This article was written by James A. Riley
This article was published in 1982 Baseball Research Journal
Johnny Davis. His teammates called him Cherokee. The Homestead Grays called him Geronimo. In Puerto Rico they called him El Gaucho. In the Pacific Coast League they called him The Big Chief. But by whatever name he was called, he WAS a ballplayer. There was no doubt about that.
The big, hard-hitting outfielder demonstrated his slugging prowess everywhere he went. From the days when he was a Black-Indian orphan playing with homemade baseballs in the New York
Catholic Protectory to the days when he was an all-star in the Negro Leagues, he always excelled.
During his years in the Negro National League Johnny played against the greatest stars of Black baseball, including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Johnny selects Gibson as the greatest hitter that he ever saw. He remembers, “He could bust that ball. He was great!” It was Gibson who gave Johnny the nickname, “Geronimo.” During the first series that Johnny played against the Grays, Josh was ragging him about having such a big reputation as a slugger with the Mohawk Giants of Schenectady. John had gone hitless in 8 trips to the plate during their first two games at Ebbets Field, but in the third game at Griffith Stadium he hit one out of the park and after rounding the bases, as he jumped on home plate with both feet in triumph, Josh yelled “Geronimo!” And the name stuck.
Johnny remembers that the first time he faced the great Satchel Paige he was unimpressed. Johnny hit a long drive to center field that the center fielder had to go back about 40 feet to catch. When he got back to the bench he asked Biz Mackey “Who’s that guy pitching?” Mackey’s reply was “Satchel Paige.” Johnny was not intimidated. He replied, “Big Deal.” Now he reflects, “But I got impressed later.”
Johnny first joined the Newark Eagles in 1941 and for a decade he was a mainstay on the team, playing with such greats as Ray Dandridge, Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, Leon Day, Dick Lundy, Willie Wells, Dick Seay and Mule Suttles. During his tenure with the Eagles, Johnny was a consistent .300 hitter with power. “He was a good fastball hitter – don’t try to throw the fastball by him,” says former teammate Leon Day, adding “he hit the ball a long way.”
His first big year was 1944 when he hit a robust .345 and was selected to play in the East-West game, where he got two hits while batting behind Hall-of-Famers Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson in the all-star lineup. He followed this performance with another outstanding season, hitting .319 and tying with Buck Leonard for second place behind the slugging Gibson in the Home Run Derby. The best was yet to come, however, as he teamed with Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, and Lenny Pearson to form the “Big Four” that powered the Eagles to the Championship in 1946. The World Series against Satchel Paige’s Kansas City Monarchs was icing on the cake, as he hit .292 and was the hero of the deciding seventh game. His line-drive double scored Doby and Irvin with the runs that sewed up the 3-2 victory for Rufus Lewis and the Eagles. The following year, Johnny continued swinging a big bat, finishing the season only one home run behind league leading Monte Irvin. In 1949, after the franchise had moved to Houston, Johnny made the all-star team for the third time.
Johnny’s most memorable year was 1946. Not only did he help lead the Eagles to a pennant and star in the Black World Series, but after the season ended he played on Satchel Paige’s All-Star Team as they barnstormed across the country playing Bob Feller’s All-Stars. Many teams barnstormed, calling themselves all-stars, but these two were truly all-star teams. Feller’s team had Mickey Vernon, Johnny Berardino, Phil Rizzuto, Ken Keltner, Charlie Keller, Sam Chapman, Jeff Heath, Rollie Hemsley, Jim Hegan, Johnny Sam, Dutch Leonard, Bob Lemon and Spdd Chandler. In addition to Johnny, Satchel’s team had future major leaguers Sam Jethroe, Hank Thompson and Artie Wilson as well as Negro League All-Stars Gene Benson, Buck O’Neil, Othello Renfroe, Frank Duncan and Hilton Smith.
The two teams played virtually even, with Feller’s squad winning a single game more than the Paige aggregation. This series provided Johnny with his biggest thrill in baseball, as he got two hits off of Bob Feller in Yankee Stadium. Another memorable incident occurred in Kansas City during the last game of that series, when, with his team trailing by a run in the last inning, Johnny hit a dramatic home run to win the game. Johnny remembers vividly, “They were leading us in the ninth inning with two outs and a man on, and I hit Spud Chandler’s fast ball over the left-field fence. As I was rounding the bases, I picked Phil Rizzuto up at shortstop and carried him piggy-back from shortstop to third base and we both slid in at homeplate together.”
Baseball presented a means for the ex-merchant marine to continue his free-spirited ways, for when the regular seasons ended John was island-hopping around the Carribean, playing in the Latin American winter circuits. This included jaunts to Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela and Mexico. John says, “To me, the best thing was just going from city to city. I just wanted to see the next town. I like to go from here and see what’s on the other side of the street. That’s what intrigued me, going to different places to play baseball. I guess that’s why I liked it so much.” In the winter leagues he excelled not only as a hitter but as a pitcher as well. In 1946, while pitching and batting clean-up for San Juan in the Puerto Rican League, he compiled a 7-4 record while earning a highly respectable 2.42 ERA. He did this even though weakened with the flu, which caused him to lose over 20 pounds and a month and a half of playing time.
While with Mayaguez, also in the Puerto Rican League, Johnny hurled a no-hitter in 1944; led the league in strikeouts in 1948; and was voted the MVP in 1947-48 when he was described in the newspapers as “the magnificent pitcher.” His ability to excel both as a hitter and a pitcher was, at the same time, an asset and a liability. Monte Irvin, John’s teammate both in the states and in the winter leagues, confirms: “John was a good ballplayer. He could hit the ball. But we felt that if he had concentrated entirely on either pitching or hitting and not had to divide his time, he could have been even better.
Back in the outfield in Venezuela during the winter of 1950-51, he hit a robust .381 in support of future Dodger star Clem Labine’s sterling 13-1 won-lost record and helped lead Caracas to the championship. The following winter, back in Puerto Rico, this time with Santurce, he led the league in home runs and, assisted by such name players as Ruben Gomez, Dan Bankhead, Junior Gilliam, Valmy Thomas and Bob Thurman, he spearheaded the team to their third consecutive championship.
But ballgames were not all that he won in Puerto Rico, for it was here that he first caught the eye of the lovely lady who is now Mrs. Johnny Davis. By coincidence, the same year that he was married was the year that he came closest to getting his chance in the majors after the color ban was broken. Johnny remembers, “I was with the San Diego Padres in the Pacific Coast League in 1952. They wanted me to go to the Chicago White Sox to hit behind Eddie Robinson, but I broke a leg. Before I broke my leg I was hitting about .400 and I was only one home run behind Max West for the league lead. When I came back my average dropped, but the way I started the season, I believe that I could have gone up there (to the majors) and kept on doing what I was doing. I regret not going to the majors . . . just a little. I’d love to go up there in August or September just to see what it was like.”
In 1953 he took his classic swing to the now defunct Florida International League, where he hit .321 and led the league with 35 homers and 136 RBIs while playing for Pepper Martin’s Ft. Lauderdale team.
In 1954, the 36-year-old finished his organized baseball career with the Montgomery Rebels in the Sally League. He was still smashing the ball even then, for in one game he batted twice in the ninth inning, hammering a lead off homer and then later knocking in the winning runs with a two-on double.
After this last hurrah he settled in Ft. Lauderdale where he still lives today with his wife, Ada, their two daughters and their only grandchild. Looking back on his baseball career, Johnny Davis reflects, “I had a ball. I really had a ball. Baseball has been very good to me.”