Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

This article was written by Frederick C. Bush

Tom JohnsonThe early life of pitcher Tom Johnson, one of the star hurlers for the 1920 Chicago American Giants team that won the inaugural Negro National League pennant, is largely shrouded in mystery. What is known is that he had two outstanding seasons for Rube Foster’s squad, including the 1920 campaign, in which he pitched to a perfect 11-0 record for Chicago. In total, he carved out a nine-year career in the Negro Leagues that concluded with a 62-40 record (.608) against Negro major-league-caliber competition. After his playing days ended, Johnson moved from the mound to behind the plate and worked games as an umpire. His life was tragically cut short, however, when he died at the age of 37 from an illness first contracted during his military service in World War I.

Thomas Jefferson Johnson gave his date of birth as April 22, 1889, on his World War I draft registration card. He also listed his place of birth as Bryan (Brazos County), Texas; however, no other information about his birth family or background is available on this document. The 1900 US Census lists only one Black family with a son named Tom Johnson living in Brazos County. The date of birth given for Tom in the census does not match the date he gave on his draft card – this was not an unusual circumstance as misinformation about dates and the spellings of names abounds in census records – but his mother’s background hints that this Tom may indeed have been the American Giants’ pitcher. According to the census, Tom Johnson was the stepson of Jon Hays, a farmer, and the biological son of Sallie Hays; also living in the house were two additional stepchildren, Dora and Elizah Johnson, as well as the couple’s children, Charley and Viola Hays.1

The one clue that this was Tom Johnson the pitcher lies in the fact that his mother’s birth state was listed as Georgia. Tom Johnson was given the nickname College Boy because he attended Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia, prior to becoming a professional ballplayer. If Johnson finished his secondary school education in Texas – which is not a certainty – then there were already numerous Black colleges for him to choose from in his native state, including nearby Prairie View Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University), which is 55 miles from Bryan; Tillotson College and Normal Institute and Samuel Huston College, both located in Austin (and now joined as Huston-Tillotson University); and Wiley College in the East Texas city of Marshall. Since Tom’s mother was from Georgia, she probably still had family in that state, and it is conceivable that the extended family connection – perhaps not only to his mother but also to his biological father – prompted Tom to go to Georgia to continue his education.

Johnson’s first season as a professional ballplayer was spent with the New York Lincoln Giants in 1911. As professional Black teams barnstormed through Atlanta, they no doubt saw Johnson pitch for the Morris Brown team while he attended college.2 The Lincoln Giants sent out the siren call of a baseball career that Johnson followed, first to the Northeast and later to the Midwest. Louis Santop, a fellow 22-year-old from Tyler, Texas, was the starting catcher for the Lincoln Giants, so it is possible that he convinced his fellow Texan that New York City was a good place to play baseball.

Whether or not Santop held any such sway over Johnson, the two formed the battery for the Lincoln Giants in what likely was the first professional shutout, and perhaps even the first professional victory, that Johnson pitched, on July 16, 1911, at Olympic Field in New York City. In a three-team doubleheader, Dick “Cannonball” Redding took the mound for the Lincoln Giants and hurled a 3-0 victory over New London in the first game. Johnson went to the hill in the nightcap against Central Islip and matched Redding by throwing a five-hit, 1-0 shutout.3 The 1911 season was a learning experience for Johnson, who finished 1-2 and had a sparkling 1.52 ERA against the East’s other top independent Negro League clubs.4 Although there was no league at that time, the Lincoln Giants finished with the second-best record among the Eastern squads with their 9-6-1 ledger putting them behind only the Cuban Stars’ 18-11-1 record.

Toward the end of the season, there was an early push by the New York Age for White baseball to integrate. The newspaper pointed out that the Detroit Tigers had played (and lost) a series in Cuba against a team composed of Cubans and four Negro League players the previous winter. It posited that a progression from light-skinned Cubans to dark-skinned Cubans to dark-skinned African American players would be a logical advancement toward full integration. Columnist Lester A. Walton wrote:

“It is strange that the big league managers are opposed to colored men of this country playing in the National and American Leagues. In all other form of sport the Negro is not barred from competing, except, of course, in the South. White and colored runners take part in the same events, the Caucasian and Negro meet in the fistic arena, and white and colored jockeys ride rival horses on the different race courses. Then, if there is no race prejudice on the race track, in the prize ring and on the cinder path, why should there be on the baseball field?”5

It took another 35 years for the integration of White baseball to begin, and Johnson did not live long enough to see that day. However, he became a successful pitcher in the Black major leagues and, as his first professional season came to an end, he tossed a three-hit, 7-0 shutout against the semipro Brightons in early October.6 At midmonth, the players departed Olympic Field, their home ballpark, to pursue winter ball or to rest. According to the press, “The Lincoln Giants made a great record this season. They participated in 105 games and lost 17.”7

Considering the stellar ERA that Johnson posted in 1911, which showed that he had true potential, it is odd that he appears not to have played baseball in 1912. Not only does he not appear on any team’s roster or in any box or line scores, his whereabouts for the year are unknown. John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, a future Hall of Famer who managed the Lincoln Giants in 1911, resigned as both manager and captain of the team after the season ended. In a letter to team owner Rod McMahon, Lloyd wrote that he was resigning because “the players have not shown the right spirit toward me since I was appointed manager, and rather than force a fellow player to do his best I have decided to give up my positions.”8 Johnson never had the reputation of being difficult or a hothead, so it is unlikely that he did not return to the Lincoln Giants because of any difficulties getting along with or playing for Lloyd in 1911.

Whatever pursuits Johnson engaged in during the 1912 season, he reappeared in the East as a member of the Cuban Giants in 1913. As had been the case during his rookie season, Johnson pitched mostly in games against semipro squads rather than against the other Black titans of the East. He was 0-2 in two games against top squads, although his 0.56 ERA shows that he either lacked run support or had numerous errors made behind him.

The fact that runs came at a premium for the Cuban Giants was also in evidence in many of the games that Johnson pitched against semipro teams. On June 22 Johnson went only four innings of a 14-inning victory over the Pullmans in Buffalo, New York. Gunboat Thompson finished the game and earned the victory, but the press noted that the Cuban Giants “showed great improvement yesterday, the addition of Gordon, Williams and Johnson strengthening the team 50 per cent.”9

As the June 22 game apparently was Johnson’s first appearance in 1913, he had to rebuild some stamina. That effort did not take long, as was evidenced by his pitching all 19 innings in a July 18 game against the semipro Spirellas in Meadville, Pennsylvania. According to the news account of the game, “It was getting too dark to play any longer and the game would be called when the 19th inning was ended,” but Meadville’s starting pitcher, who also went the distance and whose name was given only as Connell, banged out the winning hit with two outs in the bottom of the frame.10 Johnson struck out 16 batters while allowing only nine hits and two walks but still suffered a 3-2 setback in what the local newspaper raved was “four hours and 16 minutes of the greatest exhibition of baseball ever seen in Meadville.”11

Johnson fared better on August 3, when he faced the Pullmans again in Buffalo. He made certain that he could not lose by throwing a two-hit shutout as his “breaks were too fast and clever for [the Pullmans’] bats.”12 This time, his teammates also supported him with their own lumber – something they had failed to do during Johnson’s herculean effort against Meadville – and scored nine runs in the victory. The Cuban Giants and their frequently quiet bats did not compete with the East’s top teams often, posting a 2-3 record in such games; in comparison, Johnson’s former team, the Lincoln Giants, posted the top record of 16-6-1.

In 1914 Johnson led a nomadic baseball existence, starting the year in eastern New York, moving south to Kentucky, and finally traveling west to Chicago to join Foster’s American Giants. Johnson began the season in Schenectady, New York, with the independent Mohawk Giants, who were named after the river on which their home city was founded. He lost a tight 4-3 decision to the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, club at that squad’s Wahconah Park on April 25. Conditions were less than ideal and, “[b]ecause of the wintry weather, only 400 of the most faithful fans turned out to witness the contest.”13 On May 2 the tables were turned again – as had happened with the Cuban Giants the previous year – and Johnson received overwhelming run support in a 17-0 trouncing of the New York Colored Giants at Schenectady’s Mohawk Park.14

The weather continued to get warmer, but the same could not be said for the Schenectady club. In mid-July, Johnson lost two hard-fought games to the Indianapolis ABCs at Indy’s Northwestern Park. On July 12 his opponent, “[Dicta] ‘Spit Ball’ Johnson’s pitching was too much for the Mohawk Giants” as the ABCs won 4-0, and two days later he took another loss when he went the distance in a 10-inning, 10-9 slugfest at the same venue.15

Another two days passed before it was announced that Tom Johnson and the entire Mohawk Giants team would not be returning to Schenectady in 1914. The players claimed that “they were not receiving their salaries and could not afford to play ball for the sport.”16 It was also reported that “Rube Foster, who has been identified with colored ball players for years and has managed the Chicago American Giants for several seasons[,] advanced the players funds with which to leave for Indianapolis and it is understood the team will hereafter represent Louisville, Ky., and French Lick Springs, Ind.”17 The Mohawk Giants finished their abbreviated 1914 campaign with a 3-13 record against the East’s other independent Black ballclubs.

Johnson pitched to a 2-0 record in his two appearances for the Louisville White Sox, finishing with a 0.00 ERA in 12 innings. Thereafter, he joined Foster’s Chicago-based squad for the first time and posted a 2-0 record with a 1.00 ERA in 18 innings. Thus, after going 1-5 with Schenectady, Johnson was able to even his season ledger at 5-5 and finished the season with a composite 3.03 ERA.

Just as the New York Age had encouraged the integration of White baseball at the end of the 1911 season, there were now rumblings in the Chicago press about White teams’ refusal to compete against Black squads. Foster’s American Giants had challenged the Federal League’s Chicago Whales and had been rebuffed. In turn, a news article goaded:

“A challenge of the American Giants to meet the ‘Feds’ has been turned down by the ‘Feds,’ drawing the color line, but strange to say the ‘Cubs,’ the New York Giants, Detroit and both the American and National teams of Philadelphia have played the colored teams. What is the difference whether they play the black boys in Cuba or at home? Come, be honest, now; ain’t you afraid of the black men?”18

The taunting did not work – the color line remained drawn in the United States.

While the ChiFeds may have been afraid to play against Black teams, Johnson’s fear might have been that he would have to move from team to team again in 1915. Sure enough, the new year ended up being a tale of two seasons as Johnson pitched for both the Indianapolis ABCs and the Chicago American Giants. How Johnson came to pitch for Indianapolis is uncertain, but the two teams were fierce rivals that often tried to lure away each other’s star players. Foster, who was now 35 years old and had enough to do as owner and manager of the Chicago team, rarely took the mound anymore. However, on June 23 in Indianapolis, he took his former young pitcher to school as the American Giants delivered an 8-1 whipping to the ABCs. The Chicago Defender observed, “It looked as though it might be a real ball game, but, oh, my! in that [eighth] inning Thomas Johnson took the aeroplane, and when he finally got down the Giants had five runs added to their already total of three. They slammed him all over the lot and made him force in two runs by issuing passes with the bases loaded.”19

In eight appearances (all starts), Johnson pitched to a 3-5 record with a higher-than-usual 4.41 ERA in 63⅓ innings for an ABCs team that finished with the best record in the West at 37-25-1. By late July, he was back with the American Giants in Chicago for a series against the powerful New York Lincoln Stars. The first game, on July 31, was a disaster as he surrendered five runs in the first inning of an eventual 11-3 loss in which he was pulled from the game early; however, he rebounded with a tough-as-nails complete-game 2-1 victory just two days later that marked his best performance that year.20 Johnson finished the season for Chicago with a 4-4 record with a 2.60 ERA in 62⅓ innings as the American Giants put up a 29-25-3 record against the West’s top clubs.

At the conclusion of the 1915 regular season, Johnson took a working vacation in Palm Beach, Florida, where he pitched for the Royal Poinciana Hotel team in its annual winter series against the Breakers Hotel. Johnson’s manager there was C.I. Taylor, co-owner and manager of the ABCs, for whom he had toiled in the first half of the year. Although Johnson was 1-0 with a 0.73 ERA in his two appearances (one start), the Breakers Hotel won the series by a count of nine games to six.

In 1916 Johnson notched an early-season victory against the Pacific Coast League’s Portland Beavers, a Triple-A-caliber team, in Sacramento, California. The four-game series marked the fourth consecutive year that the two squads had faced one another during Portland’s spring training. On April 6, in the first game of the series, Johnson went the distance in an 11-6 victory with only three of the runs he surrendered being earned. The game was not as close an affair as the final score seemed to indicate. Portland scored three runs in the eighth and added another tally in the ninth, and those late “runs that cantered across the plate gave the Beavers a more graceful exit from the awful carnage” that the Chicago squad had inflicted upon them for most of the afternoon.21 The American Giants also won the second game, but Portland then salvaged a split of the series.

Once the regular season began, the American Giants ruled over their fellow independent squads in the West with a 40-26-3 record, while Johnson put up a 14-4 record of his own. Although the 14 wins marked Johnson’s top single-season total against major-league-caliber competition, his 3.40 ERA was a bit higher than usual, and he sometimes had difficulty finishing games. On July 10, in a game against the St. Louis Giants at Chicago’s Schorling Park, “Johnson was not only wild in his shots to the plate but made a wide heave to first that earned his retirement with five runs charge to his discredit” in a 6-2 loss.22

But as Johnson’s record indicates, his mound appearances resulted in far more wins than losses, and on September 2 he made history of a positive kind. Johnson and Dick Whitworth hurled a combined no-hitter – albeit in a shortened game – as Chicago defeated the Cuban Stars West team, 6-0. Johnson exited the game in the fifth and Whitworth finished the next two frames before the game had to be “called in the seventh on account of darkness.”23 Stellar defense helped to keep the Cubans out of the hit column; the Chicago Defender noted, “All the credit of the victory doesn’t belong to Tom nor to Whitworth. Much credit belongs to [the outfield of] Duncan, Hill, and Gans. Duncan pulled down a drive just it was about to hit the fence.”24

Little more than a week later, on September 10, Johnson capped off the season by leading the American Giants to Chicago’s city championship in a 6-2 triumph over the Gunthers at Schorling Park. In addition to pitching a complete game in which he struck out six batters, he had three hits of his own and scored one run in his dazzling performance.25

During the winter of 1916-17, Johnson again pitched for the Royal Poinciana Hotel team in the Palm Beach Championship Series. Poinciana’s roster was composed of the Chicago American Giants and was managed by Rube Foster while the Breakers Hotel squad was filled with members of the New York Lincoln Giants and was managed by Cyclone Joe Williams (who later became better-known by the nickname Smokey Joe). The press raved that “[t]he series was the best ever played here and both teams seemed to be pretty evenly matched, with the American Giants a little on the long end with baseball knowledge under the hat.”26 Juan Padron hurled a 2-0 shutout in the final game to give the Poinciana/American Giants team a 7-6-2 edge and the championship. Johnson contributed a 1-1 record and a 3.20 ERA in 19⅔ innings over five appearances (three starts).

By 1917 Johnson was firmly ensconced as a member of Chicago’s pitching staff. Foster’s aggregation barnstormed through Johnson’s old college stamping grounds in March as they prepared for the coming season. Johnson did not get to pitch against his alma mater – Dick Redding defeated Morris Brown College by an 11-2 score – instead spinning a nifty 12-1 victory over Atlanta University on March 20 in which he “held the rah-rah boys to seven scattered hits.”27

The American Giants were so powerful in 1917, finishing with a 49-14-2 record, that no other Black independent team in the West managed better than a .500 mark. Johnson was 7-3 and had a sparkling 2.57 ERA against the top teams that year. He pitched one of his finest games on June 30 as the American Giants took on the Cuban Stars West in Hammond, Indiana, and Johnson dueled against Eustaquio Pedroso in a tight 1-0 triumph. Chicago first baseman Leroy Grant galloped home to score the game’s only run in the bottom of the eighth inning, after which Johnson finished a four-hit shutout by pitching a scoreless ninth.28 Johnson remained as hot as the weather throughout the summer and pitched another superlative shutout – this time a 2-0 two-hitter – against the Jewell’s ABCs on July 22 in Chicago.29

One week later, the American Giants and their Texas-born owner, Rube Foster, hosted Texas Day at Schorling Park. According to the Defender, “Not only will everyone here from the Lone Star state turn out but many of their friends who hail from the sunny southland. The Texas All Stars will be the attraction. With them are some of the fastest and best ball players of the country.”30 The American Giants celebrated the day with a 7-5 victory, and fellow Texan Tom Johnson got the start in Monday’s 7-6 triumph over the All Stars, although Tom Williams earned the win in relief.31

After the 1917 season, Johnson did not head back to Florida. Instead, he married Marie Button on Christmas Day in Chicago. The couple’s marriage reveals once more the glaring gaps in information about Johnson’s early life. On the World War I draft registration card he filled out on June 15, 1917, Johnson had stated that he already had a wife and child. Indeed, the 1930 Census indicates that Marie was 15 years old at the time of her first marriage. That marriage must have been to Tom Johnson, though no record of it has turned up, as the 1920 Census listed both Tom and Marie at 30 years of age and recorded the names and ages of their three children – Malcolm (14), Edward (12), and Mildred (9) – indicating that they had started a family at a young age as well. It was also noted that all three children had been born in Illinois, which brings into question exactly when Johnson had left his birth state of Texas and moved to Illinois, as well as again raising the query as to why he chose to go to college in Georgia. In any case, whether the Johnsons’ first marriage was considered invalid because they had both been 15 years old at the time or there was another reason, Cook County (Illinois) marriage records show that they officially tied the knot on December 25, 1917.

Not long after celebrating his nuptials, Johnson was drafted into the US Army. Because he was college-educated, he was commissioned a lieutenant in the 183rd Infantry Brigade at Camp Grant in Rockford, Illinois. Early in the year, Johnson played for the camp’s baseball team. In fact, on May 12, 1918, the Camp Grant team arrived at Schorling Park for a game against the American Giants that, thanks to Foster’s generosity, was to benefit the Army Eighth Regiment’s depleted athletic fund. Baseball was a morale-booster for the troops, but, as the Defender reported, “The Clark Griffith bat and ball fund does not reach our boys. Blame this on the kaiser [sic]. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of these goods are now at the bottom of the Atlantic. This was on its way over there for the boys in the trenches and others doing their bit. It must be made up.”32

Almost immediately thereafter, Johnson became one of “the boys in the trenches”; he was sent to France, where he served in the 365th Infantry.33 Although the US military was still segregated at the time, Black units fought alongside White units in numerous battles during World War I. In two separate actions from October 8-November 8 and November 9-11, the 365th had 30 men killed in action, 13 mortally wounded, and another 583 wounded in battle.34 Johnson survived the horrors of combat and was honorably discharged from the Army on March 29, 1919, at Camp Dix, New Jersey. Although he had not been wounded and had managed to avoid the lethal influenza outbreak that was raging worldwide in 1918-19, he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis, which became a chronic condition that led to his early death.

The 1919 season saw the American Giants and their rivals play fewer games than usual as certain wartime restrictions were still in place and soldiers, like Johnson, were still returning to their teams and civilian life. In Chicago’s final season as an independent team, Foster, who had long intended to establish an organized league, “decided to back a new team to be located in Detroit. Wartime labor brought thousands of blacks to Detroit, and Rube figured it was fertile ground to plant another team.”35 The American Giants and Detroit Stars became instant rivals and finished with nearly identical records: Detroit at 27-14 and Chicago at 27-16.

Although Foster did not like it when players jumped from his American Giants to another team, he still took care to support the competition in the hope of maintaining a sufficient number of teams to form a league and, later, to sustain it. Thus, he was not averse to lending a player (or players) to other teams from time to time so that they could continue to compete. In 1919 Johnson returned to the American Giants, for whom he was 4-4 with a 3.74 ERA, but he also was loaned to Detroit for one game in which he pitched seven innings, allowed three unearned runs, and was the winning pitcher of record.

The highlight of Johnson’s 1919 campaign came against Detroit on June 17 at Schorling Park. On this date, Johnson was involved in his second no-hitter, and this time he finished the game himself. It was far from a perfect game as six walks and an error by shortstop Bobby Williams combined to give Detroit three runs in the game, two of which were scored in the first inning. Had it not been for a seven-run outburst by Chicago in the seventh inning, Johnson might actually have lost his no-hitter, but he emerged with a 7-3 victory.36 The game served as notice that Johnson was picking up where he had left off prior to being drafted into the Army.

The most stunning event that took place in 1919 was a late-July/early-August riot that caused the team’s home field, Schorling Park, to be temporarily occupied by National Guard troops. The events began on July 27:

“Eugene Williams, a black youth, was swimming near a ‘white beach’ and was attacked by a stone-throwing white male. The youth drowned, and when the police arrived, they did not take action against the perpetrator. A riot broke out that would last five days and claim the lives of 23 blacks and 15 whites. The South Side of Chicago became a war zone; children were among the dead, homes were burned, shops looted, there were volleys of gunfire and territorial wars fought over certain neighborhoods.”37

Although the city of Chicago was scarred by the events, “[t]he riot hardly fazed Rube [Foster], who in the days immediately following remained busy laying the groundwork for an organized league.”38

On February 13, 1920, Foster and the owners of the other major Western clubs formed the first Negro National League at the Paseo branch of the YMCA in Kansas City, Missouri. The American Giants went on to claim the first three NNL pennants, and Johnson was a major factor in the team’s success in the league’s inaugural season. The American Giants finished the season with a 43-17-2 record and Johnson was a perfect 11-0 with a 1.84 ERA for Chicago in NNL games. Amazingly, Johnson was only third in ERA on Chicago’s pitching staff, finishing just behind Dave Brown’s 1.82 and Tom Williams’s 1.83. Johnson again was loaned to Detroit at times and pitched to a 2-2 record in four games (all starts) – with a much higher 4.21 ERA – for the Stars that kept him from being undefeated in league play.

Although he suffered two losses with Detroit, Johnson could do no wrong for most of the season. He won shutouts such as the 5-0 whitewashing he gave the Kansas City Monarchs on May 24.39 He triumphed in low-scoring games like the pitchers’ duels against Jose Leblanc and the Cuban Stars West on May 31 and the 10-inning complete game versus the Bacharach Giants on August 9 that ended with identical 3-2 scores.40 And he was victorious in several routs, including Detroit’s 11-3 victory over the St. Louis Giants on September 18 and Chicago’s 13-1 thrashing of the Bacharachs on October 7, the latter being a game in which he allowed only one hit.41 The 1920 season was a triumphal march through the NNL for Lieutenant Tom Johnson and the Chicago American Giants.

As the 1921 season began, Johnson had no idea that it would be his last in a baseball uniform. He was now 32 years old, but that hardly marked him as over the hill, and he was coming off a phenomenally successful 1920 campaign. The American Giants picked up where they had left off and captured their second consecutive NNL pennant with a 44-22-2 record, but Johnson was inconsistent and pitched to only a 7-8 ledger with an inflated 5.10 ERA in 121⅔ innings.

Although he was inconsistent that year, one highlight transpired on May 30 – Memorial Day – when “Lieut. Tom Johnson, overseas veteran, missed the chance to parade with his old outfit, the remnants of the 365th Infantry, 92d Division, and twirled for Foster.”42 Johnson no doubt made his fellow veterans proud as he hurled the American Giants to a 10-4 victory over the Cuban Stars at Schorling Park.

One month later, on June 28, Johnson was the starter in a most unusual game against the Indianapolis ABCs at Indy’s Washington Park. Although Johnson was no longer on the mound in the latter stages of the game, over the course of the eighth and ninth innings, “[t]he American Giants staged a sixteen run rally off eleven bunts, six successive squeeze plays, and Dixon and Tonchetti’s [sic] home runs with [the] bases full, and held A.B.C. to an 18 to 18 tie.”43

Johnson’s finest moment in the 1921 season took place on July 6, when he threw the final shutout of his career, a four-hit, 1-0 victory over the NNL rival Kansas City Monarchs in Chicago.44 His pitching went steadily downhill from that point forward. In his last mound appearance, on October 15 against the Hilldale Club in Darby, Pennsylvania, Johnson and Tom Williams had their offerings knocked “all over the lot” in a 15-5 loss.45

Johnson departed for spring training with the American Giants in March 1922.46 However, before the start of the regular season, the Defender reported on April 15 that “Jack Marshall, Tom Williams, and Tom Johnson are not with the club. The absence of these seasoned veterans of the mound has weakened the Giants to some extent.”47 Marshall and Williams had moved to other teams, but Johnson spent the majority of the 1922 season in the hospital as his pulmonary tuberculosis had become an active ailment again.48 Although he recovered from this bout with the illness, he lacked the stamina needed to continue pitching. Since Johnson wanted to stay around the game he loved, he became an umpire for NNL games.49

However, Johnson was unable to conquer his illness permanently. On September 2, 1925, he was admitted to a home for disabled veterans in Milwaukee, but he was discharged again on October 15. Johnson lingered for another year as a homebound convalescent until he died on September 22, 1926, leaving behind his wife and three children. He was buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois, on September 25. Foster and his American Giants baseball team sent a “floral piece in the shape of a baseball diamond” to honor their deceased teammate.50


All player statistics and team records were taken from, except where otherwise indicated. was consulted for US Census information; military records; and birth, marriage, and death records.


1 The Census indicated that Sallie Hays had given birth to nine children, eight of whom were still living in 1900. Since there were only two Hays children at that time (and three Johnson children living with their mother and stepfather), it is quite likely that the other three siblings were also Johnson children who were either already adults or were being raised by relatives.

2 A 1916 article in the Chicago Defender referred to Johnson as “the ex-college star,” confirming that he had been discovered while pitching at Morris Brown College; see Mister Fan, “American Giants Beat City Champions,” Chicago Defender, September 16, 1916: 7.

3 “Lincoln Giants Score Two Shut-outs,” New York Age, July 20, 1911: 6.

4 Johnson participated in additional games, such as the victory over Central Islip, but records for games against semipro and college squads are not counted as part of official Negro League statistics at the present time (2021).

5 Lester A. Walton, “In the World of Sport,” New York Age, September 28, 1911: 6.

6 “Minor Baseball,” Brooklyn Times Union, October 2, 1911: 4.

7 Lester A. Walton, “In the World of Sport,” New York Age, October 19, 1911: 6.

8 Lester A. Walton, “In the World of Sport,” New York Age, November 9, 1911: 6.

9 “Cuban Giants Win Out in Fourteenth,” Buffalo Times, June 23, 1913: 12.

10 “Meadville’s Base Ball History Knows Only One Game Like That Great Nineteen-Inning Victory,” Meadville (Pennsylvania) Evening Republican, July 19, 1913: 5.

11 “Meadville’s Base Ball History.”

12 “Pullmans Cleaned to Queen’s Taste,” Meadville Evening Republican, August 4, 1913: 5.

13 “Pittsfield Club Again Trims Mohawk Giants,” North Adams (Massachusetts) Transcript, April 27, 1914: 8.

14 “Mohawk Giants Win at Schenectady,” New York Age, May 7, 1914: 6.

15 “A.B.C.’s in Victory,” Indianapolis Star, July 13, 1914: 8; “Another for A.B.C.’s,” Indianapolis Star, July 15, 1914: 4.

16 “Baseball Notes,” Berkshire Evening Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts), July 16, 1914: 16.

17 “Baseball Notes.”

18 “Englewood Happenings,” Suburbanite Economist (Chicago), September 25, 1914: 1.

19 “Circus Game to Giants 8 to 1,” Chicago Defender, June 26, 1915: 7.

20 “American Giants Leading in Lincoln American Series,” Chicago Defender, August 7, 1915: 7.

21 “Giants Beat Portland,” Chicago Defender, April 8, 1916: 7.

22 “Johnson’s Miscues Cost Foster Game,” Chicago Defender, July 15, 1916: 5.

23 “No-Hit, No-Run Game to American Giants,” Chicago Defender, September 9, 1916: 7.

24 “No-Hit, No-Run Game to American Giants.”

25 Mister Fan, “American Giants Beat City Champions,” Chicago Defender, September 16, 1916: 7.

26 “American Giants Win Palm Beach Championship,” Chicago Defender, March 31, 1917: 7.

27 “American Giants, 11; Morris Brown, 2,” Chicago Defender, March 31, 1917: 7; “American Giants, 12; Atlanta U., 1,” Chicago Defender, March 31, 1917: 7.

28 “American Giants Beat Cubans in 1-0 Battle,” Chicago Defender, July 7, 1917: 9.

29 “American Giants Still on Rampage/Jewel’s A.B.C.’s Fall before Onslaught,” Chicago Defender, July 28, 1917: 10.

30 “Texas Day Will Be Observed at the American Giants Park Sunday,” Chicago Defender, July 28, 1917: 10.

31 “Texas Stars Lose Two Close Games,” Chicago Defender, August 4, 1917: 10.

32 “183d Brigade, Led by Lieut. Tom Johnson, Invades Chicago Sunday, Chicago Defender, May 11, 1918: 9.

33 Brett Kiser, Baseball’s War Roster: A Biographical Dictionary of Major and Negro League Players Who Served, 1861 to the Present (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012), 31-32.

34 “92D Division: Summary of Operations in the World War,”, accessed March 16, 2021.

35 Paul Debono, The Chicago American Giants (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2007), 69.

36 “Foster’s Giants Cop Again, 7 to 3,” Chicago Tribune, June 18, 1919: 18.

37 Debono, 71-72. See also: Gary Ashwill, “White Racial Violence & the Negro Leagues: The Chicago Riot of 1919,” June 14, 2020,

38 Debono, 73.

39 “Monarchs Lose Second,” Chicago Defender, May 29, 1920: 9.

40 “Amer. Giants, 3; Cubans, 2,” Chicago Tribune, June 1, 1920: 24; “Bacharachs Lose in Tenth,” Chicago Defender, August 14, 1920: 6.

41 “Detroit Stars Defeat St. Louis Giants, 11-3,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 19, 1920: 60; “American Giants Cop, 13-1,” Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1920: 21.

42 “American Giants Beat Cuban Stars in Holiday Fray/Tom Johnson, Overseas Veteran, Celebrates Memorial Day Beating Islanders,” Chicago Defender, June 4, 1921: 10.

43 “American Giants in Tie,” Chicago Tribune, June 29, 1921: 19. The Tribune butchered the spelling of Cristobal Torriente’s last name as “Tonchetti.”

44 “American Giants Take 1-0 Battle,” Chicago Tribune, July 7, 1921: 12.

45 “Hilldale, 15; Am. Giants, 5,” Chicago Defender, October 22, 1921: 10.

46 “National League News: American Giants Leave for South Monday,” Chicago Defender, March 11, 1922: 10; “Foster’s Crew Are on Their Training Trip,” Chicago Defender, March 18, 1922: 10.

47 Mister Fan, “Rogers Park Opens Season Against Rube,” Chicago Defender, April 15, 1922: 10.

48 James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994), 443.

49 Riley, 443; “Tom Johnson, Vet Pitcher, Passes Away,” Chicago Defender, October 2, 1926: 10.

50 “Tom Johnson, Vet Pitcher, Passes Away.

Full Name

Thomas Jefferson Johnson


April 22, 1889 at Bryan, TX (USA)


September 22, 1926 at Chicago, IL (USA)

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