This article was written by Bill Nowlin
Right-handed pitcher Henry Ward “Hank” Johnson started his professional baseball career close to home with back-to-back seasons for the Bradenton Growers in the Class-C Florida State League in 1923 and 1924. , Johnson was 2-0 his first season and 10-8 in 1924.
Johnson was born in Bradenton on May 21, 1906, the fifth child among four girls and two boys. His parents were Morgan Jackson Johnson, a cattle raiser and agent according to the 1910 census, and Pernetta “Nettie” T. Pope Johnson. Ten years later, Morgan Johnson was recorded as a farmer.
Henry attended Manatee County High School.
Purchased by the New York Yankees in 1924, he was noted as a comer in spring training 1925 by wire service writer Warren W. Brown: “Henry Johnson, who comes from Bradenton, Fla., is the best of the young pitchers.”1 Indeed, he made the team out of spring training and worked one inning of hitless relief in his debut game, April 17 against the visiting Senators, facing three batters and recording three outs. His ERA leapt from 0.00 in his third outing, however, when he gave up five runs in two-thirds of an inning. He cut that back down over the course of the season; after 24 appearances, though, he still had an ERA of 6.85. He’d started four games and lost three of them, two by scores of 5-4 and 4-2 His lone victory of his rookie year was a shutout (eight hits and one base on balls) against the visiting Indians on September 17.
Some home-state boosterism was evident in the notion that Yankees manager Miller Huggins was building his team around Johnson. In the Miami Herald, Walter St. Denis wrote, “While pitchers to the left of him and pitchers to the right of him fell off back to the minors, Johnson, only 19 years old, went along to eventually prove he had the makings of a real star. And around him Huggins expects to build a pitching staff that will carry the ordinarily hard-hitting Yankee combination back to the first division.”2 St. Denis acknowledged his early struggles. Rather than be discouraged, though, Johnson “believes himself a great pitcher…[and] kept the faith in himself intact and came to pitch several full games as the season was on the wane, games in which he showed enough stuff to warrant his permanent connection with the big show and to make Huggins think pleasant things for his future.” He concluded, “Young Johnson is a clean liver, a born athlete, and one who takes his baseball seriously – three qualities that cannot but help him.”3
Huggins was perhaps personally invested in Johnson’s career. Marvin McCarthy wrote a lengthy story in the Tampa Tribune explaining how the Bradenton club had reached out to Huggins, and Huggins had dispatched scout Bobby Gilks to check out Johnson. Gilks thought he looked good, but not for the $7,000 Bradenton wanted. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to halve the amount and offer $3,500, but Huggins instructed him to make the purchase at that sum.4
Johnson only pitched in one major-league game in 1926, the sixth game of the year, an 18-5 Yankees win. He gave up two runs in the one inning he worked. He was still 19 at the time, several weeks short of 20. Even before spring training was over, it had been deemed he could benefit from more seasoning in the minors.5
He got the work, appearing in 35 games for the St. Paul Saints of the American Association. His 4.41 ERA was better than his 6-15 record, though won/loss records often reflect the team as a whole. He missed some time in midseason due to illness blamed on the extraction of a tooth.
In 1927, Johnson worked again in the American Association, optioned to Milwaukee on April 14. He lowered his ERA to 4.31 and recorded 18 wins and 10 losses. President Killilea of the Milwaukee club tried to buy Johnson’s contract and offered $30,000 – which reportedly would have been a record at the time for a minor-league purchase. Huggins reportedly replied that “fifty thousand dollars wouldn’t buy Johnson. Huggins said he is to be a regular next season.”6
It was back to the big leagues in 1928, and Johnson pitched the next five seasons for the Yankees. It’s not as though Huggins built the staff around him, but he acquitted himself very well, with a 14-9 (4.30) record in 1928, 14 wins in 1930 and 13 in 1931. Those were his best years. He threw a career-high 10 complete games in 1928. During the season, a couple of days after a game in which Johnson beat Lefty Grove, sports editor Alan J. Gould of the Associated Press wrote that Johnson was “justifying the confidence and patience” which Miller Huggins had shown.7 After the 1928 season, Huggins was said to regard Johnson as “one of his most prized possessions among the youngsters on the Yankees club.”8 Johnson said he was the last man to pitch to Ty Cobb in the major leagues. He said, “I got him on a fly ball.”9
Johnson was 5-foot-11 and listed at 175 pounds. Though he both pitched and batted right-handed, he was said to be ambidextrous.10 He appears in most record books as Hank Johnson, but not once in any of the more than 1,000 newspaper stories reviewed for this biography was he ever called Hank. When asked what his nickname was, he wrote on his Hall of Fame player questionnaire that it was “Hank.” He could have left the space blank or written in that he had none, but it appears that it was not a name that was ever used in the newspapers of the day.
He didn’t appear in the 1928 World Series, largely because of the weather. With Waite Hoyt, George Pipgras, and Herb Pennock on the staff, Johnson was the fourth starter. The Yankees swept the Series from the Cardinals in four games.
Tom Zachary pitched Game Three, but Huggins had Johnson warming up in the bullpen before the game, and he warmed up from time to time throughout but was never needed. There was debate whether or not Huggins would go with Hoyt in Game Four, or give Johnson the start, but when it rained, that gave Hoyt an extra day of rest and Huggins decided to go with Hoyt, who won the game and was 2-0 in the Series.
Before the Series had begun, Richards Vidmer of the New York Times had written that Johnson “still needs confidence in himself. Every one [sic] else knows that Henry has plenty of winning games in his arm, but Henry isn’t quite sure of it himself yet.”11
Johnson himself allowed as how, despite his disappointment, he realized that Huggins may have indeed done him a favor, that the Cardinals could have hammered him and left him feeling discouraged all winter.12
Johnson was unable to work much in 1929. On the first day of spring training, he married Virginia Grace Lowe, “climaxing a grammar school days’ romance.”13Just a few weeks later, she was rushed to the hospital for an appendicitis operation.14 In his first appearance during the season, he started against the Athletics but only lasted two-thirds of an inning. He walked four, gave up two hits, and was charged with four earned runs, losing 7-4. He started on a fairly regular basis through June 9, and was 3-3 with a 4.02 ERA at the time. He won the June 9 game, allowing four hits – but he walked seven. (He’d won the May 9 game, too, but walked nine.) Problems with his back cost him five weeks, and he only worked 2 1/3 innings of relief the rest of the year, all in late July. Another article said he had injured one of the vertebrae in his spine.15 In his last appearance, on July 28, it was reported that his “shoulder gave out again.”16 Spinal surgery was necessary. In early August, wearing a brace, he was sent home to rest. It was a rough year, one he recalled years later when completing his player questionnaire for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The last question on the questionnaire was usually, “If you had it all to do over, would you play professional baseball?” Johnson’s response: “Without spinal surgery 1929 yes.” He may have thought his career was over at the time; a news story from early 1930 indicates that he had voluntarily retired.17
He appeared in 44 games (15 of them starts) in 1930, throwing 175 1/3 innings. He was 14-11 (only Red Ruffing and George Pipgras, with 15 each won more). His ERA was 4.67. Johnson’s 1931 season was similar, though he started more often — 23 times in 40 appearances. He was 13-8, 4.72.
Johnson said he lockered next to Babe Ruth and Ruth would show him his biweekly paycheck – each check larger than Johnson was being paid for a full season. But when Johnson told Ruth that a kid across the street from him was dying of Bright’s disease, “he took an autographed ball and promised to hit him a home run later, but made him promise not to tell any of his friends that he was at my house. But you know kids. He called everyone he knew. Babe obliged by signing his autograph to every thing they had. Whatever has been said or will be said about Babe is not enough.”18
In February 1932, Johnson was felled by an appendicitis attack at Hot Springs. He didn’t get into a game until May 2, won a couple, lost a couple, and saw his season end on June 4, getting hammered for six earned runs in the first one-third of an inning. The next day he was traded to the Boston Red Sox, with Ivy Andrews and a not-inconsiderable $50,000, for pitcher Danny MacFayden. Johnson never reported to the Red Sox, but returned home to Florida. Once again, he retired due to “poor health.”19 His condition was later described as stomach ulcers.20 Commissioner Landis reinstated him the following January. In fact, it may not have been a health issue at all. Most players wouldn’t have been that thrilled by a trade from the frequent first-place Yankees to the perennially last-place Red Sox. One article noted that he “refused to report. He has gone to his home in Florida and says he’ll spend the summer fishing before he’ll play for the Red Sox.”21 Writer M. G. McGann said he was “suffering more mentally than physically.”22 The cynicism may have been warranted. In January it was reported that Johnson had written Red Sox president Bob Quinn and said the long rest had restored him to health.23
Come the new year, he was ready to go back to work. And the Red Sox hoped for a lot from him. They needed help, a last-place team for pretty much a full decade. A few newspapers reported that he had suffered an unspecified stomach ailment. Johnson had put on some weight and he looked to become an asset in 1933. Incoming Sox Vice President Eddie Collins, working for new owner Tom Yawkey, said, “I was agreeably surprised by the appearance of Pitcher Henry Johnson…He’s looking so much better than he did a year ago.”24
Johnson started 21 games, and relieved in four others. He was one of the few Sox pitchers with a winning record (8-6, 4.06 – his best season for ERA) for the seventh-place team. He likely would have won more, but he hurt his elbow in the August 20 game, had to be operated on, and was unable to pitch again that season. During the winter, Johnson was one of the few Red Sox players to ever visit Tom Yawkey’s place in South Carolina; he went duck hunting there with Eddie Collins and George Pipgras in December.
Johnson’s 1934 season was not interrupted for any length of time and he appeared in 31 games (14 starts), including four consecutive complete games in July. His record was 6-8, in part due to a 5.36 earned run average. He was apparently a slow worker. Asked why he took so long on the mound between pitches when working in relief, he said, “I just try to get the opposing batsmen as nervous as I am.”25
Johnson was a good-fielding pitcher. In his entire big-league career, he only committed seven errors in 220 chances (.968), and he committed no errors at all from 1931 through 1935. As a batter, he was not bad for a pitcher, with a career .215 batting average. On August 1, 1928, he was 5-for-5, with one RBI. –
In a career that seemed to have full seasons and “off-years,” Johnson’s 1935 and 1936 seasons were both off-years. He only appeared in 13 games in 1935, two of them starts, and his last appearance was on June 30. His ERA sat at 5.52, and he had a 2-1 record, both wins coming in long relief. The Sox had added Lefty Grove, who won 20, and Wes Ferrell (25-14) was fully coming into his own. In a sense, they didn’t need Johnson as much. On July 1, they sent Johnson to the Syracuse Chiefs and called up another right-hander, Joe Cascarella. In 14 games, Johnson was 5-2 with a 3.64 ERA for Syracuse. He was recalled to Boston in September, but saw no action. On January 4, 1936, he was traded, with Al Niemiec and $175,000 cash to the Philadelphia Athletics for Doc Cramer and Eric McNair. That was a lot of cash in the middle of the Depression and might have been the key to the deal. The Boston Globe observed, “While the coming to Boston of Cramer and McNair is no surprise, the players going to the Athletics in the transaction is a big surprise, the Red Sox having parted with no element of strength.”26
Johnson started three games in April 1936 for Connie Mack’s Athletics. He lost the first two and had a no-decision in the third. His ERA was 7.71. On April 30, he was sold to Montreal and returned to the International League.
He recorded a 3.53 ERA for Montreal, with a 9-10 record. In 1937, he pitched for the Royals again with an 11-7 (3.69 ERA).
From 1938 into 1941, Johnson worked for the Southern Association’s Birmingham Barons. He was 11-13 (4.10), 9-3 (3.65), and 12-5 (4.44) the first three seasons. In 1941, he began the season with the Barons and was 7-6 when he was traded to the Memphis Chicks. He won six and lost six with the Chicks.
Johnson had a brief return to the majors when the Cincinnati Reds bought him on July 2, 1939. He put up an excellent 2.01 earned run average in 31 1/3 innings over 20 games for the NL pennant winners. His record was 0-3, but he was awarded a half-share of the team’s World Series receipts.27
Memphis hired him again for 1942 but he missed the entire season with an injured leg, or back (reports differ.) He was briefly with Memphis again in 1943, his last season in baseball, but worked only 16 innings in four games.
Johnson worked as an auto salesman in Bradenton, and in 1950 was elected on the Democrat ticket as constable in the Manatee County (Florida) tax department, unopposed. He died at the hospital in Bradenton on August 20, 1982.
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, Bill Lee’s The Baseball Necrology, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Warren W. Brown, “Slugging Nick Cullop is Sensation of Yankees’ Camp,” Richmond Times Dispatch, March 14, 1925: 9.
2 Walter St. Denis, “On the Sports Highway,” Miami Herald, October 23, 1925: 12.
4 Marvin McCarthy, “Henry Johnson, Who Learned His Baseball at Bradenton, Found Athletics Not So Bad,” Tampa Tribune, October 28, 1928: 47.
5 “Yankee Recruit is Cited Twice,” Tampa Tribune, March 21, 1926: 34.
6 Dan Daniel, “Johnson Justified Faith Placed in Him by Huggins,” New York Telegram, June 23, 1928.
7 Alan J. Gould, “Yankees ‘Luck’ Ascribed to Huggins’ Management,” Washington Post, June 30, 1928: 11.
8 Marvin McCarthy.
9 “Obituaries,” The Sporting News, September 6, 1982: 20.
10 “Baseball Here and There,” Ed. R. Hughes, San Francisco Chronicle, June 24, 1928: 86.
11 Richards Vidmer, “Yankees’ Hopes Lie in Their Bats; Pitching Main Reliance of Cards,” New York Times, October 3, 1928: 25.
12 Marvin McCarthy.
13 “Johnson, of Yankees, Marries Florida Girl,” Washington Post, February 26, 1929: 13.
14 “Johnson Left, Bride Is Ill,” New York Telegram, March 30, 1929.
15 “Yanks Lose Star Hurler for ‘Crucial’ Series with Macks,” Charlotte Observer, June 20, 1929: 19.
16 William E. Brandt, “Yankees Are Idle, No Games Scheduled,” New York Times, July 30, 1929: 22.
17 “Wright, Craig and Johnson Are Reinstated,” Boston Globe, January 25, 1930: 9.
18 Handwritten letter signed by Henry Johnson in Johnson’s Hall of Fame player file.
19 James C. O’Leary, “Quinn Tries to Avoid Wrangle,” Boston Globe, January 21, 1933: 10.
20 “Obituaries,” The Sporting News, September 6, 1982: 20.
21 “Nats Invade for Third-Place Fight,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 20, 1932: 15.
22 M. G. McGann, “Mixing with Mickey,” State Times Advocate (Baton Rouge), June 28, 1932: 10.
23 Unidentified January 5, 1933 news clipping in Johnson’s Hall of Fame player file.
24 Burt Whitman, “Eddie Collins Impressed By Pitching of Henry Johnson,” Boston Herald, March 9, 1933: 15.
25 Washington Evening Star, June 14, 1934: 49.
26 James C. O’Leary, “Cramer, McNair Come to Red Sox,” Boston Globe, June 5, 1936: A1.
27 Associated Press, “Cincinnati Reds Vote Division of World’s Series Coin to Team,” Dallas Morning News, October 4, 1939: Sect. II, 3.