“Honest John” Anderson was a base-stealing pro

Nordmenn of baseball

Michael Kleiner
The Norwegian American

John Anderson

Photo: Library of Congress
John Anderson 1909 Tobacco Card.

It was not uncommon that immigrant children learned the sports of their new country and then their children followed suit. Some ethnic groups are associated with particular sports.

With major league baseball season underway, we thought we would look at Norwegians and Norwegian Americans who played baseball. The list is not extensive, but the exercise is fun.

The first Norwegian to play professional baseball was John Anderson, who had one of the longer careers of nordmenn, from 1894-1908. The first baseman-outfielder played for six teams whose names are “foreign” to us now.

Anderson was born in Sarpsborg, Norway, on Dec. 14, 1873, to a Norwegian father and Swedish mother. In 1881, the family immigrated to Worcester, Mass., which at the time had the largest concentration of Swedish immigrants. His failures as a pitcher for local teams sent him to the outfield, where his speed would serve him well. He was signed by the National League Brooklyn Bridegrooms in 1894.

His 6-foot-2, 180-pound build, Scandinavian features, and integrity would earn him numerous nicknames: Honest John for rarely arguing with umpires; Long John and Big John for his stature, and Swedish Apollo. A misinterpreted baserunning blunder warranted him an unkind moniker.

On the diamond, Anderson was a switch-hitter, who often batted fourth or fifth in the lineup and hit for extra bases. He was a reliable RBI man, one of the top base stealers of his era, and he also used his swiftness on defense. In his career, he played in 1,635 games and hit .290, with 1,841 hits, 328 doubles, 124 triples, 49 home runs, 976 RBI. He also had .972 fielding percentage and 338 stolen bases.

Playing in the dead ball era when home runs were rare, in his second season with Brooklyn (1895), Anderson hit .286 with nine home runs, 11 doubles, 14 triples, 87 RBI, .444 slugging percentages, and 24 stolen bases. He led the team in triples and home runs and was second in RBI. He had breakout seasons the next two years, hitting .314 and .325, respectively, with 23 and 28 doubles, 17 and 12 triples and 37 and 29 stolen bases. In 1897, he knocked in 85 runs. During that year, a periodical said, “Anderson is improving in his fielding and his batting is good, but on the bases, he is in the primary class of ball players.”

After a slow start in 1898, Anderson was sold to the Washington Senators, who would finish 51-101. However, the change of scenery helped Anderson, who hit .305 with 28 doubles, 18 triples, nine HRs, 71 RBI, and .516 slugging percentage. Adding his four triples with Brooklyn, he led the NL with 22 triples. Brooklyn manager Charlie Ebbets saw he made a mistake giving up on Anderson. He claimed Anderson was a “loaner” and Anderson returned to Brooklyn, which was now called the Superbas. For the101-47 Superbas, Anderson’s average dropped to .269, but he had a career high to that point of 92 RBI.

Connie Mack had agreed to manage the Milwaukee Brewers in the fledgling American League (they would later become the St. Louis Browns, then the Baltimore Orioles) and signed Anderson. Despite hitting .309 and leading the league with 63 stolen bases, none of the 1900 American League stats are included in individual career statistics. A battle over players ensued between the NL and AL, but Anderson stayed in Milwaukee, and 1901 was his best season ever.

He led the Brewers in at bats (576), runs (90), hits (190), doubles (46), home runs (8), RBI (99), average (.330), and stolen bases (35). The doubles were an American League record for a switch hitter until Brian Roberts of the Brewers’ heirs, the Baltimore Orioles, hit 50 in 2004, over 100 years later.

Over the next seven seasons with the Browns (1902, 1903), New York Highlanders—later the Yankees—(1904-1905), Senators (1905-1907), and Chicago White Sox (1908), the closest Anderson came to hitting .300 was .290 in 1905 with the Senators. He had a team-high 85 RBI for the Browns in 1902, 82 RBI for the Highlanders in 1904 and career high 39 stolen bases for the 1906 Senators.

A baserunning mistake on Sept. 24, 1903, immortalized Anderson. The Browns loaded the bases with one out against the Highlanders. Anderson was on first base and there was a full count on the batter. Anderson broke for second, the batter struck out and Anderson was picked off. The press mistakenly criticized Anderson for trying to steal a base where there was already a runner. Future running mistakes would be called “pulling a John Anderson.”

He walked away from a terrible Senators team in August 1907, retired, and returned to Worcester to be a police officer. He played in 1908 for the White Sox, then became a policeman for five years, then tended his farm.

In 1935, Anderson received a silver lifetime pass to all Major League games from the National and American Leagues. He died on July 23, 1949, at age 75, and is buried in the Swedish cemetery in Worcester.

This article originally appeared in the April 20, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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