Calhoun County native included in North Dakota baseball team that broke color line
by Sherry Kughn
Aug 27, 2013 | 1672 views |  0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Johnson family: Mary Elizabeth Johnson, Hilma Johnson and former baseball player Vern (Sock) Johnson. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Dahlgren)
The Johnson family: Mary Elizabeth Johnson, Hilma Johnson and former baseball player Vern (Sock) Johnson. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Dahlgren)
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The story of a charming, talented baseball player from the 1930s gives Calhoun Countians a new reason to be proud. Sportswriter Tom Dunkel’s “Color Blind: The Forgotten Team that Broke Baseball’s Color Line” was released earlier this year.

The story of Vern “Moose” Johnson, who played for the Anniston Rams during the 1930s, is included in a larger tale of an independent ball team in

Bismarck, N.D. It broke color barriers before the Brooklyn Dodgers did in 1947 by adding Jackie Robinson to their roster.

Johnson was a white player whose nicknames at various times were also “Sock” and “Socko.” Bismarck team owner Neil Churchill hired him in 1935 to play with both blacks and whites on a team that prioritized talent over skin color. Atlantic Monthly Press published the book, which sells for $25.

Johnson’s story begins about midway through the book. He was born in Crystal Falls, Mich., in 1902. He grew up in a mining town, where teenage boys had little to do besides drink alcohol and play baseball. Drinking became Johnson’s vice. Later, he began to gamble excessively. Dunkel wrote that Johnson’s bad habits kept him out of the major leagues: “Bird dogs for the Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds came sniffing around, but they got a whiff of the boozehound and backed off.”

One black player also described in the story is Hall of Famer Satchel Paige. He was on the Bismarck team, off and on, while Johnson was there. In fact, Johnson’s picture is featured on the cover of “Color Blind” with his hand on the shoulder of Paige. In the movie “42,” which covers Robinson’s rookie year with the Dodgers, Pee Wee Reese struck a similar pose when he draped his arm around Robinson.

As a young man, Johnson left his home, played for various teams including the Bismarck team, and came to Anniston to play for the Rams around 1938-39, toward the end of his baseball career.

When playing for the Rams, Johnson met and married Mary Elizabeth Jackson, a Piedmont native. They had a child name Hilma, who grew up in Anniston and now lives in Pensacola, Fla.

She is quoted in the book as follows: “He was his own worst enemy. My dad was a genius with unfulfilled potential.”

Recently, Hilma, whose last name is now Jones, said in a telephone interview her mother was a hardworking, upright woman. The couple loved each other dearly; but, as a wife, Lizzie could not take the drinking and the gambling. Hilma was 7 years old when her parents split apart.

“It was hard on my mother,” she said. “She almost died because she couldn’t keep anything on her stomach. She even arranged for someone to care for me in case she didn’t make it through that time.”

Hilma said the love between her parents continued, however, and they re-married when she was 17. He took a job as a lumberjack and moved to the Northwest to work six months out of each year. Johnson later became ill and moved to Anniston where his wife nursed him until he died in 1964.

Hilma speaks of both parents lovingly and chooses to remember her father’s good traits and talents, some of which Calhoun Countians may remember. He had a bright mind for playing cards, and he was an outstanding billiards player.

Hilma is glad “Color Blind” records her father’s achievements in baseball. According to the book, Johnson played a total of 911 games with 20 different teams over a period of 11 seasons. His career average was “.311 in 3,368 at bats despite several hangovers.” At his peak, Johnson once batted .571 one summer when he was playing for a Wichita team.

Hilma said her cousins call her father the Mickey Mantle of the family.

Contact Sherry Kughn at sherrykug@hotmail.com.
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