Around 3 o’clock on the afternoon of April 21, 1938, Charles Leo “Lefty” Johnson toed the Johnston Field rubber and threw the first pitch in Anniston Rams history. There is no existing record of the result: ball or strike? Base hit or pitch taken? Called strike or swinging strike? We will never know.
But undisputed is Johnson’s place in the history of the Rams, Anniston’s longest-running minor league team. Anniston won its first game, 5-3, over visiting Gadsden, which, like the Rams, was making its Southeastern League debut. Johnson earned the win, allowing seven hits and five walks with four strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings of work. Hitting ninth, he also went 0 for 3 and committed an error, though those failures didn’t hinder the Rams’ opening-day result.
(Fun fact: Two days prior, the Rams and Pilots tried to open the season at Johnston Field and played a half-inning before the sky opened and rain sent everyone home. Gadsden led 4-0 when umpires called the game.)
Charles Leo “Lefty” Johnson hailed from Minneapolis, the grandson of German and Irish immigrants who played amateur baseball each summer in the prewar years. By the time he reached adulthood — a spry 18 — he caught on with the Minneapolis Millers of the Class AA American Association, and then bounced around between that team, two Class D Northern League teams, Duluth and Winnipeg, Scranton of the New York-Penn League and a few amateur teams near his hometown.
An oft-printed story in Minnesota newspapers details one of Johnson’s odd moments during a stint in amateur baseball with New Ulm:
“We had an outstanding pitcher named Lefty Johnson,” one of his former teammates told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 1989. “There was a foul ball and the umpire tossed a brand-new baseball to the mound. Lefty wanted a darker ball. He tossed the new ball back. The umpire caught it and tossed it right back. Lefty threw it back to the ump again. The umpire tossed it back again. Lefty finally solved the problem. He took that new ball and threw it over the grandstand.”
Johnson arrived in Anniston that March, a modest and unheralded addition to a team trying to fill out its inaugural roster. Late that month The Anniston Star newspaper described Johnson as being among a group of newcomers who “without benefit of previous training, gradually are working themselves into shape …” And yet, as the Rams’ opener against Gadsden neared, Manager Lena Styles planned to start his 22-year-old pitcher from Minnesota.
Without the benefit of a proper spring training, Johnson had to double-time his training. A week before the opener, The Star reported that the Minnesotan was seen “running vigorously up and down Noble Street” late the night before:
“Dick Adair, regular centerfielder, saw and wondered.
“‘What are you doing?’ asked Adair.
“‘I’m training,’ Johnson replied.
“”But this is the main street,’ Adair pointed out.
“‘That’s all right,’ said Johnson. ‘You can use it after 9 o’clock.'”
That humor may have helped him through that summer’s travails. Following his opening-day start, he pitched poorly in relief in a 15-11 loss to Montgomery on April 29. Gadsden shelled him with 11 hits and six runs in five innings of an 8-5 loss on May 1. He lost again May 6 in a 13-7 home loss against Pensacola when he walked four and gave up five hits in five innings. He didn’t make it out of the first inning of a May 11 start at Pensacola, a 12-11 Rams win. The following day, with the pitching staff taxed, he started and finished — but still lost, 5-1, to the Fliers, issuing seven walks and two wild pitches. He took another loss on May 17 in a 10-5 defeat at Meridian, giving up six hits in three innings.
And then he disappeared.
No cumulative numbers for the 1938 Anniston Rams exist, so Johnson’s season statistics are lost through time. There isn’t a definitive mention in The Anniston Star of Johnson’s status, other than a brief mention at season’s end that he was among the pitchers who didn’t finish the year on the roster. Suffice it to say that the Rams’ opening-day starter didn’t have the season either he or the team desired.
As the nation entered World War II, Johnson returned to Minnesota, spent his summers pitching for amateur teams and worked at Dayton Rogers Co. (which made fabricated metal parts for the defense industry) in Minneapolis. And then, in 1944 when many of baseball’s better players were in the military, Johnson again heard from the Minneapolis Millers, who needed pitching. He signed in late April.
His stay with the Millers lasted about three weeks. On May 17, he and the team had an impasse: the Millers were leaving on a road trip, and Johnson couldn’t miss work at the defense plant. So he requested the team release him, which they did.
Four months later, back in amateur ball, he threw a three-hit shutout for Springfield, Minnesota, in the league championship game.
Charles Leo “Lefty” Johnson and his wife eventually moved to Mesa, Arizona, where he died at age 75 in 1988. He’s buried in Austin, Minnesota.