John Shearer: Chattanoogan Jimmy Johnston Took Part In World Series 100 Years Ago

  • Tuesday, October 25, 2016
  • John Shearer
Exactly a century ago, a Chattanoogan was playing in what was the biggest sports show at the time – the baseball World Series.
James Harle “Jimmy” Johnston, who is buried at Forest Hills Cemetery at the foot of Lookout Mountain, went a solid 3-for-10 batting and started two of the five games for Brooklyn against the Boston Red Sox in 1916.
In one of the games, a memorable 14-inning thriller that was the longest World Series game until 2005, he faced a Boston pitcher by the name of Babe Ruth.
It was just part of a stellar career that also included playing against his older brother, fellow Chattanoogan Wheeler “Doc” Johnston, in the 1920 World Series.
It was the first fall classic to feature brothers on opposing teams.
This standout athlete later returned to Chattanooga, where he lived a much quieter life in his senior years.
With the 2016 World Series beginning Tuesday between the long-suffering Chicago Cubs and the also-drought-stricken Cleveland Indians, a look back at the now mostly forgotten Mr. Johnston’s life reveals a man who once also played for the Cubs. And his brother played for the Indians during the year when he met his brother’s Brooklyn team in the World Series.
Born in Cleveland, Tenn., on Dec. 10, 1889, as one of seven children of a farming couple, Jimmy Johnston later moved to Chattanooga. He broke into professional baseball in 1908 playing for a minor league team in Kewanee, Ill. Another team he played for was one from Ottumwa, Iowa.
But in 1911, he played for a more familiar team – the Chicago White Sox. After the brief major league debut, he returned to play for such minor league teams as Birmingham and San Francisco, which was then a minor league team in the Pacific Coast League.
In 1913 with San Francisco, he broke a then-professional league record at any level with 124 stolen bases.
He then returned to the big leagues again in 1914 with the Chicago Cubs before going back to the minors in Oakland in 1915. In 1916, he arrived in the major leagues to stay with Brooklyn.
But he still moved around in terms of the multiple positions he played. A right-handed batter and thrower, he played right field in the 1916 World Series against the Boston Red Sox, platooning with a left-hander who would also go on to enjoy much fame in baseball, primarily as a manager – Casey Stengel.
In the first 1916 World Series game on Saturday, Oct. 7 – which was also the same day of the memorable 222-0 football victory by Georgia Tech over Cumberland in Atlanta – he came in as a pinch hitter late.
At the Braves Field in Boston, he had a single in the eighth inning. But Brooklyn – which was then more commonly known as the Robins instead of the Dodgers due to manager Wilbert Robinson’s name – lost, 6-5.
Braves Field, a small part of which remains today as Nickerson Field at Boston University, was being used because it was larger than the Red Sox’s Fenway Park.
After the teams skipped Sunday, the second World Series game was played on Monday, Oct. 9, also at Braves Field. The Red Sox won 2-1 in 14 innings, with Mr. Ruth pitching all 14 innings. Mr. Johnston went 1-for-5 hitting.
Despite its length, that game still lasted only two hours and 30 minutes, much shorter than the average length of three hours for a nine-inning game today with numerous pitching changes, etc. An average game in 1916 was usually two hours or less.
On Tuesday, Oct. 10, the third game moved to smaller Ebbets Field, which was named for Dodgers owner Charles Hercules Ebbets, an architect by trade. In front of only about 21,000 – smaller than the crowds of 36,000-43,000 that watched in Boston – Brooklyn got back in the series with a 4-3 win. Mr. Johnston did not play.
In the fourth game the next day, also at Ebbets Field, Mr. Johnston had perhaps his best game, going 1-for-4, including a triple in the first inning to score a run. But the Robins still did not have a whole lot of success, losing 6-2.
In the fifth game on Thursday, Oct. 12, back at Braves Field, the Red Sox won, 4-1, to clinch the World Series in a game that lasted 1:43. Mr. Johnston’s dreams of a World Series championship ended, but the 26-year-old’s major league career was just getting started.
He went on to play for Brooklyn for nearly 10 more years before ending his major league career in 1926 with both the Boston Braves and the New York Giants.
But he did get one more chance in the World Series in 1920 against the Cleveland Indians, which were managed by star player Tris Speaker. This series had an air of familiarity about it, but not just because Mr. Johnston had played in the fall classic before.
He was getting to play against his older brother, “Doc” Johnston, who would play in the major leagues off and on from 1909-1923. His Indians, who had overcome the August 1920 beaning death of teammate Ray Chapman – the only major league player to die from injuries suffered in a game – won 5 games to 2 during a short period when five games were needed to win a World Series. That victory also came despite the fact that Brooklyn won the second and third games to take a brief series lead.
Doc Johnston started at first base in that series in the second, fourth, fifth and seventh games and went 3-for-11 batting. Jimmy Johnston started at third base for the first four games and went 3-for-14 before having to sit out the final three games, apparently due to a knee injury.
Game 5 at Cleveland’s Dunn Field was the most memorable due to the fact that it included the only triple play in World Series history (unassisted by Cleveland’s Bill Wambsganss), the first World Series grand slam (by Elmer Smith of the Indians), and the first home run by a pitcher (Cleveland’s Jim Bagby, who drove in Doc Johnston).
Cleveland won that unusual game, 8-1, despite being outhit by the Robins.
After Jimmy Johnston’s playing career, this father of five continued to stay active in baseball for a few years in such roles as a manager of the Chattanooga Lookouts in the late 1920s and as a coach of Brooklyn.
However, just as he was known as a versatile player in baseball due to the various positions he played, he was also that way in his post-playing working days. He later went on to farm on some Middle Tennessee land he purchased with his baseball earnings.
Unfortunately, he lost the farm during the Great Depression, so in the early 1940s he had to take some positions that some might consider below a former major leaguer. But he showed that all work is honorable if done with a good attitude. Just as he had been as a player, he reportedly maintained an affable manner while serving as the Engel Stadium building superintendent and maintenance man and then as the starter/money collector at Brainerd Golf Course.
While working at Brainerd, he continued showing some athletic prowess by once shooting his age of 73.
After moving back to Chattanooga, he initially lived at 1115 S. Crest Road and then at 1802 McBrien Road for the last 20 or so years of his life.
He died on Feb. 14, 1967 – Valentine’s Day -- after a series of strokes and was buried at Forest Hills Cemetery. His older brother had died in 1961 and was buried at the Brainerd Methodist Church Cemetery by the church they both attended.
Among the Chattanoogans who survive him today is 99-year-old Helen Gilleland, his niece. She is the daughter of Anna Mack Johnston Johnson, who was one of Mr. Johnston’s sisters. Mrs. Gilleland’s daughter is Mrs. Scott (Mary) Cook of Signal Mountain and her grandson is Times Free Press columnist and McCallie School teacher David Cook.
Another Chattanoogan who was related to the baseball-playing brothers was the late former Chattanooga Free Press official Jeanne Johnston, the daughter of their brother, Cliff Johnston.
At the time of Jimmy Johnston’s death, then-Chattanooga Times sports writer Jay Searcy tracked down the former player’s old teammate, Casey Stengel, who had gone on to manage the New York Yankees to seven World Series titles.
Mr. Stengel took a few moments to remember Mr. Johnston fondly. “He was a very good player and a teammate player,” he said. “He was never in any kind of trouble that you ever heard of.”
The baseball great also recalled Mr. Johnston’s base-stealing skills.
In Jimmy Johnston’s later years working at the Brainerd course, the younger people likely knew him only as the course starter.
But old-timers no doubt remembered him as a World Series starter, an athletic feat only a few other Chattanoogans have achieved.
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