Obituary: Bob Johnson (1936-2019)

RIP to Bob “Rocky” Johnson, an infielder and standout pinch-hitter who played for a decade in the majors in the 1960s. Former teammate Jim Palmer reported on Twitter that Johnson, 83, died in Minnesota. Wikipedia notes that Johnson died on November 12 from Parkinson’s disease. Johnson played for the Kansas City/Oakland Athletics (1960, 1969-70), Washington Senators (1961-62), Baltimore Orioles (1963-67). New York Mets (1967), Cincinnati Reds (1968), Atlanta Braves (1968) and St. Louis Cardinals (1969).

Robert Wallace Johnson was born on March 4, 1936 in Omaha, Neb. The “Rocky” nickname came from his playing days, due to a resemblance to Rocky Colavito. Though he was born in Nebraska, he seems to have spent most of his life in Minnesota. He attended high school in Edina and went to college at the University of Minnesota.– although not until his baseball career had already started.

According to Johnson’s SABR biography, he signed with the Detroit Tigers out of high school in 1954. He played in Class-D leagues in 1954 and ’55 and, aside from an unsuccessful week with the Valdosta Tigers, hit pretty well. He moved up to Class C in 1956 and hit .357 for the Idaho Falls Russets. He struggled somewhat as he moved higher, but he put together a nice 1959 season, batting .293 between AA Birmingham and AAA Charleston, including 13 home runs with Birmingham. He was left exposed in the Rule V Draft that offseason and was claimed by the Kansas City A’s.

As a 24-year-old rookie without much experience in the high minors, Johnson struggled in his first the big leagues in 1960. He played all over the infield, as he would do throughout his career. But he batted just .205 in 76 games and, for the second time, was left unprotected in a draft. This time around, it was the 1961 expansion draft, and he was taken by the new Washington Senators (the future Texas Rangers).

Johnson started 1961 in the minor leagues with the Rochester Red Wings. He was called back to the majors in mid-July and quickly turned into an everyday player. His .295 batting average was almost 100 points higher than former starting shortstop Coot Veal, and Johnson provided a little power as well, with 6 homers in 61 games. The following season, 1962, would see Johnson play in 135 games, and he responded with a slash line of .288/.334/.416. He also added 12 home runs while playing third base and shortstop. He would never again top 100 games played in a season, but he had several productive years still to come.

Johnson played on Opening Day for the Senators on April 9, 1962, which was the first game ever held at D.C. Stadium (later renamed RFK Stadium). Facing the Tigers’ Don Mossi, he singled in the 2nd inning for the first Senators base hit in their new stadium. He followed that up with a 2-run homer, also off Mossi, in the bottom of the 4th. That was the first Senators home run in the park. Johnson went 3-for-4 that day with the 2 RBIs, as Washington broke in the stadium with a 4-2 win.

Source: The Evening Sun, March 23, 1964.

In December 1962, Johnson and Pete Burnside were traded to the Orioles for Marv Breeding, Art Quirk and Barry Shetrone. While he wouldn’t get to play as much as he had in Washington, Johnson at least got away from 100-loss expansion teams. The Orioles finished 1963 in 4th place with an 86-76 record. That offseason, general manager Lee MacPhail fired laid-back manager Billy Hitchcock and replaced him with Hank Bauer. Bauer guided the team to third place finishes in 1964 and 1965 before winning the AL pennant in 1966. That Orioles team swept the Dodgers to win the World Series. Johnson didn’t get to play in the Series, as Baltimore took care of the Dodgers in a remarkably efficient manner.

During his four full seasons with Baltimore, Johnson averaged about 83 games per season and hit .247. With Brooks Robinson, Luis Aparicio and Jerry Adair in the infield, Johnson knew he wasn’t going to be an everyday player, so he became as versatile as possible. Along with playing everywhere in the infield, he was also a prolific pinch-hitter, getting as many as 49 pinch-hit appearances in 1964. At one point, from June 26 through July 14, Johnson had 6 consecutive hits in pinch-hitting opportunities. Throw in the games that he started, and Johnson hit an even .400 during that stretch.

Bauer, who’d been in baseball long enough to have seen many of the greats, called Johnny Mize the best pinch-hitter he ever saw, but he put Johnson in the second tier with greats like Smokey Burgess, Johnny Blanchard and Red Lucas. He added that Johnson was the best currently in the game, though.

Johnson came to appreciate his role — or at least he didn’t criticize Bauer for using him as a supersub. “Even though second is my best position, I like moving around,” he said in 1964. “As long as I have a good year — and get paid for it, like I did this time — I’m satisfied.”

Johnson’s batting average tailed off to .217 in 1966. In 1967, he hardly played for the Orioles, getting 1 hit in 3 pinch-hit at-bats through May 11. The rosters were pared down to 25 players at that point, and Johnson was sold to the New York Mets. He only spent that one partial season with the Mets, but he made the most of it. He hit .348 with 5 home runs in 90 games for the Mets, and they traded him to Cincinnati at the end of the year for Art Shamsky.

Johnson’s career with the Reds amounted to 17 plate appearances over 16 games in 1968. He hit .267 in those limited chances before being traded to Atlanta in a big 6-player deal. Johnson, Ted Davidson and Milt Pappas went to the Braves for Clay Carroll, Tony Cloninger and Woody Woodward. While pitchers Pappas and Cloninger were the big names in the deal, Johnson soon established himself at third base, supplanting Clete Boyer. Johnson got into 59 games with the Braves and hit .262. At the end of the season, he was on the move again.

In March 1969, Johnson was traded to the Cardinals for Dave Adlesh. He was with St. Louis for about three-and-a-half months and hit .207 in 29 at-bats. He was traded to Oakland at the end of July for Joe Nossek, and it was a double reunion. Johnson had started his career with the Athletics, though they were in Kansas City at the time. Also, the A’s manager was Hank Bauer, his old Orioles boss. Bauer would be fired before the end of the year, but Johnson made the most of his time with the A’s, hitting .343. For the year, he also had a .280 average as a pinch-hitter, with one home run..

Johnson’s major-career came to a close in 1970. After starting a few games at third base, he was used exclusively as a pinch-hitter from April 26 through June 20. Unfortunately, he managed just 2 hits over 17 at-bats in that stretch and was sent to the minor leagues. He finished up the season in Iowa and called it a career after that.

In his 11 seasons in the major leagues, Johnson played for seven different teams. From 1967 through 1969, he started off each season with a new team and ended it with a completely different new team. That kind of moving around would be difficult for any player, but Johnson batted .307 while playing for six teams in three seasons. For his career, he had a slash line of .272/.320/.377, with 628 hits that included 44 home runs. He had 230 RBIs and scored 254 runs. He played at least 100 games at every infield position and also spent 10 innings in the outfield during his career. As a pinch-hitter, Baseball Reference lists him as a lifetime .272 hitter, with 66 hits in 243 at-bats. He was just as good a pinch-hitter as he was a starter, which is a pretty remarkable feat.

Johnson’s SABR bio states that he worked in liquor distribution, real estate and sold advertising items after retiring from baseball. He also participated in youth clinics with the Minnesota Twins and managed a fantasy camp for the Orioles in Florida.

“If I had it to do all over again, I would want to be able to play anyplace I can help,” he said after being traded to Oakland in 1969. “It has meant a major-league career for me.”

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