Clifford "Connie" Johnson Biography
Hired by Jesse Owens, Notched All-Star Game Win, Traded to Orioles
Right-hander Connie Johnson was part of the pitching staff that made the fabled Kansas City Monarchs the most feared team in baseball's Negro Leagues in the 1940s. Later in his career he played for the major-league Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles, having lost the fastball of his youth and learned a repertoire of pinpoint-control pitches in its place. Like many of the other Negro Leaguers who joined the majors as veterans, Johnson inspired baseball observers to wonder what he might have accomplished had desegregation come earlier to baseball. "Connie was a good pitcher in the major leagues," former Monarchs manager Buck O'Neil told Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star. "He was a great pitcher in the Negro Leagues. … He threw hard for the Monarchs. Hard. He had good control. Could have won 20 games in the big leagues. … Could have won 20 games every year."
Born on December 27, 1922, Clifford Johnson, Jr., was a native of Stone Mountain, Georgia, outside Atlanta. He played softball when he was young, and a few times he tried his hand at sandlot semiprofessional baseball. The first time he took the mound, he told Posnanski, two female fans of the opposing team heckled him, asking "Who's that, Ichabod Crane?" (referring to the geeky schoolmaster in Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow). By the game's end, he was attracting more positive attention from women in the stands and had come to see the game of baseball in a whole new light. "Oh man! Now I'm the greatest ballplayer in the world! Girls trying to catch me and kiss me," Johnson recalled, describing his feelings to Kyle McNary of the Pitch Black Baseball Web site.
Johnson was still an extremely inexperienced player when the Monarchs came to Atlanta in the summer of 1940 for a series against a ragtag Toledo Crawfords squad. The Toledo team, short of pitchers, hoped to find a local player to take the mound, and Johnson's neighbor Joe Greene, who had played for the Monarchs, suggested the 17-year-old Johnson. Despite his protestations that he wasn't a "hardball" player, Johnson was put in a jersey several sizes too large—he was a lanky six-feet, four-inches tall—and sent out on the field. He kept the Monarchs' hitters at bay with his blazing fastball.
Hired by Jesse Owens
The following Monday, Johnson returned to work at a rock quarry. He was already in a mood to see the world; his brother, a chauffeur, had traveled around the country, and Johnson dreamed of visiting the big cities and of seeing California. The Crawfords' part-owner, former Olympic track star Jesse Owens, showed up at the quarry with the team's manager and offered him a contract. After being assured that the team would make stops in Chicago, New York, and New Orleans, and after asking and being given his mother's permission, Johnson signed with the Toledo team. At the end of the 1940 season, Johnson appeared in the Negro Leagues' East-West All-Star Game, becoming the youngest player ever to do so. At the time, he told interviewer Eric Enders, "I didn't even know what the East-West Game was!," according to Eric Enders' Web site.
The Crawfords soon disbanded and moved on to Indianapolis, Indiana, and Johnson was asked to join the Monarchs themselves. The Kansas City squad ruled the Negro Leagues through much of the 1940s, with pitchers like Hilton Smith, Lefty LaMarque, and the crowd-pleasing and verbally ingenious Satchel Paige forming the backbone of the roster and drawing white as well as black baseball fans to the team's games. At first, Johnson was intimidated by the company of baseball stars. He didn't know the names of the players, so he used the nickname "Connie" to address any player whose name he couldn't remember. The Monarchs in turn bestowed that nickname on Johnson, and it stuck.
One high point of Johnson's first career was a trip to the 1942 Negro World Series with the victorious Monarchs. After the series was over, Johnson enlisted in the United States Army. He remained in the service, serving part of his stint in the European theater, until the end of World War II, pitching in intra-military contests and often racking up more than 15 strikeouts per game against the less-than-major-league batters he faced. The heavy work took its toll on Johnson's pitching arm, but he resumed his career with the Monarchs in 1946 after returning to the United States.
The following year brought news of Jackie Robinson's epochal debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the barrier of segregation in the formerly all-white National and American leagues. Friends told Johnson that he had the stuff to follow quickly in Robinson's footsteps, but the pitcher showed no enthusiasm for that prospect. When his sister pointed out that he might soon be pitching against the best players in the game, Johnson replied: "I've been doing that for ten years," as he recalled to Posnanski.
Notched All-Star Game Win
Johnson remained with the Monarchs through the 1950 season, during which he notched what was probably a personal-best record of 11 wins and 2 losses (record-keeping in the Negro Leagues was spotty). He made his second appearance in the Negro Leagues All-Star game that year, allowing one run in three innings, striking out three batters, and helping his own cause with a triple. He was credited as the winning pitcher. After that season Johnson was drafted by the Chicago White Sox, and with the Negro Leagues on the decline he was sold by the Monarchs to the White Sox organization for $1,000 after asking the Monarchs' owner for a raise in salary.
Playing for a team in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec in 1951, Johnson led the Canadian Provincial League in strikeouts and at one point won 11 games in row. By this time, Johnson's fabled fastball was a shadow of its former self. Years of injuries and rough treatment had damaged his arm to a point where he could barely raise it over his head. But Johnson retooled his pitching game, partly at the suggestion of the St.-Hyacinthe club's general manager. Quoted on the True Baseball Web site, Johnson recalled the manager's advice: "Connie, if you are ever gonna win 20 games in a season you are gonna have to beat 'em when you got no stuff." Johnson developed a curveball and slider to go with his fastball. "I couldn't break glass," he once said of his curveball, as quoted in the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper, "but I knew just where it was going."
In 1952 Johnson moved up to the Colorado Sky Sox of the Western League, once again leading the league in strikeouts and winning, by his own recollection, 18 or 19 games. He bounced between the White Sox and their Charleston, West Virginia American Association affiliate in 1953, making his American League debut with the White Sox on April 17 of that year and giving up two hits to the Boston Red Sox hitting ace Ted Williams. Johnson amassed a record of 4 wins and 4 losses before showing control problems and being sent down to the Charleston squad. He spent 1954 and part of 1955 with the Toronto Maple Leafs, then a minor-league team affiliated with the White Sox. In 1954, with future New York Yankees star Elston Howard as his catcher, Johnson notched a 17-8 record with 145 strikeouts.
Traded to Orioles
Johnson returned to the White Sox midway through the 1955 season after going 12-2 in Toronto. For Chicago he pitched 99 innings, finishing with a 7-4 record. In May of 1956 he was sent to the Baltimore Orioles as part of a complex trade, and in his first game with his new team he beat the White Sox 3-2, pitching a five-hit complete game. His best year came with the Orioles in 1957, as he won 14 games with 177 strikeouts, both top marks on the squad that year.
After a 6-9 record in Baltimore the following year, the aging pitcher spent a year with the Vancouver Mounties in Canada, notching an 8-4 record even at this late date. Several times during the 1950s he had played for Latin American teams during the off-season, and he played in Puebla, Mexico in 1960 before retiring for good. Over the course of his five-year major-league career his won-lost record was 40-39, with 497 strikeouts and 257 bases on balls in 716 innings pitched.
Johnson continued to make his home in Kansas City, living there into his old age. In later years he often answered interviewers' questions about Satchel Paige and recalled his Monarchs teammate's speed in a segment of the Ken Burns television documentary Baseball. But details of his own career emerged only slowly. "I had a good time," Johnson told interviewer Eric Enders. " … I have no regrets. The world owes me nothing. If anything, I might owe the world." He lived in a nursing home at the end of his life, and sources disagree as to the exact date of his death. According to Joe Posnanski, the writer who followed his career most closely, Johnson died on Saturday, November 27, 2004. He was buried in Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas. The Pitch Black Baseball Web site posthumously named him Negro Leaguer of the Month in January of 2005.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), January 25, 2005.
Kansas City Star, December 1, 2004.
"An Interview with Connie Johnson," Eric E. Enders. www.ericenders.com/conniejohnson.htm (April 28, 2005).
"Connie Johnson," Baseball-Reference, www.baseball-reference.com/j/johnsco.shtml (April 28, 2005).
"Connie Johnson," True Baseball, www.truebaseball.com/cj1940.htm (April 28, 2005).
"Negro Leaguer of the Month: January, 2005," Pitch Black Baseball, www.pitchblackbaseball.com/nlotmedconniejohnson.html (April 28, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
- Sylvia A. Johnson Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
- Angela Johnson Biography - Selected writings
- Other Free Encyclopedias