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Harold Johnson in Milwaukee

ESSAY

I suppose the memory of Harold Johnson is fading in Door County, and even on Washington Island the facts of his life are dimming every time you hear of the death of an old Islander. After all, Harold Johnson was born in 1912 and died in 1979, a long time ago for many people.

He was a fisherman on Washington Island most of his life, fishing out of Jackson Harbor for the most part. He was known as a fine fisherman in his day, but fishing wasn’t what made him an icon in Door County. It was what he did on most Sundays in the summer.

So when I went to the Island Archives the other day to get information on Harold Johnson, I got a quizzical look from the ladies there. They thought for a few seconds, and then one said, “Oh Lefty, you what info on Lefty Johnson?!”

“Sure,” I said.

I first saw him on a baseball diamond in 1946 when he was 34 and I was eight. But before I was born, and before he was known as Lefty, Harold spent his spare time learning the game of baseball, at least the pitching part of the game. As a kid he would measure off sixty feet, six inches from a fence post, and start throwing stones at it until he hit the post eighteen times out of twenty. He did that day after day until it was easy to throw a stone or a baseball to the exact place he wanted it to end up.

Throwing stones for fun went on until the summer he was 16. That year, 1928, he started playing for the local town team. Things got serious then. For one thing, being a “Southpaw,” people started calling him “Lefty,” so I guess for the rest of his life he would be known as Lefty Johnson, as though Lefty was his given name. He would quickly develop a reputation for being a better than average pitcher, and by 1931, age 19, his reputation as a great pitcher was assured when he had 12 strikeouts in a game against a barnstorming team from Piney Woods, Mississippi.

It’s true that the final score was 7 – 0 for the tourists, but Piney Woods was used to having great teams. A two-game series with the Pittsburgh Crawford’s of the Negro League was split in 1935. The Crawford’s featured four future Hall of Fame players including Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell.

A bout of blood poisoning in his left arm set Lefty back an entire season at some point, but when he recovered he went back to throwing a baseball with great accuracy. It is said that if Lefty threw a fastball just under the chin of an opposing batter, that was where it was meant to be. But none of that gets Lefty to Milwaukee, does it?

Well, therein lies a problem. Everyone knows he went, but no one I’ve asked remembers when. But what happened at old Borchert Field, the home of the AAA Milwaukee Brewers in the 30s, is the stuff of legends.

Lefty had been seen by a scout for the Brewers and was asked to show up in Milwaukee for a tryout. He probably came with his glove, high top tennis shoes, dungarees, and perhaps a baseball shirt with the initials W.I. on the left chest. Lefty didn’t wear spikes, you see, until it became a rule in Door County Baseball.

Or is there another story here? The team from Piney Woods was much taken with the pitcher they had seen on Washington Island, and they were playing their 91st game of the summer. So they knew all about pitchers and as they continued their barnstorming tour around Milwaukee and Madison, a theory is that they told certain people of the left-handed pitcher they had seen on Washington Island. The only thing that is clear is that a scout did see Lefty, for whatever reason.

So take your pick, but what is known is Lefty was asked to throw batting practice by the Brewers. Just nice easy pitches anyone could hit, to let the hitters sharpen their eyes for the next game. Lefty went along with that for a while, and soon baseballs started to bounce off the outfield fence, and even worse, fly over it with great regularity. That was all new to Lefty, who above all else was a first rate competitor. He soon had had enough of seeing balls flying every which way and he decided he had to restore order to maintain his dignity.

Well, the fastball got much faster and from time to time the famous curve ball came dropping in to call. Now balls were being hit only rarely and soon were not being hit at all. No balls were finding the outfield fence because there was a batting practice pitcher throwing pitches that could not be hit by a team one step below Major League level.

So Lefty Johnson was told to go back to Washington Island, he just didn’t get it. Now, I think that answers a question for us, doesn’t it? If he were a young man they should have signed him on the spot, so he must have been older. Age meant a lot to baseball in those days, and if he was approaching age 30 he would be looked on as used up as far as baseball was concerned. So that’s my theory. (I do know the great “Buck” O’Neil put me off at age 23 in the spring of 1961.)

The story of Lefty and Milwaukee was still making the rounds when I saw him pitch in ‘46, and had probably picked up a life of its own. He retired in 1954 at age 42, after pitching the Islanders to a championship. Unfortunately, the year I played at age 15, he was off fishing somewhere else. So I can never remember ever speaking to Lefty Johnson.

On Sundays when Lefty pitched, the hat was passed twice during the game, the first was for Lefty and the second was for the team.

I guess the truth is we will never know how great Harold “Lefty” Johnson was. A small man, he had a fastball that could not be considered lazy on its journey to the plate and was much better than average. But his best feature was a Major League curve ball that was thrown hard and dropped a couple of feet and slide left a foot or two all at the same time. Just think Ford, Lolich, or Koufax and you’ve got it.

The people of Washington Island and Door County always called him Lefty as far as I know, and the cry heard at the ballpark was, “THROW’UM THE ‘OLD DARK ONE,’ LEFTY!” and a cheer would go up when the “the old dark one” caught the corner. So now we know it was all true, that there never was a man named Harold Johnson who once lived on Washington Island, only a very fine fisherman named Lefty Johnson.

(Sources: Jake Ellefson, centerfield of Washington Island Islanders; Ray Hansen, third base of Washington Island Islanders; Washington Island Archives; Door County Advocate Archives, and the archives of The Chicago Defender newspaper.)

I was born on Plum Island when people were still being born there. I was raised on Washington Island until age sixteen, then eventually moved to California where I lived the great majority of my life, except for five years in Saudi Arabia in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I came back to the Island in 2005. I wrote about 80 stories for our local paper, which were terrible, but people seemed to like them anyway.