Obituary: Rex Johnston (1937-2019)

RIP to Rex Johnston, one of a handful of players who played for both Major League Baseball and the National Football League. Rarer still, he did it while staying in the same city. Johnston died on December 15, at the age of 82 from heart failure. Johnston played football for the Pittsburgh Steelers (1960) and baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1964).

Rex Johnston was born on November 8, 1937 in Colton, Calif. After attending Compton High School, he went to the University of Southern California. He originally made a name for himself on the gridiron, as a Trojan tailback. The sophomore may have started the 1956 football season as a fourth-string back, but by the time of the big USC-UCLA game on November 24, he was a starter. Johnston and sophomore quarterback Jim Conroy were the stars of that game, as USC topped the Bruins 10-7.

Source: The Times, March 16, 1962.

In the three seasons that Johnston played football at USC, he rushed for a total of 674 yards with one touchdown. He led his team in rushing yards in 1957, with 304, according to his obit in the Los Angeles Times. He didn’t save all his athleticism for the football field, though. He was also a starter on the USC baseball team as an switch-hitting outfielder. He hit .374 with 26 RBIs in 1958, leading the Trojans into the College World Series. The championship game between USC and Missouri went into the bottom of the 12th inning as a 7-7 tie. Johnston led off the inning by beating out an infield single and advancing to third base on a sacrifice hit and a ground ball. He scored the winning run on a single by Mike Blewett.

After two seasons of batting .370 with the Trojans, Johnston signed a professional contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates in June 1959. He played in 70 games for the C-league Idaho Falls Russets and hit .275 with 2 homers and 36 RBIs. The next season, he played for three different levels in the Pirates organization and ended with a combined .275 average, with 10 stolen bases and 5 home runs.

Johnson got back into football and signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers on September 9, 1960. He was said to be disappointed about a poor performance at Grand Forks during one of his stints in the minors. He played in all 12 games for the Steelers that season, primarily as a punt and kick returner. The former tailback struggled rushing the ball in the pros, with a total of 4 rushes for 12 yards, and 5 fumbles (according to Football Reference). He also returned 12 punts for 45 yards and 18 kicks for 345 yards.

Johnston returned to the minor leagues in 1961, and by July, he had announced that he had given up football for good. By then, he was starting regularly for the Asheville Tourists of the South Atlantic League. He turned in his best season in the minors, with a .283/.360/.457 slash line and 18 home runs. He was teamed in the outfield with another Pirates prospect whom the newspapers identified as Wilver Stargell. He’d be better known as “Willie” in a few years.

Johnson moved up to the AAA Columbus Jets starting in 1962, and he spent most of the next three seasons there. He was a steady hitter for the Jets in 1962 and 1963, hit with a little bit of power and stole a few bases — including two bases on one play against the Atlanta Crackers in 1963. He got such a good jump on a double steal attempt that he hit second base and ran straight to third before the throw could get him.

Finally, in 1964, Johnston was given the chance to break camp with the Pirates after an excellent Spring Training performance. This was back in the era when teams had expanded rosters at the start of the season. From the start of the season until May 11, Johnston appeared in a total of 14 games, going 0-for-7 with a run and 3 walks. His first MLB appearance came on April 15 against the Cubs; he was intentionally walked as a pinch-hitter in the 12th inning. He started 1 game in center field and appeared in 7 other games as a defensive replacement, either in left or center field. Johnston also served as a pinch-hitter five times and a pinch runner twice.

To get back down to the allowed roster size, Johnston was sent back to AAA Columbus on May 13. He hit a disappointing .234 for the Jets for the rest of the season and was sent to Tacoma, the San Francisco Giants’ AAA franchise, at the start of the 1965 season. Though Johnston was in his late 20s, he was widely considered a top-notch outfielder — not to mention a fearsome baserunner. He gained a reputation as being willing to use some of his football tackling skills to break up a double play.

“I’ve actually played more football than baseball,” Johnson explained. “That’s a contact sport and I guess I’ve still got the instinct. Sometimes you’re tired, you know, and you just don’t feel like sliding into second. Yeah, I’ve been in some jams doing it.”

Johnston hit .251 for the Tacoma Giants in 1965. He was hitting .286 through his first 94 games of the 1966 season when he slammed into a fence, trying to catch a fly ball. He suffered a back injury that ended his season and, ultimately, his career. Through his 8 seasons in the minors, Johnston hit .266 with 59 home runs and 338 RBIs.

After his professional sports career had ended, Johnston ran an industrial paint company.

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