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The Ugliest Man in Baseball

big, rugged, and in his way, beautiful

It’s a name you’ve seen before. Maybe it was on Buzzfeed’s “Baseball Player of Porn Star?” quiz – hey, who doesn’t love a cheap laugh? But there’s more to a man an unfortunate name and an even more unfortunate nickname. So, let’s ask the question: who was Johnny Dickshot, the Ugliest Man in Baseball?

A warning

Before I begin, I should offer a warning. Most of my research took me to the sporting news of the early 20th century, where writers valued a good story more than they valued the truth. For example, early newspaper articles about Johnny Dickshot claimed he was a Native American, even though he was hardly shy about his Lithuanian heritage. I’ve done my best to weed out tall tales that are obviously false, but when it isn’t clear, well… sometimes I love a good story too.

Early life

John Oscar Dicksus was born on January 24, 1910. He grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, where his father worked in the mills of the U.S. Steel Corporation.

At some point in Johnny’s childhood his family changed their name from the Lithuanian “Dicksus” to the more American-sounding “Dickshot.” Later, Johnny would claim the change was inadvertent, that he just got tired of correcting sportswriters who couldn’t be bothered to spell his name correctly. Though that wouldn’t explain why his parents and sisters changed their names, too.

When Johnny was a lad, some of the older boys in his neighborhood made a little game out of throwing beer bottles at his head. One bottle struck him so hard that he was in a coma for three days, and his skull was so badly fractured that surgeons had to repair it with a silver plate. Years later, teenage Johnny was idly tossing a hammer in the air (as one does) and it landed on the plate in his head with no ill effect. This incident apparently convinced him to take up baseball, since he figured if a hammer couldn’t hurt him a line drive wouldn’t either.

Johnny was actually a pretty good baseball player – he had always been an active child, and he’d grown into a tall, athletic young man. His role model was legendary Pittsburgh Pirates outfield Paul Waner, who was famous for his power hitting, and equally famous for showing up to games so drunk he could barely stand.

After graduating from high school, Johnny went to work with his father in the mills, but baseball remained his first love. When springtime rolled around, he would be off to roam the outfield. When baseball season ended, he was back to the mills to earn enough cash to get him through the next summer.

Minor leagues

At first, Johnny played for semipro teams in Waukegan, representing local institutions like St. Anthony’s Church and the Knights of Labor, but his talents soon attracted the attention of minor league teams. In 1930 he played for the Dubuque Tigers. In 1931, the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. In 1932, he was farmed out to the Fort Smith Twins by Milwaukee. However, it quickly became clear that all was not well in Arkansas. Here’s Johnny’s take on things:

“Things became terrible and the owners couldn’t pay. I was sure of my money through Milwaukee, but we were eating hot dogs and sleeping in buses, so when the big issue developed I made a little speech and I guess they put the blame on me for calling a strike. Anyhow, we were known as the ‘Orphans’ for the remainder of the season. We had no home grounds and no uniforms. We would play in other towns of the league, using the traveling suits of our opponents, with the shirts turned wrong side out. Boy, those were the days!”

The Twins managed to finish the season by merging the club with the Muskogee Chiefs, but Johnny wasn’t around to see it, because he’d been sent to Illinois to finish the season with the Rock Island Islanders.

In 1933 Johnny was sent down to Texas to play for the San Antonio Missions and the Fort Worth Cats. When the Cats tried to trade him to the Waco Bruins in May, he decided not to report and instead returned home to Waukegan. Sitting out a whole season didn’t slow him down, though, and in 1934 he was back with Rock Island and, later, the Cedar Rapids Raiders. Around this time, stadiums were being wired for electric lights, though early night games were not always well-attended:

“I was playing for Cedar Rapids one year and we were in Dubuque, IA for a night game… It was late in the season and the fans stayed home. The owner looked up, counted seven cash customers and figured it would cost him $62.50 to turn on the floodlights and for other expenses and only $50 if he forfeited the game. So he called the game off, invited the seven fans, the umpires and players of both teams to come to the clubhouse, tapped a barrel of beer, brought in sandwiches, and we had a jolly good time.”

While bouncing around the minors and killing time in the clubhouse, Johnny discovered his second great talent: gambling. Playing poker made him realize he could be a great ballplayer:

“When I was down in the Mississippi Valley League the St. Louis Browns came to town one spring. They needed another hand to make a game, so I sat in and out a walks a little later with 60 bucks. It’s that big league power, I says to myself. That’s where I belong.”

He also noted that if big leaguers played baseball the way they did two pair, there would be plenty of room in the majors for him.

In 1935, Johnny finally got his chance to show a little big league power of his own when he was signed by the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern Association, one of the top-tier minor leagues. “Buckshot” Dickshot did not disappoint, batting .309 with a .479 slugging percentage off of 28 doubles, an astonishing 19 triples, and 7 home runs.

It’s also around this time that stories began to circulate about Johnny’s legendary ugliness. In September the Rock Island Argus noted:

[Dickshot] was recently picked on the All-Ugly team of the Southern league. A fan walked up to Dickshot at Little Rock and asked to shake hands with him… Then he wanted to lead the outfielder over to the stand, explaining “I want my wife to see you, so she’ll appreciate me.”

(Let’s be honest, though. In spite of his reputation, Johnny just wasn’t that ugly. He’s not good looking, either, but he’s not homely either. He’s just kind of… average looking)

Major leagues

Whether it was due to his impressive stats or his impressive ugliness, Johnny had caught the attention of major league scouts. In 1936 he was invited to the Pittsburgh Pirates spring training camp. While showed great promise, there was a problem. The Pirates already had a solid outfield consisting of Johnny’s childhood idol Paul Waner, his brother Lloyd Waner, and journeyman Woody Jensen. Making the starting lineup would mean displacing three seasoned pros, two of them future Hall-of-Famers.

Fortunately for Johnny, Lloyd Waner had been sick all winter with pneumonia and hadn’t fully recovered. Johnny was added to the roster in Lloyd’s place, but his early season play was inconsistent and once Lloyd was cleared to play in mid-May the Pirates shuffled him off to the Buffalo Bisons of the International League. Johnny did get one last chance to show that big league power, though. He won all the meal money in the clubhouse in a game of poker, and left for Buffalo without giving them a chance to win it back.

In Buffalo “The Ugly Duckling” impressed coaches and crowds alike with his hustle. He batted .359 with 17 homers, putting him in serious contention for the International League batting title, and stole an astonishing 30 bases. His aggressive play helped propel the Bisons to the Little World Series that year, which they lost 4-1 to his old team, the Milwaukee Brewers. After the series, the Pirates called him back up, and though he couldn’t help them escape fourth place, he did earn a place on the roster for the following season.

While that was great news, what happened in the offseason was even better. On October 12, 1936 Johnny married his sweetheart Julie Kuzmickus in a small ceremony in Waukegan. The two would remain married until his death, over sixty years later.

In the 1937 season, the “The Waukegan Wow” finally got a chance to show his stuff, and what he showed was… not good. He got off to a smashing start by bashing three home runs in early season games, but then slumped hard, finishing the season with a middle-of-the-road .254 batting average, an anemic .323 slugging percentage, an equal number of strikeouts and walks, and an estimated WAR of -1

His fielding wasn’t much better. Once he was chasing a fly ball when his cap blew off, and he chose to chase the cap instead of the ball, allowing two runners to score. Needless to say, Woody Jensen was not exactly worried about losing his job to Johnny.

At least “Honest John” was still having plenty of success at the poker table. Maybe too much success. After taking all the chips three nights in a row, he started to worry for his life:

“I know this is a friendly game, but I’m going to hire the porter to sit outside my berth all night so I won’t wake up with my throat slit.”

Since he wasn’t seeing a lot of action on the field, “Big Shot” Dickshot seemingly decided to make a name for himself as a clubhouse character. He always had a colorful quote to crack up the boys. Sportswriters ate it up, and why not? His off-field antics and poker playing had were much more interesting to write about than his on-field play.

Especially when Johnny was dishing up zingers like:

“The only thing I don’t like about the big leagues is there’s no room for advancement!”

One particular incident from the ’37 season is worth reporting. On August 11th, Johnny was pulled over after a Pirates-Cubs game in Chicago and fined $7.40 for speeding. His excuse? He was rushing to the hospital to see his wife and newborn child.

You would think that after such a disappointing season, “Dangerous John” would dedicate himself to proving that he belonged in the big leagues. You would be wrong. In 1938 he showed up for training camp twenty pounds overweight, which he attributed to having his tonsils removed during the offseason and being able to enjoy food again. He managed to lose the weight by April, but he also lost the starting job to up-and-comer Johnny Rizzo. He even had to hustle to not lose his “Ugliest Man in Baseball” title to Jim Bagby of the Boston Red Sox.

The damage was done, Pirates manager Pie Traynor had decided that Johnny lacked hustle and refused to work him into the lineup. Johnny spent most of the 1938 season riding the pine, occasionally pinch hitting or filling in for his idol Paul Waner when Paul was too drunk or hung over to see straight. He made a measly 29 in-game appearances, batting .229 and failing to produce in clutch situations.

Johnny’s potential still tempted other teams, though. During spring training Rabbit Maranville tried to coax Johnny to the Montreal Royals, and during the season the New York Giants tried to acquire him several times. The Pirates were wary of completing a trade with a close competitor, though, and kept Johnny on their roster out of spite.

In the off-season, the Pirates unloaded Johnny to the Boston Bees, but before he could put on a uniform he was traded to the Jersey City Giants of the International League for cash.

Yes, Johnny was back in the minors, but removed from the pressure of the big leagues and the need to ham it up for the boys in the press box, he started to play real ball again. In 1939 he finished with a .354 batting average, a career-best .503 slugging percentage and 8 homers. He won the International League batting title, finished third in MVP voting, and earned a September call-up from the New York Giants. He fizzled on the field at the Polo Grounds, though, and was sent back down to Jersey City the next year.

During his brief stint in New York he the press continued to give him grief for his alleged hideousness, but he took it in stride, responding:

“Boys, I’m like a mountain, big, rugged and in my way, beautiful!”

His numbers in 1940 were solid – a .290 average with 11 homers – but not strong enough to earn a second stint with the Giants. He was shipped off to the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League, where he showed a similar stat line for the 1941 and 1942 seasons.

Second chances

Then, “The Homeliest Man in Baseball” finally caught a break – specifically, the outbreak of World War II. Patriotic ballplayers were being shipped overseas to fight Hitler and Tojo, depleting the major league talent pool. Johnny, who was 4-F thanks to that silver plate in his head, was determined to be the best of the rest.

His 1943 season for Hollywood was phenomenal. He finished with a .352 average, a .489 slugging percentage, 13 homers, and 9 stolen bases. He was voted club MVP, hit safely in 33 consecutive games, and was widely known as “the fastest shower-taker in the league.” His fielding was getting worse, though, and he was known for his poor range and terrible glove skills. It was a serious question whether “Adonis” Dickshot’s offense could help a team more than his defense would hurt them, but with power like that it was only a matter of time before a talent-starved major league team came calling.

That team was the Chicago White Sox. This time, Johnny didn’t take it easy, focusing more on his play than his patter. It didn’t hurt that sportswriters were being sent overseas, too, giving him fewer chances to clown it up for the press. In his two seasons in Chicago he posted solid numbers – not spectacular, but solid.

All good things must come to an end, though, and in 1946 returning veterans were pushing replacement talent off the roster. Eight players on the 1945 White Sox team would never play another inning in the majors. Johnny was one of them. His fans point out that none of the outfielders who replaced him were hitting anywhere close to .302 average, which is absolutely true. On the other hand, his replacements were also playing against real major leaguers and not jumped-up minor leaguers.

Johnny returned to the Hollywood Stars for the start of the 1946 season, but the magic was gone. In May, he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, where he was put in charge of mentoring rookie Dave Philley in the outfield in a rather unorthodox way. Here’s how the Chicago Tribune put it:

Dickshot, called “Rubber Glove Johnny” because of the inexplicable way balls pop in and out of his frenzied fingers, had standing orders to guard the left field foul line and yell “Take it, Dave” on every fly which the sprinting Philley might possibly reach.

He gutted it out with the Brewers for the rest of 1946 and the start of 1947, but it was clear his playing days were coming to an end. He just didn’t have the power anymore, and his glove was a serious liability. On June 26, 1947 he was handed his outright release, and that was it. After eighteen years, Johnny was out of baseball.

He settled into a quiet life in Waukegan. He opened the Dugout Saloon, where he tended bar. He would often argue baseball trivia with patrons, even dragging his wife Julie into the arguments by forcing her to look up the answers in an encyclopedia. He helped raise his children, and later his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In 1976, he was inducted to the Waukegan Hall of Fame. In 1977, he sold the Dugout and retired, though he could still be found slinging drafts at the Lithuanian Hall. In June 1994 he threw out a ceremonial pitch for the White Sox at the new Comiskey Park.

Johnny Dickshot died in his home on November 4, 1997 at the age of 87. He was survived by his wife, five children, fourteen grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. He is buried in the Ascension Catholic Cemetery in Libertyville, Illinois, next to his wife Julie.

Post-game wrap-up

“Ugly” Dickshot had one of the most frustrating careers a ballplayer could have. He was always too good to be playing in the minors, but he was only good enough to be one of the worst players in the majors. In an era with more teams, or a weaker talent pool, or the designated hitter rule, he would have had a long (if undistinguished) career.

So Johnny will never be in the record books. But look at what he did accomplish! He spent two decades playing a game he loved and getting paid for it. He got to play alongside his boyhood idol, experience the thrill of a pennant race, and travel the country on someone else’s dime. He had a loving wife and a big family and a community that embraced him. And 75 years after his final at bat, we still know his name – maybe for the wrong reasons, but we still know it.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a life well-lived to me.

Johnny Dickshot

Connections

In 1940, Johnny Dickshot had a brief cup of coffee with the New York Giants. Another player who had a brief cup of coffee with the giants was Frank “Goldbrick” Butler, son-in-law of David Dean O’Keefe, “The King of Yap.” We discussed King O’Keefe’s strange reign in our Series 2 episode “Cold Hard Cash.”

References

  • Cohen, Maurice. “Along the Sport Trail.” Rock Island Argus, 5 Sep 1935.
  • Ballinger, Edward F. “Benswanger Impressed with Pirate Recruits.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 11 Mar 1936.
  • Smith, Chester. “Dickshot’s the Sensation of the New Corsairs.” Pittsburgh Press, 14 Apr 1936.
  • “Buffalo Bisons on Stampede.” Sporting News, 28 May 1936.
  • Holmes, Tommy. “It’s Too Late Now.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 17 Jun 1936.
  • Smith, Chester. “Arizona Home Runs Roll Along for Miles.” Pittsburgh Press, 11 Apr 1937.
  • Keck, Harry. “Sport Scene.” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, 14 Apr 1938.
  • Biderman, Chester. “Baseball Stories… as the Pirates Tell ‘Em.” Pittsburgh Press, 15 May 1938.
  • Powers, Jimmy. “The Powerhouse.” New York Daily News, 3 Mar 1940.
  • “Last Chance for Johnny Dickshot.” Emporia Gazette, 31 Mar 1944.
  • Fay, William. “A Philley Who’s a Sox.” Chicago Tribune, 13 Jul 1947.
  • “Johnny Dickshot.” Lake County News-Sun, 7 Nov 1997.
  • “Bullpen: Johnny Dickshot.” Baseball Reference. https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Johnny_Dickshot/ Accessed 03/31/2019.
  • “Johnny Dickshot.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Dickshot. Accessed 03/11/2019.
  • “Register: Johnny Dickshot.” Baseball Reference. https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.fcgi?id=dicksh001joh. Accessed 3/11/2019.

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