This article was written by Bill Nowlin
For Johnny Mitchell, it was a long slog making it through the minor leagues and up to the bigs – but he made it and broke in with the New York Yankees in 1921. He’d paid his dues along the way and seemed to have a penchant for playing on pennant-winning teams, despite never being a standout on offense.
Of Polish descent, he adopted an English surname that perhaps sounded a bit like his own: Kmieciak. Detroit was the city of his birth, on August 9, 1894. Both of his parents had been born in Poland – his father, Michael Kmieciak, who worked as a laborer in one of the local auto factories (at least later in life), and his mother, Mary Zielinski.
John grew up in Detroit, attended Catholic grammar school at the Sweetest Heart of Mary Parish (but no high school), and played semipro ball in the city. In 1913 he got his start in Organized Baseball, playing in the Southern Michigan League. He was with the second-place Adrian Champs that year (Class D), a shortstop as he was almost without exception throughout his career, and hit an anemic .194. But the potential he had shown began to bear fruit in 1914, still at Adrian (the league had advanced in classification to Class C, and the team had renamed itself the Adrian Fencevilles or the Adrian Tots, depending on the source.) Mitchell hit .271 in 80 games, and then joined the Ottawa Senators in the Class B Canadian League, where he hit even better –.343. Ottawa placed first in the eight-team league.
The next season Mitchell moved up to Class A, but it may have been premature. He was still just 20. He hit .213 for the Memphis Chicks (Southern Association). Two years in the Class B Central League followed – 1916 with the Terre Haute Highlanders (.247) and 1917 with the Grand Rapids Black Sox (.275). He rarely hit for extra bases, and was primarily a singles hitter. He played third base for the Black Sox under manager Bill Essick; the team won the pennant and a playoff series.
Southern California became Mitchell’s home base for the next three seasons, all spent at shortstop for the Vernon Tigers of the Pacific Coast League. He got in a lot of playing time, given the long Coast League seasons. Even with the war-shortened 1918 season, he played in 479 games in the three seasons, batting a combined .253, and finally hitting his first known home run in 1920. Bill Essick had moved to Vernon as manager, and brought Mitchell along. The team won the PCL pennant in 1918, 1919, and 1920. For Mitchell (and Essick), it was four seasons in succession on top of the standings.
Johnny got in a lot of at-bats for Vernon – 720 in 1919 and 790 in 1920, a year in which he handled 1,236 chances at shortstop. His .962 fielding percentage was right at the top of league play for shortstops.
In January 1921 the Yankees made a deal with Essick and Vernon: they would get Mitchell and the Tigers would get “a flock of players for him.”i The deal was to be worked out, but New York held waivers on a number of players and Vernon expected to be able to fill several holes. It turned out not to be so easy, but by the time it was done, the Yankees had sent five players to Vernon: Ernie Shore, Bob McGraw, Truck Hannah, Ham Hyatt, and Frank “Lefty” O’Doul.ii
The 5-foot-8, 155-pound Mitchell became a backup for shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh, in his ninth year with the Yankees. Mitchell played in 11 games between May 21 and June 9, and in only two other games later in the season. He was a switch-hitter who recorded a .262 average in his 47 plate appearances. He drove in two runs and scored four. The Yankees won the pennant – the first in team history – but lost the best-of-nine World Series to the New York Giants, five games to three.
Mitchell appeared in only four games (and had just four plate appearances) in 1922 for New York, which had added Everett Scott to supplement Peckinpaugh. There was even less need for Mitchell, so he was traded to the Boston Red Sox on July 23. It was part of another trade featuring Mitchell and a number of other players. Yankees pitcher Lefty O’Doul (not yet an outfielder) was part of the trade, as were Yankee utilityman Chick Fewster and outfielder Elmer Miller –along with $50,000. The Red Sox sent New York infielder Joe Dugan and outfielder Elmer Smith. Mitchell became Boston’s starting shortstop and played almost every game there for the rest of the season, appearing in 59 contests (and batting .251, not a bad average for a shortstop in this era). His defense was dubbed “sensational” in the August 31 issue of The Sporting News. Mitchell’s first big-league home run, one of only two he hit, came in the first game of a September 5 doubleheader against the Yankees in New York. He’d helped start the scoring with a sacrifice to advance game-winning pitcher Herb Pennock. His seventh-inning solo homer was the margin of difference in the 4-3 Red Sox win. (He hit his second homer in 1924, when he was with Brooklyn.)
In 1923 Mitchell played under The Peerless Leader, Frank Chance. The Red Sox finished in last place once again, while the Yankees won the pennant for the third year in a row – and their first World Series. Mitchell hit .225 in 92 games, driving in 19 runs.
During the season owner Harry Frazee had sold the team to Bob Quinn – and some newspapers in Boston talked about declaring the day a new annual holiday in Boston. Frazee was that disliked, by some.
On November 12 at the winter meetings, the Red Sox sent Mitchell and a reported $50,000 to Tulsa to acquire Dud Lee. Some further dealings resulted in Mitchell playing for the Minneapolis Millers in 1924. He had played in 97 games and was hitting .242 when another opportunity to play in the majors opened up. Brooklyn shortstop Jimmy Johnston injured his leg and was in the hospital; the club needed to find a replacement and worked out a deal with Minneapolis on July 23, sending the Millers Joe Klugman for Mitchell.
He played his first game for Brooklyn on the 26th, against Cincinnati, and had a single and a run scored. On defense, he “fielded brilliantly.”iii With the Robins he had his best season on offense, hitting .263 in the 64 games he played, and driving in 16 runs. In the following year, 1925, he played in 97 games – a personal best in the big leagues – batting .250 and driving in 18 runs.
The 1925 season was Mitchell’s last in the major leagues. In 1926 he returned to the PCL, playing shortstop for the Los Angeles Angels. Mitchell had played in 329 big-league games over the course of five seasons, with a .245 batting average, a .317 on-base percentage, and 63 runs batted in. Most of his hits were singles; his career slugging percentage was .296.
Back in the Coast League, he played in 311 games for the Angels in 1926 and 1927, hitting .264 the first year (and twice in one July week winning games in the ninth inning) but only .215 in the second season. He had several game-winning hits, enough to draw attention in the press. On July 25, 1927, his pinch-hitting squeeze bunt in the bottom of the ninth inning beat the Hollywood Stars, 4-3. The next day he had another game-winning pinch hit.
It truly was Mitchell’s defense that made him sought after. Sports columnist Bob Ray of the Los Angeles Times wrote: “With Mitchell in there the Angels are at least a 20 per cent stronger ballclub, even though Johnny is not so healthy with the willow. Mitchell steadies the infield and gives the Angels a defense that makes it extremely tough for the opposition to score.”iv Mitchell had been out for a week with a serious cold, which had been close to pneumonia, and Ray discussed two times which his replacement had failed to execute balls and which had led to two Angels losses. He added, “[Manager] Marty Krug regards Mitchell as the main cog in the Seraph machine.”
But after 1927 the Angels didn’t sign him again, and Mitchell’s pro career ended with the 1928 season. He began the year with Seattle and ended it with the Mission Reds, both in the PCL. It was something of a last hurrah, with Mitchell hitting .316.
There were a couple of other Johnny Mitchells in the game in 1925 and 1926, one of whom has been confused with this Mitchell, listed as managing briefly in Nashua, New Hampshire.
The 1930 census found our Mitchell living in Detroit with his wife, Clara, and their daughter, Beatrice. Clara Pasternacki was the daughter of Polish immigrants, too. Mitchell worked for the Detroit Water Board until his retirement in 1959. His last position had been as a filter attendant. John Franklin Mitchell was widowed when he died six years after retirement on November 4, 1965, of a heart attack, at a nursing home. He was survived by his daughter, Beatrice Rogers.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Mitchell’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.
i The Sporting News, January 20, 1921.
ii The Sporting News, February 17, 1921.
iii Washington Post, July 27, 1924.
iv Los Angeles Times, June 27, 1926. The Times called Mitchell “the best shortstop in the Coast League” in its edition of February 16, 1927.