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Is 'Sock' Johnson worthy of the U.P. Hall of Fame?

'Color Blind' reveals checkered past of Crystal Falls baseball great

August 17, 2013
By BURT ANGELI - Sports Writer (bangeli@ironmountaindailynews.com) , The Daily News

IRON MOUNTAIN - Vernon Johnson, who could swing a baseball bat with the best of them, has been nominated for the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame.

Hall of Fame voters bypassed Johnson for the past couple years. If they get a chance to read "Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball's Color Line" (Atlantic Monthly Press), Johnson just may be inducted one day.

And it's also possible, Johnson, nicknamed Sock and Moose, may never make the U.P. shrine because of a questionable background. But it's nothing worse than Pete Rose betting or the drug abusers infiltrating today's game.

Article Photos

Victor Johnson, Vernon's father, survived the Mansfield iron mine collapse of Sept. 30, 1893, when 27 men died. Ten years later, Vernon was born and a life of baseball began.

"Balls flew off his bat with the speed and trajectory of clay pigeons at a skeet shoot," wrote Tom Dunkel, author of "Color Blind."

Vernon Johnson (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) wore size 14 shoes, hit left-handed and demonstrated a great throwing arm in the outfield. Milwaukee Brewers, a Class AA American Association team and a step below the majors in 1929, reportedly gave a tryout to the man who "emulated Babe Ruth while playing for the Crystal Falls team."

One scout called Johnson the "best hitter in all of baseball."

But Johnson had some baggage. The book described him as "a life of the party scamp" and "binge drinker." Teammate Frosty Ferzacca said Sock had a "million-dollar arm and a ten-cent brain."

"Sock seemed at war with himself, a jumble of conflicting aptitudes and interests," wrote Dunkel, noting Johnson was a great student who quit school to concentrate on baseball.

He loved to read, breezed through math problems and played the piano without music lessons.

Johnson left Crystal Falls and his travels took him to drought-stricken, Depression-ravaged Bismarck, North Dakota. The baseball team there needed players and Johnson's bat was welcomed along with Negro League star Satchel Paige and others.

Satchel Paige's "fastball looks like a marble" observed one fan.

Replied Satchel, "He must be talkin' about my slowball. My fastball looks like a fish egg."

In 11 seasons in the minors, with 911 games for some 20 teams from Class D to Class A, Johnson hit .311 in 3,368 at-bats "despite serial hangovers."

Gambling problems also affected his baseball career, which ended in 1944.

Remarked Vernon Johnson's daughter, Hilma Jones: "My dad was a genius with unfulfilled potential. He never bragged on himself. He had good intentions and a good heart, but just made poor choices."

If Vernon Johnson isn't a U.P. Hall of Famer, this writer believes he belongs, Dunkel's "Color Blind" certainly deserves an honor. Johnson's presences in the pages complemented great writing about an interesting time in history.

Breitung Township's John Hiller, a former relief pitching great with the Detroit Tigers, found his way into a couple baseball books.

"Closer: Major League Players Reveal The Inside Pitch On Saving The Game" (Running Press) couldn't have been done without Hiller.

Hiller turned in the "greatest season for a closer," compiling 38 saves in 125 innings, 10-5 record and 1.44 ERA in 1973.

"Thee old days were so much different from today," said Hiller, noting relief pitchers in his era didn't register one-inning saves like today. "We never considered ourselves closers."

Hiller once pitched in 13 games in 15 days, and picked up eight saves.

Hiller was a teammate of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, star attraction for the 1976 baseball season.

"Mark was definitely one that we all stopped what we were doing to watch," Hiller told Doug Wilson, author of "The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych" (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press). "Part was what he did, but also part was that he pitched so well."

Wilson seems to cover every facet of Fidrych's life except for his appearance in the 1983 U.P. Hardball Tournament in Felch. Fidrych did make another trip to the U.P. on a snowmobile ride.

Tigers manager Ralph Houk asked Hiller to take the locker next to Fidrych in the clubhouse. The author described Hiller as "low key, classy, stable guy who Houk knew would look after Mark."

At times, Hiller didn't have much room in the clubhouse with the media swarming to Fidrych.

"He gets more mail in three days than I got in my whole career," Hiller quipped.

Iron Mountain native Anthony Gianunzio touches on sports in "The Last Romantic War: A Blind Date With History."

Gianunzio, who mentions Fungo Tedeschi's time with the Chicago White Sox, was another Iron Mountain pitcher with thoughts of making the big time. While stationed at Great Lakes, Gianunzio baffled Glenn McQuillen of the St. Louis Browns with a "damn good curve ball."

A gunner's mate on the frigate U.S.S. Machias on duty in the Pacific, Gianunzio sums up his war experience superbly.

"Our Machias' ship's company, like any other bunch of normal young men, just want to get it over with, victoriously, and go home where the living is in their own hands," Gianunzio wrote.

In another observation, he wrote "if romance is fulfillment via experience, then this world war has accelerated it a hundredfold, and in quality as well."

"The Last Romantic War" is available at amazon.com.

"The Animal" (Triumph Books) details the pro wrestling career of one George Steele. "The Animal" was famous for his hairy back, green tongue and ability to eat turnbuckles.

On the other hand, "The Animal" proves inspiring. Jim Myers, George "The Animal" Steele in the ring, overcame struggles with dyslexia and Crohn's Disease, and in a teaching role also straightened out students in tough situations.

In the Daily Herald's book "Unstoppable!: The Chicago Blackhawks' Dominant 2013 Championship Season" (Triumph Books), Blackhawks fans can relive the twists, turns and unthinkable highs of the team's remarkable 2013 Stanley Cup playoff run.

Packaging the the work of the Daily Herald's talented writers and photographers, the book features star player profiles, game-by-game recaps of each playoff contest along with a captivating full-color action photographs.

"The chronological look at the Blackhawks memorable march to the Stanley Cup is a thrilling read for any fan," says Ron Deuter, Daily News sports editor and Blackhawks fan.

From the bookshelf: Carl Hiaasen, author of newly-released "Bad Monkey" and other hilarious reads, might be losing his touch. It took me the first three paragraphs to burst out laughing instead of the usual opening sentence ... Keith O'Brien explores an up-and-down season of Scott County (Kentucky) High School basketball and Coach Keith O'Brien in "Outside Shot: Big Dreams, Hard Times, And One County's Quest For Basketball Greatness" (St. Martin's Press). Other interesting stuff about Kentucky and this community. Adolph Rupp, who coached Kentucky to four NCAA titles and 876 wins, told guard Tommy Kron: "Someday I'm going to write a book on how not to play basketball and I'm going to devote the first 200 pages to you." ... Linwood Barclay has moved up to fourth on my favorite author list after Robert B . Parker, John Sandford and Carl Hiaasen. "Trust Your Eyes" is another thriller from Barclay who never disappoints.

(For complete book, go to ironmountaindailynews.com and look under sections)

 
 

 

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