Players who only ever appear in one major league season typically do so for one of just two reasons: being bad or getting injured. Thanks to modern medicine, the second of those two is becoming rarer, too. Today, the chances of a player coming up and having a good season, but never getting a chance in the majors again is pretty unlikely, especially with 30 teams, and potentially more in the future.
However, it has happened before, and it’s happened to Yankees players before, too.
Otis Johnson was born in 1883 in Indiana, and starts appearing in Baseball Reference statistics in 1903. He played for several different minor league teams over the next couple years before the then-New York Highlanders purchased him during the 1909 season. He played the next season with the incredibly named Jersey City Skeeters, where he caught the eye of Yankees star Hal Chase.
Chase was impressed by Johnson and had apparently gotten in arguments with Highlanders manager George Stallings about whether or not to bring him up to the majors. Late in the 1910 season, Stallings was fired and Chase was put in as his replacement. When the 1911 season began with Chase in charge, he got his wish and Johnson came up to the Highlanders.
On Opening Day in 1911, Johnson got the start at shortstop for the Highlanders, hitting seventh in the order. He went 0-for-2, but scored a run as they won 2-1. Johnson ended up starting all of New York’s first 16 games at shortstop and got off to a decent start, hitting .265/.368/.531. His OBP probably didn’t impress people as much then as it would today, but still, it wasn’t a bad start to his MLB career.
In games 17-19, he was moved to second, likely due to defensive reasons. In those first 16 games at short, Johnson committed eight errors. He eventually got a couple more games at short, but the error problem persisted. On June 3rd, John Knight was given the start at shortstop and ended up holding down the position for most of the rest of the season.
Johnson’s playing time became more sparse after that, but when called upon, he was still a perfectly decent hitter. His final line at the end of the season ended up being .234/.363/.378. That equated to a 102 OPS+. However again, the lower batting average probably led to him being considered a worse hitter than he was, despite a solid ability to draw walks.
The lower batting average was certainly only part of why that ended up being Johnson’s final MLB season. On the defensive side of things, he ended up making 31 errors in 65 games in the field. He was apparently hampered by an arm injury, leading to the massive number of mistakes made. On the other hand, he had also committed 51 in 107 games back for a minor league team in Little Rock in 1906.
There’s not that much out there on the internet about him, but it’s almost certainly because of the batting average and errors that he didn’t get any sort of other chance in the majors. (Well that and maybe the fact that he was 27.) His 1.1 WAR according to Baseball Reference is the highest of any Yankee position player who only played in one MLB season.
Johnson returned and played another couple seasons in the minors, and continued putting up solid hitting numbers, albeit with a bunch of errors. Sadly, any chance he had at making any sort of return to the majors ended in 1915, when he died in a hunting accident at just 32.
Different values and skill sets are valued today. Between that, and the amount of teams in MLB, it’s hard to imagine that Johnson wouldn’t get another shot with another team today. It’s hard to imagine — outside God forbid a tragic scenario — that a guy who puts up a 1.1 WAR season would never play a major league game ever again.
“Indiana-Born Major League Baseball Players: A Biographical Dictionary, 1871-2014” by Pete Cava
“The Black Prince of Baseball: Hal Chase and the Mythology of the Game” by Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella