This article was written by Matthew Clifford
Silas Kenneth Johnson, who pitched for four National League teams over 17 seasons, was born in Danway, in north-central Illinois, on October 5, 1906, the second of four sons of Norwegian-Americans Nels and Tillie Johnson. The family soon moved to the nearby town of Marseilles, where they operated a 460-acre farm. Nels had been a catcher for the semipro Danway Indians, and the baseball bug passed from father to son. In a 1990 interview Johnson recalled his father’s mentoring: “That was quite a help to me, learning from my dad some of the fundamentals of the game, some of the things a kid needed to know to play well.”1
Tillie died in 1920, while Silas was in elementary school, and in 1922 Nels married Pearl Sampson, a World War I widow with five children. After graduating from Newark (Illinois) High School, Silas continued to work on the farm. When he wasn’t working or pitching, Si courted Doris Birlee “Dot” Thompson, a farmer’s daughter who lived nearby.
Si joined the semipro Marseilles Merchants, and claimed 22 wins and 3 losses in 1927. The following year he tried out for the Rock Island Islanders, a team in the Class D Mississippi Valley League, and made the club. “I was working for my dad on the farm, working from daylight to dark for $20 a month,” Johnson remembered in a 1992 interview. “I told him that anything had to be easier than farming.”2 Signed by the Islanders, he left farming to pursue a career in Organized Baseball. He was a success at Rock Island, winning 19 games and losing 10 and gaining the attention of Cincinnati scout Bill “Pa” Rourke, who snatched him from the Islanders for $1,500 in late August. Johnson made his major-league debut on September 11, pitching two innings in relief against St. Louis and giving up two runs. With only a handful of games left on the schedule, rookie Johnson appeared in two more games in relief before the season closed.
Country boy Johnson got a gritty taste of city life while en route to spring training in Orlando in 1929. He arrived early at the train terminal in Chicago and decided to pass time by taking a stroll down Michigan Avenue. Two Windy City hoodlums approached the pitcher, jammed a revolver into his ribs, and robbed him of his luggage and $180 in cash. With a one-way ticket to Orlando as his only possession, Johnson arrived penniless at training camp. The robbery had made the Florida newspapers and Johnson’s Cincinnati teammates prepared their teasing antics, yelling, “Stick ’em up, rookie!” as he walked to his hotel room.
When spring training was completed, Johnson was farmed out to the Columbus Senators of the American Association, managed by Nemo Liebold. After winning 16 games and losing 13, he was recalled in late August but sat on the bench, making only one relief appearance.
In the offseason Johnson and his stepbrother, Glenn Sampson, leased the Norway Store in nearby Norway, Illinois. The store sold Norwegian groceries and goods to local residents and tourists. Sampson managed the store during the spring and summer and Johnson took over during the fall and winter. They ran the store until 1945.
When Johnson reported for spring training in 1930, the Reds had a new owner, Sidney Weil, and a new manager, Dan Howley, who had replaced Jack Hendricks after the Reds’ seventh-place finish in 1929. Johnson and rookie third baseman Tony Cuccinello became roommates while traveling with the team. Cincinnati’s left-handed ace, Eppa Rixey took Si under his wing and taught the novice hurler the skills and tricks he had acquired during his long pitching career. “Just like any kid who is out there pitching, I was depending on my fastball,” recalled Si in a 1987 interview. “I more or less figured I could throw the fastball past everybody, but (Rixey) worked with me on changing speeds and control.”3
Starting three games and relieving in 32, Johnson won three games and lost one in 1930. In 1931, as the Reds sank to last place, Johnson was the team’s primary hurler, pitching 262 innings and posting an 11-19 record. Johnson made some ink in the history books before the ’31 season ended.
Back home in October, Johnson spent the winter watching over the Norway Store and working on his father’s farm in Danway. In the 1932 season he led the Reds staff in games pitched and improved his record to 13-15, but it wasn’t enough to lift the Reds out of the cellar. After the season, on October 5 (Si’s 26th birthday) he and Dot Thompson were married. In November, Reds president Weil announced the appointment of a new manager for his last-place team. Howley was out and baseball veteran Donie Bush was hired to pull the Reds out the cellar.
To help put their team ahead of the competition, the Reds added future Hall of Famer Sunny Jim Bottomley (acquired from St. Louis) to their 1933 lineup. But Bottomley couldn’t add any sun to the darkness of the cellar. The Reds had difficulty putting runs on their scorecards and hurlers like Johnson, Paul Derringer, and Red Lucas suffered for it. Johnson had a 7-18 record before his season ended prematurely when he was called home for a family emergency. Johnson’s younger brother, Jesse, was ill with scarlet fever. Pneumonia developed in late August and Jesse died on September 6.
Back in Ohio, the Reds wound up in last place again. The franchise was in danger as it suffered low attendance and a jinxed reputation. Weil forfeited ownership to Cincinnati’s Central Trust Bank in December. The bank hired Larry MacPhail, president of the Columbus club in the American Association, to control Cincinnati’s major-league assets. MacPhail persuaded radio millionaire Powell Crosley, Jr. to purchase stock in the Reds. Crosley became the dominant stockholder and new president of the club.
The team’s stadium, Redland Field, was renamed Crosley Field after its prominent new owner. More new players were added to the roster, including the experienced St. Louis Cardinals catcher Bob O’Farrell as manager and Burt Shotton as coach. The Reds continued to shop for staff in Missouri as they acquired two new hurlers from the Cardinals, Syl Johnson and Dazzy Vance. The Cincinnati fanatics had hopes that their team would stay out of the cellar in 1934 but the absence of hits and runs put the Reds on losing scorecards. No matter how well Johnson and the other hurlers pitched, the club could never put runs on the board.
Si explained his dismay during a 1987 interview: “I lost a lot of close ballgames. We had poor hitting, very poor hitting. I lost so many games 1-0 and 2-1. Then every once in a while we’d get off to a one-run lead and they’d sit on the steps of the dugout and tell me to hold the other team because they weren’t going to give me any more runs. And they were right. That’s all I would get. It got to be kind of a joke.”4
The Reds made history on June 8, 1934, when they became the first team to travel by airplane, from Cincinnati to Chicago. “We left Cincinnati and we had to stop in Indianapolis and gas up to get to Chicago,” Johnson said in a 1979 interview. “Ernie Lombardi and Jim Bottomley were afraid to fly and wouldn’t get on.”5 When the ’34 season ended, the Reds crash-landed in last place with 52 wins and 99 losses. It was a tough year for Johnson, who had a league-leading 22 losses while winning only seven games. The hugh point of his season may have been his agreement to endorse a “Si Johnson Jr.” baseball glove, designed for boys, for the J.C. Higgins Company. (He was one of many big leaguers who made the deal.)
In 1935 the club installed lights above the grandstands and Crosley Field became the first baseball stadium that could accommodate both day and night games. On May 24 the Reds hosted the first night game in the major leagues. President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned on the lights at the ballpark by throwing a switch at the White House.
On May 26 Babe Ruth and the Boston Braves came to Cincinnati for a series. Ruth, on the downslope of his career, had just smashed three home runs in a game at Pittsburgh. Johnson got the starting assignment in the first game of the series. He fanned the Sultan of Swat the first three times he batted and got him on a popup as the Reds won, 4-3. Ruth retired a week later. Recalling the game in a 1993 interview with Sports Illustrated, Johnson said, “Babe was on his way out by then. He was practically washed up, the poor guy. Those pitches were all fastballs down the middle. People came to see the Babe hit the ball, but he was late on every swing. Don’t tell anybody, but I was hoping the Babe would hit one out. He was a hell of a swell fella.”6
Johnson pitched in only 30 games in 1935, winning 5 and losing 11. After the season the Johnsons purchased their first home. In May of 1936 the Reds sent him to Toronto. Johnson won ten games for the Maple Leafs, and on August 6 his contract was purchased by the St. Louis Cardinals, becoming a member of the team’s Gas House Gang. Becoming a member of the St. Louis pitching rotation, he won five games and lost three.
Johnson and Dizzy became roommates and good friends. He enjoyed the company of other Cardinals, but was unhappy with slugger Joe “Ducky” Medwick. On August 25 Johnson and Medwick had a fistfight after a game with the Boston Bees. The game was tied 4-4 in the eighth inning and Johnson relieved Dean. One of the Bees hit a pop fly in Medwick’s direction, but Ducky missed the easy catch, allowing a run to score. Boston won, 5-4. Johnson was angry with Medwick and punches flew in the clubhouse. “Joe Medwick loafed on a fly ball that caused me to lose a game,” Johnson said in a 1979 interview. “I chewed him out and we took a few swings at each other. He was inclined to loaf when he wasn’t hitting much.”7
Johnson remained in the Cardinals rotation in 1937. In late September he suffered a concussion during batting practice at Wrigley Field in Chicago, when he was hit on the head by a liner from the Cubs’ Phil Cavarretta and knocked unconscious. Johnson was taken to a hospital but returned to the mound days later. He finished the season with a 12-12 pitching record.
During the last weeks of April 1938, the Cardinals sent Johnson and fellow pitcher Roy Henshaw to Rochester. Both appealed to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, calling their demotion unfair. Landis ordered their return to the Cardinals. On their return, both asked for a salary increase. Their request did not please general manager Branch Rickey.
Si recalled the dramatics in a 1983 interview: “I held out for $7,500, and he wasn’t about to pay me that kind of money. I wouldn’t sign. I had to go in front of Judge Landis. (Rickey) got mad at me for holding out. Landis told Rickey he would pay me $7,500 whether I pitched in Rochester or St. Louis.”8
Rickey brought Henshaw back to the Cardinals, but refused to let Johnson return to the team. Landis responded by reminding Rickey that he was required to fulfill Johnson’s yearly salary of $7,500. Si would receive $6,000 from the Cards’ Rochester team for his services – leaving the responsibility of the remaining $1,500 to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Johnson refused to report to Rochester and returned to his home in Sheridan to wait for Rickey’s decision. In late May a newspaper reported, “Si Johnson, who doesn’t know whether or not he’s a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, was sitting tight on his farm near Sheridan today after being optioned to Rochester in the International League for the second time.”9 In the end, Rickey declined to bring Johnson back to the St. Louis lineup and chose to pay the additional $1,500, meaning Johnson earned a major-league paycheck to play in the minors.
Reporting to Rochester in early June, Johnson proceeded to collect 14 wins and 11 losses for the Red Wings twirler. In 1939, Johnson and Henshaw toiled for the Redwings again. Manager Billy Southworth gave him a heavy pitching load, and the 32-year-old handled a team-leading 252 innings, won 22 games, and lost 12. In September Boston Red Sox scout Billy Evans offered the Red Wings $15,000 for Johnson. Rochester asked for Red Sox infielder Tom Carey and cash in trade for Johnson. Evans refused. In October the Philadelphia Phillies drafted Johnson for $7,500, half the price Boston had offered.
Starting and working in relief for the offensively challenged Phillies, Johnson lost 14 games (5 wins) in 1940. The Phillies finished in the cellar for the third season in a row. They made it four in a row in 1941. Johnson was 5-12. They struggled to avoid another last-place finish, but weak hitting kept the club locked in the cellar for the fifth consecutive year. Johnson lost 19 games and won 8. He described his irritation in a 1994 interview: “You feel like, if it’d do any good, you’d go out and cry. I know my wife used to go to the ballgames. I’d lose one to nothing or two to one. I’d go take my shower and she’d be sitting in the car – crying. I’d tell her there’s no need to cry about it; that ain’t gonna do me no good. She took it harder than I did.”10
In 1943, with many major-league regulars away in the service, the Phillies played .500 ball through May and June. Johnson was pitching well. He was named the National League’s batting-practice pitcher for the All-Star Game. He called the assignment an insult, and, after conferring with Phillies owner William D. Cox, he rejected it, in a sarcastic telegram to National League President Ford Frick. Cox joined in with some rude comments to Frick. Baseball executives were appalled at Cox and Johnson’s behavior. Johnson short-circuited any discussion about him by joining the Navy in August. (After the season, Cox was banished from baseball for gambling on games.)
Johnson was assigned to the Great Lakes naval base, outside Chicago. There he spent several weeks in the base hospital suffering from an ear infection. In April 1944 he had successful mastoid surgery11
While at Great Lakes Johnson pitched for the base team, the Bluejackets, in 1944. Among his teammates were fellow Phillies pitcher Schoolboy Rowe, Johnny Mize, Billy Herman, and Virgil Trucks. Mickey Cochrane was their manager. Johnson pitched in six games for the Bluejackets and went 5-0 with an 0.73 earned-run average.
Discharged from the Navy in 1946, the 39-year-old Johnson returned to Philadelphia but was released on April 29 after one poor pitching performance. The Boston Braves signed him as a free agent the following day. There he was reunited with his old Rochester boss, Billy Southworth, the new manager of the Boston club. Johnson appeared in 28 games, had a 6-5 pitching record and a 2.76 ERA – the lowest of his major-league career. The team finished in fourth place. Johnson was finally part of a successful ballclub.
In 1947 Johnson was 6-8 as the Braves finished third. After the season he retired as a player. He had worked 17 major-league seasons and pitched 2,281 innings. The pitcher appeared in his final game on September 27. Johnson returned to Boston in 1948 as a pitching coach. Southworth’s Braves won the pennant, due in no small part to their piutching staff, which included stalwarts Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain. The Braves were vanquished by the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.
Johnson coached for two more seasons, retiring after the 1950 campaign. He explained his baseball retirement in a 1978 interview: “I pitched in the big leagues for 17½ years and spent four years as a coach for Boston. Finally, after the 1950 season, my wife told me she was tired of travel. We owned a home for 15 years and we have never lived in it. So I told her I would quit.”12
Johnson went to work for the Illinois Department of Corrections at a jail in Sheridan, maintaining its heating system and boiler room equipment. He worked there for 16 years, a span almost as long as his major-league career, He and Dot purchased a cabin in Danbury, Wisconsin. Si stayed active after his retirement from the prison. He became an active member of the Sheridan Rod & Gun Club and the Sheridan Masonic Lodge, and managed Sheridan’s American Legion baseball team.
After 53 years of marriage, Dot Johnson died on June 7, 1986. Si remained in Sheridan and spent his remaining years telling stories to the town’s baseball fans. Demands for his autograph led to an arrangement with Mary Brace, daughter of the Chicago sports photographer George Brace, to distribute his pictures. Johnson himself spent $1,000 a year purchasing copies of his own photos to distribute to his Sheridan admirers. He handed out signed photos to everyone in town.
The Village of Sheridan board of directors honored Johnson by naming a street after him. Sheridan’s busy Main Street was changed to Si Johnson Avenue on July 6, 1992. The next day the Chicago Cubs invited the 85-year-old pitcher to Wrigley Field to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a game between the Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds. Johnson appeared at numerous baseball card shows in the Chicago suburbs, signing autographs for no charge.
The ex-pitcher enjoyed reliving his career by giving interviews for newspapers, books, and magazines; his schedule was handled by a close friend, Peggy Bermel. In January 1993 Johnson was inducted into Chicago’s Pitch & Hit Professional Baseball Organization hall of fame.
On May 12, 1994, at the age of 87, Silas Kenneth Johnson, the last pitcher to strike out Babe Ruth three times in a game, died at his Sheridan home after a two-year battle with cancer.
Pitoniak, Scott, Baseball in Rochester (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2003)
Nash, Bruce, and Allan Zullo, Baseball Hall of Shame (New York: Pocket Books, 1985)
Blake, Michael, Baseball Chronicles (Detroit: Betterway Books, 1994)
Weeks, Jonathan, Cellar Dwellers (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2012)
Johnson, Harold, Who’s Who in Baseball (Chicago: Buxton Press, 1933)
Gogan, Roger, Bluejackets of Summer (Ypsilanti, Michigan: Great Lake Sports Publishing, 2008)
Kaufman, Alan S., and James C. Kaufman, The Worst Baseball Pitchers of All Time (Secaucus, New Jersey: Carol Publishing, 1995)
The Sporting News
Ottawa (Illinois) Daily Times
Sports Collector Digest
Mandernach, Mark, “The Day the Bambino Bombed,” Sports Illustrated, June 14, 1993
Holtzman, Jerome, “Babe Ruth’s Last Stand a Vivid Memory,” Baseball Digest, August 1992
Bashore, Mel, (vintage photography collector), email correspondence, April 1, 2011
Bermel, Peggy (Si Johnson’s secretary), personal interviews, March 31, 2010, April 26, 2010
Brace, Mary (Brace Photography, Chicago), email correspondence, April 10, 2010
Carmack, Chris (Rock Island Library Resources), email correspondence, March 2, 2011
Hall, Michael, (Newark High School), personal interview, February 16, 2011
Johnson, Dave (Norsk Museum), email correspondence, June 1, 2013
Mattson, Jim (WHOI News Anchor), email correspondence, February 5, 2011
Phillips, Joe (vintage baseball glove appraiser), email correspondence, March 11, 2011
Ring, John, (Galesburg Zephyr newspaper), telephone interview, June 5, 2011
Skipper, John (author), email correspondence, April 2, 2010
Stutzman, Gary (Beacon News/Hillsboro Argus), email correspondence, June 3, 2011
Templeton, Tom (LaSalle County Sheriff’s Department), personal interview, February 16, 2011
Vahl, Sandy (Village of Sheridan Historian), email correspondence, February 11, 2011, January 14, 2013
Baseball Hall of Fame Library & Museum
SABR Encyclopedia (SABR Members)
Berowski, Freddy (National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum records review request)
Clifford, Danielle (research assistance)
Village of Sheridan
Newark High School
Sheridan Historical Society Museum
The Norway Store and the Borchsenius Family
James Podnar (research assistance)
National Sports Collector Convention (2005)
Calico Café, Sheridan
Channel 9 (WGN-TV 720)
Robert E. Rowe Public Library, Sheridan, Illinois
Graves-Hume Public Library, Mendota, Illinois
Somonauk Public Library, Somonauk, Illinois
Photograph courtesy of the Charles Conlon Collection
1 David Craft, “Silas ‘Si’ Johnson: Pitcher, Coach, Fan,” Sports Collectors Digest, January 19, 1990, 210.
2 Mike Cunniff, “Area Native Played Ball With The Babe,” Ottawa Daily Times, June 9, 1992.
3 Paul Green, “Silas Johnson,” Sports Collectors Digest, August 28, 1987, 134.
4 Paul Green, “Silas Johnson,” 135.
5 Keith Ludolph, “Ex-Major Leaguer Remembers Pitching Career,” Ottawa Daily Times, August 18, 1979.
6 Mark Mandernach, “The Day The Bambino Bombed,” Sports Illustrated, June 14, 1993.
7 Keith Ludolph, “Ex-Major Leaguer.”
8 Skip Clayton, “Do You Remember Si Johnson?” The Phillies Report, 1983, 10.
9 “Si Johnson Sittin’ Tight,” Pittsburgh Press, May 28, 1938, 6.
10 Alan S. Kaufman and James C. Kaufman, The Worst Baseball Pitchers of All-Time (Secaucus, New Jersey: Carol Publishing, 1995), 102.
11 “Johnson Improves,” News-Dispatch, April 18, 1944
12 Mike Cunniff, “Area Native.”