June 16 – Happy Birthday Ken Johnson

k.johnsonWhen I first started following the Yankees back in 1960, Major League Baseball was still in the two-league, sixteen-team format that it had been in since 1901. To finish last in an American or National League Pennant race had always meant your team had ended up in eighth place. By 1962 however, both the AL and then the NL had expanded to ten teams and suddenly finishing eighth no longer sounded as forlornly horrible as it had for big league franchises since the turn of the twentieth century. In fact, your team could actually finish ninth and still not be considered the worst team in the league.

The Yankees of course had developed a reputation for finishing in first place but in 1962, their new crosstown rivals, the Mets would begin battling their NL expansion brothers, the Houston Colt 45’s for ninth place bragging rights in the senior circuit. Neither team finished ninth in their 1962 inaugural seasons because Houston was able to surpass a woeful Chicago Cubs team that year and finish in eighth. But for the next four seasons, it was baseball’s first-ever-team based in Texas that won the NL race for ninth place over the Amazin’s and the reason was Houston had much better starting pitching than the Mets.

Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant was in the original starting rotation of that Houston expansion team. He joined Turk Farrell and Bob Bruce to give the Colt 45’s a solid trio of starters that made it tough to sweep a series against the early versions of this ball club. That 1962 Houston pitching staff had a 3.83 cumulative ERA (the Mets first year ERA was 5.04.)

Ken Johnson was the ace of that first Houston pitching staff. The native of West Palm Beach, FL had made his big league debut with the Kansas City A’s in 1958 and spent his first three years struggling to establish himself with that very bad A’s team. He ended up in Toronto in 1961, picking for an unaffiliated minor league team in the American Association, when he caught the eye of the Reds, who were at the time in the thick of the NL Pennant race. He joined the Cincinnati starting rotation and finished 6-2 for that NL Championship club. He actually got to pitch two-thirds of an inning of scoreless relief against the Yankees in the ’61 Series. Johnson thought he had found a home but the Cincinnati front office left him unprotected in the NL expansion draft and he became Houston’s 29th pick.

His four-year record with the Colt 45’s was 32-51 but his ERA while there was a very respectable 3.41. The Milwaukee Braves, in search of starting pitching during the 1965 season, acquired Johnson for Lee Maye. With a solid offense finally supporting him, the six foot four inch right hander went 40-25 during his first three seasons with the Braves. He slumped to 5-8 during his fourth year with the team and by 1969 he was 35-years-old.

The Yankees happened to be looking for a right-hander they could add to Ralph Houk’s bullpen and Johnson’s name came up. The Braves sold him to New York on June 10, 1969. He made his pinstriped debut one day after his 36th birthday, pitching two scoreless innings against the Tigers in relief of Mike Kekich. Four days later, Houk inserted him in the tenth inning of a game against the Red Sox and he got shelled and took the loss. It took him a couple of weeks to get used to his new surroundings but by July he had settled down and allowed just one earned run in his six appearances that month. Just as he was getting comfortable working in the Bronx however, Johnson was sold to the Cubs on August 11th.

Johnson’s most famous moment as a big leaguer took place on April 24, 1963, when he became the first MLB pitcher in history to toss and lose a nine-inning no-hitter. In the ninth inning of that Houston-Cincinnati Reds game, Pete Rose tried to break up the hitless performance by bunting for a hit. Johnson fielded the ball cleanly and quickly but his throw to first was wild and Rose advanced to second on the pitcher’s error. After Rose was sacrificed to third, he scored when Houston second baseman, Nellie Fox booted a ground ball and when his team couldn’t score in the bottom of the ninth, Johnson lost the game 1-0.

Johnson shares his June 16th birthday with this other former Yankee reliever and this former Yankee outfielder.

1969 NYY 1 2 .333 3.46 12 0 8 0 0 0 26.0 19 11 10 1 11 21 1.154
13 Yrs 91 106 .462 3.46 334 231 50 50 7 9 1737.1 1670 778 668 157 413 1042 1.199
ATL (5 yrs) 45 34 .570 3.22 130 104 13 26 3 3 769.2 746 317 275 72 155 390 1.171
KCA (4 yrs) 6 15 .286 5.03 52 9 19 2 0 3 143.0 148 92 80 21 60 96 1.455
HOU (4 yrs) 32 51 .386 3.41 113 106 4 19 3 1 690.2 660 311 262 49 151 471 1.174
MON (1 yr) 0 0 7.50 3 0 2 0 0 0 6.0 9 6 5 1 1 4 1.667
CHC (1 yr) 1 2 .333 2.84 9 1 3 0 0 1 19.0 17 8 6 2 13 18 1.579
CIN (1 yr) 6 2 .750 3.25 15 11 1 3 1 1 83.0 71 33 30 11 22 42 1.120
NYY (1 yr) 1 2 .333 3.46 12 0 8 0 0 0 26.0 19 11 10 1 11 21 1.154
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/16/2013.

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