Minor League Presidents
Johnny Johnson never wore a professional baseball uniform, but when he was put in charge of Minor League Baseball as the eighth president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (NAPBL), it was a perfect fit. Johnson was elected to the post at the Baseball Winter Meetings in December 1978, took over in January and served until his death in January 1988.
Johnson’s strength was as an administrator, having honed his skills during 24 years with the New York Yankees, followed by an eight-year stint as a top assistant to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Johnson knew the rules governing baseball operations backwards, forwards and upside down. And he knew how to apply them.
Keeping track of the rules, especially involving player transactions and club finances, and helping member clubs and leagues understand them in dealing with Major League Baseball, was a critical function of the NAPBL office at that time. Johnson’s years in the commissioner’s office and with the Yankees made him a real expert in that area.
“I never saw anyone who knew rules like he did, and had a feel for their use the way he did,” said Sal Artiaga, who was Johnson’s administrator in the NA office for several years, and who followed him as president. “Johnny had a very analytical mind for the intent and scope of the rule.”
Yet it was that same background and experience that was a potential roadblock on his path to the Minor League Baseball presidency. Some people in the game felt that his ties to Major League Baseball might be too strong, and that the Minor Leagues needed to maintain some independence.
It was a topic that Johnson faced head on. “I leave the commissioner’s office unencumbered,” he said to his new constituents at the time of his election. “I’m your man to do as I see fit in the best interest of the National Association. I have only one promise to make -- to work hard and be dedicated to the success of the National Association ... and baseball.”
Johnson was born in Staten Island, a borough of New York City, and grew up during the Depression. He learned shorthand in the hope it would help him get a job. World War II intervened, but after 4 1/2 years in the Coast Guard, Johnny answered a want ad in a New York newspaper in 1947, seeking a male stenographer for a sports organization.
It turned out to be the Yankees and the job was as the secretary to George Weiss, the general manager. Johnson quickly advanced, moving into the Minor League department. He was loaned out to the Yankees' farm team at Binghamton in the Eastern League (1951-54) as business manager and then general manager, before returning to the Yankees in roles of growing importance, including farm director in 1960 and VP of player procurement/development in 1965. When Lee MacPhail was sidelined by a heart attack in 1969, Johnson became acting general manager.
Johnson left to join the commissioner’s office in August, 1970, working as one of Kuhn’s top aides, primarily in the draft, player transactions and relations with high school and college baseball, as well as liaison to Japanese baseball.
After joining the NAPBL, Johnson devoted much of his time to working on improving the state of the Minors, stressing to club operators that an attractive product was as important to the fans as a winning ball club. He sent field representatives around the country to work with teams in a hands-on style to improve their stadiums, their fields, their lights and their overall operations.
“I know that many Minor League clubs have financial problems,” he said at the time. “Very few of them make any sizeable profit. They are operated by people who love baseball. What I want to do is improve conditions, so that it will be worthwhile to be in the business of baseball. To do that, I plan every effort to help the stability of the clubs in the Minor Leagues through longer term working agreements. At the same time, I’m going to do all I can to improve conditions for the players, and to encourage our clubs to make their parks pleasant places for the fans. They are the people who pay the bills. I want all our clubs to make baseball fun for the fans.”
It was during Johnson’s regime that Minor League Baseball began to shake out of the doldrums and begin the resurgence in attendance, growth and franchise value, as well as the boom in new stadium construction that began during the mid-1980's. Overall regular season attendance was about 15 million fans in his first year in office and grew steadily to more than 20 million by his last season in 1987. It was the first total to exceed 20 million fans since 1953, when there were nearly 300 teams in 38 leagues.
After being elected to his original three-year term (1979-80-81), Johnson received a five-year extension covering 1982-86, then was subsequently re-elected to a three-year term at the Baseball Winter Meetings in 1986. He was diagnosed with cancer in September 1987 and died in January 1988.