Obituary: Ben Johnson (1931-2020)

RIP to Ben Johnson, who pitched for the Chicago Cubs for a total of 21 games over 1959 and 1960. He died on May 8, 2020, at his home. He was 88 years old — and was a week shy of his 89th birthday. He will be buried at the Greenwood Memorial Gardens in Hodges, S.C.

Benjamin Franklin Johnson Jr. was born in Greenwood, S.C., on May 15, 1931. It’s quite a heavy load to be named after one of the country’s founding fathers, but he seemed to bear it pretty well. Once he reached high school, he quickly became the strikeout king of Greenville, according to local columnist Carter “Scoop” Latimer. “A young pitcher who someday may have more big league press notices than he can pack in his steamer trunk is Greenwood’s Ben Johnson, the robust, tall, broad-shouldered youngster whose natural ability is surcharged with courageous determination,” he wrote. All this came while Johnson was a junior at Greenwood High, mind you. Then again, Latimer noted Johnson averaged 15 strikeouts per game in his junior year, so a little overzealous writing is understandable.

Johnson as the strikeout king of Greenwood. Source: The Greenville News, May 30, 1948.

As a junior, Johnson was part of the U.S. Scholastic All-Star team that was sent to Honolulu to play a group of Hawaiian All-Stars. Johnson was chosen to represent South Carolina by Gov. Strom Thurmond. As a senior, it was believed Johnson could become a “bonus baby” player, meaning he could sign a contract for more than $6,000 and go directly to the major leagues from high school. Instead, Johnson elected to sign with the Boston Braves for $6,000 and report to Evansville of the Three-I League instead. Ben Johnson Sr. made sure to thank Scoop Latimer for the nice columns he wrote about his son for the previous three years. “Those write-ups helped Ben further his ambitions athletically and scholastically.”

The Braves beat out 11 other teams who were interested in the young right-hander. They may have had an edge, because one of their starting pitchers at the time was Bill Voiselle, another Greenville native. Johnson would follow Voiselle’s path to the majors, though it took a little longer, was interrupted by military service and took place for a completely different franchise.

Johnson made his debut in the summer of ’49 with the Evansville Braves, and he went 3-2 with a 2.18 ERA in 8 games. He was sent all the way up to the AAA Milwaukee Brewers in 1950, and when that proved a little rough (3-5 record, 5.40 ERA), he returned to Evansville for 1951. He won 9 games there in what would be his last professional ball for a couple of years. He joined the U.S. Marines and spent 1952 and 1953 serving his country. While stationed as Parris Island in 1952, he went 9-3 against college, semi-pro and military teams. He led the Parris Island team to the 1952 East Coast Marine championship, and his Camp Lejeune team fell just shy of the title in 1953.

Johnson was discharged from the Marines in August of 1953 and spent the rest of the summer and the offseason preparing for the 1954 training camp. The Braves had moved to Milwaukee by then, and his chances of breaking camp with the team were dimmed significantly when the Philadelphia Phillies slammed four home runs off him in an exhibition game. Johnson returned to the minors and spent the next four seasons in the AAA and AA levels of the Braves organization, winning ballgames but not getting called up to the majors. He was a Southern Association All-Star in 1957 while pitching for the Atlanta Crackers. He went 11-7 with a 4.30 ERA that season.

Johnson had the best season of his career with the Fort Worth Cats. Source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 18, 1958.

Johnson was traded to the Chicago Cubs in the ’57 offseason, and he spent 1958 with the Fort Worth Cats of the Texas League. He won 12 games, and when the Cats became a AAA franchise in the American Association in 1959, he had the best season of his career. Johnson went 17-9 with a 3.22 ERA for Fort Worth. He fanned 90 hitters in 203 innings while walking 60. The 17 wins were second-best in the league, and his performance earned him his first trip to the big leagues, 10 years after he entered professional baseball.

The Cubs called Johnson to the majors in September of 1959. His MLB debut came on September 6, when he relieved Moe Drabowsky in the first inning after Drabowski retired just one batter and left the bases loaded. Johnson got out of the jam and threw a total of 5-2/3 excellent innings, allowing just a solo homer by opposing pitcher Larry Sherry. The Cubs came from behind to get the win when Don Drysdale blew a save opportunity. Johnson was out of the ballgame by then, but he did well enough to get a couple of starts as the season wound down. He finished the season with a 2.16 ERA in 16-2/3 innings, with 6 strikeout and 4 walks.

Johnson made the Cubs’ Opening Day roster and preserved a 6-5 win over San Francisco on April 14 by getting Jim Davenport to hit into a forceout with 2 outs in the 9th inning and the Giants threatening. It was his first career save. The Cubs preferred to use him as a long reliever, and most of his outings lasted 2 or 3 innings. His first career win came against the Phillies on May 2, when he allowed a run on a couple of hits in the 9th inning but was bailed out by a walk-off base hit by Don Zimmer for an 8-7 victory.

Through the end of May, Johnson had a 2-1 record and a 3.91 ERA as a Cubs reliever. A few rough performances in June raised his ERA by a full run, and he was sent down to the AAA Houston Buffs on June 13. He did not return to the major leagues again.

In two seasons with the Cubs, Johnson had a 2-1 record with a save in 21 games. In 46 innings of work, he had a 3.91 ERA with 15 walks and 15 strikeouts.

Johnson pitched in the minor leagues through 1964, when he was 33 years old. He was traded a few times, and finished his career with the Houston Colt .45s/Astros organization. Johnson won 132 games in the minor leagues, topping 10 wins in a season seven times in 14 seasons.

After baseball, Johnson and his family returned to his hometown of Greenwood. He was employed by Monsanto until his retirement in the 1980s, and he also worked for Custom Identity Center for 20 years.

For more information: Blyth Funeral Home

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