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Mudville: June 16, 2024 5:01 pm PDT

What About “Indian Bob”?

One of the curious aspects of baseball’s early years was the surprising number of full blooded Native American players.

By one count 30 Native Americans played in the Majors between the 1890s and 1920 including one Hall of Famer, Albert ‘Chief’ Bender. Jim Thorpe, perhaps the greatest all-around athlete in American history and John ‘Chief’ Meyers, according to Bill James, the best backstop in the 1910-20 era also played during these years.

The racism pervasive at the time was reflected in the way that sports writers referred to Native American players as ‘Chief’ or ‘Heap Big Injun.’ The number of full-blooded Native Americans declined by the 1930s when according to one count only 6 described as ‘Indians’ were on American League rosters.

Unlike other groups especially black and Latin players, the baseball community tended to accept Native American players as a reflection of baseball’s democratic nature.

Players with Indian ancestry continued to play baseball at a high level over the years including such talented players as Pepper Martin, Rudy York, Allie Reynolds. Recently Jacoby Ellsbury, a Navajo, had some solid seasons with the Red Sox.

One of the best of the Native American players has been largely forgotten today. “Indian Bob” Johnson, a one quarter Cherokee who played in the majors between 1933 and 1945 was one of the dominant offensive sluggers of his era.

A Portrait of Robert L. (Bob) Johnson of the Philadelphia Athletics in 1937. (Photo by Sporting News and Rogers Photo Archive via Getty Images)

Born Robert Lee Johnson in 1906 in Oklahoma, then referred to as Indian Territory and not yet a state, he came from a family of athletes. His older brother Roy played major league baseball for ten years mainly with Detroit and the Boston Red Sox and compiled a .296 lifetime batting average – but suffered from what sportswriters of the day, keeping to the Indian idiom, called an affinity for fire water.

Bob (who gloried in the nick name “Indian Bob”) was a solidly built 6-footer who weighed in at between 180 and 200 pounds during his playing days. After his family moved to the state of Washington, he played baseball wherever he could to pick up a little money. He joined Portland of the Pacific Coast League at 22 and quickly proved that he was a solid hitter, slugging 20 homers for three consecutive seasons and averaging 99 RBIs. Connie Mack bought his contract but had no place for him on his great teams of the 1929-1931 years.

Johnson made the Athletics’ roster in 1933 and quickly proved to be one of the dominant sluggers of Depression era baseball. With the A’s from 1933 to 1942 he hit .300 four times and drove in 100 runs for seven consecutive seasons. He also averaged 100 runs scored for nine straight seasons. Johnson primarily played left field and was a better than average defensive outfielder with a strong arm. He twice led the American League in outfield assists. In his sophomore season he hit in 26 consecutive games. He made the All-Star team seven times. For his career he hit .296 and compiled 2000 hits along with 1283 RBIs.

If you compare him to the best offensive players of his playing career, i.e., 1933-1945 he would rank just below Hall of Famers such as Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Mel Ott. In fact, when he retired in 1945 his 288 home runs ranked 7th behind Hall of Famers, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Lou Gehrig, Al Simmons and Rogers Hornsby. Bill James ranks him as the 31st best left fielder in baseball history, a questionable view in my estimation given that James places players such as Roy White or Jose Cruz ahead of him.

Some idea of Johnson’s skills can be found in areas regarded highly by baseball people today.  His on base percentage for a right-handed hitter, .393 is higher than Hall of Famers such as Frank Robinson, Willie Mays or Mike Schmidt. His slugging percentage, .506 is higher than Jim Rice or Ernie Banks who are in the Hall of Fame. His OPS of .899 is higher than Harmon Killebrew, Joe Medwick and Al Kaline – also all Hall of Fame players. Ted Williams perhaps summed up Johnson’s overall performance best: “He drove in over one hundred runs in seven of his first nine seasons with that rag tag outfit.”

Robert L. (Bob) Johnson of the Philadelphia Athletics swinging a bat in 1939. (Photo by Sporting News and Rogers Photo Archive via Getty Images)

With this kind of record, the question arises why is he forgotten today except for baseball aficionados?

Johnson had the misfortune to play in one of the drabbest eras in baseball history, the depression and then during World War II when the nation’s attention was not focused on sport. Not only did he miss playing on Connie Mack’s last three pennant winners and two World Series teams, but also only three of the clubs he played on had winning records which robbed him of recognition. Johnson also got a late start in the majors. While in the minors and especially after his brother Roy made the majors, Johnson said “he knew he was good enough for the big Leagues.” But he was 26 when he joined the Athletics in 1933, robbing him of three to four years of quality major league play, years that might have raised his numbers to Hall of Fame level.

John P. Rossi is Professor Emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia. His most recent book was Baseball and American Culture, Rowman and Littlefield, 2019. He is also the co-winner of the Macmillan SABR Award for best research essay in 1998 for his essay on Bill Veeck’s attempt to purchase the 1943 Phillies.

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