"Indian Bob" Johnson Had Little to Do with the Washington Senators' Resurgence

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Eighth in an 11-part series examining the vagaries of awards voting.

One of my favorite historical players, Bob Johnson was known as “Indian Bob” because he was one-quarter Cherokee. Born in Oklahoma and raised in Washington State, Johnson toiled productively for years in the Pacific Coast League before finally getting a crack at the big time.

Twenty-seven years old when Connie Mack signed him to a major league contract, Johnson stepped right into the shoes that the great Al Simmons had filled for nine seasons.

It is doubtful that Mack expected Johnson to provide the 200 hits and 129 RBI per season that Simmons had averaged while patrolling left field for the Philadelphia Athletics. Johnson was neither a hitter nor a fielder of Simmons’ stature. Yet Indian Bob proved an excellent ballplayer all the same.

In his 10 years as a White Elephant, Johnson drove home more than 1,000 runs and averaged 25 home runs per season. He regularly slugged over .500, and his keen batting eye drew him 85 walks annually.

In 1939, Bob enjoyed his best season, batting a career-high .338 while drawing 99 walks, for a .440 on-base percentage, and slugging a robust .553. He also scored a personal-best 115 runs and even stole 15 basesall of which earned him an eighth-place finish in the MVP vote.

Unfortunately, Johnson arrived in Shibe Park just as Mack was stripping bare his second dynasty. Already a third-place team at the conclusion of Johnson’s rookie season, Philadelphia would stumble to fifth place the next year and then never finish higher than seventh for the rest of Johnson’s tenure. Being the best player on a team that annually fell out of contention before Independence Day must have been crushing.

Unhappy playing for a doormat team before only 3,000 to 6,000 fans per game, Johnson held out several times for more money from the notoriously penny-pinching Mack. Vowing after the 1942 season never again to play “with a team as poor as the last-place Athletics,” per The Toledo Blade, Johnson was swapped to the Washington Senators in March 1943.

Mack had magnanimously stated the previous November that his longtime, loyal employee deserved a chance on a contending team. Yet Mack sent him to a city that had finished only a handful of games ahead of cellar-dwelling Philadelphia.

Coming to the A’s in Bob’s stead were Bobby Estallela, a 32-year-old Cuban utility player who put in three solid seasons at Shibe, and Jimmy Pofahl, a three-year veteran who was immediately sent to Double-A ball and never returned to the majors.

Whereas Shibe Park’s left-field wall beckoned right-handed sluggers such as Johnson, Bob’s new home, Griffith Stadium, sucked away power like one of those newfangled Hoover vacuums being sold door-to-door. Johnson suffered through the worst season of his career, setting personal lows in batting average, home runs, RBI, runs scored, doubles and slugging percentage.

Beset by injuries late in the summer, Bob played only 117 games, which certainly contributed to his batting woes, although by no means did he have a horrible season. Johnson even managed to enjoy the best campaign of his career in left field, chalking up a .996 fielding percentage, albeit in only 88 games.

Still, his .265 batting average, seven home runs and 63 RBI could not have been the output for which Senators owner Clark Griffith had bargained.

Yet when this disappointing season had concluded, Johnson stood a bewildering fifth in the MVP tally, including a first-place vote. Bewildering to me, anyway. Improving by 22 wins over the previous season, Washington had placed second to the New York Yankees (albeit 13.5 games out)—its highest finish since winning the pennant in 1933.

Undoubtedly, many voters attributed Indian Bob’s veteran presence, if not his modest hitting, to turning around wayward Washington. No doubt the 37-year-old’s decade of experience aided the other eight starters, none of whom were older than 28. But factors independent of Johnson propelled the Senators into second place.

Ossie Bluege, Washington’s third baseman for 18 years, including three pennant-winning seasons, took over for Bucky Harris as manager. Harris, in his second tour as skipper in the nations capital, had guided the Nats for the previous eight years, never bringing them in higher than fourth place.

Although Harris reputedly was a well-liked manager, perhaps Bluege brought a fresh spark to a tired team. After all, Washington had a long history of surging in the standings for a rookie manager: They climbed from seventh place to second for Clark Griffith in 1912, then won pennants for Harris in 1924 and Joe Cronin in 1933, before Bluege drove them to their runner-up finish of 1943.

Sending Estallela to the Athletics made room for Jerry Priddy, the Yankees hot-prospect second baseman, who, according to Bill James in The Politics of Glory, was summarily exiled to Washington after griping about riding the bench while Joe Gordon starred for the Bombers.

Now the starting second baseman as Ellis Clary shifted to the hot corner to replace Estallela, Priddy provided solid hitting and, more importantly, established himself as one of the best second-sackers in baseball, finishing in the top four in putouts, assists and fielding percentage.

Vastly improved fielding from the entire squad made a night-and-day difference for the Senators. Whereas Washington had booted, muffed and misfired its way to the most errors and worst fielding percentage in the AL in 1942, it improved dramatically in 1943. True, the Nats again brought up the rear in errors and fielding percentage, but Washington cut its sloppy play by 43 miscues.

Most responsible for Washington’s rise, though, was its pitching corps (aided greatly by the improved glove work behind it). In an overhaul of a staff that had surrendered a league-high 4.58 ERA in 1942, only Early Wynn remained in the starting rotation. With Sid Hudson in military service, Bluege inserted Milo Candini, acquired with Priddy from New York, into the rotation. Owning no major league experience, Candini racked up an 11-7 record with a fine 2.49 ERA.

Another rookie, Mickey Haefner, working as both a spot starter and closer, fashioned an 11-5 mark with an even better ERA of 2.29, as well as saving six games. Alex Carrasquel, performing a role similar to Haefner's, improved to 11-7. And talented veteran Dutch Leonard, hampered by a broken leg in 1942, chipped in 11 victories.

William Smith/Associated Press/Associated Press
Taking his first step toward the Hall of Fame, Early Wynn headed a vastly improved Senators' staff.

But the biggest reason for Washington’s rise was the emergence of Wynn. A 5.12 ERA, thanks to 246 hits surrendered in only 190 innings, had sunk Wynn to 10-16 in 1942. But after losing his first five decisions in 1943, Wynn began living up to his surname and developed into the Senators’ ace. Cutting his ERA to 2.91, Early finished the season 18-12, trailing only Spud Chandler and Dizzy Trout in victories. 

Whereas it scored essentially the same amount of runs as in the previous season, Washington’s improvement on the mound and in the field translated to an astounding 222 fewer runs allowed.

With all respect to Bob Johnson, who didn’t belt his first home run until June 26, he had tangibly little to do with Washington’s drastic improvement. Hitting only .245 through the season’s first two months, Johnson did heat up in June and July, batting .328 with a .511 slugging average and 30 RBI. But Washington went 29-31 during those two months, mostly because the pitching staff’s ERA jumped more than half a run in July.

As Senators’ hurlers regained form in August and led the team on a 36-22 tear to season’s end, Indian Bob became Injured Bob, missing a further 24 of the final 58 games and batting an abysmal .193 with only 12 RBI.

Im not implying that the Senators played better without him, but it must be pointed out that the eight-game absence that halted Bob’s two-month hot streak coincided exactly with Washington’s eight-game winning streak, which pushed it from a fourth-place .500 team into the second spot, where the Senators remained for all but two days.

In Johnson’s defense, during a 10-game winning streak in September (which included a three-game sweep of the Yankees), Bob batted .308, with five extra-base hits and seven RBI. This is likely what those voters who put Johnson so high on their ballots recalled about his season.

It is indicative of those less-enlightened times when complete statistics were not readily available—or simply were not scrutinized by know-it-all writers—and voters’ selective memories of hot hitting turned such exploits into season-long crusades of greatness.

Never mind, voters essentially said, that the primary reason for Washington's late-season 10-game winning streak was a white-hot rotation’s 1.19 ERA, including three shutouts and nine complete games.  

I don’t doubt that Bob Johnson brought valuable know-how to the corps of young regulars and key hits to the pennant chase. But he was a force on the field for a little more than two months in 1943—hardly a contribution meriting the fifth-highest MVP vote.

Yet somehow balloters adjudged Johnson far more valuable than Charlie Keller, whose 31 homers, second-most runs scored in the league and AL-highs in walks and OPS made him the best hitter on a pennant winner. Keller also fielded a superb .994 with a mere two errors in 141 games, yet he received one-quarter of the ballot share as Johnson.

More to the point, of the four other Senators who received MVP votes, only catcher Jake Early contributed less with the bat. Speedy right-fielder George Case, whose team-high 180 hits and league-best 61 stolen bases led to an AL-topping 102 runs scored, garnered only 37 votes points compared to Johnson’s whopping 116.

Even fewer votes went to slick-gloved Jerry Priddy. And inexplicably, Early Wynn, who not only anchored a vastly improved pitching staff but batted .296 with 29 hits, collected a mere four percent of the vote. So much for the value placed on pitching…

Not wanting to leave Indian Bob on a sour note, the Boston Red Sox purchased him after the season. Healthy and back in a hitter’s park, Bob rebounded with his best year since 1939.

Batting .324 and working 95 free passes led to a league-leading .431 on-base percentage and .959 OPS. And with Fenway Park’s looming left-field wall (still several years away from a green coat of paint), Johnson’s 17 home runs and 40 doubles yielded 106 RBI—all team bests, as was his 170 hits and 106 runs scored.

Washington’s strong-armed fly-chaser also topped AL left-fielders in baserunner kills for the fifth of six times in his career.

For his effort, Indian Bob finished 10th in the 1944 MVP race (although he should not have taken a deep back seat to Dick Wakefield, who finished fifth despite playing only 78 games).

After one more solid season, Boston cut him loose, sadly preventing Johnson from ever appearing in a World Series when the Red Sox took the pennant in 1946.

He drifted through the high minors for the rest of the decade, playing well, until hanging it up in the early 1950s.

A seven-time All Star and one of the most reliable sluggers of the Depression era, Bob returned to Tacoma, Washington, where he died in 1982.

For more on the 1943 AL MVP vote, see entry No. 3 in my slideshow.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

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