Grant Johnson last played in a professional baseball game in 1914 at the age of 41. That year he put on his New York Lincoln Giants uniform for 7 games and 33 plate appearances. Dad Johnson would slash .444/.531/.519 for the independent Giants. Stealing 2 bases, walking 4 times, and hitting 2 doubles. It was a fairly typical season for Johnson, short, barely documented, and excellent all the same. Now, years later, barely anyone remembers Grant Johnson and the baseball world is all the lesser for that fact.
Nineteen years earlier Johnson began his professional career with the independent Page Fence Giants. He had played semi-professionally before agreeing to form the Giants. For the next ten or so years Johnson was one of the best Negro League players around and in the running for the best player on a baseball field period. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of info on this time in Johnson’s career. Four games one season, two the next, five games the year after that, and so it goes for the first decade of Johnson’s career. The brief moments of information we have are interesting, frustrating, and enlightening all at once.
The back end of Johnson’s career is more documented, and it reinforces the anecdotal evidence of his dominant early playing careers. The 1911-1912 season saw Johnson playing for the Habana Reds of Liga Cubana de Profesional Base Ball during the winter. For the Reds Johnson was a player/manager who spent 30 games at second base. In 133 plate appearances, he slashed .410/.483/.486 with an OPS+ of 193 as he guided Habana to an LCPBB championship. Johnson outperformed the rest of the league in every statistical category at the age of 38. The LCPBB wasn’t just any league either, it featured top Cuban talent as well as imports from the Negro and white major leagues.
In that 1911-12 season, Johnson amassed an sWAR of 1.9, which doesn’t sound like much when compared to the gaudy numbers of today. However, it’s important to remember that in the Negro and winter leagues the seasons were/are shorter and thus a 1.9 sWAR for Johnson is far more impressive than a 1.9 total over 162 games. If we take that line of thinking to its logical conclusion we can extrapolate some idea of how Johnson would perform over your modern Major League Baseball season. Throughout the history of the recognized major leagues, there have been 59 seasons with an rWAR of 10.0 or better. Johnson’s total sWAR over a 162 game season projected to be 10.1. There’s only one player in the history of the Negro leagues with a higher projected seasonal sWAR total and his name just happens to be Josh Gibson.
In addition to Dad, they also gave Johnson the Home Run moniker, thanks to a plethora of home runs he had hit as a semi-pro. The stories go that Johnson kept hitting mammoth home runs as a professional, but that’s based purely on word of mouth as the statistics researchers have been able to uncover show Johnson to be more of a gap-to-gap power hitter. The more we learn about Home Run Johnson the more the rest of the stories become reality. The mammoth home runs may not have been a regular occurrence, but we have been able to verify that Johnson was a great fielder, a tremendous hitter, and belongs next to guys like Pete Hill, the aforementioned Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Bullet Rogan as the greatest to ever play the game of baseball. Call him whatever nickname you want, Grant Johnson is an all-time legend of the game first and foremost.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Brooklyn Standard Union