Thursday, April 21, 2016

Ottis Johnson once had highest batting average on Troy State baseball team

Ottis Johnson
If you read this week’s Sports Flashback feature, you’ll see an item from the April 21, 1949 edition of The Courant that reported that Evergreen baseball legend Ottis Johnson had the highest batting average on the Troy State Teachers College’s baseball team.

At that point in his career, Johnson had already starred for the Evergreen Greenies minor league team, and was leading his college team with a .320 average. Previous to this, Johnson had played three seasons for the Greenies, and he’d almost always batted around .400 and was considered one of the best outfielders in the Tri-County Baseball League.

The Troy Messenger daily newspaper in Troy praised Johnson, who was in his first season at Troy and was playing right field for the “Wavemen.”

I found this short news item interesting for a number of reasons. You’ll notice the use of the name “Troy State Teachers College,” which is a reference to present-day Troy University in Pike County. This college was founded in 1887 and has had five different names during that time.

Troy University was first known as the Troy Normal School between 1887 and 1929. Between 1929 and 1957 (when Johnson was a student-athlete there), the college was known as the Troy State Teachers College, and from 1957 to 1967 it was known as Troy State College. The name was changed to Troy State University in 1967 and remained under that name until 2005 when it was giving its current name, Troy University.

You’ll also notice that during Johnson’s time at Troy, the school’s athletes went by the nickname of the “Wavemen.” One article that I found about the school’s nicknames said that Troy’s early athletic teams went by a wide variety of unofficial nicknames that varied from sport to sport and sometimes from coach to coach. Eventually, all teams used the nickname “Troy State Teachers.”

Eventually, when the school began competing against National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) teams, the school adopted the nickname of the “Red Wave.” Troy’s teams played under that nickname for a number of years, but students at the school eventually voted to change the nickname to “Trojans” because the “Red Wave” sounded too much like the University of Alabama’s “Crimson Tide.”

With that said, I’m not sure how many seasons Johnson played for Troy, but many in the reading audience know the rest of his sad story. Despite his success on the playing field, he is best known for being the last professional baseball player to die after getting hit in the head by a baseball pitch, according to researchers at Sports Illustrated and “Death at the Ballpark” by Bob Gorman and David Weeks. Johnson, who played two seasons of minor league professional baseball for the Dothan Browns, died in June 1951 after getting hit in the temple by a pitch delivered by Headland Dixie Runners pitcher Jack Clifton. Johnson, age 25, died eight days later from the resulting skull fracture.

Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians is the only major league player in history to be killed by beaning, and that incident occurred in 1920. Nine minor league batters, including Johnson, have been killed in similar incidents, going all the way back to 1906.

Johnson ended his career with a .336 lifetime batting average and with 17 career home runs. He was hitting .394 and slugging .697 after 38 games during his shortened 1951 season. 

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