A baseball legend is buried in Hamburg. Until Tuesday, he was virtually anonymous.
He once clubbed 60 home runs in a season.
Another time, the .336 career hitter outslugged the great Ty Cobb. Oh, and he did it in baseball’s “dead-ball era” of the early 1900s, when it seemed as if nobody could muster much offense.
But for 50 years, Grant “Home Run” Johnson’s grave was unmarked. Buried a pauper, the black baseball hero rested underneath an unmarked patch of grass at Lakeside Cemetery.
Now, after a grave-marking ceremony through the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR, he has a tombstone and more – a memorial about 30 yards from it with his photo, statistics and biography.
“We are recognizing a good man who made a great contribution to Buffalo history – a man who deserves to be recognized for his baseball skills, who would be in the Cooperstown Hall of Fame were it not for segregation,” said Howard W. Henry, the SABR member who organized the grave-marking.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project helps to locate the graves of former Negro League ballplayers and place markers there. So far, Henry said, more than 30 have been recognized.
Honoring Johnson took some persistence from Henry, a retired social worker and former lecturer at SUNY Buffalo State, but he was passionate about making sure Johnson was recognized for his contributions to black baseball history.
Johnson earned his “Home Run” sobriquet during his days as a semiprofessional player in his hometown of Findlay, Ohio. His stats at the semipro level are gaudy. He cranked 60 round-trippers in 1894 for the Findlay Sluggers.
Johnson “was not a Babe Ruth-type hitter; more a Hank Aaron-type hitter, line drives that carried,” Henry said.
Most power hitters do not hit for average. For example, Sammy Sosa’s career batting average was .273, and Mark McGwire’s was .263.
Johnson, though, was one of those rare athletes, such as Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers, who could both drill the long ball and maintain an impressive average.
Johnson hit .291 in the Negro Leagues, but his best batting days happened in his prime at the semipro level, where he routinely hit in the high .300s and low .400s. In his finest season, he accrued a .413 average.
That is not to say Home Run Johnson was a player of the caliber of Cabrera, Sosa or McGwire; he played at a lower level, of course. But it is indicative of the level to which he dominated his competition.
Johnson’s feats are more impressive considering he played in the dead-ball era. It earned this moniker because offense in those days came at a premium; most games were exceptionally low scoring – in 1908, major league teams averaged 3.4 runs per game – and home runs were a rarity.
Johnson played in winter leagues in Cuba, where he hit .412 in a 1910 series of exhibition games against the major league all-stars. In that series, Ty Cobb – the legendary outfielder who set 90 major league records – hit .369.
Johnson played for the Leland Giants in 1910. The Giants, who played in an all-white neighborhood in Chicago, had their own ballpark. Led by Johnson’s .397 batting average and the play of Hall of Famer John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, Leland finished 123-6 (a winning percentage of .953).
Johnson played and managed until 1932, when he was 58. An outspoken advocate for healthy living – he didn’t smoke or drink – the exceptional athlete stayed in competitive playing shape for a remarkably long time.
At the tail end of his career, Johnson moved to Buffalo to play with the Pittsburgh Colored Stars (yes, they played in Buffalo). He later accepted a gig managing the Buffalo Giants in 1923.
After he retired from baseball, Johnson worked for the New York Central Railroad.
Johnson immersed himself in Buffalo culture, performing with the Buffalo Clefs singing group and helping to found the Buffalo Choral Society (not to be confused with the Buffalo Choral Arts Society, which exists to this day). He was also a member of Bethel Baptist Church. “He was at home in a tuxedo on stage just as he was at home in a uniform on the diamond,” Henry said.
Johnson died at age 90 on Sept. 4, 1963, nine months before the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.
In 2006, 17 black baseball legends were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Johnson was considered but not admitted. Henry said that publicly marking his grave would help Johnson’s candidacy for the Hall.
“I think there’s a much better chance now,” Henry said. “I think he missed the cut back in 2006 because not as much was known about his background, not as much was known about his history.”
Joseph P. Dispenza, president of Forest Lawn, said during the ceremony that a person dies three times: when the family hears of the person’s death, when he or she is buried, and the last time someone speaks that person’s name.
“Today,” Dispenza said, “Mr. Grant ‘Home Run’ Johnson lives on.”