A Conversation With Former Negro League All-Star Ernie Johnson
Johnson hit .296 with a league-leading 11 home runs for the Monarchs in 1953. His 22-year-old teammate, Ernie Banks, was third in the league with a .347 batting average. By mid-season, Banks, who had missed the previous two years while in the Army, was the talk of the league. “I thought Ernie Banks was a good ballplayer,” said Johnson, “but I never visualized him becoming the great player he became. He was good, but I don’t remember him being that much better than everyone else. Of course, I never idolized any of the guys I played with or against. I just thought I was as good as any of them.” Johnson wasn’t just being arrogant. Buck O’Neil once told a reporter he thought Johnson was the best hitter on that team.
Played annually in Comiskey Park since 1933 (with a few exceptions in the early years when it was played elsewhere) the East-West game was the pinnacle of any Negro League season and had once been a major social event in Black America. With attendance swelling to more than 50,000 in the mid-40s, they outdrew the major league All-Star game several times. Players were chosen for the East-West game by fans voting in the nation’s two largest Black newspapers, the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. As stated by Buck O’Neil in I Was Right On Time: “Our game meant a lot more than a big-league game. Theirs was, and is, more or less an exhibition. But for black folks, the East-West Game was a matter of racial pride. Black people came from all over to Chicago every year.” The Illinois Central Railroad would put on a special coach from New Orleans to Chicago to pick people up all through the south and bring them in for the game.
While the East-West game had once boasted talent as rich as any major league game, by 1953 most of the premier names had been sold to the majors and major league teams were beginning to bypass the Negro League altogether and sign their own young Black players. Johnson’s 1953 East-West teammate Ernie Banks would be the last player to appear in a Negro League All-Star game and later play in a major league All-Star game. Attendance at the 1953 game was a mere 10,000. Banks made several flashy plays at short stop and Johnson had a big two-run single to help the West, managed by O’Neil, to a 5-1 victory.
Johnson enjoyed several good years in Des Moines and Souix City, hitting .320, .300 and .308. Despite the numbers, he was never given a chance to move much higher. He ended his career in 1959 with Charleston.
No regrets. Ernie Johnson, professional baseball player. Just a few years ahead of his time.