“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”


 
1940-41, 1946-50
#43   EARL JOHNSON

 Earl Johnson was born in Redmond, Washington on April 2, 1919. He attended Ballard High and played exceptionally well in high school. He was fortunate in being able to receive a baseball scholarship to attend St. Mary’s College in Oakland, California, the college that produced so many major league ballplayers over the years. Pitching at such a showcase school, and at one point winning a reported 24 games in a row, it was no surprise that he caught the attention of scouts from several teams. Earl played a little semipro ball in Bremerton, Washington in 1939 and the Red Sox signed him around Christmas time.

Earl was assigned to Boston’s Class-B Piedmont League affiliate in Rocky Mount NC and pitched very well, with a 12-6 record and a 2.67 ERA.

Though still just 21 years old, Earl got a quick promotion to the major league ballclub. By season’s end, no starter on the Red Sox had won more than 12 games and the staff ERA was a high 4.89. The young lefty’s major league debut came at Fenway Park in the midst of an eight-game losing streak in July 1940.

In August, he threw his first shutout, scattering eight hits in 8 1/3 innings against Washington and only two Senators had reached third base. His “out pitch” was a “wide-sweeping curve” that he threw to good effect. He got the Senators again, with a five-hit 4-2 win eight days later. He won a 6-1 four-hitter in Cleveland in mid-September. By season’s end, he had a 6-2 record with a 4.09 ERA.

At the end of March in 1941, the Sox traveled to Havana for a series of four games, the first against a team of Cuban all-stars and the other three against the Cincinnati Reds. Earl pitched the first game against the Reds, allowing just four hits in six innings. When May rolled around, he began to hit his stride once more and was pitching well when he came down with a sore arm. He only started once in June, and only lasted three-plus innings. When the Sox left home last week, he was left behind in the care of the club physician.

In late August, he’d been unable to regain his control since rejoining the rotation. His totals at the end of his first full year in the majors were just 4-5, with a 4.52 ERA.

Little did he know that he would miss four full seasons to service in the United States Army. He drew a high number in the draft lottery, and even before Pearl Harbor prompted the massive expansion of the American armed services, he knew the Army was in his future. He was inducted at Seattle in January 1942.

Private Johnson was posted to Camp Roberts, California and had made corporal by the summertime and was  pitching well for the Camp Roberts baseball team. For 1942, he was on the National Defense List with the Red Sox, a status he maintained for four full years, more than most ballplayers. And unlike most ballplayers, after going through training, Earl saw combat duty.

Sgt. Earl Johnson served with the 120th infantry (30th Division) and landed in Europe, 21 days after D-Day. They had to go through Omaha Beach to get there. The wreckage was still there, the burned-out tanks and half-sunken ships and assault boats that were just so much twisted steel.”Several times, he came across groups of dead, still unburied.

He was a rifle platoon sergeant, involved in liberating many towns in France and Belgium. Unfortunately, he witnessed the results of the Malmedy Massacre in Belgium, where 150 American prisoners had been killed by Nazis. He fought in five major conflicts and took part in the famous Battle of the Bulge. For heroism in combat, he was awarded the Bronze Star, a Bronze Star with clusters, and the Silver Star, and received battlefield commissions promoting him to lieutenant.

His citation for the Bronze Star reads: “On September 30, 1944, in Germany, during heavy concentration of hostile fire, a friendly truck was struck by an enemy shell and had to be abandoned. The fact that the vehicle contained vital radio equipment made it imperative that it be recovered before falling into enemy hands. Sergeant Earl Johnson and several other members of his unit were assigned to this hazardous mission. They courageously braved a severe hostile fire and were completely successful in dragging the vehicle over an area in plain view of the enemy.”

The Bronze Star with clusters was awarded after he helped urge a tank crew to drive through a minefield on its way to wiping out a German position which had pinned down his men.

Earl's Silver Star required another soldier to pitch in. The two were fighting hedgerow by hedgerow in France when they noticed a German tank laying in ambush with its hatch open. Earl threw two hand grenades at the tank  but missed with both. The other soldier tossed one and scored a direct hit and the blast killed all five German tankers. Earl’s platoon started the Battle of the Bulge with 36 men, but ended with only 11.

With the war over in 1945, Lt. Johnson was demobilized and joined many other Red Sox veterans coming back for another year of baseball. In Earl’s case, he’d missed four full years, more than anyone else on the Red Sox. Unlike many others, he’d not been playing service baseball and hadn’t touched a ball the whole time.

Joe Cronin pinned his pitching hopes largely on the returning Tex Hughson, sophomore Dave Ferriss, and Mickey Harris. With his fastball was gone, h had to learn how to become a pitcher instead of just a thrower and developed a slow curve, a changeup and a slider.

Earl got into it early, and after Ferriss got battered around in the second start of the season, Johnson came on and three 5 1/3 innings of relief, allowing just three hits, and got the win. Though he started five games during the year, he was primarily used in relief and all five of his wins came as a reliever. Earl finished the season 5-4, with a 3.71 ERA in 80 innings of work.

Preparing for the World Series, as they waited for the National League’s scheduled three-game playoff to resolve the pennant, Earl started a “warm-up” game to keep the Red Sox in playing shape, as the Sox played against a team of American League All-Stars.

His relief pitching had been strong early in the season, but had tapered off alarmingly in the last two months. Hank Greenberg confided, “There’s something I have to tell you now that you’re about to go into the World Series. For the past two months you’ve been telegraphing every pitch you’ve thrown and the boys in our league have been teeing off on you.” Greenberg explained what Johnson had been doing wrong.

During the 1946 World Series, Earl pitched a hitless ninth and tenth innings in Game One and got the win. In Game Six, he allowed the final run of the game pitching to the Cardinals in the eighth inning, but the Red Sox only scored once and lost, 4-1. After Slaughter had scored to put the Cardinals ahead to stay in Game Seven’s eighth inning, Earl was brought on and got the final out. When he was due up with two outs in the top of the ninth, Cronin had Tom McBride bat for him who grounded into a force play to end the game, and the Series.

Earl went on and had his best year in 1947. His first start of ’47 came in early July, against Greenberg’s former team, shutting out Detroit, 2-0, on six hits, while going 3-for-3 at the plate. His next start came later in July, and in the bottom of the first inning, he surrendered three consecutive singles. The bases were loaded with nobody out and he got out of it, and never allowed another hit for the rest of the game. The only Browns baserunner came in on his one walk. The final was 1-0, Red Sox. He was involved in three more 1-0 games in 1947, and he started every one of them. He lost a two-hitter to the Senators in August, 1-0, on an unearned run. Allowing just three singles, he turned the tables on Washington with a 1-0 win. Then the Yankees got a superior effort and held the Sox scoreless while Johnny Lindell hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth for a 1-0 Yankees win .

Earl won his 10th game in early September, a 4-3 win over the Athletics. A week later, Earl beat Bob Feller with a four-hitter, 3-2. He finished 1947 with a 12-11 record and a 2.97 ERA.

In 1948, he was used almost exclusively in relief, though he had one start in April and two in May. Appearing in 35 games overall, he posted a 10-4 record, but with a distinctly higher ERA at 4.53. He’d begun to lose effectiveness.

In 1949, he appeared in 19 games with a 3-6 record and a 7.48 ERA. In 1950, he got into just 11 games, was 0-0 and had an earned run average of 7.24. In July, Earl was given his outright release to Louisville, though he would remain on the Red Sox roster for 12 more days so that he would become a 10-year man and thus eligible for his pension.

The Tigers took a chance on Earl, signing him in November 1950. He pitched in six games, with no decisions and with a 6.35 ERA. His last major league game was in June 1951 and the the Tigers released him.

He then signed with the Seattle Rainiers to play in the Pacific Coast League and finished out the ’51 season with as 8-3 record and a 3.43 ERA) in 17 games, seven of them complete games. His last year as a player came in 1952, finishing his career with Seattle working as a reliever.

Earl was a Red Sox scout in 1953 starting that year, and served as a fulltime West Coast scout for Boston until he retired following the 1985 season. At one point, while working with the Red Sox in March 1965, he also served as a pitching coach for the Mexico City Red Devils.

When he wasn’t following baseball in the Seattle area, Earl looked after the laundromat he owned in Ballard.

Among all the ballplayers who served in World War II, Earl Johnson was the real military hero. He suffered a minor stroke in the early 1990s and died in Seattle on December 3, 1994, at age 75.