A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far Away. . .
One of the great oddities in baseball is how we perceive players. If a player does one or two things spectacularly well, he ultimately ends up being better regarded than players who do a lot of things well. Of recent vintage was 1998 and 1999 when home run behemoths Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa got all the ink over players like Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. Earlier in the decade in Canada RBI man Joe Carter had a higher profile than Larry Walker. Or, if you wish to go back to the 1970's and 1980's, you'll find more casual fans have heard of Dave Kingman over Dwight Evans.
For that matter, don't you find it odd that Tim Salmon never went to an All-Star Game? Not one.
Bill James said in his book Whatever Happened To The Hall of Fame--The Politics Of Glory that players who do one or two things well tend to be overrated while those who do a lot of things well tend to be underrated.
Today we're going to talk about an historically underrated player. He didn't have one ability that defined him but didn't have a single hole in his game: he could hit, hit with power, run, field and throw. Baseball-Reference has tests that involve Black Ink and Gray Ink. Black Ink describes how often a player led the league in some statistical category; Gray Ink describes how many times he finished top ten in the league. This player has two points of black ink but 161 points of gray ink.
In other words, he was never the best, but consistently among the best.
We're talking about Robert Lee "Indian Bob" Johnson.
Johnson was born in Oklahoma in 1906, and his family soon moved to Tacoma, Washington. He left home in 1922 at age 15 and began his baseball career with the Los Angeles Fire Department team. Because Johnson was part Cherokee, he was subjected to the nickname "Indian Bob," just as other players of Native American ancestry had similar epithets foisted upon them in this era.
Johnson was soon playing semi-professional ball. When his brother, Roy Johnson, became a professional, he felt buoyed. He said, "When Roy became a regular with San Francisco in 1927 I knew I could make the grade in fast company. I had played ball with Roy and felt I was as good as he was."
However, Johnson failed trials with San Francisco, Hollywood, and Los Angeles. He did not play professionally until Wichita of the Western League signed him in 1929. Johnson played in 145 games at two levels and batted .262 with 21 HR while slugging .503. After again hitting 21 HR (in just over 500 AB) the following season in Portland, he went to spring training with the Philadelphia A's but didn't make the roster due to his inability to hit the curveball. Over the next two seasons in the minors, Johnson batted a combined .334 with 51 HR while slugging .567 and showing both patience at the plate and a powerful throwing arm in the outfield.
Opportunity knocked in 1933 as Connie Mack sold off veteran Al Simmons to the White Sox leaving Johnson and Lou Finney to battle for the leftfield job in spring training. Johnson won the job and had an excellent freshman season at age 27...
AVG/ OBP/ SLG Runs 2B 3B HR RBI OPS+ RCAA
.290/.387/.505 103 44 4 21 93 134 37
...and was generally considered the league's finest rookie.
Johnson would quickly prove that 1934 was no fluke. On June 16th, the A's and White Sox played a twin bill. After losing the opener 9-7, the A's come back to win game two 7-6. Johnson went 6-for-6 with two home runs (both off Whit Wyatt), a double, and three singles. Four days later, he hit his 20th round tripper of the season against the Browns giving him the league lead (he finish fourth). He also enjoyed a 26-game hitting streak. After two fine seasons, Johnson was beginning to get recognition as he was named the starting left fielder of the American League All Star team in 1935. Johnson also finished fourth in the loop in home runs for the third time in his first three seasons and enjoyed his first 100 run/100 RBI season (he had topped 100 runs in both 1933 and 1934).
Despite turning 30 in 1936, Johnson kept right on raking and showed a little extra speed on the base paths, hitting a career high 14 triples. In both 1936 and 1937, he ripped 25 HR driving in 100+ runs despite not getting 500 AB in '37; of interest, on August 29 he again victimized the White Sox in a doubleheader as the A's set a new AL record in the opener of a twin bill by scoring 12 runs in the opening frame, six of which were driven in by Johnson. After four years in the majors, other aspects of Johnson were becoming known around the league. Johnson was a bit of a practical joker, and it was in 1937 when Yankees' HOF second baseman Tony Lazzeri pulled a prank on him, knowing he would probably appreciate the joke.
Lazzeri doctored a ball over the course of two weeks by pounding it with a bat, soaking it in soapy water, and rubbing it extensively with dirt and finally coating it with white shoe polish to make it look like new. Bill James described it as a ball that was "as dead as Abe Lincoln." It was so heavy and lifeless that it would plop down harmlessly once struck with a bat.
Lazzeri sprang his joke on September 29 long after the Yanks had clinched the pennant. During an inning in which Johnson was due to bat, he ran out to second base with the gag ball in his pocket. When Johnson stepped into the batter's box, he trotted out to the mound and switched balls with Yankee southpaw Kemp Wicker. Wicker grooved Lazzeri's "mushball" down the pipe and Johnson took a mighty cut and hit it on the screws. However, rather than hitting a prodigious moonshot, the ball plopped harmlessly foul behind the plate while a perplexed Johnson stood there wondering just what the hell happened while the other players and the crowd burst into laughter.
Johnson continued to get better as he aged as he put together his best two seasons at 32 and 33, topping 110 runs/RBI both years while batting at least .300/.400/.500. On June 12, 1938, Johnson was a one-man wrecking crew against the St. Louis Browns, hitting three bombs (and a single) and driving in all eight runs.
1938 and 1939
AVG/ OBP/ SLG Runs 2B 3B HR RBI OPS+ RCAA
.325/.422/.553 229 57 18 53 127 146 95
Johnson was also developing the reputation of being an athletic fielder. He lead the AL in assists twice (in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the best outfield arm of the 1940's is said to be either Johnson or Dom DiMaggio and he was also 4th all-time in outfield assists per 1000 innings) and also filled in occasionally at second and third base (poorly it should be added). He was named to the AL All-Star team both years.
Johnson finally began to show the effects of age during his age 34 and 35 seasons and started to lose some bat speed. Connie Mack even felt the need to give his star slugger time off from covering the expansive left field pasture at Shibe Park, playing him 28 games at first base in 1941. He still had power and a sharp batting eye and remained a potent RBI man, topping 100 RBI in both 1940 and 1941--the latter his seventh straight season over the century mark.
Johnson's power started to wane in 1942 as he suffered through his worst season statistically to that point in time, failing to hit 20 HR or 90 RBI for the first time in his career. However, part of this was attributable to the fall of offense across the board due largely to players enlisting in the military for WWII. His OBP and SLG marks were still good for top 10 finishes in the Junior Circuit and good for fifth in MVP voting. After continually clashing with Mack over pay, the manager finally said goodbye, sending him to the Washington Senators for third sacker Bob Estalella and Jimmy Pofahl. Baseball Almanac notes that this was the only time in baseball history where a player who led his team in RBI for seven straight years was traded.
Johnson lasted one year with the Senators where age and huge Griffith Stadium all but neutered his power as he slugged a career low .400, and for the first and only time in his career he failed to hit at least 10 home runs (7). He was sold to the Boston Red Sox by Griffith who later regretted the move. The diluted war-time talent in the majors coupled with Fenway Park's hospitable climate for right-handed hitters allowed Johnson to finish out his major league career in style. In a season which either spoke highly of Johnson's ability at age 38 or spoke poorly of the level of war-time talent left in the majors by 1944--*cough* Browns win the pennant...Browns win the pennant *cough*--Johnson enjoyed his finest statistical season (including hitting for the cycle on July 6):
AVG/ OBP/ SLG Runs 2B 3B HR RBI OPS+ RCAA
.324/.431/.528 106 40 8 17 106 174 61
Still, a lot of other fine players also played through the war years including HOFers Paul Waner, Chuck Klein, and Joe Medwick and didn't play as well as Johnson. Further, he was able to play 142 games in left field and enjoyed his first season on a team .500 or better since his rookie year as the Red Sox finished 77-77. For his efforts he was named to his seventh All Star team and finished 10th in MVP voting. As World War Two dragged on to 1945, Johnson was able to enjoy one last moment in the major league sun. He played 140 games in left field and provided the Red Sox with 82 runs created (AL left fielders averaged 67 RC in 1945), which earned him his eighth and final All Star nod. With the war over, Johnson pushing 40, and the return of Ted Williams, the Red Sox and Johnson parted company and he continued his career with the Milwaukee Brewers in the American Association.
Despite his advanced athletic age, Johnson managed to hit .270 with 13 HR and a .456 SLG in 94 games. He moved on to Seattle of the Pacific Coast League for the next two years, batting .292 with 35 doubles, 12 HR and a .441 SLG in 487 AB. Johnson, now 44, went home to play for and manage the Tacoma Tigers in the Western International League where he wielded a potent bat, hitting .326 with 13 doubles, five homers and a .463 SLG in 218 AB. He didn't play in 1950 but resurfaced briefly in Tijuana the following year at age 46. Johnson batted .217 in 21 games, then hung up his spikes for good.
So how do we measure Johnson's career? He probably missed being a Hall of Famer by a whisker. Johnson was hurt perceptually due to playing on second-division teams never reaching the World Series or even coming particularly close to one. He was also overshadowed by all-time great outfielders like Joe DiMaggio and Williams. Further, he finished his career during the second World War. Also working against him was his consistently high level of play; his OPS+ never going higher than 174 or dropping below 125 and always provided above-average offense for his position. He never had an eye-popping, jaw-dropping season that nets players MVP awards. He is also perceived by many to be the equivalent of the Phillies fine outfielder of the 1940's and 1950's, Del Ennis.
In short, he was invisible.
However, when we examine his record, he fits right in with four contemporary outfielders who are in the Hall of Fame and three of whom--like Johnson--finished their careers during WWII: Earl Averill, Klein, Medwick, and Paul Waner.
Player AVG OBP SLG Runs HR RBI OPS+ RCAA*
Bob Johnson .296 .393 .506 1239 288 1283 138 413
Earl Averill .318 .395 .533 1224 238 1164 133 391
Chuck Klein .320 .379 .543 1168 300 1201 137 409
Paul Waner .333 .404 .473 1190 139 957 134 588**
Joe Medwick .324 .362 .505 1198 205 1383 134 368
Del Ennis .284 .340 .472 985 288 1284 117 145
* Runs Created Above Average is a counting stat
**Waner's career length is the longest of the six players
As mentioned, a lot of folks dismiss Johnson's achievements because of a superficial statistical similarity to Del Ennis. I threw Ennis in here to show that he's not at all comparable to the above group. His HR/RBI totals are similar but he's last in AVG/OBP/SLG, runs, OPS+ and RCAA. The difference between Johnson and Ennis' respective levels are about the same as Rusty Greer (120 OPS+/149 RCAA) and Chipper Jones (141 OPS+/429 RCAA); nobody suggests that Greer and Jones are similar as hitters. In the chart above, we can see how close Johnson's level of play was to Hall of Fame quality. His eight All Star selections reflects the high regard contemporaries viewed Johnson. After Al Simmons was sold to the White Sox, Johnson all but became the Athletics offense. During his ten years with the A's, the team created 7612 runs. Johnson was responsible for 1162 (15.26%). The roster over that ten years were -420 RCAA while Johnson had 317 RCAA.
Although never topping statistical lists, Johnson was consistently among the leaders. From the period 1930-50, Johnson was tied for second in doubles (396), eighth in triples (95), third in home runs (288), third in runs (1239), second in RBI (1283), sixth in OBP (.393), sixth in SLG (.506), and fifth in OPS (.899). Here are the top ten finishers in RCAA (totals accumulated before 1930 and after 1950 are not counted):
1. Ted Williams 908
2. Joe DiMaggio 695
3. Babe Ruth 460
4. Bob Johnson 413
5. Charlie Keller 394
6. Earl Averill 356
7. Tommy Henrich 274
8. Jeff Heath 261
9. Al Simmons 250
10. Roy Cullenbine 215
Johnson's RCAA is 73rd all time. When you consider that, along with being a fine fielder with a terrific throwing arm, you begin to appreciate the complete package that was Robert Lee "Indian Bob" Johnson. Truly an All Star in the fullest sense of the word and an unappreciated talent. When you look back at some of the superb players to grace the diamond in the 1930's and 1940's, don't forget about the man that patrolled left field at Shibe Park for a decade.
John Brattain writes for The Hardball Times and his work has been featured at About.com, MLBtalk, Yankees.com, Replacement Level Yankee Weblog, TOTK.com, Bootleg Sports, and Baseball Prospectus.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]