He’s Still Game

By Off the BASN Wire By Stan Grossfeld
Updated: November 19, 2007
Ralph Johnson
ralph johnson

ATLANTA, GA.——In the Negro leagues, he was teammates with Willie and Hank, and he barnstormed with Jackie. Now, nearly a half-century after he hung up his spikes without fulfilling his dream of playing in the major leagues, Ralph Johnson, 80, is fielding his greatest team ever.

He is raising by himself five school-age children, four of whom are grandchildren left abandoned when their father was murdered. Despite having to undergo kidney dialysis three times a week in the hospital, despite having no pension from his baseball career, Johnson is a genuine MVP: Most Valuable Parent.

“He’s a hero, a very good-hearted person,” says Willie Fannin of Family Links Day Care. “He takes good care of those children.”

Johnson was known as “Big Cat” in his heyday, when he was hitting home runs for the New York Cubans, New York Black Yankees, Indianapolis Clowns, Birmingham Black Barons, and Kansas City Monarchs. He also barnstormed in the US, Canada, and Latin America during his 12-year career. He claims he played on five all-star teams, hit 500 home runs, and batted .296 lifetime.

Today, Johnson struggles to make ends meet on meager Social Security payments and a support stipend of $5 a day per child from the state. In 1997, Major League Baseball gave $10,000 annual pensions to 85 former Negro leaguers who had played at least one day in the majors. Johnson, like more than an estimated 120 other surviving Negro leaguers, didn’t qualify.

Now, he says, he barely has enough to feed his family.

“I’m broke,” he says from his apartment in a high-crime Atlanta neighborhood. “I’m just barely getting by.”

“Big Cat” prays that he has nine lives, for the children’s sake.

“I just wish I could live 10 more years to get these kids through high school,” he says. “That’s what I’m living for. I’d hate to see them scattered around.”

But there is hope. At the recent Congressional hearings on steroids, baseball commissioner Bud Selig met with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), who last year authored a Senate resolution urging fair compensation for and recognition of the sacrifices of the Negro leaguers, who played from 1920-60. The resolution argued that the 1997 MLB pension settlement is unfair because baseball wasn’t truly integrated until the last team signed a black player: the Red Sox, in 1959, with Pumpsie Green. Johnson retired in 1955.

Selig told Nelson, “We’re responsible,” and promised a settlement within a month. But the matter is clouded by a pending reverse discrimination suit by white players who weren’t eligible for pensions even after the requirements were expanded in 1997. For the remaining Negro leaguers, this could be their last at-bat for compensation.

“We contributed to the game, too,” says Johnson. “We’re old and we’re really going down. A lot of us are dying.”

Last year, 22 former Negro league players died.

Walking among kings

Despite his health problems, Johnson, who is tall and slender, and easy with a smile, can pass for 60.

“The kids keep me young,” he says.

And when he talks baseball, which is all the time, he seems even younger. He remembers Hank Aaron and Willie Mays as totally different personalities.

“Me and Hank played together with the Indianapolis Clowns [in 1950]. He was 18. He was just a shy little kid, but there was a lot of spirit in him. He played shortstop and I played third. He was a small guy, 140 pounds, but boy could he hit. He had those wrists from birth.

“I played with Willie on the Birmingham Barons. Willie was just the opposite. Funny and outgoing. He was a practical joker. He used to put frogs in people’s beds at night.

On the field he bragged that he would do something and then he’d do it. I think he was the best ballplayer I ever saw. Hit, field, run.

“We played in major league stadiums on weekends when the teams were out of town. I played in Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field. I loved the Polo Grounds. The first time I came to New York, I was a 23-year-old country boy from Bartow, Fla. I looked up at those big buildings and I was falling backwards.

“I played at Fenway, but that damn wall was too high for me.”

He said he also played in places in the South where the team bus would be met with a shotgun when it pulled up to a store.

He says he would have played baseball for free.

“When I was making $290 a month plus $3 in meal money, I thought I was king,” he says. “If I get up and hit a home run, somebody would go round with a bucket and take a collection. Sometimes you could get $25.”

He says he had a tryout with the St Louis Cardinals in Ontario, but doesn’t remember the year.

“They sent me back home,” says Johnson. “I don’t know what the reason was. I guess I wasn’t good enough. It just didn’t happen, but I don’t regret anything.

Busy schedule

Although Johnson could talk baseball all day, it’s mid-afternoon and he’s off to Usher Elementary School to pick up the youngest of the five children (aged 8 to 13).

“The hardest thing is teaching them to do the right thing every day, and they are responding,” says Johnson. “J.T., the youngest, is reading at a fifth-grade level in third grade.”

Likewise, J.T. is proud of his grandfather.

“I saw grandpa on the Internet,” says J.T. “That made me very happy. I love him.”

At home, grandpa makes the children do their homework and clean up. When asked if he still can hit, Johnson puts on a replica Barons uniform, orders the children to get the bats and tennis ball, and heads outside. After a few warmup swings, he makes contact every time. He even hits one ball a block toward Martin Luther King Boulevard.

“They were talking about having an old-timers day game at Turner Field,” says Johnson. “I said, `Don’t forget me.’ I believe that in two or three weeks I could be ready. Only I can’t last long.”

The days, he says, are long and exhausting.

“I get up at 6 a.m. and I see that the kids are ready for school,” he says. “At noon I start thinking about what to make for dinner. I don’t like them to have fast food. I’m a good cook. Yes, their granddaddy makes the best cornbread in town. Sometimes I have to make two pans.”

When the kids go to bed, so does he.

Johnson says he gets help from several sources, including counseling from Project Healthy Grandparents, a Georgia State College support program. The local church picks up the children every Sunday for services.

On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, he drops the children at school, then heads to Piedmont Hospital downtown for dialysis. With gospel music blaring on the radio, jumbo dice sitting on the dashboard, and an Atlanta Braves cap on his head, he’s a happy guy.

“I get my strength from the Lord,” he says.

He brings his own blanket so he can nap during the three-hour procedure if he wants to.

Even when still hooked up to tubes, he does his impression of Satchel Paige throwing his hesitation pitch, kicking up his leg like Juan Marichal.

“Paige had size 15 feet,” he says. “You couldn’t see the ball. When he got to the major leagues, they outlawed that pitch.”

Johnson recalls that he played in the Dominican Republic for $888 a week. “We lived like kings on that,” he says. “I had a suite and a maid, an interpreter, and a car. It was like being a millionaire. Sometimes we played three games a day.”

With the Clowns, he played with Toni Stone, a female second baseman who wasn’t allowed in the All-American Girls Baseball League because of the color of her skin.

“She was good,” says Johnson.

“She hit like .240, but I nearly killed her one night. There was a ball hit to me at third, I threw it to her and it went through her darn glove and hit her in the forehead and knocked her out.

One guy looked at her and said, `She’s dead.’ “

Memories of Jackie

Johnson doesn’t begrudge modern players their huge salaries, though he wishes they were a little tougher.

“They get a scratch and they sit out 3-4 days,” he says. “But as far as their salaries, I say good for them.”

However, he thinks most current African-American major leaguers have forgotten about the pioneers in the Negro leagues.

“They don’t even think of us,” he says. “Oh, no. If we didn’t catch hell, get treated like dogs, they wouldn’t be here. We opened the door for them, and when they got in, they closed it behind them.”

Johnson remembers playing with Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 with the Dodgers.

“We barnstormed together in 1952 with Campy [Roy Campanella] and [Don] Newcombe,” he says.

“Jackie was still catching so much hell. Everyone wanted to see Jackie. He wanted to be left alone. He was always sitting by himself. Once, Jackie and Campy got into an argument when Jackie didn’t want to go out. They almost came to blows. I understand that kind of pressure. He needed some damn rest.

“There were a lot of players better than Jackie, but they got the right guy. Guys I know would not have taken all that hell. They would’ve taken out guns and knives.”

Johnson is part of a group of former Negro leaguers who call themselves the “Living Legends.”

In 1989, there were approximately 350 Negro league alumni; about a third remain. Johnson hopes to get a retroactive pension of $60,000 to bring him up to par with the Negro leaguers who got the pensions starting in 1997. Then he hopes to receive the $10,000 annually.

“That’s a million dollars to me,” he says. “That would mean a hell of a lot. That’s a drop in the bucket for them.”

A father is reborn

He says he would take some of that money and send it to his grown-up children; he had eight before getting divorced in 1963. The youngest is now 34, the oldest is 53, and one has recently died.

After his playing days, he drove an 18-wheeler delivering rebuilt television tubes all around the country.

“I took care of my kids but I missed a lot of their growing up,” he says.

In 1983, arthritis forced him to retire from truck driving. In 1986, he bought a pool hall in Atlanta. In 1990, an unwed pregnant teenager started hanging out there. “She just kept following me around,” he says. Johnson befriended her and tried to counsel her against using drugs and alcohol.

After Carnel was born, the troubled young mother showed up unannounced on Johnson’s front porch one winter night with the 2-week-old baby. She begged Johnson to take him.

“I just fell in love with that boy,” he says. “I believe God sent him.”

Eighteen months later, he established legal guardianship. He says the baby saved him — not the other way around.

“Before, things wasn’t going right for me,” he says. “I couldn’t sleep. When I got this boy, my life just turned around. I put all my time into taking care of him.”

That included late-night runs to the hospital because of Carnel’s chronic asthma. Today, Carnel is 13 years old and thriving.

“He’s going to be a player,” says Johnson. “He looks just like David Justice.”

A week before Christmas in 1999, Johnson stepped to the plate again.

“The father of my grandkids got killed,” he says. “Somebody broke in and shot him right in bed. He led the fast life. Drugs and women.”

Johnson’s daughter, the mother of the children, was nowhere to be found.

“She was out running the streets,” he says. He was appointed legal guardian and is in the process of adopting them.

He feels his life is in extra innings because of the children.

“If I can just live long enough so they grow up to be respectful people, that’s all I want,” he says. “Good kids.”

While those kids play, Johnson starts dinner: fried chicken, okra, cabbage, rice, and cornbread. He is wheeling like a short-order cook. The kitchen is hot and the ground floor windows don’t open. When he rinses the chicken wings in the sink, he starts fading rapidly. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go lie down,” he says.

The kids let him sleep and devour dinner without him. They save him the biggest chicken wing and keep it warm. Then they all clean up, wash the dishes, take out the trash, and sweep the floor.

Nobody complains about the famous cornbread that never got made. And as an exhausted Ralph Johnson sleeps soundly in his bedroom, he should know that his dream already has come true. They are good kids, brought up by a decent man, hoping to go the distance.