RIP to Bart Johnson, a pitcher for 8 seasons and a long-time scout for the White Sox, among other teams. He died on April 22 in Palos Heights, Ill., due to complications from Parkinson’s Disease. He was 70 years old. Johnson pitched for the Chicago White Sox from 1969-74 and 1976-77.
Clair Barth Johnson was born in Torrence, Calif., on January 3, 1950. By the time he got to Torrence High School, he was 6’5″ and an imposing presence on a pitcher’s mound — or a basketball court. In 1967, the forward was named on the third squad for the Parade All-America High School basketball team. He was in good company; The rest of the third squad included future NBA players Spencer Haywood, Artis Gilmore, Pierre Russell and Dean Meminger.
Johnson, a pitcher and center fielder on Torrence’s baseball team, had some fine company there as well. He and his catcher, Fred Kendall, led the team to the Sky League championship and were named co-Players of the Year. Fred Kendall would have a 12-year career in the majors; Jason Kendall, his son, played 15 years. Johnson had a 6-0 record for the Tartars in his senior year with a 1.69 ERA. He was drafted in the 3rd Round of the 1967 June Amateur Draft by the Cardinals. Instead of signing, he spent a year at Brigham Young University in Utah and played on the freshman basketball team. The White Sox made him their First-Round pick (second pick overall) in the 1968 Draft – Secondary Phase. That was for players who had previously been drafted and didn’t sign.
Johnson signed his White Sox contract and started his career with the Appleton Foxes of the Midwest League. The very day he joined the team, the Foxes were no-hit by Vida Blue. Johnson almost matched the feat in one of his first starts; he was a fluke single away from no-hitting Wisconsin Rapids. He returned to the Foxes in 1969 and won 16 games, with 200 strikeouts in 170 innings and a 2.17 ERA. He started the Midwest League All-Star Team (which was the Foxes against the rest of the league) and threw a 5-hit complete game. He tossed a 1-hitter with 11 strikeouts in the league’s championship game. After the Foxes won the championship, the Sox brought Johnson straight to the major leagues, bypassing AA and AAA.
Nineteen-year-old Johnson made his major-league debut in a start against the Seattle Pilots on September 8. He allowed 2 earned runs in 6 innings, taking the 2-1 loss. The second major-league hitter he ever faced, Steve Whitaker, homered off him. His first win game against the Orioles on September 16. He was relieved with 1 out in the 9th inning when the Orioles started to rally, and Wilbur Wood picked up the save. For the year, Johnson made 4 appearances, including 3 starts, and finished with a 1-3 record and a 3.22 ERA. He fanned 18 hitters in 22-1/3 innings.
Johnson suffered a tendon injury in the 1970 training camp and started the season with the AAA Tucson Toros. His first go-around with the Sox resulted in an 0-2 record and 8.85 ERA. He returned later in the season and was much more productive. He beat the Yankees with his glove and bat on August 22. He tossed 8-2/3 innings of 4-hit ball (again, Wilbur Wood bailed him out of a shaky 9th inning). Johnson also slammed a double off Yankee pitcher Stan Bahnsen to break a 2-2 tie in the bottom of the 7th inning. His big hit came right after teammate Walt Williams left to go to the hospital, where his 7-week-old son Tyrus was battling a spinal infection.
“I won the game for Walt’s son. That’s all there is to it,” Johnson said, choking up after the game. His newborn daughter, Jackie, was a week older than Tyrus, so he probably felt Williams’ heartache better than anyone.
Johnson spent all of 1971 in the majors as a swing man, starting 16 games and relieving in 37. He had a 12-10 record with 14 saves and a 2.93 ERA. He threw a career-high 111 walks, but he struck out 153 batters. He also gave up just 9 home runs in 178 innings, and his 0.5 homers per 9 innings was the best ratio in the American League. His wildness led to a couple of major brawls against the Orioles and Athletics. On May 31, Johnson surrendered 2 homers to Baltimore’s Don Buford and then hit him in the back. Buford charged the mound, still carrying his bat. On September 21, a beanball battle broke out between the Sox and A’s and included Johnson hitting Mike Epstein. When Johnson came to bat, A’s reliever Rollie Fingers fired a ball at his head. Johnson got the bat up in time to bunt it to first baseman Epstein, who tagged him with the ball — in the jaw. Johnson wrenched his neck, and Epstein picked up a shiner in the melee.
That fight with Epstein actually put his pitching career in jeopardy. He pitched in 9 games at the start of the 1972 season and was awful, allowing 14 earned runs in 13-2/3 innings. “I’ve got a pretty bad knee,” he explained. “I wasn’t able to pitch off the mound, and I couldn’t throw hard. I just tossed the ball.” The knee injury occurred because he hurt his hip in the fight. When he pitched, he favored the hip, which led to his knee pain.
The White Sox sent him back to Appleton… to learn to be an outfielder. It wasn’t as weird a decision as it sounds. Johnson spent much of his high school career as a hitter, and he was good at it. In 63 games for AA Knoxville and Appleton, Johnson hit .316 and slugged .505 with 6 home runs and 29 RBIs. Eventually, he was able to return to the mound and finished the season as a pitcher once again for the Foxes.
Johnson returned to the Sox in 1973 and won his first start in more than two years on June 24 — against the A’s in Chicago. He threw 5-2/3 of 1-run ball to pick up his first win of the season. In 22 games, including 9 starts, he had a 3-3 record and 4.13 ERA.
Johnson was almost traded to the Cubs in the offseason in the trade that brought Ron Santo to the South Side. He ended up starting the 1974 season with the AAA Iowa Oaks after failing to make the team out of spring training. He later admitted that when he heard the news, he threw his meal money at manager Chuck Tanner and quit baseball. He eventually reported to Iowa after a month or so. He didn’t pitch particularly well, but when he was recalled to the majors in July, he pitched like an ace. His first two starts were complete game wins. In August, he tossed back-to-back shutouts of the Indians and Red Sox, allowing a total of 9 hits in those 18 innings. He ended the season with three straight wins, putting his record at 10-4 on the season with a 2.74 ERA. Even better, his control had improved, as he walked 40 batters in 80-2/3 innings. His fastball had lost some velocity since his knee injury, but he was still effective.
Unfortunately, another injury — he slipped on a wet mound in spring training and injured his back — kept Johnson out for the entire 1975 season. He returned in 1976, thanks to, of all things, papaya juice. “It’s a new treatment they’re using for disc and back problems,” he told sportswriter Bill Madden. “They give you two or three injections of papaya juice right into the disc area and supposedly that strengthens the disc. They can’t give you a definite recuperation time but I haven’t had pain in months.”
Johnson started 32 games in 1976, so the papaya juice held up. At one point, he had a 9-9 record before ending the season with a 7-game losing streak that put him at 9-16 and a 4.73 ERA on the season. He started 1977 in the rotation but was moved to the bullpen, where he was unhappy and wanted to be traded, preferably to the Padres. He finished the season with a 4-5 record and 2 saves.
When the Sox didn’t trade Johnson, he tried to force their hand by accepting the role as the Sox player’s union representative. It was known that a job as a union rep came with a short lifespan. “I took the job because everybody knows that when a guy becomes the player rep, his days with that club are numbered. I’ve tried every other way I know to have them get rid of me. Now that I’m a player rep, I know I’m gone,” he said. It worked, too. The Sox cut him in spring training of 1978, even though he’d thrown well in 4 appearances.
In 8 seasons, Johnson had a 43-51 record and 3.94 ERA in 185 games, including 97 starts. He threw 22 complete games and 6 shutouts, and he added 17 saves as well. He recorded 520 strikeouts and 348 walks. As a hitter, he batted .215 through 1972, when the DH rule was implemented. He hit .276 for the Sox in 1970, with 2 doubles and 2 RBIs.
Johnson made a few comeback attempts in the minors, including a return to the White Sox organization in 1979. He couldn’t recover the magic and in 1981, joined the White Sox as a West Coast scout. He tried one last comeback as a pitcher in the spring of 1985, but he was 35 years old and hadn’t pitched much since 1980 in Mexico. The comeback ended after a couple of appearances, and he returned to his role as an advance scout.
Johnson worked with the White Sox until 1996 and later worked for the Tampa Bay Rays and Washington Nationals. He was also the advance scout for the 2000 Olympic Baseball Team, which won the gold medal in the Sidney, Australia, Olympics.
There is a really nice 2006 Q&A with Johnson on Sports Illustrated, available here: https://www.si.com/mlb/whitesox/history/a-conversation-with-bart-johnson