Tulane pigskin coach honors Negro Leagues father

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All photos courtesy of the Curtis Johnson Family Archives

Curtis Johnson Jr. loved baseball. He wanted to play it as long as he could, largely because his father, Curtis Johnson Sr., nicknamed “Colt,” pursued the American pastime and loved it wholeheartedly.

In fact, Curtis Sr. was so good that he played for the legendary Kansas City Monarchs in 1950; in April of that season, for example, he took the mound for the royals against the San Antonio Aztecs and went the distance, limiting the Texas aggregation to seven scattered hits in nine shutout innings in Kaycee’s 13-0 victory.

“He was very, very proud of it,” Curtis Johnson Jr. says of his dad’s professional baseball career. “He talked about the outstanding gentlemanship [in the Negro Leagues]. Just the way they dressed and acted as an organization.”

Curtis Jr., a New Orleans native like his father, played both football and baseball as a youth, following in his father’s footsteps.

“I loved baseball,” Curtis Jr. says. “I was actually a better baseball player than football player.”
But an injury in his junior year at St. Charles High School sadly cut short Junior’s hardball career, and he ended up focusing on pigskin.

“My father was heartbroken when I went to football,” he says. “His whole thing was baseball.”
Of course, things ended up turning well for Curtis Jr. — he went on to star on the gridiron for the University of Idaho, where he graduated in 1985 with a bachelor’s in physical education.

He then launched a coaching career that flowed through San Diego State, SMU, Cal, the University of Miami and ultimately as wide receivers coach on his hometown New Orleans Saints’ NFL championship in 2009.

Johnson’s success mentoring football players in general and wideouts in particular then landed him the job as head football coach right here at Tulane, where he immediately began the rebuilding process of a moribund program.

Curtis Johnson Sr. also enjoyed a fulfilling, stellar life. After suiting up for the Monarchs, Senior attended and pitched for Grambling, where he arguably achieved his greatest baseball fame. Johnson Sr. was also a terror at the plate, combining clutch hitter with surprising power. In May 1953, for example, Johnson joined with two other Grambling pitchers to hurl a no-hitter in a 9-2 triumph over Houston-Tillotson; a month earlier he had crushed a home run a Tigers doubleheader thrashing of Arkansas State.

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Receiving an award with the legendary Buck O’Neil

While Johnson was at GU, the Tigers became an HBCU national powerhouse, so much so that, after he departed in 1953, Grambling fell into a funk because it had lost one of its best pitchers — in fact, the Tigers had excelled in 1953 largely because of possibly the best HBCU pitching corps in the country.

So where did Curtis Johnson Sr. go after leaving Grambling? Oh, just the New York Yankees system.

Yep, Johnson became one of the first African-American players signed by the Yanks, a major league team that was trying to erase a reputation of being recalcitrant on integration.

Curtis Sr. viewed it as an opportunity of a lifetime, says his son.

“For my father, the Monarchs were the black equivalent of the Yankees,” Johnson Jr. says. “They were a championship team like the Yankees. That was the reason he signed with the Yankees when they invited him, because of his time with the Monarchs.”

While Curtis Johnson Sr. never made it all the way to The Show — Elston Howard, of course, became the first African-American to suit up for the big-league club — he spent several years playing for the Yankees’ minor league teams, including being one of five black players in the NYY system in 1957 and one of eight two years later.

Curtis Johnson Senior

After retiring from his pro career and coming back to Louisiana, Curtis Sr. continued to stay active in baseball, especially as a member of the city’s Old Timer’s Club, a group of former Negro Leaguers organized by local legend Walter Wright. He frequently played in the club’s annual all-star reunion game at Wesley Barrow Stadium, even earning game MVP honors twice.

He was also a member of the world-famous Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club.

But Curtis Sr.’s impact on Louisiana life wasn’t limited to baseball. Johnson Jr. says what his father was perhaps most proud of was becoming the first African-American councilperson in St. Charles Parish, where he represented St. Rose from 1988-2000.

“He would say that was one of the highest points of his life,” Johnson Jr. says.

Over those dozen years on the St. Charles Parish council, Curtis Sr. earned the respect of his peers, who all lauded how hard he worked for the people who elected him. When he died suddenly of a heart attack in January 2004, Johnson was fondly remembered by his colleagues in civic service.

“His purpose in life was to help people,” former parish councilman Ellis Alexander told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “If you talk to a lot of people about Curtis, I bet every one of them would tell you that he was known for helping people.”

Added Hahnville resident Joan Becnel: “He was a very conscientious elected official. He really worked hard to serve the people of his district.”

And this from then-parish CAO Tim Vial: “One of the things about Curtis is that he was not a person who sought credit for his accomplishments, but his comfort came in knowing that he did something to help make it better for people.”

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Still, despite his undeniable impact on political and social life in the region, a big part of Curtis Johnson Sr. still longed for his playing days, including his time with the Monarchs, says Johnson Jr.

“He was so extremely proud of it,” the Tulane football coach says. “It was one of the fondest experiences of his life.”

And it was just relishing his own glory days that was important for Curtis Johnson Sr. — it was also passing on his passion for the national pastime.

“It was one of those things he was just so adamant about,” says his son. “He wanted baseball to resonate with young kids today. he wanted to champion that call, to get young black kids into baseball.”

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One thought on “Tulane pigskin coach honors Negro Leagues father

  1. Pingback: ‘Everywhere I went, I had a baseball with me’ | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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