RIP to reliever Jerry Johnson, who pitched for seven teams in a 10-year career in the 1960s and ’70s. The Canyon Lake, Calif., resident died on November 15 at the age of 77 from Lewy Body Dementia and COPD. Johnson pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies (1968-69), St. Louis Cardinals (1970), San Francisco Giants (1970-72), Cleveland Indians (1973), Houston Astros (1974), San Diego Padres (1975-76) and Toronto Blue Jays (1977). He recorded the first win in Blue Jays history, in fact.
His wife of 18 years, Susan, made the announcement on Facebook. “He faced those diseases and his eventual death, the same way he did life, with dignity and strength. I am the luckiest woman alive, I had my very own Prince Charming! The life we lived together was nothing less than a miracle. Many people have said that we had a fairytale love affair. I don’t see any other way than that to describe the 19 years I spent with my Jerry. I miss you my love,” she wrote.
Jerry Michael Johnson was born on December 3, 1943, in Miami, Fla. He grew up in Odessa, Texas, and he grew up tough. In fact, given his self-admitted short temper and hard fists, Johnson first made a splash in Golden Gloves boxing before he did in baseball. He won 14 straight fights as an amateur boxer before he lost a decision.
Johnson was signed by the New York Mets in 1962 — originally as a third baseman. Johnson said that he only faced one batter as a high school pitcher — and it wasn’t to strike him out, either. “Somebody had run over our catcher and they wanted me to hit the guy,” Johnson said. “I was so wild I missed. But we had a real big fuss about it. They said I was in there just to hit the guy.” Considering he was able to throw from third base harder than most pitchers threw from the mound, it wasn’t an idle threat and a reminder that high school sports in Texas are played at a different level than elsewhere.
In his first season in the minors, Johnson didn’t embarrass himself at the plate. He batted .248 with 1 home run for the Salisbury Braves of the Class-D Western Carolina League. His fielding, however, was pretty rough. He had an .868 fielding percentage in 29 games at third base. His fielding didn’t improve in 1963 for the Salinas Mets of the California League, so the team began experimenting with him as a pitcher. He didn’t do well either at the plate (.238 batting average) or on the mound (6.75 ERA) that season, but the more that he pitched, the better he got. The Mets were stocking up on young fireballing pitchers, like fellow Texan Nolan Ryan, and Johnson fit that mold. By 1965, he had left third base behind completely and was pitching full time.
Injuries and mandatory military service kept Johnson from pitching very much for the first few seasons of his career. He didn’t work a full season in the minor leagues until 1966, when the 23-year-old was 10-13 in 26 starts for the Double-A Williamsport Mets of the Eastern League. One of those wins was a 1-0 shutout against the Reading Phillies and 40-year-old Robin Roberts, who was starting an ultimately unsuccessful comeback attempt.
The Philadelphia Phillies drafted Johnson out of the Mets organization and assigned him to the San Diego Padres of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 1968. He pitched brilliantly for the Padres, with a 7-1 record and 1.95 ERA before the Phillies called him to the majors in mid-July. Not only did he show good command on the mound, but he also made real strides in keeping his temper in check. His then-wife Judy made it a point to get Johnson to keep his cool, so he could focus on being a better pitcher.
“It’s helped me too,” Johnson said. “Now if I get mad on the mound, Judy sees it. And boy, does she get mad about that!”
Playing for the Phillies must have been a trying experience for Johnson, because in his two seasons with the team, he didn’t pitch badly. But the Phillies were a fairly awful team, and he pitched through a lot of hard luck. Philadelphia quickly put Johnson in the starting rotation, and he finished the 1968 season with a 4-4 record and a 3.24 ERA. His first major-league win almost came on August 16 against San Francisco. He was leading 5-3 going into the eighth inning when he tired, and manager Bob Skinner took him out of the game. The Giants scored four unanswered runs and won 7-5. To add to the indignity, Johnson took a line drive from Hal Lanier off his head. The ball glanced off his glove, smacked him right on the “P” on his ballcap and landed in the glove of second baseman Cookie Rojas for a 1-4 putout. After the liner, Phillies trainer Joe Liscio went to the fallen pitcher and asked him what day it was. Johnson admitted that he had no idea what day it was — even before the line drive!
“I had a tough time convincing everyone that it was not the hit on the head that made he forget the day. Heck, I took tougher shots than that in the ring,” Johnson said. “I just kept warming up until I figured what day it was… then we all started laughing out there.”
Johnson’s first win finally came on August 24 against Atlanta. He threw 7-1/3 innings and allowed 2 runs (1 earned) while striking out a pair in a 4-3 win. The former third baseman had an RBI double to help his own cause. He had some arm problems toward the end of the season that limited his usage. He started spring training in 1969 with a sore arm, too, and the Phillies weren’t happy with his offseason workload. He pitched in Puerto Rico over the winter for league champions Ponce and threw two postseason shutouts. When he wasn’t pitching, he had a job as an iron worker. He came to camp so muscular that the team asked him to take it easier in future offseasons.
Johnson’s arm recovered over the course of the season, but he still had a disappointing 6-13 record and 4.28 ERA for the 99-loss Phillies. He did get his first major-league shutout, a 1-0 4-hitter against St. Louis. In the offseason, he was included in one of the more controversial trades in baseball history — Johnson, Dick Allen and Cookie Rojas were dealt to St. Louis for Byron Browne, Curt Flood, Joe Hoerner and Tim McCarver. Flood never reported and kicked off a landmark stand for players’ labor rights. Johnson’s time in St. Louis was pretty short. He appeared in 7 games in relief, picking up 2 wins and a save, and then he was traded to the San Francisco Giants on May 19 for reliever Frank Linzy.
The Giants, as the Cardinals had done, kept Johnson in the bullpen. He pitched in 33 games for San Francisco, with just 1 start. He had a 3-4 record with 3 saves in those relief outings and finished the season with a ERA of 4.11 between his two teams. When he came back to the Giants in 1971, the results were spectacular. He had a 12-9 record in 67 games, with 18 saves — good enough for 4th in the National League. Only Wayne Granger of the Reds appeared in more games, with 70. His ERA was 2.97, and he fanned 85 batters in 109 innings. Johnson received down-ballot votes for both the Cy Young Award and the Most Valuable Player Award for his breakout season. The Newspaper Enterprise Association named him as the reliever of the year — an award which was voted upon by the players.
Much of the credit for Johnson’s turnaround went to Giants manager Charley Fox. The constant movement that the pitcher had experienced over the previous couple of years took a toll on his confidence, and he got into Fox’s doghouse in spring training as a result. “We never doubted for one minute that Johnson could pitch. It was just a matter of making him believe that he could do the job for us,” Fox stated. “Believe me he made a believer out of some of those sluggers in the spring, and this carried on into the season. He can throw hard and those big guys don’t take any liberties with him.”
“Whatever success I have had in helping this club is because of a change in my attitude. I was told by Fox that I would get a chance and that all I had to do was work hard and stay in good shape,” Johnson added. “I know it did me a world of good and when I go to the mound I feel differently than I did before.”
Not only did Johnson have the best year of his career, but the 1971 Giants won 90 games and finished in first place in the NL West. They lost to the Pirates in the NL Championship Series, 3 games to 1. Johnson pitched in just one of those games — the Game Four 9-5 win by the Pirates. After starter Gaylord Perry was knocked out of the game in the bottom of the sixth inning, Johnson entered with the Giants down 6-5 and Roberto Clemente on first base. Catcher Dick Dietz allowed a passed ball to move Clemente to second base, so Johnson was told to intentionally walk Willie Stargell. The next batter, Al Oliver, ripped a 3-run homer to make the score 9-5. Johnson retired the next four batters he faced, but the Giants couldn’t score any more runs and were eliminated from the postseason.
One of Johnson’s most memorable games from 1971 was one in which he didn’t even play. The Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers were involved in a beanball-filled game on September 13. Dodgers pitcher Bill Singer hit Chris Speier and Willie Mays with pitches and received no warnings. Giants starter Juan Marichal responded by firing a couple of pitches under Singer’s chin, drawing a warning from umpire Shag Crawford. When Marichal hit Bill Buckner with a pitch, Marichal was ejected, and players spilled out onto the field when Buckner walked toward the mound with his bat in his hands. Marichal, on his way off the field, put his hands around his throat in a “choke” gesture directed at Crawford. Johnson, from the dugout, mimicked the gesture, and Crawford tossed him too. Johnson then charged the umpire, and it took a pile of teammates, including Mays, Al Gallagher, Larry Jansen, Tito Fuentes and coach Ozzie Virgil, to hold him back.
“That lousy fake was going to throw a punch at me. Why, he wouldn’t have tried that 20 years ago. I would have killed him,” said Crawford, who was an amateur boxer in his youth and probably wasn’t aware Johnson had a similar background. Johnson responded by saying, “He showed me no guts all night. Everyone was blasting him, but he singled me out.” Johnson, Marichal, Buckner and Maury Wills (who was ejected in a separate incident) were all fined for their actions.
Johnson struggled out of the gate in 1972, with a 9.00 ERA in his first five appearances. Somehow, he ended up with a win and 3 saves in those games. He righted the ship but couldn’t match his previous season. He won 8 games and saved 8 more, but his ERA rose to 4.42 and his base on balls rate increased by almost a full walk for every 9 innings pitched. His heavy workload in 1971 may have played a factor, and he admitted that his arm didn’t feel right until February of 1972.
Come spring training of 1973, Johnson and the Giants couldn’t agree on a contract, so San Francisco sold him to Cleveland in March for the waiver price of $20,000. He quickly picked up 5 saves for the Indians over the first couple months of the season, but his inconsistency led manager Ken Aspromonte to use a closer by committee. Cleveland as a team recorded 21 saves, and Tom Hilgendorf (6) and Ken Sanders (5) also shared closer duties. Johnson ended the year with a 5-6 record and 6.18 ERA, but the ERA total is a little misleading. Prior to his final appearance, he had a 5.37 ERA — still not great, but better. On September 28 in the second game of a doubleheader, Johnson was forced to stay in a game and take his lumps against the Baltimore Orioles. He faced 10 batters, retired just 2 (one was a double play), and allowed 6 runs on 3 hits and 5 walks. The big hits were a 2-run double by Rich Coggins and a 2-run single by Andy Etchebarren. When Aspromonte mercifully replaced Johnson with reliever Dick Bosman, Bosman allowed a grand slam to Frank Baker. Three of those runs were charged to Johnson as well. That bad inning had a poor season look even worse.
After the ’73 season, Cleveland traded Johnson to the Houston Astros for pitcher Cecil Upshaw. It was hoped that he could help revitalize a weak bullpen, and he picked up a couple of wins in relief early in 1974. His ERA, though, finished at 4.80, and he spent a couple of months pitching back in the minor leagues and in the Mexican League. He was released at the end of the season and signed a contract with the San Diego Padres. He pitched with the organization in 1975 and ’76, splitting time as a reliever with the Padres and as a starter with the Hawaii Islanders, the team’s Triple-A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. He got a rare start with the big-league club on July 20 when Brent Strom injured his arm warming up prior to a game against Atlanta and couldn’t pitch. Johnson threw 6-1/3 innings and allowed a couple of runs, and he picked up the win after he doubled in the fifth inning and was brought home on a 2-run homer by John Grubb. His ERA in the majors hovered around 5, though his pitching in the majors was much better. However, he didn’t make many fans in the Sacramento when he called Hughes Stadium, home of the PCL’s Solons, “a cow pasture that has no business pretending to be a baseball park. It’s the worst place I’ve ever had to pitch in my 13 years of organized baseball — the poor lighting, the short fence, a small corps of loud abusive fans.” Apparently, Johnson’s gestures and trash talking while on the mound didn’t make him many fans on the road.
Johnson was traded to the expansion Toronto Blue Jays at the end of the 1976 season for catcher/infielder Dave Roberts, and he ended up making the Toronto’s inaugural Opening Day roster. Not only that, but he came into the Jays’ first-ever game against the White Sox on April 7, 1977, in relief of starter Bill Singer (who helped cause that big beanball war between the Dodgers and Giants in 1971). He relieved Singer in the fifth inning with two runners on base and one out and got out of the threat, and then he worked two more innings and allowed a run. The Blue Jays won their debut opener 9-5, and Johnson was credited with the team’s first win. He also was a footnote in history when he pitched against the Boston Red Sox on July 4. The Sox launched their own fireworks, setting an American League record with 8 home runs. Starter Jerry Garvin allowed 2, Chuck Hartenstein gave up 4, and reliever Mike Willis gave up 2. Johnson allowed a single to Butch Hobson and a walk to Bernie Carbo, but then he struck out Denny Doyle to get out of the eighth inning. He was the only Jays pitcher who didn’t allow a home run that day.
“They’ve already hit four home runs this inning,” manager Roy Hartsfield told Johnson when he came to the mound. “I don’t want no more.” Johnson did as he was told. “I’ll tell you this, though, if I did give up another homer, there probably would have been a heck of a fight,” Johnson said. “That next batter would have been on his back on the first pitch.”
Johnson appeared in a total of 43 games and had a 2-4 record and 4.60 ERA. He also recorded 5 saves, which were second-best on the team behind Pete Vuckovich’s 8. The Blue Jays released him in March of 1978, and Johnson retired at the age of 34.
In his 10 seasons in the major leagues, Johnson had a 48-51 record with 41 saves. He appeared in 365 games, including 39 starts. He struck out 489 batters in 770-2/3 innings and walked 389 others. He had a career WHIP of 1.516, and batters hit .265 against him. The former third baseman also had 15 hits for a .123 batting average, with 4 doubles and 4 RBIs.
Johnson coached in the minors for a couple of seasons, and he pitched for the St. Lucie Legends of the Senior Professional Baseball Association in 1989. His post-baseball career was hard to track, but teammate John D’Acquisto posted some nice remembrances of him on Facebook — including the time Johnson sank the 8-ball while playing pool against Willie Mays and got so upset that he picked up the pool table and dropped it, cracking the slate. “He was a protector of the team. Let’s just say that if he was on your side you had nothing to worry about,” D’Acquisto recalled.
For more information: Canyon Lake Insider