William Johnson (johnsca01)

From BR Bullpen

William Penn Johnson

  • Bats Unknown, Throws Unknown
  • Height 5' 6", Weight Unknown

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Biographical Information[edit]

William Johnson was long misidentified as "Caleb Johnson".

A player named "Johnson" played 13 games for the Cleveland Forest Citys in 1871. He played both infield and outfield as a backup, appearing in somewhat more than half the Cleveland games. Traditionally, that playing record was attributed to Caleb Johnson, born in 1844, who would have been the oldest player on the team. Caleb Johnson, who later became a lawyer, was in fact a ballplayer right after the Civil War, but there is little other evidence that connects him to the Forest Citys. After digging into the available record, researcher Peter Morris became convinced that "Johnson" had been misidentified.

A more likely candidate to be the mystery player is W.P. Johnson, who first played for the Forest Citys when they were still an amateur team back in 1868. Described as a banker, he was normally a second baseman but not a regular member of the club; instead, he was used in certain games when players were required. When the team became fully professional in 1870, Gene Kimball became the regular second baseman, but Johnson continued to hang around and was apparently still there when the team joined the National Association in 1871. All game accounts from those years imply that Johnson was a local boy, a further mark against Caleb Johnson, who was from Illinois and would normally have received mention as an "import", had he been the ballplayer in question.

During that initial National Association season, Johnson was not a member of the regular starting nine, but took over in right field for Elmer White when he missed three home games in late May. When the team went on a road trip on the East Coast in July, White suffered an injury and was replaced by George Ewell, who was likely recruited on the road for the occasion. But Johnson must have received a call from team management, as he showed up to play right field for three games, then switched positions with Kimball, taking over his more familiar second base position. He then returned to the bench when White came back from his injury, playing only one final game in September, after shortstop John Bass was released. The Forest Citys then picked up Joe Quest, who completed the season as the team's second baseman. All of those moves are consistent with Johnson being a player familiar to the club, but not one of its regular members, i.e. someone who can be called to help out in a pinch but not seen as a potential starter for the longer term. It should also be noted that while this was going on, Caleb Johnson was married in Illinois on August 15th, another event that suggests he wasn't filling in for a ball team in Cleveland at the time.

Given his work in banking, W.P. Johnson was identified from city directories as William Penn Johnson, born in 1848 in Parma, OH. Indeed, his obituary, published after his death in 1909 mentions that he was a ballplayer for Cleveland in his younger days.

As a side note, when the playing record was listed under the name "Caleb Johnson" for over 125 years, he was the only major leaguer with the first name Caleb. Caleb Thielbar became the next bearer of that name to play in the majors, in 2013, and given what is now known, was in fact the first major leaguer with that name.

Further Reading[edit]

  • "William Johnson Found", in Bill Carle, ed.: "Biographical Research Committee Report", SABR, March/April, 2015, pp. 1-3.

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