About 2 years ago, I had spotted a little Craigslist ad, a man selling a few APBA Baseball sets which were sitting idle, collecting dust. I am an APBA collector and player. When I see an ad listing for anything APBA, I usually jump at the chance to pick up the item, whether I need the item or not. It gives me a chance to meet another person who might be associated with APBA in some fashion. The additional APBA sets are nice, but gaining a new relationship, through APBA, is definitely more valuable to me.
The man posting the Craigslist ad was Fred Johnson, of Cottage Grove, MN. I called the number, and was informed the 2 sets he had for sale were the 1976 and 1977 sets. I already owned these sets, but what the heck, I asked where we should meet and I would love to pick up the sets. We decided on a location in the southeast Twin Cities metro, a Caribou Coffee shop. Upon meeting Fred, one of my first questions was “what was your experience with APBA”? It turns out, Fred had played APBA in his youth, growing up with 2 buddies in the 1950’s and playing hours and hours of APBA Baseball. Back when the cards were all single-column cards, and when the Athletics found their way from Philadelphia to Kansas City, and “first in War, and last in the American League” was still a common and accurate phrase uttered in the Washington DC area. You could say Fred’s exposure to APBA was during the “Golden Age” of baseball and the very early years of APBA. However, by the time APBA had first issued the double-column cards in 1959 (the 1958 season), Fred was leaving APBA behind after high school graduation (1959) and college. Fred’s buddies kept playing through the years, until each had sadly passed away over the last few years. The 1976 and 1977 sets which Fred had in his possession were given to him by the wife of one of his buddies. Fred decided he did not need the extra box of APBA cards sitting around the house, and just wanted to find a home for the sets, and was not looking to make any sort of money on the cards.
Our meeting turned out to be much more than just a lackluster transaction involving APBA cards from the 1970’s. Over a cup of coffee, I mentioned to Fred that I play in a semi-annual APBA tournament in the Twin Cities, and that we currently had about 20 guys involved. Instead of a blank stare, and instead of a polite “oh, that’s nice”, Fred’s curiosity was peaked, and by the end of our visit, Fred was planning to attend our 3rd tournament, scheduled for April of 2015, after not having rolled any APBA dice since 1959. He has attended each semi-annual tournament since, and plans to not miss another.
Onto the interview questions for a famed author of Minnesota History, a very humble Fred Johnson …
Jimsapbabarn question #1: Tell us about yourself, your youth, etc (outside of APBA)?
Fred Johnson: Red Wing, my hometown, prided itself as a basketball and baseball hotbed so I was immersed in both sports during my 1950s era childhood years. I lived just four blocks from the beautiful ballpark home of the Red Wing Aces, a venue that is familiar to many Minnesota town team veterans. My friends and I used that field as our personal diamond as grade-schoolers and played on it for real as members of city’s high school baseball team and later the town team.
(Current day Red Wing Aces town-team players)
(Ed. note: The irony of doing this interview with Fred Johnson, is that a few years earlier before I knew Fred, I had taken this cell phone picture of my son Zach, batting at Athletic Park in Red Wing during an American Legion game)
Sports came first for me, a fact my teachers would readily confirm. The seasons just ran together—football followed by basketball, baseball, summer baseball (Little League, VFW, American Legion), and pre-football captains’ practice. Then the cycle started over again until I managed to graduate. History, writing and literature were of great interest to me and I pursued all of those subjects on my own, not considering them as part of my formal schooling. Any endeavors involving these three interests, along with sports, were pleasures to be enjoyed, certainly not labor.
Somehow college scouts failed to understand my athletic potential and no scholarships were forthcoming. Similarly, my academic record eluded the talent scouts of the nation’s greatest colleges and universities. I attended University of Wisconsin-River Falls, which proved to be an excellent school, as an elementary education major with a journalism minor. Eventually I taught in St. Paul for more than three decades.
Jimsapbabarn question #2: When and how did you discover APBA?
Fred Johnson: In the summer of 1955, a new friend invited me to play APBA baseball with him. He owned the complete 1952 and 1953 editions. During the first summer, we casually played teams we liked, but committed to doing a full season the following year. We played all sixteen teams according to their schedule and had a great time but, of course, couldn’t come close to completing the 154 game schedule. A mutual friend joined us in 1957 and we recreated the 1956 APBA season.
Our trio added a fourth and we kept playing until 1959 when high school activities intervened. We would roll an occasional game when we got together, even if we didn’t have the cards and boards. Each of would pick favorite teams, lineups that had been committed to memory well enough to make the games work.
Jimsapbabarn question #3: I know you spent time as a community paper sportswriter, how did you get going with the job and how long did you write the column?
Fred Johnson: As noted, my interest in writing only grew during high school. I joined the school newspaper as its sports editor, a tricky proposition when covering teams on which I played. Fortunately there proved to be no conflict of interest. I never did anything on the football, basketball and baseball teams that was noteworthy. Sportswriting became a bigger part of my life when I became sports editor of the weekly newspaper serving Cottage Grove, Woodbury, St. Paul Park and Newport. I began in 1970 and continued for thirteen years.
My love of history only grew stronger over the years. I began writing about Minnesota’s past in 1986 and in retirement got much more involved. Local historical societies hire me to write community histories and I also author magazine articles on topics interesting to me. Ten of my books are now in publication and I continue to write.
Jimsapbabarn question #4: What are your memories of TCABT regular Gregg Nelson and his brother, the current MLB umpire, Jeff Nelson, as high school athletes?
Fred Johnson: First, as a teacher and unlike typical sportswriters, I tended to take the broader view of high school athletics. The importance of sports is overblown in our society and I didn’t want to make heroes or goats of teenagers. Although cautious in dealing with individuals, I enjoyed pointing out those who were noteworthy for athletic success but also positive leaders, hard workers, and good teammates. Gregg and Jeff were in that category.
(TCABT-III: Fred Johnson on left facing off vs Gregg Nelson on right)
Ed. note: I am dropping in the story I wrote in a recap of TCABT-III …
The “reunion” … this picture has a big story behind it.
This is Fred Johnson on the left, and Gregg Nelson on the right.
Fred Johnson’s last APBA Baseball game he played until this tourney day, was in 1959.
Fred Johnson spent his career as a school teacher and local sports writer in Cottage Grove, MN, which is the same town Gregg Nelson grew up in, playing APBA Baseball with his brother, Jeff Nelson, who is now a Major League Baseball Umpire. Fred covered the high school basketball playing days of both Gregg and Jeff Nelson. Gregg recalls reading Fred’s column each and every week in his community newspaper. The chance that this meeting would ever take place, some 30+ years since Gregg’s high school days is truly amazing. I happened to stumble upon an APBA Craigslist ad several months ago. The seller was Fred Johnson, selling a ’76 and ’77 APBA set which he never used but had acquired from his friend who had kept up with APBA until he died. I mentioned our TCABT tournament to Fred, and he was interested in coming out and meeting the guys and playing, even though he had not rolled the dice since 1959. When Gregg saw Fred Johnson from Cottage Grove was coming to the tournament, it dawned on him that this had to be the same Fred Johnson that wrote the sports column each week in his old hometown community newspaper. Sure enough it was … Gregg mentioned this to his brother Jeff, who asked for a picture of the 2 together at the tournament. The divisions were determined with rolls of the dice a few weeks in advance and another random occurrence, put these 2 in the same division, which meant they would be rolling the dice vs each other. Fred’s ’30 A’s won both games over Gregg’s ’98 Braves, 2 1-run games. I think Gregg was just happy he got to roll a series vs his favorite sports columnist. Today, Fred Johnson is an author and a Minnesota Historian. He has written several books on specific events in Minnesota history, has published several articles and has appeared on local TV shows.
(2009 World Series: On left, Gregg’s brother, Jeff Nelson #45 with the upper-hand, as Yankee Skipper Joe Girardi pleads his case)
I remember Gregg and Jeff as determined, capable, versatile, dependable athletes who their coaches could count on to perform to the best of their ability. They competed. The Nelsons were the kind of kids a coach, fans, and teammates wanted on their side, a compliment to their parents, school and community. Can’t do much better than that.
Jimsapbabarn question #5: How did you come to write your first book on Minnesota history?
Fred Johnson: My first book The Sea Wing Disaster came out in 1986 and was revised and expanded 2014. The steamboat Sea Wing carried 215 people when it overturned south of Red Wing on Lake Pepin in July 1890. Ninety-eight people died. It is among the nation’s most deadly steamboat accidents. My great-grandfather worked as one of the teamsters at the city levee, loading victim’s bodies on wagons and driving them to makeshift funeral parlors. Two sisters, who would have become grand-aunts to my wife, drowned. The family connection led me to write the story.
(The Sea Wing wreckage … July 1890)
My favorite book authored?: Books are like an author’s children, each unique and sometimes challenging but you love them all. That said, The Big Water: Lake Minnetonka and Its Place in Minnesota History (Deep Haven Books, 2012) was the most enjoyable to write.
Jimsapbabarn question #6: You seem to have a good grasp on what makes a great history book … what is your advice for someone thinking about heading down this path?
Fred Johnson: Narrative histories, the kind popularized by modern, scholarly historians— David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, come to mind—are written in story-based form. Readers enjoy approaching history in this manner; I certainly do. Such books certainly not like school texts. A warning: Each narrative history, including mine, requires years of research, documentation and writing.
Jimsapbabarn question #7: You might be the only person who began playing APBA in the 1950’s, left it behind in the late 1950’s, and waited about 60 years to pick up the dice again … what is your take on the game today?
Fred Johnson: APBA today is certainly more realistic than the 1950s era game. We had less managerial control and limited knowledge of tactics we could employ. Starting out as ten year olds, we knew little about inside baseball and typically just rolled the dice to see what happened. The managers’ banter was at a juvenile level but nonetheless authentic. We talked to our players (cards) much more—giving advice, chewing them out, cajoling, threatening—and taunted our opponent especially after a victory. I believe improved grading of pitching and hitting—all factors actually—adds realism to the game.
A quick AROUND THE HORN with Fred Johnson …
Your favorite sports team?
Fred Johnson: Minnesota football Gophers. Seven national champions, the last of which I actually saw play in 1960.
Your favorite ballpark?
Fred Johnson: Although I’ve only been in it once, I’d rate Fenway as number one. I’m a history guy after all and remember many of the early parks: The Polo Grounds, the upper Manhattan horseshoe, and Dusty Rhodes’s pinch hitting prowess in 1954 Series; Crosley Field, Cincinnati with inclined Terrace; Ebbett’s Field, Brooklyn (it seemed all World Series games, when I was growing up, were in NYC).
Your favorite athlete?
Fred Johnson: A tough one considering the many thousands I’ve seen. There is a person whom I greatly admired as a player, commentator and general truly good guy: Harmon Killebrew.
Your favorite movie?
Fred Johnson: The Bridge on the River Kwai
Your favorite “hole-in-the-wall” place to eat?
Fred Johnson: Magnolia’s, Payne Avenue (St. Paul’s East Side).
A big THANK YOU to Fred Johnson for taking part in this 8th “APBA’view” I have been able to write and post. A few things I would like to say about Fred, who I consider a friend … Fred could not be a more unassuming, humble, self-effacing individual who has found success, not only in the books he has authored, but in his everyday life.
(Fred pictured with his 2 cats, Winston and Chruchill)
Our TCABT group is honored to have a guy like Fred as an active participant. I am going to end this interview with a JimsAPBABarn “re-post” of a write-up which Fred penned after his 1929 Athletics went 2-8 in TCABT-V:
By the way, this tournament might feature one champion, but it is loaded with “losers” … Nobody has done a better job with summarizing the plight of a losing tournament team better than local Minnesota Historian, author and TCABT regular, Fred Johnson. Here is Fred’s write-up of his 1929 Athletics dismal showing in TCABT-V:
Don’t Forget the Losers
By the King of the 2016 Losers, the UnAthletics (by Fred Johnson)
While winning is always an important part of the semi-annual Twin Cities Neil Ess Memorial APBA baseball tournament, one must not forget the losers. Take, for instance, the case for the 1929 Philadelphia Athletics and their almost total collapse during the April 2, 2016, showdown at Darrel Skogen Fields in Maple Grove.
Manager Fred Johnson’s club established a breathtaking record of failure during the tourney. It wasn’t the UnAthletics 2-8 won-lost record, though piteously weak, that drew attention. It was their shockingly dismal performance at the plate. In ten games the Athletics totaled 18 runs, were shut out four times (including one and three hitters), while posting a streak of 19 straight scoreless innings. The A’s scored one run in two other losses. Yes, the UnAs averaged less than one-run-per-game in six of their defeats.
Far worse than that miserable showing was the performance of the A’s three Hall of Fame sluggers Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons and Mickey Cochrane, along with that of Jimmy Dykes (in a career-best year). They formed a Murders’ Row at 3-4-5-6. In a combined 163 plate appearances (148 at bats), they picked up 25 hits for a .160 BA. The foursome’s batting average was deceptively high, buoyed by Cochrane’s lofty .210 mark. Jimmy Foxx, the great Double X, rapped two singles in 35 at bats for a .057 average. He recorded no rbi for the UnAthletics, failing to drive in runners during those rare seven events when he actually found them in scoring position. He did ground into a DP with two men on.
Simmons starred for this collection of doleful, defeated, diamond-dust dead-beats, knocking in five runs and hitting three homeruns, thus finishing the A’s first and last round with a nifty 7-for-39 record. In a heroic performance, Dykes produced a 7-for-38 and two rbi. Cochrane clubbed six singles and two doubles in 37 at bats en route to his new home, just a step over the Mendoza Line.
Manager Johnson held up admirably under a steady spring blizzard of base knocks and a hail of fastballs. He made his best move early on, nearly convincing ’68 Cardinals boss Rob Skogen to rest Bob Gibson when game one went to extra innings. Skogen questioned why Lefty Grove was still twirling for the A’s after ten, thus recognizing the trap. The 11-inning setback seemed to encourage the UnAthletics, however, as they tallied two runs during the 6-2 setback. Johnson sent Moose Earnshaw to the rubber in game two and the A’s exploded for three runs during a 3-2 rout. Johnson, never known for sportsmanship, celebrated the win, attributing it to Bing Miller’s knockout of Card catcher Tim McCarver with a questionable first inning slide. “Suck it up, Timmy!” Johnson advised helpfully as stretcher-bearers lugged McCarver from the field.
Roger Parsons started the UnAs on a phenomenal 19 inning scoreless skein as his 1972 Pirates beat Rube Walberg 7-4 and Bill Shores 3-0. Chris Lyons and his 2006 Twins then dazed Lefty Grove and the A’s 6-0. The UnAthletics pilot, fearing his boys would never score again and now near tears, stopped a passing Gregg Nelson seeking counsel. “You’re over-managing,” offered the Sage of Wayzata before hurrying away from the simpering A’s skipper.
Johnson employed Nelson’s strategy, advising his club to “relax” and “have fun” as he eased the pressure on his bewildered batsmen. They responded exploding for three runs while Earnshaw shut out Lyons’s Twins. With a 2-4 record, the A’s swaggered on to meet the unintimidating 1912 Red Sox.
Sox boss Chris Shores, a crafty, remorseless APBA vet, obliterated the hopes of A’s and their lachrymose leader, guiding his Beantowners through 5-1 and 5-4 romps. Shores actually weakened some in the second game and, irritated by disgusting pleas for mercy from Johnson, ordered his right-hander Charley Hall to groove a couple of pitches to Al Simmons. Two meaningless homers resulted, blows that did little to assuage fears of the fainthearted UnAthletics.
The A’s knew Bruce Tyler’s second round-bound 1910 A’s were up next. A clearly bored Tyler—he kept nodding off when Johnson’s club was at bat—sent Jack Coombs to the mound. Coombs allowed two men reach base (a double and a walk) struck out Foxx, Simmons and Cochrane in the seventh, and got the last 14 batters in a row to win 4-0. Chief Bender, alternating between pitching right handed, left handed and finally underhanded, surrendered the A’s lone run when Cochrane chipped a double to right. (manager Tyler was resting all of his outfielders for the playoff round.) Dykes then scored on a single.
Devastating defeat, some say, can break a man. And getting smoked at an APBA tourney, of course, qualifies as such a disastrous setback. But UnAthletics manager Johnson took it all like a man.
That is, if being a man means huddling in a corner and endlessly sobbing, “Double X, Double X, Double X,” whatever that means.