Johnson's pitching, and spirit, were ageless
Negro Leagues lose yet another legend with his passing
The Kansas City Star
Posted on Wed, Dec. 01, 2004
There were beer cans in the bushes again. Seemed like every week, back when he lived in his house in Kansas City, Connie Johnson had to walk out to his front yard and clear empty beer cans like they were fallen leaves. Kids. He picked the cans out of the bushes quietly, without emotion; he had grown tired of yelling about it. On this day, the beer reminded him of a story.
It was my first game as a professional pitcher, Connie Johnson said. He was remembering 1940, Stone Mountain, Ga. He was 17 years old, and he had been promised pay for pitching, and so he pitched on a sunny day, too hot even for the mosquitoes.
Who's that, Ichabod Crane? two pretty women fans of the other team yelled at him as he took the mound. After he pitched a few scoreless innings, their tone changed.
Don't let that Ichabod Crane boy pitch, he throws too hard, they yelled.
More than 60 years later, Connie Johnson still laughed as he thought about those women. Ichabod Crane. When the game ended, all the players gathered in a huddle. Come on, Connie, someone yelled to him, it's time for pay.
He rushed over to the group and he saw cans of beer.
What's this? he asked.
This is your pay, he was told. Take some.
But I don't drink beer. I don't want beer. I want money.
But there was no money. There was only sunshine and baseball and some free beer for a young man who, had he been born in another time, might have been rich and famous and, at the end, mourned by the entire country.
Doesn't matter, Connie said as he dropped the last empty can into a white garbage bag and headed back into his home. I had a good time. You know what's really funny though? The beer wasn't even cold.
Connie Johnson died Saturday in a retirement home, and nobody stopped the presses. Nobody broke into regularly scheduled programming. Word did not even get out for a few days. The world does not stop spinning for a tall, gentle 81-year-old man who, many years before, won 40 games in the major leagues.
He won the bulk of those 40 games in two seasons 1954 and '55 when he was in his mid-30s and his body was much older. He had spent his youth pitching in the Negro Leagues; the story Connie liked to tell is that they pulled him out of the stands to pitch his first game for the Toledo Crawfords. He was only 18, but he pitched in the East-West All-Star Game that year. He was part of the amazing Kansas City Monarchs pitching staff of 1942, a group that included Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith.
The next year, he went to war.
He returned to America in time to see Jackie Robinson sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Connie, his friend and teammate Joe Greene told him. You know what this means? You're going to pitch in the major leagues someday.
Don't want to, Johnson said. I don't need that.
He pitched some more with the Monarchs. Then he went to Canada in 1951 to pitch. He had no intention of going to the big leagues, not at 30 with an arm he could barely raise above his head. He would often tell the story. He was in St. Hyacinthe, and he had won 11 games in a row I couldn't break glass, but I knew just where it was going, he would say when a telegram arrived. He had been bought by the Chicago White Sox. You're going to pitch against the best, his sister told him.
I've been doing that for 10 years, he said.
He won a few games with the White Sox and then he was traded to Baltimore where, at age 34, he had his best season. He won 14, was third in the league with 177 strikeouts and threw four shutouts. Four decades later, Brooks Robinson would remember what it was like watching Connie Johnson pitch that year. He looked about 50, Robinson said a couple of years back. But he threw so easy. He was just smart. He didn't have his great stuff by then, but he still threw plenty hard. I wish I'd seen him when he was young.
Buck O'Neil did see him then.
Connie was a good pitcher in the major leagues, O'Neil said Tuesday. He was a great pitcher in the Negro Leagues. No comparison. He threw hard for the Monarchs. Hard. He had good control. Could have won 20 games in the big leagues. Oh yeah. Could have won 20 games every year. That's Connie Johnson.
There's a Web site called Truebaseball.com where some old Negro Leagues players tell their stories. Connie Johnson was one of the men. On the site, he wrote about his days with the Monarchs, his days in the major leagues, and he tells a few stories. At one point, he promises to tell the story about the time he faced Ted Williams.
He died before he could write it. There will be a wake at Bethel AME Church, 2329 Flora, from 9 to 11 a.m. on Friday, followed by the funeral.
So, we'll tell that story here, even though we did once before. Before Connie Johnson faced the Boston Red Sox, the coaches gave him a scouting report on every player. When the session ended, Johnson noticed they hadn't mentioned one hitter. What about Ted Williams? he asked. The coaches walked away.
It was clear, Johnson said, that I was on my own.
The first time he faced Ted Williams, he threw a curveball and Williams smashed it down the right-field line for a double. OK, Connie said to himself, he likes those curveballs.
Next time up, he threw a fastball. Williams pounded that one for another double.
Well, Connie thought, I guess he likes fastballs too.
And so, the third time Ted Williams came to the plate, Connie Johnson waited. And he waited. He just stood on the mound, and he looked as scared as the 17-year-old pitching for beer all those years before. People in the dugout shouted, Pitch the ball! Williams glared hard. Johnson kept looking around. He checked out people in the stands. He would not pitch.
Until he saw Ted Williams hands' drop. Just a little.
And in that instant, he threw a fastball right over the heart of the plate. Johnson wasn't scared. He was playing possum. Williams swung hard. He always swung hard.
And Ted Williams popped out. As he jogged to first, he was angry and amused and maybe a little impressed too. Williams looked over as he headed back to the dugout. And Connie Johnson would not forget that look, not for the rest of his life.