George Johnson

This article was written by Steven Schmitt

Chief Johnson (Bain Collection, Library of Congress)Chief Johnson was a strong-armed pitcher who had great beginnings to his professional baseball career but met a tragic, untimely end. Johnson was known for hurricane speed and a slippery-elm-laced spitball that baffled batters at all levels of competition. He pitched a shutout in his first major-league start and became a controversial figure when he jumped to the Federal League. Yet Johnson, whom sportswriters described as “sturdy” and “muscular,” endured racial taunts throughout his career, and became alcoholic and overweight. His weakness for drink ultimately led to his demise from a fatal shooting at a Des Moines, Iowa, cabin on the morning of June 12, 1922.

George Howard Johnson was born on March 30, 1886, in Winnebago Village, Thurston County, Nebraska, to a Civil War veteran of Irish descent named Murphy and his mother, Louisa Johnson, who raised him and a sister with another man named Joe Johnson.1 A Winnebago Indian and member of the Ho-Chunk nation, George Johnson (nicknamed “Murphy” or “Big Murph” after his Irish-bred biological father) attended Carlisle Indian Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas.2 The US Army had created more than 100 such boarding schools by the time of Johnson’s birth to force the assimilation of Great Plains Native Americans into Western society and culture, thereby losing their own tribal language and traditions in the process.3 Johnson ran away from both schools, choosing to preserve his culture and heritage. His desire to prove himself as a Native American in a white man’s world carried on to his baseball career.4

Johnson played outfield for a semipro team in Oakland, Nebraska, then became a pitcher for Guy W. Green’s Nebraska Indians, a nationally recognized barnstorming team, in 1906 and 1907. He won 32 of 38 games in ’07. “He is a husky young lad of (21) years, standing six feet m his stockings and weighing 190 pounds,” Sporting Life reported. “He has terrific speed and lots of curves. The signing of an Indian player on the local team has recalled the successful careers of Indian players such as Soxalexis [sic], Bender and Jude. Johnson will have a chance to climb the ladder.”5 When Green bought the Class-A Lincoln (Nebraska) franchise in the Western League from Howard “Ducky” Holmes in September 1907, Green recruited Johnson, future Reds teammate Frank Jude, and other Nebraska Indian players for the team he renamed the Greenbackers.6 The team took a two-month tour of Florida, Mexico, and Cuba with an all-American team in the fall of 1907, playing 12 games in Havana.7 Johnson made his Western League debut on March 31, 1908, with three scoreless innings against the Chicago White Sox number 2 squad. The Greenbackers won, 2-1.8

Johnson lasted only three innings in his next start, against the Omaha Rourkes, but then shut out the Sioux City Packers and avenged the Omaha loss with a three-hit victory on July 13.9 Five days later, Johnson lost, 4-0, to Des Moines before a raucous crowd. “War whooping from the bleachers and good old American rooting from the grandstand was not enough to bring victory to Lincoln,” the Lincoln Star reported. A gray-haired Mexican War veteran yelled so loudly as Lincoln loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth that his $25 gold-rimmed set of false teeth fell out and under the bleachers. The last batter lined out to shortstop.10

Johnson brought out the best and the worst in the Western League crowds. Home fans cheered him because he was clearly the team’s best pitcher. Yet Indian epithets were directed at Johnson from the stands and in the sports pages. “Numerous local humorists have started what they imagine to be Indian war cries; others have yelled, ‘Back to the reservation,’ and the third variety of town jester has shrieked, ‘Dog soup! Dog soup!,’” Green told the Sioux City Journal. “You would think people would get all that kind of patent inside stuff out of their systems after a while, wouldn’t you? But they never do.”11 Sports headlines referred to Johnson as “the Winnebago” or “the Big Indian.” Even after Johnson (19-16) beat Denver, 3-1, the Nebraska State Journal called it “another exhibition of very nifty pitching which, by the way, has become quite the habit with the husky scion of the aborigines.”12 When he blanked the visiting Pueblo (Colorado) Indians on April 23, 1909, the Lincoln Star headline read, “Have Hard Time Getting Hip to Redskin Slang,” referring to Johnson’s dominance.13

On May 12 Nebraska Gov. George L. Sheldon joined 4,500 fans at M Street Park to see Johnson beat Pueblo, 6-3, and collect two hits.14 For the next month, Johnson struggled with control and lost three straight games before beating Omaha. He was back in form on June 14, beating first-place Des Moines, 7-1. Left fielder Frank Jude, who also attended Carlisle Institute, had three hits.15 Struggles with wildness and allowing double-digit hits resurfaced until July 5, when Johnson homered and beat Topeka, 7-1. Fans showered Johnson with coins as he circled the bases wearing a wide grin.16 Two days later, Johnson worked 6⅔ innings of relief and lost on an 11th-inning single.

The Lincoln franchise also struggled, to stay out of last place and to stay in business. On July 7, 1909, Green sold an option to purchase the team to Don C. DeSpain and L.B. Stoner for $7,000 in cash.17 On August 7 the new owners sold Johnson and traded Jude to Ducky Holmes’s Sioux City Packers.18 The players joined the team in Des Moines, where Johnson lost, 5-3. The “Chief” lost to Omaha four days later but got his first victory on August 18, a 9-1 mastery of Topeka that ended the Packers’ five-game losing streak.

Johnson became the Sioux City stopper, shutting out Topeka and defeating Pueblo and Lincoln down the stretch. The Packers finished one game behind champion Des Moines in the Western League, losing twice to Omaha on the final day. Johnson had a combined record of 15-19 with Lincoln and Sioux City in 45 games with 133 strikeouts, 105 bases on balls and 14 hit batsmen. A fine fielder, Johnson recorded 105 assists. Sporting Life noted Johnson’s deeds but also reported that he was “excessively overweight and did not train down while with the Lincoln club.”19 In August the Lincoln Journal Star reported that Johnson’s weakness was “an ungovernable appetite” and that he was 20 pounds overweight.20

In November 1909, Holmes sold his controlling interest in the Sioux City franchise.21 The following March, the St. Joseph Drummers bought Johnson and catcher Johnny Shea from the Packers for $750.22 In spring training the Drummers learned that Johnson was “the best fungo hitter in the league. … His swats from home plate drove outfielders to the fence. With the wind, the ball is said to have traveled two blocks.23 Manager John “Jack” Holland is said to have taught Johnson the spitball that future major-league pitchers Red Faber and Fidgety Phil Douglas had mastered in the Western League. Johnson tried “different varieties of slippery elm” while adding a curveball and a slide-step pickoff move to his arsenal.24

Johnson posted a 19-19 record in 46 games for the 1910 Drummers, who finished sixth in an eight-team league. He saved his finest performance for last, shutting out Topeka, 2-0, on September 19.25 According to the St. Joseph Gazette, Johnson was a hard-luck hurler who consistently held the opposition to fewer hits than his teammates collected. He became the clubhouse leader and received rousing cheers from home crowds. A film buff, Johnson was the team’s movie critic and is alleged to have received offers to appear in Westerns but refused. Author Jeffrey Powers-Beck believed that Johnson would rather present an accurate image of himself in a white man’s game than project a false image in a white man’s film.26

The Chief opened the 1911 in grand style, pitching a no-hitter against defending 1910 Western League champion Sioux City. Eight thousand fans at St. Joseph saw Johnson strike out six, make three assists, and smash a double in a 7-0 victory. Only four of 27 outs reached the outfield.27 In his next three appearances, Johnson lost twice. On May 2 the Omaha Bee boasted that St. Joseph was added to the Omaha’s list of “scalps,” as the “Winnebago Indian” was knocked out of the box in the third inning of a 6-4 defeat.28 Johnson won bragging rights in his next start, a complete-game 7-1 victory over the Rourkes. This time, the subheadline read, “Johnson Proves Almost Invincible.”29 Johnson started and relieved when needed and struggled until he blanked Denver, 5-0, on June 27. Even in victory, teams hit Johnson hard as the summer dragged on. On July 30 he allowed 10 hits but benefited from five Sioux City errors and won, 14-7. Johnson seemed to regain form with eight scoreless innings August 5 against Sioux City but left for a pinch-hitter in St. Joseph’s 1-0 win. Johnson finished 14-10 in 35 games, helping St. Joseph to jump from sixth to second in the standings.

Johnson’s 1912 season punched his ticket to the major leagues. He won 23 games and lost 10, working 312 innings in a career-high 49 games. He won his first four games, shutting out Omaha, 4-0, April 29. As the victories piled up, so did scouts’ interest in signing him. The Chicago White Sox acquired Johnson in July for cash and players but he remained with the Drummers for the rest of the season. Johnson won 14 of 21 games prior to his signing and pitched three shutouts in September.

The August 31, 1912, Sporting Life said White Sox President Charles Comiskey had found himself a rival to Charles Albert “Chief” Bender, another Carlisle product who became the ace of the Philadelphia Athletics. The magazine described Johnson as a “spit-ball pitcher” with “hurricane speed.”30 Chicago Tribune sportswriter Sam Weller wrote that Johnson “may not be as well-advertised as James Thorpe (a Carlisle alumnus who signed with the New York Giants) but in the opinion of many players here, he is more likely to make good in the big league than the famed Olympic athlete.” Weller reported that Johnson began playing ball at 14 in Nebraska and wanted to succeed in the majors “not so much for the fame that goes with it as for the money because he is thrifty and claims to have splendid places to invest right in his home county.”31

Johnson pitched his first game on March 2, starting for the White Sox number-2 squad that defeated Santa Maria, 11-2, showing “consistent speed and a good slow ball.”32 On March 17 he lost a 5-1 rain-shortened game against Sacramento at Marysville, California. As the rain pelted down, Johnson allowed three runs in the bottom of the fifth, though the players believed the game should have been called after 4½ innings.33 Four days later, Johnson lost a 4-2 complete game to the San Francisco Seals. In a 9-0 win at Yuma, Arizona, he pitched four scoreless innings in relief “so the Indians present could have an opportunity to see a man of their own race performing.”34 After the White Sox concluded spring training at El Paso on March 31, Johnson got a telegram saying that a son, Joseph, had been born back home in Nebraska, the third child of George and Margaret Le Mere Johnson.35 Elaine Marguerite was born on December 2, 1905, and Catherine on September 12, 1910. Margaret, a three-fifths Ho-Chunk Indian with a Canadian father, Joseph, and a Wisconsin mother, was born in Nebraska in 1882. She ran a lodging house and raised the children while George played baseball and, in the offseason, barbered at Walthill and tended the family homestead.36

Johnson returned to Nebraska on April 4 and lost, 3-1, to his old Western League foes from Omaha. “Chief Johnson, the Indian hurler, probably will be left here to put in another season of minor leaguing on the slab,” Weller wrote. “Manager Callahan will not announce the deal officially, but it looks like a sure thing.” Weller expected Johnson to join another major-league team within the next two days, possibly Joe Tinker’s Cincinnati Reds.37 The White Sox eventually dealt Johnson to the Reds but the “Winnebago Ban” may have been the reason. Apparently White Sox manager Nixey Callahan learned that Johnson was a Winnebago Indian. The tribe had a reputation for alcoholism so Callahan decided to get rid of Johnson. In “Chief Johnson and the Winnebago Ban,” author Thom Karmik quoted a 1913 Milwaukee Journal article that said Winnebago Indians had been blacklisted from performing in circuses, Wild West shows or for film companies. “(The ) reputation of the tribe for love of firewater has been such that managers shun their reservation,” the paper said.38 Johnson was the only Winnebago in the major leagues at the time.39

If the White Sox could not use Johnson, the Reds sure could. Johnson, described as “strong as a bull, broad-shouldered and sturdy,” pitched a 5-0 three-hit shutout against the St. Louis Cardinals on April 16. (The game was called after seven innings so the Reds could catch their train to Pittsburgh.) “It was his first game in the big ring, and he acted as if he had pitched as often as Chief Bender,” wrote the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Jack Ryder. “Never rattled, always there with the first ball over the plate, and following it with a spitter that broke a foot or more, he outguessed the enemy.”40 Clearly the strongest pitcher on a weak team, Johnson pitched the last four innings of a 12-inning 5-5 tie at Pittsburgh on April 18 that was called on account of darkness.41 On two days’ rest, he worked all 1l innings on April 21, but lost, 7-6, to the Chicago Cubs. In his second relief appearance in three days, Johnson failed to retire a batter and allowed three runs to turn a 5-3 lead into a 6-5 loss at St. Louis. Starting the very next day, Johnson held the Cardinals to four hits but lost, 2-1, walking Miller Huggins, who scored the winning run.

On May 1 Johnson’s victory over the Cubs – with relief help from Three Finger Brown – gave the Reds their third win in 15 games. After a week off, Johnson’s slippery-elm ball baffled John McGraw’s defending National League champion Giants, 4-0, at the Polo Grounds. “The Chief is as cool as a chunk of ice and does his best work with runners on the bases,” Ryder wrote.42 The one-run bug returned on May 12 when Johnson lost, 4-3, at month-old Ebbets Field to the Brooklyn Superbas’ Nap Rucker. The Chief finally got some support when the Reds scored 11 runs and beat the Boston Braves, giving Johnson a 4-4 record. That turned out to be an aberration as Johnson lasted three innings and lost, 12-0, at Philadelphia, then took a 12-4 defeat from the Cardinals. He got the first of two straight victories, 13-10, at St. Louis May 29 in relief of Gene Packard, then beat the Redbirds, 6-2, with a complete-game six-hitter on May 31 with Johnny Kling, his favorite catcher, calling the pitches. The streak ended on June 5 with a complete-game loss to Rucker that put the Reds back in the cellar.

“Johnson cannot hold the club up all by himself,” wrote Ryder, who criticized the Reds for sloppy, inconsistent play.43 Johnson took 11 days off, pitched two innings in relief, then lost two starts before being sent back to the bullpen. He returned to the rotation in mid-July and pitched a complete-game victory over the Phillies on July 17. On one day’s rest, Johnson pitched another nine innings against the Phillies, did not allow an earned run, but was tossed for arguing balls and strikes with umpire Cy Rigler (and fined $25). Red Ames took the loss in 6⅓ innings of relief.44

Johnson did not win again until August 4, when he “had the spitter working just right” in seven innings of relief and beat Boston, 13-4.45 After a 5-4 loss to the Giants in which Johnson allowed 12 hits in nine innings, the Chief got Tinker’s permission to visit relatives. It turned out that Johnson had food poisoning but was fined $25 for missing a start.46 On August 19 Johnson became an ace again. He beat Boston, 4-2, to end the Reds’ seven-game slide, then extended a winning streak to five games, finally beating Rucker, 7-2, on August 22. Perhaps his greatest game was a 1-0 loss to Christy Mathewson on Fred Merkle’s seventh-inning triple, which hit the baseboard of the right-field grandstand at the Polo Grounds, a ball “easily caught at Redland Field or any other open lot.” Johnson’s spitter “was a wonder and in perfect control.” He allowed just three hits compared with eight for Mathewson in a classic duel that lasted 1 hour and 27 minutes.47 Johnson won his last three games of the season at home, the 14th and final victory a 2-0 shutout of the Giants. Johnson “made monkeys of the champs for nine swift rounds,” Ryder wrote. “He likes nothing better than to seize hold of a one or two run lead and grip it like grim death until he has scalped the enemy.”48

Johnson (14-16) led Cincinnati in wins (14), games (44), starts (31), innings (269), strikeouts (107), complete games (13), and shutouts (3) in an amazing rookie campaign for a seventh-place team. But he and Tinker would join the new Federal League and become two of many controversial figures in the legal battle involving players jumping to a league that promised better pay and working conditions.

Section 7 and the Outlaw League

Tinker had openly criticized the Reds for not providing the players he needed for a winning team, then retracted the statement later. The National League cited him for saying, “I would rather go out to my fruit farm in Oregon than try to handle a club when I am not backed up by the owners.”49 Cuban outfielder Rafael Almeida and catcher Harry Chapman had been sent to the minors and a thin pitching staff put more work on Johnson’s broad shoulders.

The Reds traded Tinker to Brooklyn after the 1913 season but he demanded a $10,000 salary and threatened to join the Federal League for the right price. The Chicago Daily News called the league “a joke from start to finish” and doubted Tinker would get the $40,000 he wanted from the new Chicago franchise. Tinker signed a $36,000 three-year deal, with $10,000 up front.50

Johnson took a three-year deal with the Kansas City Packers for $5,000 a season and $3,000 up front on the advice of Tinker and Reds clubhouse boy Johnny Schickel, who was fired for demanding a raise. Schickel had worked for the Reds for 10 years and reportedly got $500 from Tinker to get Johnson to jump to the new league. Johnson had threatened to leave after new Cincinnati manager Buck Herzog fined him $100 for being out of shape for his first start of the 1914 season against Pittsburgh, and another $50 for violating training-camp rules. “Cincinnati is well rid of Johnson,” wrote Reds beat writer Ren Mulford Jr. “but it’s hard to see where Kansas City gained much in the addition of a man who puts love of firewater ahead of earnest desire to win.”51

Johnson vowed to never play for the Reds again, saying Herzog had it in for him. The Chief practiced with the Reds on April 20, then left early to meet with Packers President C.C. Madison. At 9 o’clock that night, Johnson left for Kansas City and met his new team in St. Louis.52 On April 23 Johnson received an infamous first: he lost the first game ever played at what is now Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Tinker’s Chicago Chifeds christened brand-new Weeghman Park with a 9-1 victory with 21,000 fans celebrating. While Tinker received pregame flowers from well-wishers, Johnson received a court order to leave the game. He lasted two innings and was removed not by his manager, George Stovall, but by local authorities enforcing an injunction that Reds President August Herrmann had filed to prevent Johnson from pitching for the Packers.53

Johnson and Reds teammates outfielder Armando Marsans and pitcher Dave Davenport claimed that Section 7 of the major-league player contract – allowing teams to release players with 10 days’ notice – was reciprocal, that players were free to leave their teams with 10 days’ notice and join the Federal League. Cook County Circuit Judge George M. Foell ruled that Section 7 regarding the 10-day release notice had been general practice for more than 20 years and did not void player contracts. “It seems improbable,” Foell said, “that (Johnson and Marsans) would sign such contracts voluntarily if they inflicted unconscionable hardship upon the players.” Foell added that Cincinnati had made “repeated efforts to secure a baseball pitcher of the same comparative skill and ability as Johnson but that such efforts had been unavailing.” The judge concluded that the terms of the clause “neither deprive the contract of mutual obligation, nor render it so unconscionable that equity should deny its aid to the complainant … (that) has complied fully and faithfully with all its terms.” Herrmann pointed out that Johnson had been given a raise after 30 days in 1913, from $1,650 to $2,250 a year, and that the Reds had offered an increase to $3,250 for 1914.54

Johnson remained idle for nearly three months while Federal League attorneys appealed. The Baseball Players’ Fraternity expelled Johnson on May 5 for jumping his contract.55 On July 16 a three-judge federal appellate court reversed the decision, calling the provisions of Section 7 “a fatal objection to the right of the club to enforce by injunction the performance by Johnson of the negative covenant not to play or perform for any other than the club.” The opinion essentially challenged baseball’s reserve clause.56 On July 16 federal appellate judge Frank Baker denied Cincinnati’s appeal, saying the 10-day release clause voided Johnson’s contract.57

Johnson returned on July 25 and lost the first game of a doubleheader at Buffalo, 3-1. The Buffalo Evening News reported that he looked like an elephant, apparently unable to control his weight during his three-month layoff.58 Five days later, Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Joseph M. Swearingen ruled that Johnson would be in contempt of court if he pitched anywhere before September 1, the date for a hearing on an injunction filed July 30. Swearingen noted that Johnson had signed a contract with and accepted bonus money from the Cincinnati Reds, then jumped leagues without returning a bonus that he did not earn.59 Johnson failed to appear in court, instead traveling to Baltimore, where he lost, 9-7, to the Terrapins. The Packers ignored the injunction and Johnson pitched on August 6 at Brooklyn, losing 2-0 to another Indian pitcher, Jim Bluejacket.60 After six consecutive losses, Johnson won his first Federal League game on August 13, scattering 11 Baltimore hits in a 4-2 victory at Kansas City.

That started a seven-game winning streak – all complete games – that concluded with back-to-back shutouts of St. Louis on September 4 and 6. Meanwhile the Federal League won a legal victory when an Illinois judge stopped all legal proceedings against Johnson until the league’s appeal of the Cincinnati Exhibition Company’s original injunction was decided.61

Johnson lost four of six decisions to conclude the season at 9-10, but avenged his legally aborted April defeat at Chicago in his last start, a 5-3 victory at Weeghman Park, striking out eight in a seven-inning complete game that was called on account of darkness. Johnson “had the Tinx at his mercy in every round except the sixth, when four large swats yielded all the local runs.”62 The victory completed a doubleheader sweep that dropped Chicago from the league lead. Indianapolis won the title while Johnson’s Packers finished sixth.

Baseball Magazine predicted a record season for Johnson in 1915. Manager George Stovall had his number-3 starter hoop-rolling to stay in shape and Johnson “took it up with such zest that he began the season in the best condition of his career.” Just add the training-camp activity to Johnson’s other interests – wolf-hunting in Iowa, playing lacrosse, and chasing and catching wild horses.63

Johnson pitched three complete-game victories before imploding at Chicago, 13-1. A 7-0 shutout of Newark brought his record to 5-2, but the Chief lost three straight home starts and five of six games before blanking Pittsburgh’s Rebels, 4-0, on June 2. A slump sent Johnson to the bullpen but he started at Brooklyn on June 30, facing 35 batters over nine innings, striking out five and scattering eight hits for his eighth victory. Tinker’s Whales continued to frustrate Johnson, who lost a 4-0 shutout to former Chicago Cubs hurler George McConnell (Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis and his family saw the contest but he did not comment on the Federal League’s antitrust suit filed against Organized Baseball). Three days later, Johnson was out in the fifth inning and lost, 7-2, to ex-Reds teammate Mordecai Brown.

A four-game personal winning streak followed, raising Johnson’s record to 13-11. Another three-game streak in mid-August included 6-0 shutouts of Buffalo and Baltimore. His rain-shortened seven-inning shutout of Baltimore put Kansas City in first place with a 64-50 record. An apparently weary Johnson had a 1-4 September record with one save. His 2.75 ERA belied his 17-17 record. He pitched four shutouts, started 10 games in which Kansas City scored one or no runs, and led in strikeouts with 118 on a staff featuring Nick Cullop (22-11) and Gene Packard (20-12). The Packers finished 81-72 in their second and final season.

Johnson headed west to the minor leagues for the final three seasons of his professional baseball career. Reds President August Herrmann initially claimed that Johnson belonged to Cincinnati but Ed Maier, owner of the Vernon (California) Tigers of the Pacific Coast League apparently paid money Johnson owed the Reds and Herrmann decided he did not want the Chief to return.64 Johnson went 8-14 as the seventh pitcher on a staff with six starters with 13 to 23 wins, including Art Fromme (23-14) and Jack Quinn (16-13). In July Johnson and shortstop Don Rader were in danger of being released. In August, a Nebraska sheriff’s deputy served Johnson with a warrant for nonsupport. Johnson met with Nebraska and Los Angeles County authorities and team officials and agreed to make regular payments to his family.65

Worse yet, Johnson became a laughingstock. Vastly overweight, he could no longer field his position. “The big Indian, the size of whose unie comes under the classification of tents and awnings, did everything but break a leg,” the Los Angeles Times wrote. “The Bees found it impossible to hit him, but they got on occasionally through walks and then laid them down on him. Chief spiked himself trying to field one of them, fell down on one, threw one into the bleachers and finally sat down on another until members of both teams were almost convulsed with laughter.”66 Johnson did not finish the fifth inning and Quinn won the game, 14-7. Four days later, the Times reported that team owner Maier was to be kicked out of the league for breaking league rules, causing dissension that had two other owners ready to quit, and secretly overpaying players to stay under the league’s $4,500 salary limit. Meanwhile, Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack announced that Johnson was among eight minor-league players who would join his team.67

On August 30 Johnson beat former New York Giants hurler Doc Crandall, 2-1, in a 12-inning classic. On September 15 Johnson allowed two runs in the fourth inning and lost to Portland. The Beavers bunted on him three straight times during the third inning but two great catches behind him saved two runs.

The Chief had some victories in his 31-year-old arm as the 1917 PCL season opened. He shrugged off an Opening Day loss at San Francisco with three straight wins in which he allowed a total of three runs. On April 15 Johnson pitched a 6-0 no-hitter against the Portland Beavers, striking out nine, in the second game of a morning-afternoon home doubleheader. While Johnson was firing bullets, a $5,000 house fire raged outside the ballpark in full view of spectators, fire-engine bells and all. Los Angeles Times correspondent Harry A. Williams, likely in jest, wrote that the Vernon management set the blaze. “The day was unusually cold,” Williams wrote. “Only by burning a house or two in the neighborhood is it possible to warm up the park. As the fire was back of the right-field bleachers the two-bit patrons got better service than those in the grandstand.”68

Johnson’s 7-5 victory on April 22 completed a doubleheader sweep for the Vernon Tigers, who trailed first place San Francisco by 1½ games. On May 5 he and Salt Lake City’s Red Hoff pitched 14 innings before Johnson loaded the bases on a hit batsman, a single, and an intentional walk and eventually lost, 3-0. The personal losing streak reached three with two losses to Oakland, one of which Williams attributed to Johnson’s failure to hold runners at first base and allowing three stolen bases.69 Johnson won his next two games but Vernon’s Tigers were in last place (19-29).

On June 7 Santa Monica police fined Johnson $5 for intoxication. He had partied at some beach cafés with Los Angeles merchant F.A. Head. Both were fined $5, Head paying an additional $25 for driving while intoxicated. The next night, Johnson lost to San Francisco and Williams assailed Johnson with Indian stereotypes, writing that he was “unable to bring home wampum,” that his “scalp had been removed,” and that Johnson’s friends would “buy him a toupee to replace the lost article.”70 Stovall sent Johnson to the bullpen but he returned to the rotation on June 17, losing to Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. In the second game of a twin bill, Johnson missed a sign to cut off a throw to second, was struck in the ear and left the game. Williams wrote that Johnson thought he had been shot in the head with a gun. “For the moment he forgot that it was against the law to shoot Indians,” Williams wrote, “although it is a possibility that (manager) Stovall would take the law into his own hands.”71

On June 30, Johnson took his bad ear into battle and lost to Portland, 6-1. Four days later Stovall tried to sell Johnson to San Francisco. “It will take at least a week to have a couple of uniforms built for the Chief,” the San Francisco Examiner commented.72 Johnson faced the Seals in relief on the Fourth of July at San Francisco and expected to join them at the end of the series. Terms of the sale were not announced but the Examiner reported, “The Chief figures to be the biggest deal (Seals owner) Hen Berry ever made.”73

In his farewell appearance for Vernon, Johnson beat his future teammates, 3-2. He faced 22 batters in seven innings, allowing two hits. In his first game for the Seals, the Chief allowed just four hits but lost, 2-1, to Portland. On July 22 his former Federal League teammate Duke Kenworthy walked and scored from first on a single in the bottom of the ninth, giving reliever Johnson another defeat. Victory finally came with a 4-1 two-hitter against Oakland that Johnson ended with three perfect innings. His 7-3 win in a drizzle at home made it two in a row. “The sprinkle sort of dampened his ardor in the late innings and he eased up,” the Examiner’s Al C. Joy wrote, “but by that time the game had been securely tucked away and there was no reason for the chief to annoy his wide carcass with worry.”74 On August 8 Johnson held Vernon to three hits but his former teammates bunted their way to a 4-1 victory. Johnson drove in the Seals’ only run with a triple. An error pinned another loss on the luckless Johnson August 11 but his “wide carcass” produced a three-hitter and a 2-1 victory on the 17th over Salt Lake City.75 Johnson split two starts against Portland and ended August by dominating Los Angeles, 9-1. He began September clipping the charging Angels twice by one run in consecutive starts, 2-1 and 4-3, but paid $35 in fines for harsh words with umpires.76

Next, San Francisco’s Recreation Park at Fifteenth and Valencia Streets hosted a series between the Seals and Oakland Oaks. On September 13 Johnson bashed a triple and won, 5-3, “adding jazz to a slow game” and slimming down to “portly” in the local game story.77 Three days later Johnson lost, 2-1, a ninth inning single and a safe bunt sealing a doubleheader sweep for the Oaks.

Johnson gave the first-place Seals some breathing room with a 4-2 victory over the Salt Lake City Bees. “The blood-sweating behemoth of the Seals,” wrote Jack James of the Examiner, “displayed an ability to wriggle, roll and squirm out of tight places.”78 Johnson lost a rematch, 2-0, then allowed seven runs and walked six on a hot day in Los Angeles, 9-1, the Examiner writer calling him a “human walrus” because of his weight.79 But the Chief clinched the PCL title for the Seals on October 28, beating Oakland, 3-1, for his 25th victory. “Chief Johnson,” wrote the Examiner’s Al C. Joy, “unwound from his mastodonic frame a variety of shoots that the Oakland batters could not solve.”80 The Seals (119-93) outlasted the Angels (116-94) by two games. The Winnebago Indian who vowed to make good was now a champion. Statistics show he earned it – 57 appearances, 398⅔ innings, a 25-23 record, a 10th-ranked 2.44 ERA and two shutouts.

The 1918 season got off to a bad start. Johnson allowed 10 hits and five runs in 4⅔ innings in a 17-4 loss to Oakland. His next two efforts may have been more painful, a 1-0 loss to the Oaks in which Lefty O’Doul pinch-hit for Johnson and popped out to end the game, and a 3-2 defeat at Sacramento. Visibly worried if he would ever get a win, the Chief blanked Los Angeles, 2-0, in 1 hour and 15 minutes without a strikeout.81 On May 1 Johnson lost to Sacramento, 7-4. Ten days later, the Seals suspended Johnson for being out of shape. The Examiner first reported that it was for misbehavior but a May 20 article said he “took a rest for his health.”82 Johnson worked out while suspended and returned to make his second start in a week on May 24. He lasted one inning in a 12-2 loss at Los Angeles.

Johnson’s decline and fall began on June 1. Described as “fat” and “rotund” in the press, he allowed three first-inning runs to Vernon in an 8-5 defeat.83 At 2-6, he became a mop-up man with two extended relief appearances in lopsided losses. On June 16 Johnson failed to show up for the game and Seals President Charles Strub fired him.84

The Chief played occasional semipro baseball over the next four years in Nebraska and Oklahoma and became a promoter of Native-American patent medicines. On June 11, 1922, Johnson held a medicine show featuring a 200-year-old rattlesnake at the Blair and Haun Drug Store in Des Moines, Iowa. Afterward Johnson expected to return to his eastern Nebraska farms, where he raised pedigreed horses.85 Instead he met his death and his murder has never been solved.

Described as an immaculate dresser of splendid physical appearance, Johnson went to a drinking party and dice game at the rented two-room framed cabin of Edward Gillespie and his wife in Des Moines. About a dozen people attended the party. Neighbors called police and officers reported a brilliantly lighted cabin inside of which they heard sounds of “drunken revelry.”86 Johnson had brought a Negro-Indian girl to the party and backed her in the dice game and refused to pay for a $2.50 bottle of liquor he got from Gillespie, who became angry when Johnson started to leave the party with the girl, who won the pot in the dice game and gave it to Johnson. The two men argued and Johnson threatened to “clean house” after the dice game broke up.87 The argument moved to a vacant lot about 50 feet behind the cabin. Shortly, cabin owner Charles M. Haradon heard two gunshots from his home across the street and called police. The first shot from a .32-caliber weapon went through Johnson’s right arm below the shoulder. A second shot went through his left lung above the heart. The Chief fell dead, flat on his back on a clump of weeds. There were no eyewitnesses.

On June 16, a grand jury indicted Gillespie for first-degree murder. At first, Gillespie asked for leniency in return for a complete statement to police, but later he denied shooting or even knowing Johnson.88 The trial began on October 16. Haradon testified that he saw the flash of a gun but could not identify the shooter. A witness testified that he had bought the .32-caliber gun from a Mexican for 50 cents and had given it to Mrs. Gillespie. Another witness said Gillespie had tampered with Johnson’s Ford coupe so he could not get away without paying for the bottle of liquor.89 Gillespie testified that police coerced a confession from him and forced him to sign it.90 The defense attorney claimed Gillespie suffered from mental illness going back to his service in the World War but Judge Lester L. Thompson threw out the insanity option for lack of evidence.91 The jury deadlocked after 12 hours’ deliberation. After another 30 hours’ deliberation, the jury found Gillespie innocent.92

Johnson’s body was held at a local funeral parlor. Mr. and Mrs. Levi Dupuis – the latter a sister of Johnson’s – claimed the body and took it back to Thurston County, Nebraska, for burial.93 A man who made his living on his strength and desire met his death when he could ultimately not control his weaknesses. Perhaps the same could be said of his baseball career, where Johnson made good but was not quite good enough because of his personal struggles. Yet Johnson’s Winnebago pride and natural ability left a legacy that will live on in Native-American baseball history, though his life was tragically cut short.



In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted and



1 US Federal Census, January 13, 1920.

2 Baseball, “Chief Johnson – BR Bullpen,” Biographical Information, Accessed August 3, 2018.

3 “Kill the Indian, Save the Man – Native American Boarding Schools,”, Accessed August 21, 2018. “Carlisle Indian Boarding School – Lost Unto This World,” Accessed August 21, 2018.

4 Jeffrey Powers-Beck, The American Indian Integration of Baseball (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 142.

5 “The Western League,” Sporting Life, January 18, 1908: 10.

6 Powers-Beck, 124; “Where Will Ducky Go?” Waterloo (Iowa) Daily Courier, October 29, 1907: 9; Jeffrey P. Beck, introduction to Guy W. Green, The Nebraska Indians and Fun and Frolic with an Indian Ball Team (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2010), xxxiv.

7 “NEBRASKA INDIANS Are Booked for a Trip To Florida, Cuba and Mexico,” Sporting Life, October 5, 1907: 1.

8 “Locals Turn the Tables,” Lincoln (Nebraska) Star, April 1, 1908: 3.

9 “A Year’s Work,” Sporting Life, January 23, 1909: 18.

10 “Lincoln Loses Red Hot Game,” Lincoln Star, July 19, 1908: 9.

11 “Raps Bleacher Jokesters,” Sioux City (Iowa) Journal, June 3, 1909: 9; Guy W. Green, xxvii.

12 “Turn About with Denver,” Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln), September 10, 1908: 5.

13 Scratch, “Have Hard Time Getting Hip to Redskin Slang,” Lincoln Star, April 24, 1909: 9.

14 “Lincoln Gets Opener,” Nebraska State Journal, May 13, 1909: 5.

15 Scratch, “Prohibs Get Eye on Ball,” Lincoln Star, June 15, 1909: 11.

16 Scratch, “Prohibs Split with Topekas,” Lincoln Star, July 6, 1909: 10.

17 Scratch, “Option Taken on the Prohibs,” Lincoln Evening Star, July 7, 1909: 6.

18 “Condensed Dispatches,” Sporting Life, August 14, 1909: 2.

19 “The Western League,” Sporting Life, September 11, 1909: 22.

20 “Diamond Gossip,” Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star, August 12, 1909: 6.

21 “Western League Notes,” Sporting Life, November 27, 1909: 6.

22 “Western Winnowings,” Sporting Life, March 19, 1910: 6.

23 “Johnson Is Best Fungo Hitter in the League,” St. Joseph (Missouri) Gazette, March 30, 1910: 7; Powers-Beck, 125.

24 U.S., Professional Baseball Player Profiles, 1876-2004 [database online]. Provo, Utah, USA: Operations, Inc, 2004; Powers-Beck, 126.

25 “The Western League,” Sporting Life, October 8, 1910: 14.

26 “Sports Editor’s Notes,” St. Joseph Gazette, July 20, 1910; Powers-Beck, 126-7.

27 “Johnson Pitches No-Hit Game,” Omaha Daily Bee, April 22, 1911: 18.

28 “Can’t Be Beaten at Home,” Omaha Daily Bee, May 2, 1911: 4; “Rourkes Still Winning; Drummers Are Victims,” Lincoln Star, May 2, 1911: 9.

29 “Drummers Beat Rourkes, 7-1,” Omaha Daily Bee, May 7, 1911: 29.

30 “A Bender Rival,” Sporting Life, August 31, 1912: 5.

31 Sam Weller, “Indian Hurler of White Sox Team Promises to ‘Make Good’ in Majors,” Chicago Tribune, February 27, 1913: 13.

32 “Sox II Beat Santa Maria, 11-2; Fournier Leads in Swatting,” Chicago Tribune, March 3, 1913: 11.

33 “Sox Seconds Lose in Rain,” Chicago Tribune, March 18, 1913: 15.

34 “White Sox Blank Yuma, 9-0, Chicago Tribune, April 1, 1913: 15.

35 “Sam Wellerisms,” Chicago Tribune, April 2, 1913: 15.

36 “1920 United States Federal Census,” Margaret L. Johnson, Elaine Marguerite Johnson, Catherine Johnson, Joseph Johnson. Accessed August 24, 2018; Powers-Beck, 124.

37 “Omaha Defeats White Sox,” Chicago Tribune, April 5, 1913, 11; “Sam Wellerisms,” Chicago Tribune, April 6, 1913, 29; Weller, “Drizzling Rain Keeps Sox Idle,” Chicago Tribune, April 9, 1913: 15.

38 “‘Chief’ Johnson and the Winnebago Ban,” Baseball History Daily, August 23 and August 30, 2012, Accessed August 2, 2018.

39 “Echoes from the Press Box,” Baseball Magazine, July 1913: 84.

40 Jack Ryder, “First Red Victory Due to Indian’s Fine Hurling,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 17, 1913: 8.

41 Ryder, “Two Chiefs Stopped the War Dance,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 19, 1913: 8.

42 Ryder, “Spitter Has the Giants Baffled,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 9, 1913: 6.

43 “All Sports,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 8, 1913: 49.

44 Ryder, “Broke. The Hoodoo’s Buzzer,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 18, 1913: 6; Ryder, “Pass. In the Sixteenth Inning,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 20, 1913: 18.

45 Ryder, “Rambled Freely Over the Circuit,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 5, 1913: 6.

46 Ryder, “The Reds. Dropped Couple of Games,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 15, 1913: 8; Ryder, “First Ball. Pitched By the Indian,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 16, 1913: 8.

47 Ryder, “Quit It,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 23, 1913: 6; “Lucky Triple. Outpitched Mathewson,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 27, 1913: 8.

48 Ryder, “Outlucked, but Not Outplayed,” Cincinnati Enquirer, September 22, 1913: 8.

49 Ryder, “The Reds. Dropped Couple of Games,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 15, 1913: 8.

50 The Chicago Daily News issues of December 24 and 27, 1913, were cited in Stuart Shea, Wrigley Field – The Long Life & Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 16-17.

51 Ren Mulford Jr., “Redland Dream Not Realized,” Sporting Life, May 2, 1914: 25.

52 Ryder, Cincinnati Enquirer, April 21, 1914: 6.

53 Weller, “Chicago Welcomes Feds, Who Triumph Over Packers, 9-1,” Chicago Tribune, April 24, 1914: 15; Handy Andy, “Enjoins Johnson and K.C. Federals,” Chicago Tribune, April 24, 1914: 15.

54 “Johnson Cannot Play with Feds, The Sporting News, June 11, 1914: 3.

55 “Johnson Expelled,” Sporting Life, May 16, 1914: 3; David L. Fultz, “The Baseball Players’ Fraternity – Some Unfair Criticisms from the New York Evening Sun; Will the Fraternity Act?” Baseball Magazine, September 1914: 83-84.

56 “Another Turn of Wheel in the Usual Game of Judicial Reversals,” Sporting Life, July 25, 1914: 3.

57 “The Law and Base Ball (Chief Johnson Free to Pitch),” Sporting Life, August 1, 1914: 2.

58 “It Was a Grand Rally in Last Two Innings, Buffalo Evening News,” July 25, 1914: 1.

59 “Rejoice Over Big Victory,” Pittsburgh Press, July 31, 1914: 24.

60 “Bluejacket Wins His First Federal Game,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 7, 1914: 12.

61 “Feds Secure Injunction to Stop Legal Proceeding,” Chicago Tribune, September 1, 1914: 15.

62 Ryder, “Broke. The Hoodoo’s Buzzer,” Cincinnati Enquirer,” July 18, 1913: 6; Ryder, “Pass. In the Sixteenth Inning,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 20, 1913: 18.

63 Who’s Who in the Federal League – Brief Biographies of Some of the Leading Stars of the Younger Circuit,” Baseball Magazine, June 1915: 64.

64 “In National League Camps,” Sporting Life, April 15, 1916: 12; “National League Notes,” Sporting Life, April 22, 1916: 11.

65 “The World of Baseball – A Weekly Digest of Most Important News,” Sporting Life, August 19, 1916: 3.

66 “Play Game in a Wind Storm,” Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1916: 16.

67 “Hen Knifes Eddie Maier,” Los Angeles Times, August 22, 1916: 17; “Mack to Get Coast Players,” Los Angeles Times, August 22, 1916: 17.

68 Harry A. Williams, “Chief Pitches No-Hit Game,” Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1917: 5.

69 Harry A. Williams, “Some Random Remarks,” Los Angeles Times, May 13, 1917: 91.

70 “Chief Johnson Draws a Fine,” Los Angeles Times, June 8, 1917: 11; “Chief Johnson Minus a Scalp,” Los Angeles Times, June 9, 1917: 6.

71 “Trim Tigers,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1917: Part VI, 10.

72 “Hen Berry on Trail of Another Indian,” San Francisco Examiner, July 4, 1917: 11.

73 “Baseball Notes,” San Francisco Examiner, July 7, 1917: 11.

74 Al C. Joy, “Beavers Feel the Sorrows of Adversity,” San Francisco Examiner, August 1, 1917: 13.

75 Al C. Joy, “Wienies Growl with Glee for the Bees Got the Wurst of It,” San Francisco Examiner, August 18, 1917: 11.

76 “Baseball Notes,” San Francisco Examiner, September 4, 1917: 14.

77 Al C. Joy, “Johnson Chief Event in Seal 5-3 Victory,” San Francisco Examiner, September 14, 1917: 13.

78 Jack James, “Chief Johnson Encounters Frequent Troubles, but Wriggles Out, Aided by Spectacular Fielding and Timely Hitting; Score 4-2,” San Francisco Examiner, September 21, 1917: 13.

79 Clyde Bruckman, “Angels Make Merry While Seals Falter,” San Francisco Examiner, September 28, 1917: 13.

80 Al C. Joy, “Oaks Fall Twice in the Day’s Pastiming,” San Francisco Examiner, October 29, 1917: 11.

81 Al C. Joy, “Big Chief Johnson Victor in Slab Duel,” San Francisco Examiner, April 25, 1918: 2.

82 Al C. Joy, “Finish Up Week with Streak of Victory,” San Francisco Examiner, May 20, 1918: 13.

83 Al C. Joy, “Couple of Chiefs in Fray but Cats Win,” San Francisco Examiner, June 2, 1918: 32.

84 “Chief Johnson Takes Count from the Seals,” San Francisco Examiner, June 18, 1918: 13.

85 “Think Murderer of Ballplayer Escaped,” Des Moines Tribune, June 13, 1922: 10.

86 “Ball Player Is Shot to Death,” Des Moines Tribune, June 12, 1922: 1.

87 “Famous Indian Player Backed Gambling Negro Girl Before Shooting,” Des Moines Register, June 13, 1922: 1.

88 “Negro Denies He Fired Shot Which Killed Ballplayer,” Des Moines Tribune, October 20, 1922: 15.

89 “Says He Gave Death Gun to Mrs. Gillespie,” Des Moines Register, October 18, 1922: 6.

90 “Death Gun Not Mine – Williams,” Des Moines Register, October 22, 1922: 31.

91 “Chief Johnson Jurors May Not Agree,” Des Moines Tribune, October 24, 1922: 1.

92 State of Iowa vs. Ed Gillespie, No. 17020, Thompson, Judge, October 24, 1922. “Gillespie Not Guilty, Verdict,” Des Moines Register, October 25, 1922: 1.

93 “‘Chief’ Johnson Was Killed at Des Moines,” Brown County World (Hiawatha, Kansas), June 16, 1922: 1.

Full Name

George Howard Johnson


March 30, 1886 at Winnebago, NE (USA)


June 12, 1922 at Des Moines, IA (USA)

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