I recently wrote an article on the worst starts in Reds modern history. The term “modern history” for most Reds fans is the 1956 season– Frank Robinson’s rookie year.
But now– after a 3-15 start– the 2018 Cincinnati Reds are reaching very dangerous territory. The 1931 Reds started off 2-17. From 1931-1934, the Reds were cash-strapped and signed aging, faded stars from other teams. They finished in last place in the National League those four years just as the Great Depression was starting.
Thinking about those horrible teams reminded me of a former Reds pitcher I interviewed in 1991 named Silas Johnson. Silas was a hard-throwing righthander who pitched in Cincinnati for eight years. “I could throw pretty hard but I had no idea where the ball was going,” Johnson said. “I had a fair curve and a decent change but throwing fastballs is what I did.”
He started three Opening Days for the Reds. “And I lost them all,” said Silas. “We didn’t score any runs at all. I’d get a 1-0 lead and the guys would tell me on the bench that there was my lead and I’d better hold on. Our outfielders couldn’t run at all. They could hit pretty good but they couldn’t run. They were old. We had (Edd) Roush, (Chick) Hafey, and Babe Herman. Man, you talk about a sieve in the outfield.
“Nobody could have won with those teams. Hell, even Paul Derringer lost over 20 games the same year that I did in 1934.”
But Silas did make some history when on May 26, 1935 he became the last pitcher to strike out Babe Ruth. In the Reds 6-3 win over the Boston Braves at Crosley Field, Silas fanned The Babe three times. “Crosley Field was pretty full that day because they wanted to see Babe hit one out. He had hit three against Pittsburgh just the day before. I threw him fastballs right down the middle as hard as I could and he swung right through those balls.”
After the game, Johnson hunted down Ruth in the Braves locker room. He asked Babe to sign a baseball for him and Ruth obliged. “He said, ‘Okay Bub’. He called everybody ‘Bub’ even if he knew your name.”
Silas went on to play for the Cardinals and the Phillies after being traded from the Reds. The Gashouse Gang was over and the Cardinals fell on hard times when Johnson arrived. And the Phillies were the worst team in the NL in 1940 when he arrived there and the Reds were World Series champions. “Chrissake, I thought about that a lot,” Silas said with a smile. “I just was never able to pitch for a good team.”
His baseball salary peaked at $7500 per year. “That wasn’t bad money at all,” said Si, “especially during the Depression.” In 1943, Johnson got off to an 8-2 start with the Phillies and he looked poised for a big year. Turned out it was. “That’s when Uncle Sam got me. I got drafted and went in the Navy.”
When Silas got out of the Navy, he was 40 years old and he resumed his baseball career. He made the World Series as a coach for the Boston Braves. He finished his playing career with a record of 101-165.
I found out about Silas Johnson in 1991 and drove up to Sheridan, Illinois to interview him in his home after giving him a phone call. After asking for directions to his house, he said, “Just ask anybody here. They know where I live.”
He greeted me at the door with an Old Milwaukee. Silas was a good host and he genuinely loved talking baseball. He talked with great memories from his time in Cincinnati. He talked about Dizzy Dean, Dazzy Vance, and Joe Medwick. “I was Dizzy Dean’s roommate,” said Silas, “or rather, I roomed with his suitcase.”
His favorite Reds teammate was Ernie Lombardi, a catcher who is a Hall of Famer. “It would get so hot in Cincinnati during the summer. I remember Ernie came out to the mound when I was struggling late in the game and it was hot as hell. He looked at me and said, ‘Chrissake Si, finish this game so we can get a beer.’
“Lombardi was one of the greatest catchers ever. He had great hands. He just couldn’t run. They didn’t play any infielders against him when he hit. And man, Lombardi could really hit.”
Silas Johnson died a few years after our interview. He wrote a thank you letter to me on April 22, 1991. I had sent him a few copies of the newspaper I wrote for at the time. The article of him was on the front page. “Dear Friend John,” is how the letter started. Silas enclosed in the letter an autographed photo of him in a Cardinals uniform, when he roomed with Dizzy Dean.
They named a street for him in Sheridan. Before he passed away, a famous national sportswriter in Chicago found out about Silas, discovered that he was the last pitcher to strike out the Babe and did an article on him that generated some nationwide headlines. I was happy for Silas.
I haven’t had an Old Milwaukee since that day at Silas’ house. I’m not sure if they still make it. If so, the next time I go out and watch the Reds, I’ll have a cold Old Milwaukee for the Last Man to Strike Out Babe Ruth— Silas Johnson, a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds.
John lives in Galesburg, Illinois and has been a Reds fan all of his life. He is a retired firefighter and a Veteran who served for 32 years but stays active at the local Humane Society. His favorite Reds players include Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Tony Perez, Eric Davis, and Bronson Arroyo. While writing, he frequently listens to the music of Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan. He is flanked in the photo by ever-loyal “Reptar.”