Late February Free Association
I got to thinking about Connie Johnson today. He’s one of my favorite players of all time. His career was one great frustrations and at least a couple of great triumphs.
He was a Negro League player, who was not one of the most elite black players of his era. He might have been, but he lost his age 20-22 seasons (he joined the Negro Leagues at age 17) to WWII, and then appears to have lost much of 1947-1950 to injuries.
He was one of the youngest players to play in the Negro League All-Star Game, and he was part of one of the great Negro League pitching rotations for the 1942 Kansas City Monarchs.
He then joined Organized (White) Baseball in 1951 at age 28 in a Class-C League, and by the time he had worked his way up the majors, he was over 30. He had one really fine major league season in 1957 at age 34 when he went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA and finishing 8th in wins and 9th in ERA, but 4th in innings pitched (242), 3rd in strikeouts (177) and 2nd in K/BB ratio. He pitched three shut-outs that season.
It must have been awfully gratifying for Johnson, after having lost three seasons to war and having been barred from MLB for the prime years of his career, to have had that one big season when he proved he could be an elite pitcher at the very highest level of competition.
I first became aware of Johnson because I collected baseball cards as a kid. I never actually had a Connie Johnson baseball card, but I had an unusually large number of 1958 cards, which had the 1957 season stats on the back. One of my teenage hobbies was trying to put together all-star teams out the baseball cards I had, by the season on the back of the cards. I had a lot of 1958 and 1964 cards, so my 1957 and 1963 season teams were really good.
I had a McMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, and I would look to find the best seasons by players whose cards weren’t worth much, in the anticipation that I would one day add those particular cards to my collection, which I didn’t actually do (some of them, anyway) until about 20 years later.
Connie Johnson’s 1957 season was his one great season, and the more I found out about him, the more interested I became, in part because I’d never heard anything about him before I discovered his 1957 season in the context of his MLB career.
The photographs of Johnson on his baseball cards and also on the internet suggest that he was big yet kindly looking man whose face suggested that he’d been through a lot by the time he was 34.
The one player from my tremendous 1963 team, a team on which Bill Maloney is only on the cusp of making the pitching staff, worth mentioning here is Bill Daily. Daily had one extraordinary season at age 28 when he had a 1.99 ERA with equally fantastic ratios and finished tied for 3rd in the Junior Circuit with 21 saves, while pitching more than 100 innings.
No one except stat junkies like me remember Daily in part because he pitched for the Twins in their early Minnesota years before they went to the World Series in 1965, when they were truly on the edge of the MLB universe. Daily blew out his arm in 1964 at age 29 and didn’t pitch professionally after that season. However, he finished his professional baseball career with a .617 winning percentage (108-67), suggesting his one great season was not entirely a fluke.