Colorful career included feuds with Billy Martin

CAVE JUNCTION — Bob Johnson played professional baseball for seven seasons, pitching for five different teams and often bouncing back-and-forth between the major and minor leagues.

The current Illinois Valley High coach saw much during his years, rubbed elbows with Hall of Famers and got info scuffles with some of the game's most infamous hotheads.

He signed with the New York Mets in 1964 and worked his way through the minor leagues. An injury and a stint in the military delayed his major league debut, which came in the form of 12/3 innings on Sept. 19, 1969, as a member the New York Mets.

That's where the stories about Johnson and his experience pitching in the big leagues begin.

Missing the World Series

Johnson found his touch while pitching for the Double-A farm team of the New York Mets in 1969.

Johnson — who developed outstanding location on a 90-plus mph fastball, as well as a sidearm curveball — dominated the league with a 13-5 record that included a 1.30 ERA and better than a strikeout per inning.

He got the call to join the "Miracle Mets" on Aug. 27, 1969, but knew he wouldn't pitch for a few days and decided to visit his wife in Chicago on his way to New York City.

When he showed up in New York on Sept. 1, he could tell from the beginning there was trouble.

"Boy were they (mad)," Johnson said. "I went up to the front office and the first thing they said was, 'What the (expletive) do you think you're doing?'"

Johnson needed to sign a contract with the Mets before Sept. 1 to qualify for the postseason roster. He missed out on a postseason run that culminated with a World Series victory against the Baltimore Orioles.

"It cost me a World Series ring, and it was not a good decision," Johnson said. "But I wanted to see my wife."

A Rookie Stud

The Mets soon after traded Johnson to the Kansas City Royals, where his career began to take off.

He started 26 games in 1970, pitched 214 innings and set a rookie strikeout record by fanning 206 batters, almost one per inning.

"As a pitcher, confidence is a big deal," Johnson said. "Once you get it, the God-given ability starts to come out. It can go away very quick because you have to learn to deal with the fact that baseball is a game of failure."

The High Point

After such an impressive rookie year, the Royals didn't want to trade Johnson. But after the Pittsburgh Pirates offered three high-quality players for him, a deal was completed that sent Johnson to one of the most unique and talented teams in baseball history.

The Pirates featured future Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, along with pitcher Doc Ellis, perhaps best known for tossing a no-hitter in 1970 while under the influence of LSD.

"They were a solid team when I got there — a great hitting team — but what they lacked was pitching," Johnson said. "One thing people forget about that team is that even though we had all those (butt)-kicking hitters, we won a lot of 2-1, 3-2 games because of our pitching."

Johnson held up his end of the bargain all season, going 9-10 with a 3.45 ERA through 27 starts and 1742/3 innings pitched.

The highlight, however, happened during the postseason.

In the five-game National League Championship Series against San Francisco, Johnson took the mound in Game 3 with the series tied 1-1. The opposing pitcher that day was future Hall of Famer Juan Marichal.

Johnson was superb through eight innings, allowing one unearned run during a 2-1 victory. The Pirates then won Game 4 to reach the World Series for the first time in 11 years.

"If you're a pitcher, that's the kind of game you dream about," Johnson said. "I remember having a really good fastball and that my location was good. That was important because you can't miss on a team that has guys like Willie McCovey and Willie Mays."

On the strength of that outing, Johnson earned a start against Baltimore in Game 2 of the World Series. That game didn't go as well, though, as Johnson gave up five runs in five innings and the Pirates lost 11-3.

"I was throwing the ball well, but my control was a little off," Johnson said. "It doesn't take long with a really good ballclub."

The Pirates still won the series in a seven-game epic. Roberto Clemente was the series MVP and the first Latino ballplayer to win that honor.

"The only way I can explain winning the World Series is to describe that feeling you get as a kid, when you get your first Little League uniform," Johnson said. "It was that exciting, except on a bigger scale.

Memories of Clemente

Clemente was one of baseball's most beloved and influential players before his death in 1972.

There are multiple reasons for that, including his Hall of Fame ability on the field (he was a lifetime .317 hitter with exactly 3,000 hits), as well as his devotion to his Latin American roots (he died in a plane crash en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua).

Johnson was a teammate of Clemente's in 1971 and '72.

"He was a hell of a guy, an amazing person that stood up for his teammates and was amazing to watch hit and in the field," Johnson said.

On the night Clemente died, Johnson had gathered with a number of young Pittsburgh players who were part of the San Juan Senadores winter league team. They were at a waterfront condo for New Year's Eve and actually saw Clemente's plane go down, although they didn't know he was on board at the time.

"I actually saw the plane explode," Johnson said. "It was very sad. We got the call later. It was very sad."

Feud With Billy Martin and the End

Johnson pitched three years for the Pirates before they traded him in December 1973 to Cleveland, where his life as a major leaguer began to slow down.

Johnson posted the highest ERA of his career to that point, throwing 72 innings with a 4.38 ERA in 1974. It would begin a stretch of bouncing around the minor leagues.

Cleveland placed him on waivers, and the Texas Rangers took a chance on him. They had a manager named Billy Martin, who had a reputation for drinking heavily and feuding with players.

Johnson never played for the Rangers.

"Billy didn't like me very well," Johnson said. "He sent me down to the minor leagues in Spokane (Wash.), and the next year released me just a week before the regular season so I couldn't get another job.

"A lot of the stuff with Billy was my fault because I was pretty outspoken and he was a fiery guy, too."

Johnson kicked around the minor leagues for a few more years, until he earned another shot, this time with the New York Yankees.

It was midseason and Johnson said he was on the verge of getting called up.

Then the Yankees hired Johnson's nemesis, Martin, on Aug. 2, 1975. Johnson never played for the Yankees, either.

"At that point, I had had enough," he said. "Everywhere I went, Billy Martin seemed to be there."

Johnson made a return to baseball in 1977 and pitched 221/3 innings for the Atlanta Braves, an awful team that finished the season 61-101. About midway through the season, the team went with younger players and Johnson once again was released.

That stint with Atlanta was his final time in the major leagues.

"I wasn't locating my fastball and I wasn't holding up that well," Johnson said. "It was almost like somebody was telling me it's time to quit."

Despite the rough end to his career, Johnson's career numbers speak for themselves.

He pitched in seven seasons, threw 6921/3 innings and posted a 3.48 ERA with 507 strikeouts.

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