only after wisely insisting a clause be added, stipulating he would not be required to report until after earning his college degree. Upon earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1928, Stone reported to the Class B Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League Evansville Hubs. Ironically, his new manager was Bob Coleman, the scout who had passed him up. Johnny blossomed under Coleman’s tutelage, posting a .354 batting average in 75 games.

That earned young Johnny a late season call-up to the parent Detroit Tigers. George Moriarty was managing the club when Stone made his major league debut against the St. Louis Browns on August 31, 1928 at Sportsman’s Park; he went 1 for 4 against General Crowder.

Stone’s first of many great big league moments came in the eighth inning of a contest at Briggs Stadium on September 11; his clutch 3-run-homer, served up by Chicago right-hander Tommy Thomas, gave Detroit a 7-6 victory over the White Sox. Overall, Johnny hit .354 in 26 games for the sixth-place Tigers.

Playing in 1929 with the Toronto Maple Leafs of the AA International League, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound prospect further impressed with his bat, posting a solid .329 average in 79 games. This merited a second call-up to Detroit, where Johnny appeared in 51 games, having less success than his first go around, his average dropping 90 points to .260, but his potential was not diminished. The Tigers again finished sixth, this time under new manager Bucky Harris.

Stone stuck with the parent Tigers for good in 1930, becoming the regular left-fielder, and posting a .311 average in 127 games. One of the highlights of his breakout season was an impressive 26-game hitting streak. (For more than sixty years, baseball record books listed this streak at 34 games. However a re-examination of the records was conducted in the early 1970s and produced evidence of a clerical error, which adjusted the mark to 26 games.)5

Johnny’s productive hitting continued in 1931, including a 25-game hit streak, which produced a .400 average during the month of August. Still patrolling left-field and batting third in the line-up, Stone set the table for clean-up hitter (and roommate) Dale Alexander, also a Tennessee native. Overall , Stone posted a .327 batting mark in 147 games for the seventh-place Tigers, leading the club with 10 home runs.

In 1932, the Tigers improved to fifth place in the American League. Stone’s average dropped to .297, but his home run output jumped to 17, with a team-leading 109 RBIs.

On January 11, 1933, Johnny married Ruth Cordelia Ellis, also a Tennessee native and college graduate. An examination of the 1930 census reveals Ruth was employed by a well-to-do family in New York as a servant.6 They would later have two children, a boy and a girl.

Meanwhile, according to writer Al Costello, Clark Griffith, president and owner of the third-place Washington Senators, “sniffed the air which hinted pennant breezes in 1933.”7 Trying to strengthen his outfield, Griff attempted to lure Detroit into letting Johnny Stone go. Griffith packaged Sam West, Carl Reynolds and Lloyd Brown, into a proposed deal for Stone. The Tigers declined, explaining they did not want to part with the outfielder. Stone had no idea how close he came to being a member of the Senators and earning a World Series share.

Johnny spent 1933 patrolling right-field for the fifth-place Tigers, contributing a .280 average with 11 home runs and 80 RBIs. Following the season, Detroit sought a powerful left-handed hitter to complement the right-handed power of young Hank Greenberg. Griffith again talked turkey and this time dangled Goose Goslin in front of the Tigers. The bait worked and on December 14, 1933, the Tigers sent Stone to Washington in a straight-up deal for Goslin. Goose would become part of the pennant-winning Detroit clubs in 1934 and 1935. Once again, Stone missed out on the chance to play in a World Series.

Upon learning of the transaction, Senators’ player-manager Joe Cronin was delighted, stating: “In acquiring Stone, I think I have materially strengthened the offense, as well as the defense. Stone’s ability to drive in runs and his youth made him attractive to me.”8 Another contributing factor may have been the fact that Cronin and Goslin never really got along. In addition, Stone was five years younger than Goslin and a much better defensive outfielder.

Shirley Povich of the Washington Post described the Senators’ new outfielder: “He was undoubtedly one of the handsomest men in the big leagues. Handsome in body as well as face. If a human can have the legs of a thoroughbred, Stoney had them – stout but shapely calves, nicely tapering ankles. He was 6 feet, broad but not too broad of chest, and thin of waist.”9 Stone’s playing weight was a muscular 180 pounds.

Senators’ owner Clark Griffith may have been enamored with his new acquisition, but had trouble recognizing the outfielder in street clothes. Just before the start of spring training 1934, Griffith was chatting with Cleveland Indians skipper Walter Johnson in Biloxi, Mississippi, when he inquired: “Who’s that big strapping fellow over there? He’s a nice-looking chap, all right. What does he play?” That fellow,” said Johnson “is John Stone, your new outfielder.”10

It didn’t take long for the Griffith Stadium faithful to get acquainted with “Stoney”, as they lovingly called the new right fielder. Possessing the speed of a center fielder, he’d smoothly chase down long fly balls, hauling them in while perfectly positioned to throw with power. Wrote Povich, “There are possibly better arms in the American League than that possessed by Stone. But it is doubtful if there is an arm more feared. Base runners refuse to take liberties with that ‘gun’ of Stone’s and unless that single to right when a runner is on first is a long one, few will dare to try to go to third.”11. As a base runner, “Stoney” would gladly take an extra base when the opportunity arose and rarely made a mistake on the base paths.

Unfortunately for Johnny and his teammates, the defending American League champion Senators would be decimated by injuries in 1934. Johnny was not exempt; his playing time limited to only 113 games by a fractured ankle suffered in Cleveland on Friday, July 13. Overall, Stone posted a .315 average, as the Nationals fell to seventh place in what would be Joe Cronin’s last season as player-manager of the club.

Cronin’s departure resulted in the return of Bucky Harris to Washington as skipper in 1935. Bucky was certainly well acquainted with Johnny from their days together in Detroit and immediately announced plans to utilize Stone as the Senators’ clean-up hitter for the upcoming season. Harris commented: “He’s got the power that a fourth place hitter needs. I don’t mean home runs, but those frequent doubles and triples that roll off his bat.”12. Stone went on to hit .314 in 125 games.; However Harris wasn’t pleased with either the team’s sixth place finish or the overall performance of Johnny Stone.

Harris unfairly assumed southern ballplayers had a lazy streak, a trait he referred to as the “Tennessee hookworm.”13. The Senators manager surmised Stone was simply not giving it his all, both offensively and defensively. Harris even speculated about the possibility of relegating Stone to part-time status, fueling rumors of a potential salary cut for the 1936 season.

Johnny ultimately signed, retaining his $7,500 salary, plus his clean-up spot in the batting order. Perhaps the motivational tactic worked; he went on to post a .341 average with 15 home runs and 90 RBIs as the Senators moved up to finish third with an 82-71 record.

Washington fell back to sixth place (73-80) in 1937, with Johnny posting a .330 average in 139 games. Sportswriter Al Costello described Stone : “He is as colorless as a newly whitewashed fence. Not one bit of showmanship or grand-standing is in his makeup as he goes along his business of fielding almost faultlessly and hitting often and hard. Ask any of the players in the American League what sort of a player Stone is and you’re sure to receive the answer that to a player is the acme of praise. They’ll tell you concisely the words that best explain a good ballplayer to another ballplayer when they explain: Stone is a ballplayer’s ballplayer.”14

Early in 1938, despite his physical deterioration and lackluster play, teammates still voted him Most Valuable Team Member for the month of May.15 The club was in Detroit when Johnny’s mysterious lingering ailment prompted Harris to order a hospital examination on June 19. Test results revealed a sinus infection and severe bronchial attack, initiating an order by Harris to send Stone back to Washington.

A series of tests at Georgetown Hospital revealed the Washington outfielder was suffering from tuberculosis, a highly infectious disease primarily spread through coughing and sneezing. The disease seriously affected a patient’s lungs and in an era prior to the introduction of antibiotics, tuberculosis was very difficult to treat and ultimately claimed the lives of many victims. Restoring Johnny’s body back to health would be a long and tedious process.

The Sporting News reported that, upon hearing of Stone’s diagnosis, “Clark Griffith whirred into action. Griff didn’t want his star outfielder, or members of his family, to worry about finances or how to pay for Johnny’s care. The next day, to Johnny’s hospital room was delivered his salary check for the remainder of the season. Arrangements for treatment at Saranac (New York) were also made by Mr. Griffith.”16

Stone wrote to clubhouse manager Frankie Baxter, “Be sure to save my uniform. Maybe a lot of people don’t think I’ll never wear it again, but I’ll climb into it in Orlando and I think I’ll be ready.” Griffith and Harris were less optimistic. “We can’t figure much on Stone, but if he comes around he will be more than welcome.”17

Reports from Saranac indicated Stone benefitted greatly from the healthy atmosphere. Doctors called him, “the best patient we ever had, with remarkable recuperative powers and he’ll beat this lung infection 100 per cent.” After hearing the story of Johnny’s inside-the-park home-run back in May, a physician shook his head and remarked: “Only a man with tremendous courage could have kept playing the way he has.”18

Stone wrote to Griffith from Saranac describing how he “benefitted from the atmosphere and passed his lung tests and emerged triumphant from an operation,” adding he gained weight and looked forward to the start of spring training.19. Despite speculation that Stone might return to the game in time for the 1939 season, it was further determined that although considered to be recovered, he’d risk further illness subjecting himself to the rigors of professional baseball. “Stoney” regrettably announced his retirement.

Stone and his family were residing at the tuberculosis sanatorium in Asheville, North Carolina, when plans for a day in his honor were announced. The event would be held at Griffith Stadium on September 17, 1939; fittingly, the Detroit Tigers would be in town as the visiting team. Initially, Johnny was told to bypass the rigors of the trip, but doctors later relented and allowed him to travel from North Carolina back to D.C.

A special section of the stadium was designated to accommodate Stone’s family, friends and admirers. Funds were raised to purchase a trophy and plans were made to fill a cash purse for the popular former outfielder. Proceeds from the fundraiser were expected to be sufficient enough to pay off the mortgage on the family farm back home in Tennessee.20

Johnny was strong enough to visit the December 1940 winter meetings in Chicago with the intention of landing a job in the game he loved. He lobbied owners for a scouting position and ultimately secured a spot with the Tigers, agreeing to search for talent around his home base of Shelbyville, Tennessee.

In addition to scouting, Johnny also ran his successful Tennessee farm, andowned the Shelbyville Pure Milk Company. The business grew and was ultimately sold to Sealtest in 1953, with Stone remaining on board in an executive capacity. He was working at the plant on Wednesday, November 30, 1955, when he suffered a fatal heart attack.21.. Johnny had just celebrated turning 50 a month earlier.

Overall, John Stone played in 1,200 major league games, posting a lifetime batting average of .310 and batting over .300 seven times, with a .376 on-base-percentage and OPS of .843 John Thomas Stone earned the respect and admiration of teammates and opponents alike as a complete player in every aspect of the game.

He was buried at the former Odd Fellows Masonic Cemetery (now Lynchburg City Cemetery) in his native Tennessee and was survived by his wife Ruth, teenage son John and daughter Suzanne. The original family farm, founded in 1900, was certified in 2011 as a Century-Farm, by Moore County officials.22 The farm is still in operation and owned by members of the Stone-Rives family.

 

Notes

1 “Youngster Fills Gap Caused by Illness of Stone,” Sporting News, July 7, 1938.

2 Shirley Povich, “Johnny Stone, A player with lots of Heart,” Sporting News, December 14, 1955.

3 George Stone, Jewel Casey, Moore County TN Historical Society.

4 Harry Bullioni, Undated Clipping, Baseball HOF File.

5 John Thom, “John Stone’s Batting Streak,” The Baseball Research Journal #21, Society for American Baseball Research, 1992, 61-62.

6 1930 Census.

7 Al Costello, “A Ballplayer’s Ballplayer,” Baseball Magazine, August 1937, 60-61.

8 Shirley Povich, “Stone Picked to Bat Fourth for Nats,” Washington Post, February 10, 1935.

9 Shirley Povich, “Barney Introduces Griffith to Stone,” Washington Post, March 24, 1934.

10 Shirley Povich, “Stone Center of All Eyes at Biloxi,” Washington Post, March 16, 1934..

11 Shirley Povich, “This Morning,” Washington Post, April 29, 1939.

12 Shirley Povich, “This Morning,” Washington Post, February 10, 1935.

13 Shirley Povich, “This Morning,” Washington Post, April 4, 1939.

14 Al Costello, “A Ballplayer’s Ballplayer,” Baseball Magazine, August 1937, 60-61.

15  Youngster Fills Gap Caused by Illness of Stone,” Sporting News, July 7, 1938.

16  Johnny Stone, a Player With Lots of Heart,” Sporting News, December 14, 1955.

17 Stone Rolls Along on Road to Health, Sporting News, December 1, 1938.

18 Washington Post, April 29, 1939.

19 “Stone Lost to Senators,” New York Times, January 12, 1939.

20 “Johnny Stone Fans to Have Special Seats for His Day,” Washington Post, September 3, 1939.

21 Michael See telephone interview with John Rives, September 12, 2014.

22 Moore County (TN) Historical/Genealogical Society.