Grave Story: Lou Johnson (1869-1941)

Here lies Lou Johnson, one of two Lou Johnsons to have played Major League Baseball. Except his first name really wasn’t Lou, and his last name really wasn’t Johnson. Whoever he was, he was a left-handed pitcher in the 19th Century who briefly appeared in the majors and has a unique claim to baseball fame. Johnson played for the 1894 Philadelphia Phillies.

(Note: For the Lou Johnson who played for the Dodgers, Cubs, Braves, Angels and Indians in the 1960s, click here.)

John Lewis Mercer was born on November 18, 1869 in Pekin, Ill. His parents were Asbury Mercer and Margaret Eckles. It’s not clear as to why Mercer decided to play baseball under the surname of “Johnson.” However, this is the era when baseball wasn’t considered a particularly honorable profession, so some players did play under assumed names to avoid bringing embarrassment to their family – see Sammy Strang, Leonidas Lee and Harry Stovey for other assumed names in the game. The different first name may have simply been a matter of convenience. Baseball Reference’s Bullpen page on Johnson notes that there were several other athletes named “John Johnson” at the time, so going by his middle name may have been easier.

Johnson started playing pro ball in 1891 with the Ottumwa Coal Palaces of the Illinois-Iowa League and the Kansas City Blues of the Western Association. Ottumwa seemed closer to a semipro team than anything, with just a handful of players that ever made the majors. The Blues, though, were stocked with former major leaguers, including that wonderful 19th Century maniac Elmer Foster. Johnson put up a 5-8 record for the two teams, with an impressive-looking 2.27 ERA. However, keep in mind that this is the 1890s minor leagues, which was not known for excellent fielding. Johnson allowed 145 hits and 121 runs in 127 innings, according to Baseball Reference. However, just 32 runs were earned. One box score from July 19 shows that Kansas City lost 14-12 to Denver in Colorado with Johnson on the mound. Maybe the Coors Effect was in place already in 1891, but only 7 of Denver’s runs were earned.

Johnson doesn’t have any official stats for 1892, but a blurb in the August 26 edition of The Kansas Democrat reports that, “The Topeka team has signed Lou Johnson, the left-handed pitcher of the Lawrence club, and he will be in the box Saturday.” Topeka lost that Saturday game to St. Joseph 4-2, and Johnson is not mentioned in the recap.

The Topeka Capitols joined the Western Association in 1893, and Johnson won 5 games and lost 2 in 7 starts. Again, his 2.29 ERA hides the fact that he gave up 51 runs in 63 innings, but only 16 were earned. Johnson also struck out 27 and walked 32. The Capitols’ time in the WA seems very short-lived, as it doesn’t appear that the team played more than 21 games before folding.

Johnson signed with the Phillies of the National League in 1894. The team had a pretty incredible offense, including an outfield filled with .400+ hitters – Ed Delahanty, Sam Thompson and Billy Hamilton. The pitching, though, was pretty awful. The team ERA was 5.63, which was among the worst in the league. Manager Arthur Irwin combed the local minor-league teams for pitching talent, trying almost any warm body he could find in the month of September.

While the Phillies pitchers were getting pounded during the summer, Johnson was earning accolades for the St. Joseph Saints, another WA team. The Saints were managed by big-league veteran Hugh Nicol, and he was pretty high on his pitcher and occasional outfielder. “In Johnson we’ve got a pitcher that is fit to go into the National League today, and his hitting makes him invaluable,” Nicol said.

Sure enough, the National League came calling, and Johnson went to the Phillies in September of 1894. He became the first Western Association player sold to the NL. Johnson started the second game of a doubleheader on September 11 against Pittsburgh. He was knocked out early and had to be relieved by Jack Taylor, who started game one. He entered a game on September 20 as a reliever after one of Irwin’s tryout pitchers, Jack Scheible, gave up 10 runs in the first inning. Johnson went the rest of the way in a 20-4 blowout. His last start was a 12-6 loss to St. Louis. “Johnson’s curves were simply pie for the Browns and they hit him at will,” reported the Philadelphia Enquirer. He picked up the loss.

Johnson’s one win, though, was a record-setting accomplishment. On September 24, he faced the St. Louis Browns and allowed just 1 run on 7 hits and 2 walks. Meanwhile, his Phillies mates destroyed the Browns pitchers, pounding out 21 runs. Johnson himself had 2 hits and scored 3 runs. The final score of 21-1, according to author David Nemec, represents the largest margin of victory for any pitcher who has just one complete game win in his career. Yes, it’s an extremely specific record, but it’s a record nonetheless.

After his win over the Browns, it was reported that Phillies manager Arthur Irwin was so happy with Johnson that he signed the lefty to a contract for 1895, including a generous raise. Maybe Irwin changed his mind or Johnson just didn’t pitch well enough to make the team the following season. Either way, he ended up back in indie ball, splitting ‘95 with the Saints and the Detroit Tigers – a team in the Western League at the time. Johnson pitched for a couple more seasons and, according to Baseball Reference’s Bullpen page, managed a semipro team briefly. He never returned to the majors, though.

Johnson’s career totals are a 1-1 record and a 6.06 ERA in 4 games, 3 of which were starts. He completed 2 of those games. In 32-2/3 innings, he allowed 44 hits and 15 walks while striking out 10 batters.

Johnson returned to Kansas City after quitting baseball, where he lived with his wife Melissa. For the last 20 years of his life, he was a foreman for a street repair crew, working for the city. He died on January 28, 1941 at the age of 71 from “acute dilatation of the heart” (or, an enlarged heart). The name listed on his death certificate is “John Lewis Mercer (alias Johnson).” He is buried in Floral Hills Memorial Gardens in Kansas City.

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