Former big league pitcher Ken Johnson passed away on Saturday after a long illness. He was 82.
Johnson pitched in the majors between 1958 and 1970 with the Kansas City A’s, Cincinnati Reds, Houston Colt 45’s, Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs and the Montreal Expos. During his 13-year career, Johnson compiled a record of 91-106 with an ERA of 3.46. Johnson was a better pitcher than his record would indicate. In 1962, when Johnson was part of the expansion Colt 45’s, he went 7-6 but had a decent ERA of 3.84. In 197 innings pitched, he fanned 178 batters while walking only 46. Houston scored two runs or less in 15 of his 16 losses that season including being shut out five times. The Colt 45’s would have been the laughingstock of the NL in 1962 if not for the Chicago Cubs and their College of Coaches and, of course, the expansion New York Mets.
The main reason Johnson is remembered because he is the only pitcher in MLB history to throw a 9-inning no-hitter and lose. This happened while Johnson was with the Colt 45’s on April 23, 1964 against the Cincinnati Reds. In front of only 5,426 fans at Colts Stadium, Johnson surrendered not a single hit to the Reds. But the Colt 45’s scored not a single run for him. Joe Nuxhall, who 20 years earlier made MLB history as the youngest player to wear a big league uniform at the age of 15, threw a dandy for the Reds not allowing a run on five hits.
Fortune’s smile would dim on Johnson in the top of the ninth with one out when Pete Rose reached on a throwing error by Johnson. Both Rose and Johnson have long maintained that should have broken up the no-no, but the official scorer disagreed. Rose would reach third on a fielder’s choice by Chico Ruiz. Then Vada Pinson hit a groundball to the normally surehanded Nellie Fox, but he bobbled the ball and Pinson reached first. This allowed Rose to score to give the Reds a 1-0 lead and the score would stand.
Some pitchers would have been furious. Not Johnson. Following the game he told a reporter with The Houston Chronicle, “Look, I just pitched the best game of baseball I ever pitched in my life. How could I possibly be unhappy?”
Sportswriter John Marcase, who knew Johnson growing up in Pineville, Louisiana, wrote that Johnson’s losing effort in the no-hitter didn’t define him:
He was defined through the type of husband, father, grandfather, coach and more importantly, Christian he was.
Until his health declined, Johnson loved visiting homebound church members or those in nursing homes. Often, he would sneak in snacks he knew would be appreciated by the resident, but perhaps not so much by their caregiver or family members.
If a certain baseball game came up during the course of the visit, Johnson didn’t mind.
“There are people who like to hear about it,” he told me in 2004. “A nurse will introduce me as having thrown a no-hitter in the major leagues.”
Then he smiled.
“Of course, they leave out I lost the game.”
Ken Johnson still got to pitch the game of his life.