Sunday, July 4, 1999
Pulled out of the stands into a career
BY JOHN ERARDI
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Don Johnson grew up in Covington. White youngsters had a baseball team, and Mr. Johnson said the only way they let him play is if he would catch - the team had no catcher's equipment.
Don Johnson was a second baseman for the Chicago American Giants (1949-51) and the Philadelphia Stars (1952).
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Mr. Johnson took what he could get.
"I didn't care," he said. "I'd get right behind the batter. If you stay down low and don't raise up, you don't get hit as much. Stay down low and protect your face with the glove."
It was a game between the Indianapolis Clowns and the Chicago American Giants at Crosley Field in 1949 that started Mr. Johnson's career. He was 22 years old. He paid $1.50 to get into the game and sat next to Chicago's dugout.
Pat Patterson, Chicago's catcher, recognized him because he had seen the young man play fast-pitch softball for the Cincinnati Hottentots.
Wingfield Welch, Chicago's manager, told Mr. Patterson to have Mr. Johnson go out to the bus and put a uniform on and that afterward they'd talk about playing pro ball.
"Wait a minute!" Mr. Johnson told them. "I paid a dollar-and-a-half to get in here. Gimme my dollar-and-a-half back."
Mr. Patterson and Mr. Welch laughed uproariously and reimbursed the kid his 12 bits. It turned out to be a good down payment: Later that year, he hooked on for good with the American Giants and a career was born.
One of his favorite stories was the time the Chicago American Giants were barnstorming through Mississippi, and the team's bus driver ran a red light.
"The cop pulled us over. He said, ŚHey, boy, did you see that red light?' The bus driver said, yeah, I saw it. ŚWell why'd you run it then?' the cop asked him. He said, ŚWell, I saw all the white people goin' through on the green, and I know y'all don't want us doin' what the white people do. So, I went through on the red.' The cop laughed a good one and said, ŚGo on, get out of here!' "
It was Mr. Patterson who gave Mr. Johnson the nickname Groundhog because of the way he rode low to the dirt and gobbled up ground balls. Mr. Johnson's shortstop for awhile in Chicago was Cincinnatian Larry Raines. They were teammates of Satchel Paige in 1951.
Mr. Johnson's favorite Satch story - everybody has one - is the night against the Baltimore Elite Giants when Mr. Paige told his teammates he would not be using his curveball that night. Strictly fastballs.
"I'm gonna blind these suckers tonight," ol' Satch said.
And that's just what he did, Mr. Johnson recalled.
"Struck out 12 of 'em in nine innings, all fastballs."
Mr. Johnson still plays baseball in the White Oak League on Tuesday night. Still plays second base.
"I love it just as much as when I was a kid," he says. "Wouldn't want to catch anymore without a mask on, though."
Negro League Stories