Si Johnson pitched well for poor teams
The Nordmenn of baseball
The Norwegian American
Rod Stewart’s lyrics, “Some guys have all the luck, some guys have all the pain,” could describe pitcher Silas (Si) Johnson’s MLB career. Among the better pitchers on the team, he had the misfortune of spending most of a 17-year major league career (1928-1938, 1940-1943, 1946-1947) on dreadful Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies teams, who couldn’t score runs.
In a 1987 interview, Johnson lamented: “I lost so many games 1-0 and 2-1. We had very poor hitting. Once in a while, we’d get a one-run lead. 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. That’s all I would get. It got to be kind of a joke.”
While 20 wins is a benchmark for a pitcher, Johnson endured seasons of double-figure losses, including one of 22.
He was born Oct. 5, 1906, in Danway, Ill., to Norwegian Americans Nels and Tillie Johnson. They moved to a 460-acre farm in Marseilles, Ill. Johnson’s father loved baseball and had been a semi-pro catcher. “That was quite a help to me, learning from my dad some of the fundamentals of the game,” Johnson said in 1990.
After graduating high school, Johnson split time working on the farm and pitching. He was 22-3 with the semi-pro Marseilles Merchants in 1927 and 19-10 for the Rock Island Islanders of the Class D Mississippi Valley League in 1928. The National League Cincinnati Reds signed him in August 1928. Johnson found himself on a major-league mound a month later, on Sept. 11, allowing two runs in two innings of relief against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Johnson spent most of the 1929 season with the Reds’ AA minor-league team in Columbus, compiling a 16-13 record, 4.52 ERA in 251 innings. It earned him a promotion to The Show in late August, but he made only one appearance.
He and his stepbrother opened the Norway Store in Norway, Ill., selling Norwegian groceries and items. They would operate the store until 1945.
Back in Cincinnati in 1930, veteran southpaw Eppa Rixey mentored Johnson, who would finish 3-1 with a 4.94 ERA.
“Just like any kid, I was depending on my fastball,” Johnson said in a 1987 interview. Rixey “worked with me on changing speeds and control.”
Over the next four seasons, Johnson became the staff workhorse. Unfortunately, it also coincided with the Reds’ continued futility. From 1931-1934, his records were 11-19—despite a 3.77 ERA–13-15, 3.27 ERA; 7-18, 3.49 ERA, 7-22, 5.22 ERA.
New ownership didn’t change the fortunes on the diamond in 1934. Despite a 22-loss season, Johnson earned an endorsement deal for a Si Johnson, Jr. mitt.
Johnson enjoyed a career highlight when he became the last pitcher to strike out Babe Ruth, then playing for the Boston Braves, three times in a game, on May 26, 1935.
“He was practically washed up, the poor guy,” Johnson told Sports Illustrated in 1993. “Those pitches were all fastballs down the middle. 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.”
The following season, the Reds optioned him to minor-league Toronto, where he won 10 games, enough to impress the St. Louis Cardinals, who purchased his contract on Aug. 6. This was the Gas House Gang Cardinals, and Johnson was finally on a contender. He was 5-3 with a 4.38 ERA, his first winning record since 1930.
After going 12-12 in 1937, he and pitcher Roy Henshaw were demoted to minor-league Rochester in April 1938. The pitchers won their appeal to Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, but Cards General Manager Branch Rickey wasn’t pleased with their salary demands. Rickey agreed to retain Henshaw, but not Johnson, despite Landis’s insistence that Rickey pay Johnson his $7,500 salary. There was a protracted holdout, with Johnson reporting to Rochester in June, while receiving major-league money.
Johnson was 14-11 in 1938 and 22-12 in 1939 at Rochester. The Red Sox offered Rochester $15,000 for Johnson but balked when Rochester demanded more cash and a player in return. The Phillies drafted Johnson for $7,500 in October.
This was déjà vu for Johnson, as the Phillies were in the midst of five straight last-place finishes. From 1940 to 1943, Johnson was 26-48, with an 8-19 mark in 1942.
In 1943, he was 8-3 with a 3.27 ERA and named the batting-practice pitcher for the NL All-Star team. He and Phillies owner William Cox sent nasty letters to NL President Ford Frick over the insult. Johnson decided to enlist in the Navy.
He made one appearance for the Phillies in 1946, then was cut and signed by the Boston Braves. The 39-year-old Johnson was 6-5 with a 2.76 ERA, his career best, for the fourth-place Braves. In 1947, the Braves finished third. Johnson was 6-8, his final season. His playing career included 492 games, 272 starts, 101-165 record and 4.09 ERA. Johnson returned to Boston as pitching coach for the pennant-winning Braves in 1948. He retired after the 1950 season.
For the next 16 years, Johnson worked for the Illinois Department of Corrections, maintaining the heating system and boiler-room equipment at the prison in Sheridan.
He enjoyed regaling the townsfolk, reporters, and authors with stories of his baseball career. Main Street in Sheridan was renamed Si Johnson Avenue on July 6, 1992. The next day, the Chicago Cubs had him throw out the first pitch against the Reds. He was inducted into Chicago’s Pitch & Hit Professional Baseball Organization Hall of Fame in 1993.
Johnson died on May 12, 1994, at 87.
Michael Kleiner has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of the Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce Philadelphia. Kleinerprweb.com; beyondthecold.com.
This article originally appeared in the July 13, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.