Silas K. Johnson: An Illinois Farm Boy Who Made Baseball History
This article was written by Matthew Clifford
This article was published in The National Pastime: Baseball in Chicago (2015)
Silas Kenneth Johnson was born in Danway, Illinois on Friday, October 5, 1906. He shared his strong Norwegian heritage with older brother Alvin. Their parents, Nels and Tillie Johnson, added two more male siblings—Jesse and Tilman—to the family roster soon after Si was born.
The clan soon migrated to the small town of Marseilles, Illinois, where each family member contributed to a 460-acre farm. When chores were completed at the end of the day, young Silas and his father played countless hours of catch between the family barn and windmill. Before he became a farmer, Nels had been a semi-pro catcher for the Danway Indians.
The baseball “bug” passed from father to son. Old man Johnson soon became Silas’ most reliable (and important) backstop. Si recalled his patriarch’s efforts in a 1990 interview: “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.”[fn]David Craft, “Silas ‘Si’ Johnson: Pitcher, Coach, Fan,” Sports Collectors Digest, January 19, 1990, p. 210.[/fn]
Nels would become even more important to the family in 1920, when Tillie passed away just weeks before Silas graduated from elementary school. The young man went on to attend Newark High School in Newark, Illinois.
In 1922, Silas gained a stepmother, four stepbrothers, and a stepsister after his father married Pearl Sampson, a World War I widow. Silas graduated high school and continued to work on the Johnson farm. When he wasn’t working or pitching, Si courted Doris Birlee “Dot” Thompson, a farmer’s daughter who lived two miles from the Johnson acres.
Si joined a baseball club in Marseilles that was part of a semi-pro league including teams from Danway, Stavanger, Norway, and other local towns. As a pitcher for Marseilles, Silas was 22–3 in 1927. The following year, Johnson saw an advertisement for a baseball tryout camp for the Rock Island, IL Islanders, a team in the Class D Mississippi Valley League (MSVL). “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.”[fn]Mike Cunniff, “Area Native Played Ball with The Babe,” The Daily Times, June 9, 1992.[/fn] Si left home to pursue a career in organized baseball.
The Rock Island Argus announced on March 7, 1928, that Johnson would join the Islander roster. “The Rock Island baseball club took on its tenth pitcher today. The newcomer is Silas Johnson of Marseilles, Ill., a right-handed rookie who will try to make good on his strikeout record with the Marseilles semi-pro team.”[fn]“Rookie With Good Record Is Signed For Tryout With Rock Island Club,” The Rock Island Argus, March 7, 1928, p. 7.[/fn] The team was skippered by Lester “Pat” Patterson, who noticed Johnson’s skills during spring training. Silas was sent to the mound more frequently than any other Rock Island pitcher. He earned himself 19 wins and 10 losses as an Islander and the team finished third in the MSVL.
Cincinnati Reds scout Bill “Pa” Rourke snatched Si, and his hot right arm, for $1,500 in late August. On September 11, 1928, Silas K. Johnson made his major league debut decked in Cincinnati Reds flannel. (On this same date, baseball legend Ty Cobb played his final game as a major leaguer.) With only a handful of games left on the schedule, rookie Johnson appeared in two contests before the season closed.
Following spring training in 1929, the Reds sent Johnson back to Ohio to join the Columbus Senators of the American Association. Si became a reliable hurler for the 1929 Senators. Team manager Nemo Liebold used Johnson as one of his key pitchers, and Si earned a 16–13 record. Cincinnati came a-calling for Johnson in late August 1929 and the pitcher was happy to regain major league status.
The club went through major changes between the 1929 and 1930 seasons. Wealthy Cincinnati businessman Sidney Weil purchased the team from a syndicate headed by Louis Widrig and Campbell Johnson “C.J.” McDiarmid. Weil’s first executive decision was to remove Jack Hendricks as manager and replace him with Dan Howley.
While Johnson was enjoying his winter break in 1930, his step-brother, Glenn Sampson, pitched Si a business proposition. The half-siblings agreed to lease the Norway Store in nearby Norway. The popular storefront sold Scandinavian groceries and goods to local residents and visiting tourists. Sampson agreed to manage store operations during the spring and summer, while Si would take watch during the fall and winter. The pair ran the Norway Store until 1945.
In spring 1931, Johnson returned to the Reds and became the team’s most frequent hurler, handling 262 innings. Unfortunately, the last-place Cincinnati club did not hit much, and Johnson finished with an 11–19 record.
Johnson did spill some ink into the history books before the season ended. On August 29, the Reds visited the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field and Si had significant interactions with two players on the opposing roster.
In the bottom of the third, Si served up the last home run of Hack Wilson’s Cubs career. The Windy City crowd’s cheers faded, however, when Johnson tossed a high fastball to the Cubs’ rookie second baseman, Billy Herman. “Johnson threw and Billy took a tremendous swing. The ball hit the ground in back of the plate and, with wicked reverse English, bounced straight back, smacking Billy right on the head. Billy Herman was carried off the field on a stretcher—knocked out by his own foul ball!”[fn]Bruce Nash and Allen Zullo, Baseball Hall of Shame (New York: Pocket Books, 1985), p. 15.[/fn]
Silas returned to Illinois in October and proposed marriage to his 17-year-old sweetheart, Dot Thompson, with a one-year engagement. The pitcher spent his winter vacation watching the Norway Store and working on his father’s farm in Danway.
In 1932, the popular Johnson pitched in more games than anyone else on the Cincinnati roster. But Johnson’s impressive twirls were futile since the Reds, once again, did not hit. The team remained deep in the cellar.
After the last game of the season, Johnson hopped a train in Chicago and returned to Sheridan to collect his new bride. On October 5, his 26th birthday, he married Dot and the newlyweds travelled to Picnic Point, Wisconsin to celebrate their honeymoon.
Si went back to work for the Reds in 1933, but once again the team had difficulty putting runs on the board and hurlers such as Johnson, Paul Derringer, and Red Lucas suffered poor won-lost records. Si earned a 7–18 mark before being called home for a family emergency. His younger brother, Jesse, was ill with scarlet fever. Pneumonia developed in late August and Jesse was quarantined days before his death on September 6. Silas was devastated.
Back in Ohio, the Cincinnati Reds sank again into last place. The club was in danger, suffering from low attendance and a reputation as a “jinxed” franchise. Weil forfeited ownership to Cincinnati’s Central Trust Bank in December.
The bank execs hired Larry MacPhail, heretofore president of the Cardinals’ Double-A Columbus franchise, to control Cincinnati’s major league assets. Less than three months after his appointment, MacPhail persuaded millionaire Powel Crosley Jr., who had made his money in the new field of radio, to purchase stock in the Reds. Crosley became the club’s dominant stockholder and president.
The team renamed its stadium, Redland Field, to Crosley Field. With new money, the club added new players and hired onetime St. Louis Cardinals catcher Bob O’Farrell as team manager and Burt Shotton as his coach. The Reds continued to shop in Missouri, acquiring two new hurlers from the St. Louis flock: Sylvester “Syl” Johnson and Charles “Dazzy” Vance.
The Reds were credited with a historical highlight on June 8, 1934, when they became the first team to travel by airplane. The Reds took to the skies in Ohio and landed in Illinois to play the Cubs at Wrigley Field. “We left Cincinnati and we had to stop in Indianapolis and gas up to get to Chicago,” explained Johnson in a 1979 interview. “Ernie Lombardi and Jim Bottomley were afraid to fly and wouldn’t get on.”[fn]Keith Ludolph, “Ex-Major Leaguer Remembers Pitching Career,” The Daily Times, August 18, 1979.[/fn]
When the ’34 season ended, the Reds, despite new personnel, had once again crash-landed in last place with 52 wins and a whopping 99 losses. It was a tough year for Johnson; his 7–22 mark made him the losingest pitcher in the National League.
The following February, the New York Yankees shed legendary George “Babe” Ruth, who signed on with the NL’s Boston Braves of the National League. Every NL pitcher, including Si Johnson, looked forward to their chance to face the Great Bambino.
Powel Crosley made alterations to the Reds’ stadium during May 1935, adding electrical lighting above the grandstands. Crosley Field became the first major league stadium that could accommodate both day and night games. On May 24, the Reds hosted the majors’ first night game. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt turned on the lights at the Cincinnati stadium from a switch installed at the White House in Washington, D.C.
The following day, Babe Ruth smashed the 714th and last home run of his career for the Braves at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Twenty-four hours later, May 26, the Braves came to Crosley Field to celebrate “Babe Ruth Day.” Silas Johnson was ordered to handle the full nine by his newly appointed manager, Charlie Dressen.
Ruth stepped to the plate four times during the contest and Johnson fanned the Sultan of Swat in three of them. Ruth popped up in his fourth attempt. The Babe announced his retirement from professional baseball on June 2.
Johnson recalled his last moments with Ruth in a 1993 interview with Sports Illustrated: “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.”[fn]Mark Mandernach, “The Day the Bambino Bombed,” Sports Illustrated, June 14, 1993.[/fn]
Silas appeared in 30 games in 1935 with a 5–11 record. The Reds improved to sixth place that year. Johnson, however, experienced a setback the next May when Reds management demoted him to the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs. An article on May 16 explained: “Pitchers Si Johnson and Emmett Nelson of the Cincinnati Reds packed up today and headed toward Toronto. Announcement of their release, subject to recall, was made last night by General Manager Larry S. MacPhail of the Reds.”[fn]“Johnson and Nelson Join Toronto Team,” The Portsmouth Times, May 16, 1936.[/fn]
Three months after assigning him to Canada, the big leagues called back. The St. Louis Cardinals had swooped in and took Johnson from Cincinnati’s grip. Si became a part of the St. Louis’ infamous “Gashouse Gang.” The team garnered the nickname in 1934 for their shabby, unwashed uniforms that reeked of odors from the St. Louis factories that burned coal into the gas supply used for lighting and cooking. In the late weeks of September 1937, Si got a dose of bad luck during batting practice at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Cubs’ first baseman Phil Cavarretta fouled a ball backward. Si, standing near the dugout, was hit square on the head and knocked unconscious. Taken to a local hospital, Johnson was diagnosed with a concussion and returned to the mound days later. Overall, Silas had a good year with the Cardinals and posted a 12–12 mark.
Late in April 1938, Johnson and fellow Cards pitcher Roy “Pee-wee” Henshaw were sent down to St. Louis’ farm team, the Rochester Red Wings. Both appealed to Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis claiming the demotions were unfair. Amazingly enough, the Judge insisted that Johnson and Henshaw should be given another chance with the Cardinals before being shunned to the minors, noting that the two hadn’t been given enough of a chance to show whether they could play in the majors.
Si and Roy not only returned to the club but also asked for salary increases, requests that did not sit well with St. Louis’ GM, Branch Rickey.
The shrewd boss brought Henshaw back to the Cardinals, but adamantly refused to let Johnson return to the team. Landis responded by reminding Rickey that he was still required to fulfill Johnson’s yearly salary of $7,500. Si, then, would receive $6,000 from the Cards’ Rochester team for his services, leaving the responsibility of the remaining $1,500 to the Cardinals.
Johnson refused to report to Rochester and returned to his home in Sheridan to wait for a Rickey’s decision. The May newspapers explained the pitcher’s quandary. “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.”[fn]“Si Johnson Sittin’ Tight,” The Pittsburgh Press, May 28, 1938, p. 6.[/fn] When all was said and done, Branch declined to bring Johnson back to St. Louis and chose to pay the additional $1,500. Silas earned a major league paycheck to play in the minors.
Johnson reported to Rochester, New York and met his new skipper, Ray Blades, before the first week of June. The pitcher collected 14 wins and 11 losses for the Red Wings. Henshaw’s moments with the Cardinals ended immediately after the ’38 season closed; press and fans were not surprised when Roy received a one-way ticket to Rochester. Both he and Johnson again toiled for the Red Wings in 1939.
Team president Oliver French replaced manager Blades with Cardinals legend Billy Southworth, who gave Johnson a heavy load of assignments as the International League season progressed. His skills caught the attention of Boston Red Sox scout Billy Evans in September. The former umpire offered the Red Wings a check for $15,000 in exchange for Si. Rochester returned a counter-offer, asking for Red Sox outfielder Tom Carey and cash. Evans refused. Rochester released Silas to the draft in October. The Philadelphia Phillies purchased him for $7,500—half the price Boston had offered the Red Wings two months earlier.
The Phillies had come up last in the National League in both 1938 and 1939 and it didn’t take Si long to realize the weakness of the Phillies’ hitters. Working as a relief pitcher for a team that couldn’t score runs burned Johnson’s pitching record to a 5–14 result. The dilemma was all too familiar to Johnson. The Phillies finished last again in 1940.
Johnson returned home in the fall and attended his stepmother’s funeral in Danway. History repeated in 1941 as the Phils drowned in the cellar for the fourth year in a row. In December, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. joined World War II. President Roosevelt stated that baseball should continue in order to keep U.S. spirits high during wartime.
In 1942, several major league players enlisted with the military. Stars like Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, and Ted Williams eventually traded baseball fields for battlefields.
The Phils fought a personal war with themselves in 1942 as each player struggled to avoid another last-place finish, but weak hitting doomed the team to the cellar for the fifth consecutive year. Si was understandably frustrated, earning a disheartening 8–19 record.
In January 1943, Si worked as a deputy sheriff for the LaSalle County Sheriff’s Department in Ottawa, Illinois. He served the office during the fall and winter months. Since his departure from St. Louis, Silas had kept in touch with his close friends and former Gashouse associates Dizzy Dean and Johnny Mize. Dizzy would visit Si during the winter at the Norway Store to play a few rounds of checkers and sign autographs for local fans. Mize would travel to Si’s farm in Sheridan to hunt and fish.
During one of his visits with Johnson, Mize told his comrade that he planned to enlist with the United States Navy. Johnny collected his sailor’s neckerchief in March 1943. Silas stayed on shore and reported to Hershey, Pennsylvania High School for Phillies’ spring training. There he met the Phillies’ new owner, William Cox. In late February, Cox hired former AL manager Stanley “Bucky” Harris to pilot his Phillies. William befriended Phillies’ veterans, including Johnson. The team also welcomed Lynwood “Schoolboy” Rowe.
Through June 1943, the Phillies had improved to a .500 club. Problems between Cox and National League president Ford Frick, however, made headlines. On June 5, the Phillies visited the Cardinals at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. A heavy rainstorm developed and the game was called in the eighth inning with the Cards leading 1–0.
Cox insisted that St. Louis should have been forced to forfeit the contest to the Phillies, since the Missouri franchise had made no effort to cover the infield from the rainstorm. Frick initially sided with St. Louis, and Cox retaliated with aggressive statements against the NL boss. Cox took his complaint to Judge Landis, who ordered the game replayed from the point of the delay—and the Phillies won. Fanatics admired Cox’s defense, while other club owners frowned at his personal attacks.
In late June, Si Johnson was pulled into the dramatics. The 1943 All-Star Game was approaching and team managers from both leagues sent in their player choices to the league presidents.
The newspapers printed the positions each player would occupy at the All-Star game on July 13. Silas was assigned to pitch batting practice. Cox, however, contacted Johnson to discuss the assignment, and apparently the conversation did not go well. On July 3, Cox sent Frick’s office a blazing telegram: “We have no faith whatever in any decision coming from the league office. We prefer in the future to call upon any well-known swami for a decision. Mr. Silas K. Johnson regrets he will be unable to attend your bunting and throwing party on July 13.”
Baseball executives from both leagues were appalled at Cox’s behavior and explicit rudeness. Si’s reputation fell subject to the same judgments, even though he appeared to not been responsible for the dust-up. Johnson chose to divorce himself from the unfavorable situation and pitched his last game of the season on July 11. With an 8–3 record, he left the Phillies to join the U.S. Navy.
The newspapers explained his swift military induction: “Si Johnson, Philadelphia Phillies veteran pitcher, has passed his physical examination and will report to a Marseilles draft board for induction in three weeks. Johnson is 37 years old, is married and has no children.”[fn]“Si Johnson in Draft,” The Milwaukee Journal, July 20, 1943.[/fn]
William Cox’s true colors were shown before the season closed; Judge Landis learned that the Phillies’ owner had been laying bets on games played by his team.
The situation must have brought on déjà vu for the Judge. With the same compassion he had offered to gamblers during the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, the commissioner threw Cox out of professional baseball permanently on November 23. Cox was the first non-player banned from baseball.
Silas bid farewell to his wife and went to the Great Lakes Naval Base, north of Chicago, to enlist on August 2. He worked as a seaman on base but never experienced combat. Johnson’s age deterred his deployment. The sailor did spend several weeks in the naval base hospital, however, due to an excruciating ear infection. In April 1944, Johnson underwent successful mastoid surgery. “Silas Johnson, former St. Louis Cardinal and Philadelphia Phillies pitcher, who is stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training station, was in “good” condition today after an operation for mastoid at the base hospital yesterday.”[fn]“Johnson Improves,” The News-Dispatch, April 18, 1944.[/fn]
The Great Lakes Naval Base included a baseball team called the Blue Jackets and Silas joined the pitching staff. His Philadelphia teammate, “Schoolboy” Rowe, joined also the Navy Team, which included stars Johnny Mize, Billy Herman, and Virgil Trucks. The Blue Jackets, managed by Lieutenant Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane, played other naval divisions, local businesses, and even an Indiana prison team. Organized baseball was played in all military branches to help lift soldier morale and minimize the depression from the war. Johnson was discharged from Navy service in 1946.
The 39-year-old Johnson returned to Philadelphia that spring, but his time with the Quakers was short. The Phillies released him April 29, and the Boston Braves signed him as a free agent the following day. Johnson joined two sensational pitchers who would become fixtures in Boston Braves baseball lore: lefty Warren Spahn, who came up in June, and righty Johnny Sain.
In Boston, Silas reunited with his old Rochester boss, Billy Southworth, the new manager of the club. An aging Johnson appeared in 28 games, put up a 6–5 record, and posted a career-low 2.76 ERA. The Braves came in fourth in the National League and Silas was finally part of a successful club.
The 1947 Braves came in third place, but this was to be Johnson’s last hurrah. After working 17 major league seasons and pitching 2,281 innings, Johnson hung up his glove after appearing in his final game on September 25. Si was released from his playing contract in November; he did return to Boston in 1948, however, as a batting-practice pitcher.
The 1948 Braves captured the NL pennant and headed to the World Series to challenge Lou Boudreau’s Cleveland Indians. Silas continued his assignment into the Fall Classic and with it earned a memento he would cherish for the rest of his life: a World Series ring. Boston lost the series in six games.
The Braves hired Johnson as pitching coach until he was fired in spring 1950. At that point, the 44-year-old returned to Sheridan with a hat full of memories and a wife in need of a “home base.” Silas 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…my wife told me she was tired of travel. We owned a home for 15 years and we had never lived in it. So I told her I would quit.”[fn]Mike Cunniff, “Area Native Played Ball with The Babe,” The Daily Times, June 9, 1992.[/fn]
Johnson found employment with the Illinois Department of Corrections at a prison facility in Sheridan. He worked as an engineer at the jail, maintaining the heating system and boiler room equipment. Si was a loyal employee at the prison for 16 years. He and Dot purchased a cabin in Danbury, Wisconsin and enjoyed the rustic setting during the winter months.
Si remained active after his retirement from the prison. He became an active member of the Sheridan Rod & Gun Club and the Sheridan Masonic Lodge while managing Sheridan’s American Legion baseball team.
After 53 years of marriage, Silas and his wife Dot were separated when she passed away on June 7, 1986. Si remained in Sheridan and spent his remaining years telling stories to the town’s young and old baseball fans. The Village of Sheridan board of directors awarded Johnson a tremendous honor, voting unanimously to name a street after him. Sheridan’s busy Main Street was retitled “Si Johnson Avenue” on July 6, 1992.
The Ottawa Daily Times noted the following day: “Village board members Monday adopted an ordinance renaming Main Street Si Johnson Avenue. Johnson said this morning he knows that babies have been named after him but he’s never had a street named after him.”[fn]“Street Named After Si Johnson,” The Daily Times, July 7, 1992.[/fn] The day after his street sign ordinance was passed, the Chicago Cubs invited the 85-year-old to Wrigley Field to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a game between the Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds. Silas also appeared at several baseball card shows in the Chicago suburbs, signing autographs for no charge.
The ex-pitcher enjoyed reliving his career through interviews for newspapers, books, and magazines. Peggy Bermel, Johnson’s personal secretary, was a close friend of Si’s who handled his challenging schedule and escorted him to events. In January 1993, Chicago’s Pitch & Hit Professional Baseball Organization invited Johnson to a banquet at Martinique Restaurant in Evergreen Park and presented him with an award and induction into the Pitch & Hit Hall of Fame.
At age 87, Silas Kenneth Johnson died at his Sheridan home on May 12, 1994, after a two-year battle with cancer.
He went down in the history books as the last major league pitcher to strike out Babe Ruth three times in a game. In 2010, he was inducted posthumously to the Newark High School Hall of Fame. Si’s nephew, Ken Thompson, accepted the award. Today, a collage of Johnson’s photographs and baseball cards is proudly displayed at the Norway Store. Additional photo exhibits of Johnson’s life are at Sheridan’s popular Calico Café restaurant, the Sheridan Village Hall, the Robert W. Rowe public library, and the Sheridan Historical Society Museum.
MATTHEW CLIFFORD, a freelance writer from suburban Chicago, joined SABR in 2011 to help preserve accurate facts of baseball history. Clifford’s background in law enforcement and knowledge of forensic investigative techniques aid him in historical research and data collection. He has contributed to the SABR Biography Project and the 2013 National Pastime.
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Chris Carmack (Rock Island Library Resources), email correspondence, 03/02/ 2011
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Peggy Bermel (Si Johnson’s Personal Secretary), personal interviews, 2010-2013
Gary Stutzman (Beacon News/Hillsboro Argus), email correspondence, 06/03/2011
Tom Templeton (Sheriff, LaSalle County Sheriff’s Department), personal interview, 02/16/2011
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Danielle Clifford (Research assistance)
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