When you think of players from the 1923 Yankees, the name Ernie Johnson probably does not come to mind. When you think of famous people named Ernie Johnson, you probably think of the “Inside the NBA” studio host before you think of the reserve infielder who played from the Yankees from 1923-25. Hell, when you think of baseball players named Ernie Johnson, the dad of the TNT host, who played nine major league seasons, probably comes to mind first.
I say all that to say this: despite a perfectly nice 10-year major league career, the Yankees’ Ernie Johnson is fairly anonymous. Yet, he did play a part in one of the most important runs in franchise history.
Johnson made his major league debut for the White Sox in 1912 after being purchased from the Dubuque Hustlers of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League. Ah, 1912 baseball. He played 21 games in Chicago that season before spending the next couple years back in the minors.
In 1915, he resurfaced with the St. Louis Terriers of the Federal League, in the second of the two-year run of the third major league. That league folded after 1915, but Johnson stuck around in the majors, catching on with the AL’s St. Louis Browns. After a couple years there, he had another multi-year minor league stint. In 1921, he ended up back with the White Sox, where he became a regular for a couple seasons.
However in 1923, Johnson wasn’t being used regularly and was put on waivers, from which the Yankees picked him up. In that season, Johnson was used sparingly as a backup infielder and pinch runner as the team won the AL pennant.
Despite only appearing in 19 games with the Yankees all season, Johnson was included on the World Series roster, where he again wouldn’t be used much. He played shortstop in the top of the ninth of the Game 1 loss to the Giants, but that was his only appearance going into Game 6, with the Yankees up 3-2 in the series.
In Game 6, the Yankees went into the top of the eighth inning trailing 4-1, but they quickly loaded the bases around one out. It was at that point that Miller Huggins sent up a pinch hitter to try and get the Yankees back into the game. You might think this is the big moment for Mr. Johnson to get his moment — it was not. The pinch hitter would be Bullet Joe Bush ... who is a pitcher.
To Huggins’ credit, the move worked as Bush drew a walk to score a run and make it 4-2. At that point, Johnson was sent in as a pinch runner for Bush. Joe Dugan then drew another walk, getting the Yankees within one run. After an unexpected Babe Ruth strikeout, Bob Meusel singled. Not only did one run score, but Johnson scored from second, giving the Yankees the lead. A third run scored on the play thanks to an error, putting the Yankees up 6-4. Pitcher Sad Sam Jones held the Giants in check for the final two innings, giving the Yankees their first ever World Series championship.
Forever in history, Ernie Johnson will be the scorer of the clinching run in the Yankees’ first ever World Series title. The result of the play in general seems to indicate that it wasn’t some incredible feat of speed or baseball smarts on his part, but you cannot take away his part of history. If Johnson doesn’t score that run and the Yankees lose, maybe they drop Game 7. Maybe they never go on to become the winningest franchise in baseball history. It seems unlikely that the talent they had in that era wouldn’t have broken through at some point, but it’s impossible to know.
Johnson played with the Yankees through 1925, when he became another footnote in Yankees’ history. He was part of the package the Yankees sent to the minor league St. Paul Saints to acquire Mark Koenig, who would be the Yankees’ starting shortstop of the 1927 and ‘28 championship teams.
Ernie Johnson never made it back to the major leagues after leaving the Yankees in 1925. A career WAR of 8.2 is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not exactly notable either. Yet, he’ll forever have a small part of Yankees’ lore for scoring their first ever championship-clinching run.
“The 1923 New York Yankees: A History of Their First World Championship Season” by Ronald A. Mayer