Johnson was one of the best black catchers during the two decades before the Negro National League was formed. He also played first base, starting his career there with the Columbia Giants of Chicago in 1896. As he developed as a catcher, he became known not only as an excellent handler of pitchers but also as a coach. He reportedly was hired by the white St. Paul club of the American Association to work with young catchers for several years in the early 1900s. He later became a highly successful manager.