Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A00397 - Don Johnson, Sensational Yankees' Pitching Prospect

Don Johnson was traded from the Yankees to the St. Louis Browns in 1950. CreditAssociated Press
Not many baseball fans — not even the die-hard Yankee variety — will remember the right-handed pitcher Don Johnson, but he was the Yankees’ most promising rookie 68 spring trainings ago. That was 1947.
The manager, Bucky Harris, told The Sporting News that Johnson, a fireballer with a high, Bob Feller-like leg kick, was the most impressive first-year player he had ever seen. In April, Johnson won his first major league start, pitching all 10 innings in a 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Athletics, and his second start, too — another complete game — beating the Washington Senators, 3-1.
But Johnson fell victim to injuries, bad luck and his own indiscretions, becoming the very emblem of unrealized talent.
He won only three more games for the Yankees — he scoffed at being coached after his good start, earning Harris’s disdain, though he earned a World Series ring in 1947 — and in a seven-season career that included stints with five or six teams (depending on whether you count both the St. Louis Browns and the Baltimore Orioles, different iterations of the same franchise), he never won more than eight games in a season.
Johnson returned to Yankee Stadium in 2010 for Old-Timers’ Day.CreditJim McIsaac/Getty Images
Johnson was 88 when he died in Portland, Ore., on Feb. 10. His death was announced on the website of the Rose City Cemetery and Funeral Home in Portland.
A sore arm in 1948 stalled his career. He was out of the majors until 1950, when he returned to the Yankees, then managed by Casey Stengel, and his promise lingered through spring training.
“Everybody we talked trade with wanted Johnson,” Stengel said that February. “This prompted me to take another look at him myself. He must be good, and if he is, we can use him.” Stengel’s optimism lasted until June, when the Yankees traded Johnson, who was struggling with eczema, to the Browns. From then on, his career was a frustrating one, bursts of brilliance buried in stretches of mediocrity.
He had stellar years in the high minors, winning 32 games over two seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League and being named the league’s most valuable player in 1957. His best year in the majors, however, was 1954, when he went 8-7 for the Chicago White Sox, with three shutouts and a victory over Whitey Ford and the Yankees in New York.
Along the way, he pawned his World Series ring when his car broke down in Wyoming; was thrown in jail in Tijuana, Mexico, after a brawl; and was consigned to six days on a Florida chain gang after a drunken auto accident. The owner of the Maple Leafs, Jack Kent Cooke, bailed him out.
“Cooke said, ‘I don’t think you’re normal,’ ” Johnson told The New York Times in 2010 when he returned to Yankee Stadium for Old-Timers’ Day. “I was in a jail cell with three murderers, but they took care of me. I had a bump on my head.”
After his playing days, he drove a cab in Portland but quit, he said, because he was robbed twice and shot. He also worked for the Parks Department.
Donald Roy Johnson was born to Swedish immigrants in Portland on Nov. 12, 1926. A star in high school and American Legion ball, he was signed by the Yankees before the 1944 season. After a year in the minors, he served in the Army at the end of World War II, much of the time playing ball, and joined the Yankees for spring training in 1947.
In addition to the Yankees, the Browns, the Orioles and the White Sox, he played for the Senators and finished his major league career with the Giants in 1958, their first year in San Francisco.
Neither his overall record, 27-38, nor his earned run average, 4.78, was much to admire. But one statistic, an indication of his undeniable if erratic gift, was: In 70 big league starts, Johnson threw five shutouts — not a bad ratio for his era, when a starting pitcher was expected to finish a game, and better than that of many star pitchers who came after him, including Roger Clemens and the Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez.
Johnson’s first marriage ended in divorce. His survivors include his wife, the former Karen Morgan, and three children.
“I was no superstar, but I played with the best players who ever lived,” Johnson recalled at Old-Timers’ Day in 2010, referring to Yankees teammates who included Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Tommy Henrich. “Joe DiMaggio liked me. He took me under his wing. He said, ‘Stay off the booze and away from the broads.’ ”
Johnson was asked if he took the advice.
“Hell, no,” he said.

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