'Home Run' Johnson lives up to moniker

'Home Run' Johnson lives up to moniker

Turn of the Century shortstop Grant "Home Run" Johnson had the misfortune of having to share his nickname with Philadelphia Athletics third baseman Frank "Home Run" Baker, a Hall of Famer.

If Johnson is fortunate, he might soon share more than a nickname with the legendary Baker. Johnson is one of 39 ballplayers and executives from black baseball who are under consideration for induction in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He and the others will find out Feb. 27 if a 12-person panel of experts selects them for a spot in Cooperstown. Few can argue that Johnson's career isn't worthy of serious consideration.

Born in 1874 in Findlay, Ohio, the right-handed Johnson proved early in his career that he was an elite hitter.

According to an article by Negro League historian Jim Overmyer, Johnson probably picked up the nickname "Home Run" from his semi-pro days with the Findlay Sluggers. He reportedly slammed 60 homers in one season. His consistent production in high-level black ball may also have, Overmyer wrote, led to the nickname.

Off the field, Johnson was a proponent of clean living and staying in shape. As a result, he continued to play until 1932 at age 58, according to baseball historian James A. Riley's "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues."

After the 1894 season with the Sluggers, Johnson went on to form the Page Fence Giants with Bud Fowler. Johnson hit .471 as the Giants posted a 118-36 record.

In 1903, he joined the Cuban X-Giants before moving on to Rube Foster's Philadelphia Giants in 1905. After winning consecutive championships, Johnson played with the Brooklyn Royal Giants (1906-09) before rejoining Foster on the Leland Giants in 1910, a team with its own ballpark in an all-white neighborhood. It was there he first played with Hall of Fame shortstop John Henry Lloyd, whom Babe Ruth identified as the greatest player of all time. Johnson hit .397, and the Giants went 123-6.

Outfielder Pete Hill and catcher Bruce Petway joined Lloyd and Johnson in the lineup, while Foster was part of a rotation that featured hurlers Frank Wickware and Pat Dougherty. Foster considered the group the greatest team --- regardless of race -- of all time.

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Johnson teamed with Lloyd once again in 1912 with the New York Lincoln Giants, where he moved to second base to make room for Lloyd. While with the Giants from 1911-13, Johnson batted .374, .413 and .371, respectively.

Johnson also excelled in Cuba as a captain. He guided several Winter League teams to championships.

Records indicate Johnson compiled a career .319 batting average there, and hit .293 in exhibition games against the Major League All-Stars. In a 1910 exhibition series, he hit .412, while Lloyd batted .500. Ty Cobb hit .369 in five games.

Johnson continued playing with the Pittsburgh Colored Stars of Buffalo, and he went on to manage the Buffalo Giants in 1923.

He remained in Buffalo after his playing days until his death. According to his obituary in the Findlay, Ohio, Morning News Courier on Sept. 6, 1963, "Mr. Johnson was a former choir member of the AME Church and was known in the city and county for his musical ability. He was a member of the Bethal Baptist Church in Buffalo, N.Y.

"A few years ago, he became totally blind and entered the Erie Home of the Blind in Erie, a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y."

Justice B. Hill is a senior writer for MLB.com. MLB.com staffer Brian Wilson contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.