2022 Early Baseball Era Committee Candidate: Grant “Home Run” Johnson

The following article is part of a series concernifng the 2022 Early Baseball Era Committee ballot, covering managers and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon on December 5. For an introduction to the ballot, see here, and for an introduction to JAWS, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

Grant “Home Run” Johnson

2022 Early Baseball Candidate: Grant “Home Run” Johnson
Black baseball* 252 8 .335/.402/.455 162 12.7
All competition** 469 14 .310/.396/.399 158 24.1
SOURCE: Seamheads Negro Leagues Database
* = includes only play in pre-Negro Leagues Black baseball leagues (pre-1920)
** = includes the above, plus Latin leagues and exhibitions against major leagues

A slugging shortstop from the pre-Negro Leagues era of Black baseball, Grant “Home Run” Johnson stands as one of the best position players of his day, and one of Black baseball’s first true superstars. In a career that spanned from 1894 to 1914 (and to at least 1932 at the semiprofessional level), he played for several of the era’s powerhouse teams while aligned with the likes of both Bud Fowler and Hall of Famer Rube Foster, and moved to second base to accommodate Hall of Famer John Henry Lloyd in the era’s superlative double play combination. According to a biography written by Dr. Layton Revel and Luis Munoz for the Center for Negro Leagues Baseball Research, Johnson was either the starting shortstop or second baseman, and often captain or manager, for 26 championship teams (including winter leagues) in a 21-year span.

While Johnson’s career is hardly fully documented from a statistical standpoint — the likely reason why he was bypassed in the 2006 Special Committee on the Negro Leagues election — the data at the Seamheads Database, and its Major League Equivalencies translations, makes a case for his being of clear Hall of Fame caliber, comparable to Luke Appling, Alan Trammell, or this ballot’s Bill Dahlen, among others. About that nickname, here’s a snippet from his entry in James A. Riley’s The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues:

A line-drive hitter, Johnson placed an emphasis on making contact rather than swinging for the fences and, playing in the deadball era, his power was comparable to that of the Athletics’ Frank Baker. And like Baker, his home runs, while not numerous, came at opportune times and reinforced the sobriquet “Home Run” for the duration of his playing career.

Johnson’s actual birthday is in doubt; via Seamheads, the date was September 23, 1872, though an obituary used September 21, 1874. Regardless, he was born in Findlay, Ohio to parents who hailed from Kentucky, and his father, Charles Johnson, served in the Union Army’s 13th Colored Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. Grant Ulysses Johnson’s full name owes more than a little to that of Union General Ulysses S. Grant.

Johnson began playing baseball in 1888 as a first baseman for a Findlay team that was believed to be integrated, and stayed with them through ’93 save for a brief stint with a Black team, the Cleveland Keystones, in ’92. While with Findlay, he hit two over-the-fence homers against the Cincinnati Reds’ Tony Mullane in an October 7, 1893 exhibition game that Findlay won; the result must have certainly chafed Mullane, who did his best to make Black catcher Fleet Walker’s life difficult when the two were paired at Toledo in 1884.

In December 1893, Johnson joined the Cuban Giants, an independent Black team that at the time included Hall of Famer Frank Grant, who had played in integrated white leagues. According to research by historians Larry Lester and Dick Clark, Johnson hit .356 and slugged .567 in 20 games before the lack of a paycheck led him to leave the team and return to Findlay. There, Johnson joined the Sluggers, an integrated independent semipro team that had already signed Fowler. While the possibility of adding another Black player caused some concern among the white players, management proceeded as planned. The team lost exhibitions against the National League’s Reds and Brooklyn Bridegrooms (eventually the Dodgers) but beat the Detroit Tigers of the Western League twice. The Sluggers reportedly won 96 of 112 games, with Johnson hitting 60 homers (though by his own report, the total was 40).

Seeking to capitalize on the popularity of Johnson, Fowler attempted to form the Findlay Colored Western Giants, but couldn’t secure funding. But when he was able to get the backing of J. Wallace Page, owner of the Page Woven Wire Fence Company of Adrian, Michigan (the largest fence company in the country at the time) and the Monarch Bicycle Company of Boston, Massachusetts, the Page Fence Giants were formed, with Fowler as player/manager and Johnson as starting shortstop and captain. The team was made up of players who didn’t drink or smoke, and who were paid $100 per month, a good salary for the time, particularly considering the country was in the midst of a depression. The Giants barnstormed primarily in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana, traveling in a private railroad car with sleeping quarters, a cook, and a porter so as to avoid confronting Jim Crow restrictions. Players rode Monarch bicycles through the streets of whatever town they were in to attract customers for their games.

Despite Fowler and five other players leaving in midseason, the Giants reportedly went 118-36-2 overall in 1895 and 8-7 against teams in the Michigan State League; they lost twice to the Cincinnati Reds of the National League. Johnson hit .471 that season according to research by John Holway, author of The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues. With Charlie Grant (whom John McGraw would later try to pass off as Cherokee in order to subvert the major league color line in 1901) replacing Fowler at second base, the Giants went 80-19 and laid claim to the title of “Colored World’s Champions”* by beating the Cuban X-Giants in 10 out of 15 games during a lengthy barnstorming series. They continued to dominate the competition, going 129-10 in 1897 (at one point winning 82 straight) and 107-10 in 1898, when Johnson reportedly hit 30 homers.

(Note: here and throughout this piece I am using the championship titles provided by the CNLBR, either via the aforementioned bio, “Colored Championship Series 1867-1899,” or “Colored Championship Series 1900-1919,” the last two with no author credited.)

When Page Fence could no longer afford to finance the team, Johnson, Grant, and other Giants teammates including pitcher George Wilson, catcher Pete Burns, and outfielder John Patterson left for the Chicago-based Columbia Giants (a.k.a the Columbias; here it’s worth noting that “Giants” was often used by traveling Black teams to signify their race), with Johnson as manager and starting shortstop. Via the CNLBR’s 2016 bio, in the 21 games for which box scores had been found, Johnson hit .413 and slugged .641 with five homers. After sweeping five games from the Chicago Unions to claim the title of “Western Colored Champions” — such series between two self-appointed contenders were common prior to the advent of the Negro Leagues World Series — they lost seven out of 11 games to the X-Giants.

Johnson came and went from the Columbias over the next few years, helping them to win the title “Colored Champions of the West” over the Unions in 1901 but briefly joining Lima’s Webster Giants, the rival Chicago Unions, and the Cuban X-Giants during this stretch. In 1903, he rejoined the X-Giants and paired with Grant in the middle infield. On June 17 of that year, Johnson made several great plays to help preserve Dan McClellan’s perfect game, the first in Black baseball history. On August 2, the team beat Murray Hills, a strong semipro team in New York that for the day featured Philadelphia Athletics ace Rube Waddell (pitching under the name Wilson to circumvent any contractual difficulties). Behind Foster, the X-Giants won, 6-3. At one point the team won 44 consecutive games. At the end of the season, the X-Giants beat the Philadelphia Giants in five of seven games to claim the title “Colored Championship of the World.”

After the season, Johnson played winter ball in Cuba, and then from late January until mid-March in the Florida Hotel League, where players got jobs at big resort hotels, securing room and board and playing a 14-game schedule for the entertainment of guests. He returned to an X-Giants roster that had been raided by the Philadelphia Giants, with Foster, Grant, and others switching sides. After losing to them in a three-game “Colored Championship” series in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Johnson joined the Giants for 1905, forming one of the era’s powerhouse teams under first baseman/manager Sol White. On a team that went 129-23-3 and beat at least seven minor league teams, Johnson led the team with 12 homers, despite a power outage that happened after he injured a tendon in his left leg early in the season. He stole 22 bases, and also served as a fourth starter, pitching two shutouts with a submarine-style delivery.

Johnson spent the 1906-09 seasons alternating between serving as player/manager for the Brooklyn Royal Giants — which joined the five-team National Association of Colored Baseball Clubs (of which three teams included Giants in their name even after the Cuban X-Giants folded) — and playing in the Cuban Winter League. Brooklyn wasn’t good enough to surpass Philadelphia and win the NACBC title until 1908, but they did so again in ’09 then beat the American League’s New York Highlanders in an exhibition. Returning to Cuba to captain the Habana team, Johnson hit .412 in a series in which his team won four games out of six against Ty Cobb and the AL champion Detroit Tigers.

Given Brooklyn’s success, Johnson felt he deserved a share of the team’s ownership, but owner John W. Connor refused. When Connor tried to trade Johnson to the Philadelphia Giants in exchange for Lloyd — both of whom were playing in Florida with Foster’s Chicago Leland Giants at the time — the two players jumped to the Lelands on a more permanent basis (such as these things were). Thus was born yet another legendary squad, with the 37-year-old Johnson moving to second base to accommodate the 26-year-old Lloyd; other stars on the team included center fielder Pete Hill, left fielder Frank Duncan, staff ace Frank Wickware, plus pitcher/manager Foster. The team went 123-6 and claimed the title “Colored Champions of the West.” Johnson, in 21 documented games for which box scores have been uncovered, hit .326/.368/.461.

Wanting to manage again, and following his pattern of leaving dominant teams in search of the next challenge, in 1911 Johnson returned to the Philadelphia Giants, where he had young righty Dick “Cannonball” Redding and catcher Louis Santop. The season did not go well, however; both youngsters left for the New York Lincoln Giants in July, and Johnson for the Chicago Giants. Johnson, after a torrid winter during which he led Habana to a pennant, returned to Brooklyn but when that didn’t go well, he joined the Lincoln Giants late in the year. After a brief foray to Schenectady, New York to captain the Mohawk Colored Giants, he return to the Lincoln Giants, with whom he continued through 1913 and ’14. The 1913 team, another powerhouse, featured Lloyd, Santop, Redding, left fielder Judy Gans, center fielder Spottswood Poles, and Hall of Fame righty Smoky Joe Williams. In 17 games with box scores for the 1913 season, the 40-year-old Johnson hit .439/.493/.485. The team beat Foster’s Chicago American Giants with seven wins in a 12-game series to claim the title of “Colored World’s Champions.” After the season, the Lincoln Giants played a series against major league All-Stars, and beat Hall of Famer Pete Alexander.

Though Johnson returned to the Lincoln Giants for the 1914 season, and took over as manager (Lloyd had joined the Chicago American Giants), he left the team in mid-May. From 1916-21, he played and managed the semiprofessional Pittsburgh Colored Stars of Buffalo, beginning a long second act; as late as 1932, at age 58, he was still playing semipro ball. Remaining in Buffalo, where he worked as a porter, he lived to see Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby break the color lines in the NL and AL in 1947, though he later lost his sight. He died of heart failure following surgery on September 4, 1963.

Johnson did not get consideration for the Hall of Fame until 2006, when he was one of 39 finalists on the Special Committee for the Negro Leagues ballot. While 17 players were elected, he was not among them. Voter Todd Bolton told Steven R. Greenes, author of Negro Leaguers and the Hall of Fame: The Case for Inducting 24 Overlooked Ballplayers, that he believed Johnson’s candidacy suffered because “the statistics were not as solidly documented as those of other candidates.” Johnson may have also been hurt by the fact that the committee felt it had recognized enough pre-Negro Leagues candidates, including Sol White and Frank Grant.

While it’s true that only a fraction of box scores pertaining to Johnson’s career have been uncovered, it’s just as true that his talent shines through in what’s there. The data at Seamheads, which covers the box scores for Johnson’s play against pre-Negro Leagues Black competition as well as Latin leagues and exhibitions against major leaguers, credits him with a .310/.396/.399 slash line from 1895 to 1914, missing all but 14 of his home runs (including those 40 or 60 at Findlay) but still good for a 158 OPS+ in 1,790 PA. Among players in the Seamheads database for the pre-Negro Leagues years (1886-1919) with at least 1,000 PA, that mark ranks fifth; Hall of Famers Cristobal Torriente (189) and Lloyd (165) rank first and fourth on the list, respectively, though those marks only cover parts of their careers. Limiting the data to pre-Negro Leagues Black competition raises Johnson’s mark there to 162, albeit in just 850 PA, but sill good for fifth, with Torriente (198) and Lloyd (170) first and third, respectively.

The man could hit, of that there’s no doubt, but he also could field. Seamheads, which uses Defensive Regression Analysis as its WAR fielding input, credits Johnson with 24.1 WAR, or 9.6 per 162 games against Black, Latin, and major league competition, and 12.7 WAR, or 10.7 per 162 games for the Black baseball competition. While this shouldn’t be directly equated with the WAR figures compiled during the Negro Leagues’ major league era (1920-48), it’s a figure that ranks 10th for the pre-1920 period and puts him in the company of several Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leaguers in the Hall of Fame including José Méndez, Hill, Lloyd, Williams, Torriente. No less an authority than Gary Ashwill, the founder of the Seamheads database (and, coincidentally, a voter on this year’s committee), called Johnson “the best everyday player in Black baseball from 1895 to 1909.”

Experts including Holway, Riley, and Greenes view Johnson as Hall of Fame caliber. So does Eric Chalek of the Hall of Miller and Eric website, where two self-described “baseball obsessives” have built their own alternative shrine based on their analysis and methodology, mirroring the size of the actual Hall but doing their level-headed best to get it right. Probably the most popular feature of the site is Chalek’s Major League Equivalencies for Negro Leagues players. Introduced by Bill James to make sense of minor league stats, MLEs are a staple of projection systems. Chalek uses them to place the performance of Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues Black players in a more familiar context using wOBA, wRC, league quality of play estimates, Defensive Regression Analysis, WAR, z-scores, playing time estimates, and more, all based only on regular season data for seasons where league-wide data is available. The big-picture explanation is here. “[W]e want to get a sense of how these guys compare to MLB players so that we can place their achievements into a context that’s more familiar to us,” wrote Chalek. “[W]hen we get done, we have an estimate of what kind of value a fellow would rack up in the big leagues. It’s not a perfect estimate, though it’s the best we currently know how to do.” The gory details of his methodology are here. Long story short, these turn out to be rather useful, and Chalek has churned out comp lists for most of the Era Committee candidates on both ballots. Here’s the one for the JAWS-approved Bill Dahlen:

That’s seven Hall of Fame middle infielders among his top 10 comparables for value, plus Johnson, Negro Leagues star shortstop Dick Lundy, and 19th-century shortstop Jack Glasscock, both of whom could have easily been on this ballot given their own merits. And now, here’s Johnson:

Some of the same names pop up. That’s Dahlen plus seven Hall of Famers, and we’re not talking slouches, either; Appling ranks seventh in JAWS, Trammell 10th, Dahlen 11th, Larkin 12th, Cronin 17th, Sewell 19th, with Sandberg 11th among second basemen. Eyeballing the list, the comps lists of Dahlen and Johnson appear to be the best of the Early Baseball bunch in terms of comparisons to Hall of Famers.

Anyway, properly understood, the statistics that we have suggest Johnson is of Hall caliber. So does his penchant for turning up on championship teams (including some of the major dynamos of the day), his reputation for leadership and professionalism as a captain or manager (he won seven championships in that capacity), and his status as a star who was highly sought by the very best teams of his era. The weight of the evidence suggests he’s Hallworthy, and if I had a ballot, I’d include him, though having said the same about Fowler and Dahlen, and with half a ballot still to examine, I might be headed towards the unenviable task of ballot triage.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
11 months ago

Easy yes for me

11 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Also Lundy, Sewell and Dahlen. I can be convinced on Clarkson.

Doug Lampertmember
11 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

I think the problem is that there are probably more than four easy yes candidates on this ballot.

11 months ago
Reply to  Doug Lampert

You mean they’ll divide the vote and no one gets in?