Russell Conwell “Jing” Johnson went directly from tiny Ursinus College to the Philadelphia Athletics in 1916. He pitched effectively for bad Philadelphia A’s teams, 1916-1919, before leaving baseball for seven years over a salary dispute. He returned to the A’s in 1927 and 1928.
Born the son of Harry W. Johnson and Alice Shantz in Parker Ford, Pennsylvania, on October 9, 1894, he made that hamlet on the Schuylkill River his home until his playing career ended in 1930. Russ and his two brothers, Wayne and Milton, attended Spring City High School. By the time he graduated in 1912 he had acquired the nickname “Jing” or “Jingling” and earned a reputation as both a “spit-ball artist” and a hard thrower. He was also a good tennis player and a promising student. (Ruby, 1916, 64)
He spent four years at Ursinus College, a small liberal arts college near Philadelphia, graduating with honors in chemistry. Classmates elected him to the Student Senate, perhaps because of his “sunny disposition.” He did so well academically that his college yearbook predicted “for him a professorship in Chemistry in some large university.” (Ruby, 1916, 64)
Johnson’s college yearbook also speculated “within a few years we shall not be surprised to see his name on the payroll of the Athletics.” (Ruby, 1916, 64) During his four years at Ursinus he accounted for sixty percent of the baseball team’s victories. His wins included a no-hitter against Fordham and victories over Rutgers, Villanova, Lafayette, and Princeton. His greatest game came against Gettysburg College in 1914 when he struck out 28 batters in a seventeen-inning game. In his senior year, opposing batters managed to hit a meager .131 against him.
His 1916 performance caught the attention of Philadelphia manager Connie Mack. The A’s had captured American League titles in 1910, 1911, 1913, and 1914. Mack, however, had broken up his championship team following its loss in the 1914 World Series and the escalation of players’ salaries due to competition from the Federal League. The 1915 team had dropped to the AL cellar, and the 1916 squad was worse. Mack, according to A’s historian David M. Jordan, adopted the practice of bringing in “swarms of sandlotters and kids just out of school…If he looked at enough young players, Mack reasoned, he would discover some bona fide big leaguers.” (Jordan, 77)
In June 1916, Mack signed Johnson and Ursinus teammate outfielder Ralph “Sarge” Mitterling. Like most of Mack’s signees, Mitterling contributed little, hitting only .154 in 13 games. Johnson, a right-handed thrower and hitter who stood 5’9″ and was listed as 172 pounds, was not overmatched by big league hitters. He made his debut on June 27, 1916 and went on to win two games and post a respectable 3.74 ERA.
Johnson stuck with the A’s. In 1917 the A’s pitching was not all that bad for a team that lost 98 games. Joe Bush headed the staff and Johnson established himself as the team’s number two pitcher. His most memorable victory came that year when in a game against Washington on September 3, 1917, Jing Johnson bested the great Walter Johnson. His 9-12 record belied an impressive 2.78 ERA.
He missed all of the 1918 season, serving in the navy until the end of World War I. Upon his return to baseball in 1919, Johnson became the ace of the A’s pitching staff. Although he won only nine games, again, against 15 losses, he did account for one quarter of Philadelphia’s 36 wins. He worked over 200 innings and compiled a 3.61 ERA, suggesting better pitching than his record showed.
As the team’s top pitcher, Johnson expected a salary increase for 1920. He failed to reckon with the tight-fisted Mack, who reasoned he could and would finish last with or without Johnson. The young pitcher held out for a higher salary, failed to join the team for spring training in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and threatened to quit if the Athletics did not meet his salary demand. Mack declared, “I don’t blame him for quitting professional baseball if he can make more money in other ways.” (TSN, 3/4/1920). In fact, Johnson found he could make more money as a research chemist at the Bethlehem Steel Company. Johnson proved as stubborn as Mr. Mack. From 1920 through the spring of 1927, Johnson returned the contracts Mack sent him. That made him a seven-year holdout.
Baseball retained a hold on Johnson during his Bethlehem years. In the springs he coached at Bucknell College (1922-24) and Lehigh University (1925-27). In the summers he pitched for Bethlehem Steel’s semi-pro industrial league team.
By 1927, Mack had the A’s back in the first division. The A’s had developed a formidable pitching staff that included Robert “Lefty” Grove, Rube Walberg, Jack Quinn, Howard Ehmke, and Ed Rommel to go with a powerful everyday lineup. Even though he was loaded with pitchers, Mack finally agreed to give Johnson the raise he had wanted in 1920.
Johnson, 30 years old by then, must have realized he might never get another opportunity to play in the major leagues. Midway through the 1927 season, Johnson returned to the Athletics. Pitching mostly in relief, he compiled his first and only winning record, going 4-2 with a 3.48 ERA in 17 games.
The following year, 1928, Johnson pitched in only three games with the A’s, with three no-decisions, but his ERA soured to 5.06 before Mack sent him down to Baltimore of the International League in late May. He would not return to the majors. A losing record (7-8, 4.37) at Baltimore underscored the decline in his effectiveness. His major league career record stood at 24 wins against 38 losses. His lifetime 3.35 earned run average was respectable for his era.
In 1929 Johnson made a final effort to regain his form. He started the season pitching for Allentown of the Eastern League. By July he was the league’s top pitcher with a 10-5 record. He then developed a heart problem. Doctors finally advised him to quit the game. He finished with an 11-7 record. He never pitched more than batting practice again.
Johnson’s alma mater invited him to return to campus as the Ursinus College’s first athletic director. He accepted the position and moved his wife, Mary Siez, and son Donald to Collegeville, where they lived until his death. He quickly became active in the community as a member of the Masons, a deacon in the Baptist Church, and a member of the Collegeville Board of Education for over a decade. In 1935 he was elected president of the Middle Atlantic College Athletic Conference, which at the time was the largest collegiate conference in the country.
At Ursinus, in addition to his duties as athletic director, he coached the Bears’ baseball team from 1931 through 1941. His best team, the1940 squad, captured the Eastern Pennsylvania College Baseball League championship. That was the school’s first baseball championship since the sport began in 1887, and would be its only title in its first 100 years of baseball.
After Pearl Harbor, Johnson wasted little time in joining the war effort. He served as a training officer at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia during World War II. Following the war, he continued to work in Philadelphia as Rehabilitation and Education Director for the Veteran’s Administration until 1948. He then joined a nephew in running a retail appliance store, McCarraher Brothers, in neighboring Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
On December 6, 1950, at age 55, his life ended in an automobile accident as he returned home from work. He was buried in the Parker Ford Baptist Cemetery.
Jordan, David M., The Athletics of Philadelphia: Connie Mack’s White Elephants, 1901-1954. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co., 1999.
Kashatus, William C., Connie Mack’s ’29 Triumph: The Rise and Fall of the Philadelphia Athletics Dynasty. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co., 1999.
Pottstown (Pennsylvania) Mercury, December 7, 1950.
The Sporting News, January 22, February 12, February 26, March 4, 1920.
Ursinus College, Ruby, 1913-1916.