PCL Memorable Players: 'Chesty Chet' Johnson
|PCL MEMORABLE PLAYERS- "CHESTY CHET" JOHNSON|
|November 5, 2004 - By: Jim McConnell, Special Contributor
As anyone who ever watched the Sacramento Solons would testify, a good rule in thumb in baseball would be if you can't be good, at least be entertaining.
Many amusing men have played the game, although that humor wasn't always intentional. "Marvelous" Marv Thornberry, for example, was not actually trying to be funny when he played for the 1962 New York Mets. Max Patkin, Jackie Price and Al Schacht, noted baseball clowns, were trying to be funny of course, but weren't actually playing the game.
Only one man combined the skills of a major league player, admittedly a marginal player, and the talent of a Patkin or Price. That man was Chester Lillis Johnson, Chet for short, Chesty to his friends. You're liable to miss his name in the Baseball Encyclopedia, for he pitched only five games in the major leagues, in the spring of 1946 with the St. Louis Browns. One of the interesting aspects of the Browns of the late 1940s was the fact they would even give the likes of Johnson that proverbial cup of coffee. Being a native of Seattle, Johnson would no doubt argue it was more closely resembled a demitasse.
In state of fact, Johnson made his mark while pitching in the Pacific Coast League in the 1950s. His brief stint with the Browns proved to be the catalyst to his true baseball calling -- making people laugh, intentionally.
Johnson may have well been the funniest baseball player ever. Says who? Groucho Marx, for starters. During his career in the PCL, whenever Johnson pitched a game at Gilmore Field in Hollywood, Groucho always made a point of being there, and bringing along friends. Who else was a "Chesty Chet" backer? Try Harpo, Chico and Zeppo Marx, who were ardent admirers of Johnson's unique talents. Then there was Bing Crosby and Jack Benny and George Burns. What Johnson's fan base may have lacked in baseball knowledge it more than made up for in star power.
While Patkin specialized in outrageous physical comedy, heavy on the mugging, and Price veered toward the unusual, such as catching balls while driving a jeep in the outfield and hitting while suspended upside down from a horizontal bar, Johnson's style was much more subtle. Long-time Los Angeles sportswriter Bob Hunter once described Chet as a nutty professor type, someone who somehow found himself dressed up in an ill-fitting baseball suit and out in the middle of a diamond when he should have been in the lecture hall. "He always looked like he was a bit bewildered by it all," Hunter said.
"Chet had charisma, if that's the right word," said the late Irv Kaze, in the 1950s the publicity director for the PCL's Hollywood Stars. "I used to call ahead to whatever team he was pitching for, begging them to pitch him when they played here in Hollywood. If he pitched, and we had a couple days to promote it, it was good for at least 2,000 extra fans in the stands. Plus which, I'd have to get on the phone with Groucho and all his movie star cronies and let them know. If Groucho missed a game Johnson pitched, he would give me holy hell."
The existence of a Hollywood-based Chet Johnson Marching and Chowder Society would have never been possible were it not for his ill-fated shot at the major leagues with the Browns. For it was at that time that Johnson decided if he couldn't be good, at least he could be entertaining. Amazingly, as his career progressed in the PCL, there were games when he was both.
Chester Lillis Johnson was born Aug. 1, 1917 in Redmond, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. He grew up in Seattle, where he attended Ballard High School. The lefthander pitched and played first base for his high school team, but was never much of a hitter. He attracted some attention for his pitching, but by the time he was a senior in high school his brother Earl, two years his junior, was already being called one of the greatest pitching prospects ever in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, the pitching star in Seattle at the time of Chet Johnson's graduation in 1936 was Freddy Hutchinson of Franklin High, who set numerous high school records on his way to a long and successful career in baseball as both a player and manager.
How did a forgettable pitcher become an unforgettable character?
"It did seem like Chet's baseball career was always being overshadowed by other guys," said brother Earl in a 1995 interview. "In high school, it was Hutchinson and then myself. Later on in Chet's pro career, he was never what you'd call a star. And it seemed like folks always identified him as my brother. I think it did bother him after a point, and probably contributed to the way he eventually played the game. Other guys might be better, but Chet was going to be different."
Both Johnson boys dreamt of pitching for the University of Washington and then pitching for the Seattle Rainiers of the PCL. Only Earl would fulfill both those dreams.
"Absolutely, I think every boy growing up in Seattle in the 1930s wanted to do those things," Earl Johnson said. "Chet was very disappointed when he was not offered a baseball scholarship to Washington, and was not offered a contract by the Rainiers, although he did try out for them a couple times. At that point most guys would have given up on baseball, but I have to give Chet credit. He stayed with it.
"As for the way Chet played baseball, two things happened there. One, we both always felt the game should be played for fun. It's a little kid's game and it always seemed a little silly to us to think of adults playing it, and getting paid to do it. Secondly, as kids we always enjoyed going to the movies, and Chet's favorites were the comedies, like the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Joe E. Brown. Baseball and those silly movies, it's the same thing, really. We just thought it was funny to see grown men making fools of themselves. So as far as Chet's baseball gyrations, he wasn't making fun of anybody except himself, for being out there trying to play this little kids' game."
Despite the disappointment over being snubbed by both the hometown Huskies and Rainiers, Chet did manage to land a partial scholarship to St. Mary's College in Moraga, California. St. Mary's in the 1930s was far better known as a small college football powerhouse, but the Golden Gaels also fielded a baseball team, and that was Johnson's next stop in his baseball odyssey.
"We had a strong Catholic upbringing," Earl said. "In fact, Chet was an altar boy and even considered going into the priesthood for a time. A priest our parents knew helped Chet get into St. Mary's. My mom wasn't wild about the idea of him going so far away from home but figured at least it would keep him in school and he might get an education. I'd say it worked out OK."
After three years at St. Mary's, Johnson and a couple of his college teammates attended a tryout camp put on by the Hollywood Stars of the PCL. The skinny, blond-haired lefthander hadn't even been the top pitcher at St. Mary's and, according to brother Earl, he didn't exactly awe Stars' scouts in attendance at the tryout. After considerable debate, Chet was offered a contract, but for little more than bus fare from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Somewhat to the surprise of team officials, he accepted. "Chet told me he would have paid his own way to L.A. in order to play in the PCL," Earl said. "You need to know this about my brother. He loved baseball. He could have been a lot of things in life, but being a baseball player was his dream job."
At the rather advanced baseball age of 22, Chet Johnson's pro career had finally begun. He pitched in only four games for the Stars -- the only games he ever pitched for them although he was to pitch many times against them later in his career. The four appearances totaled 10 innings, during which the southpaw from St. Mary's gave up 22 hits, seven walks and 24 runs. The less than star-struck Stars sent him to their Class D minor league affiliate at El Paso, Texas, in the Arizona-Texas League to finish out the season. There, he pitched five games and won three of them, although he did allow 23 runs in 29 innings.
"Our family is distant relations to the Crosbys, Bing and Bob and that bunch," Earl Johnson said. "Both Bing and Chet have the same middle name, Lillis. So the family joke was that Chet was joining cousin Bing in Hollywood. Actually, we didn't really know the Crosbys as kids, they had already moved to Spokane by the time we came along. But later on I got to meet Bing, and I know Chet had dinner with him and his family on at least one occasion when he was in Hollywood. So I guess in a sense you could say show business was in Chet's blood."
It was back to El Paso for Chet for the 1940 season. There he went 10-8 in 26 games, not impressive enough for the parent Hollywood Stars, Crosby relation or no. The Stars released him, the first of seven times Johnson would be released during his 18-year professional career. He managed to hook on with the San Francisco Seals, mainly on the strength of the fact he had pitched at St. Mary's in the Bay Area. The Seals sent him to Tacoma of the Class B Western International League at the tail end of the 1940 season. It was not exactly a happy homecoming, as Johnson gave up six runs in four innings and lost his only start.
In 1941, Johnson got into the grand total of one game with the Seals (one inning, six hits, one walk, four runs) before being demoted to Bakersfield of the Class C California League. There he finally began to show promise. In 40 games, he went 18-10, pitching 268 innings and leading the league in strikeouts with 213 while recording an excellent 2.92 earned run average.
"An interesting thing about Chet was that in all those years of pitching, from high school on up, he never had a sore arm," Earl said. "He wasn't a big, strong guy. If the record books show him at 6-feet and 170 pounds they're wrong. He probably was closer to 5-feet-10 and maybe 155 or 160 pounds. To think that he was averaging 200 to 250 innings a year there for several years is really amazing. He was never a big guy, always kind of the smallest kid on the block. I think it was remarkable how he could throw every day and never have any problems. He took after our mom in that regard, she was a small woman but one of those people who never gets sick and can work all day."
Chet Johnson was back with Tacoma of the Western International League for the 1942 season, going 15-15 in 270 innings, and again leading his league in strikeouts, this time with 177. The numbers were good enough to enable the Seals to sell his contract to the San Diego Padres. At age 26, Johnson had finally arrived to stay in baseball's upper echelon. From 1943 until his reluctant retirement following the 1956 season, he never again pitched below the Triple A level.
The Pacific Coast League, like the rest of the pro baseball ranks, was experiencing a manpower crunch brought on by World War II. Johnson stepped into the starting rotation of the Padres for the 1943 season, going 14-16 in 242 innings, with a 3.27 earned run average. Holding a medical deferment, Johnson returned to San Diego for the 1944 season. He went 14-12 for the Padres in 186 innings.
Meanwhile, brother Earl's baseball career was on hold, and his life was in danger. Earl, signed by the Red Sox for $50,000 after his freshman season at the University of Washington in 1939, had by 1941 already established himself as part of the Red Sox starting rotation. Then World War II broke out and in December 1941, Earl joined the Army --- one of the first major leaguers to enlist in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. By late 1944, he was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and narrowly escaped death on several occasions. Wounded in combat and cited for heroism, his war exploits made Earl more of a hometown hero in Seattle than ever before.
"I'm proud that I served my country, but prouder still to have made it home alive," Earl said. "What General Patton said is true; war isn't about dying for your country, it's about making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country. I was one of the lucky dumb bastards who made it home safely."
While brother Earl was becoming one of the most highly decorated soldiers of the war in Europe, Chet faced a decision for the 1945 season. He decided he couldn't continue pitching for a living, that he needed to join the war effort. So he landed a job at one of the many defense plants that had sprung up around Seattle and told the Padres he was retiring from baseball.
The Padres and the Seattle Rainiers worked out a deal. San Diego sold Johnson's contract to his hometown team and Johnson agreed to pitch for the Rainiers in selected home night games and on weekends, all the while holding down his 40- to 50-hour a week job at the defense plant.
"To me, without a doubt 1945 was Chet's best year in baseball," Earl Johnson said. "He contributed to the war effort, certainly just as much as I did, and contributed to morale by pitching for the Rainiers. I don't know how he kept up all those hours, but he had a great season here in Seattle. He deserved a medal."
Working in 27 starts between shifts at the defense plant, Johnson went 14-12 with an excellent 3.44 earned run average. He pitched 14 complete games, including five shutouts. His exploits finally earned him attention in places other than the living room of the Johnson home in Seattle. One of those places was the front office of the Browns in St. Louis. The Browns, as always, were in desperate need of pitching, and purchased his contract.
He arrived in the spring of 1946 to a Browns camp in Anaheim, California, which was chaotic, even by Browns' standards. Most of the wartime replacement players were still around, but now were joined by a flock of younger players coming back from the service. Manager Luke Sewell struggled to put together a team from something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. Ultimately, he was not successful and it cost him his job. Johnson was one of the many Browns puzzle pieces that just didn't fit that year.
"It was a tough time for the franchise," Chuck Stevens, a rookie first baseman on the 1946 Browns, remembered. "We thought we had a pretty good team, and so did management. But we got off to a bad start. We just never got it together."
"It's hard to believe now, but back then a lot of people were saying the Browns were going to be pennant contenders in 1946," Earl Johnson said. "Then the season started and my Red Sox got hot and just tore up the league for about two months. We won something like 25 of our first 30 games and nobody ever caught us. After we got out to such a big lead, a lot of the other teams, including the Browns, just kind of threw in the towel on the season."
Chet Johnson failed to impress in spring training and was sent to the Browns' Triple-A farm club at Toledo in the American Association. In Boston, Earl Johnson, back from the war in Europe but still not 100 percent physically, managed to post a 5-4 record in 29 games for the American League champion Red Sox. Earl capped his season by winning a game in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Chet Johnson reported to a Toledo team that also turned out to be a champion. The surprising Mud Hens captured the American Association pennant in 1946. Chet helped things along with a 12-12 record in 36 games. His assortment of off-speed pitches induced 151 strikeouts in 199 innings.
In September, the Mud Hens' championship run over, Chet and several of his Toledo teammates were promoted to the Browns. Chet made his big league debut, at age 29, on Sept. 12, 1946. Johnson's career with the Browns, and in the major leagues, consisted of five games and 18 innings. He had no decisions, and gave up 10 runs in those 18 innings.
"Frankly, Johnson wasn't around that long," Chuck Stevens said. "(Manager Luke) Sewell didn't give him much of a chance to pitch in spring training and he didn't show much when he was recalled in September. My recollection is, he had an above-average curveball, below-average fastball and below-average control. A fringe major leaguer at best, probably a guy who wouldn't have gotten a shot at all except with a team like the Browns."
Ironically, Chet's stint in the majors can be directly attributed to brother Earl's Boston Red Sox. The Sox had already clinched the A.L. pennant by the time Chet finally got into a game with the Browns.
Johnson went to the Browns' major league training camp in Miami, Fla., in the spring of 1947, but was optioned to Toledo before the season began. In contrast to the year before, this edition of the Mud Hens were just as bad as the parent Browns. It was a long, hot summer in Toledo, with Johnson going 8-20 with a 5.08 ERA in 211 innings. Any shot he had at being re-promoted to the majors went by the boards that season.
"He had a rough time there in Toledo," brother Earl recalled. "He didn't do well in hot weather, and he really worn down as the season progressed. That winter was a time he really just wasn't sure whether to go back or not. Along about that time he started to clown around a bit on the mound. Part of it was something I did, too. Quirky little things like talking to the batters and messing around on the mound, just little stuff to distract the batters.
"I got away with it with the Red Sox until Joe McCarthy took over as our manager. Then he put a stop to it. With Chet, what difference does it make what you do when you're losing 20 games for a last-place minor league team?"
Not only did 'Chesty Chet' continue to refine his clowning, he began to see it as a way to keep his interest in a game that seemed to be passing him by.
He started the 1948 season with Toledo, but was sold to Indianapolis during the season. The net result was a 16-12 record in 215 innings pitched, but his ERA was still high at 4.06 and his walks issued ever higher, at 134. It was back to Indianapolis and the American Association in 1949, but his 11-9 record with a 4.57 ERA didn't merit much attention.
During the winter, Johnson requested a trade back to the Pacific Coast League. For the second time, and again for very little cash, the San Francisco Seals acquired his services. But the 32-year-old veteran southpaw was no lock to make it out of spring training with the Seals, and he knew it.
"No doubt, that's when Chet decided once and for all that his best shot at sticking around was to make a name for himself," Earl said. "The PCL was a good place for him, not only was it home but it was a more relaxed atmosphere, most of the players had already had a shot at the majors and were on the downside of their careers. The truth was, a lot of the players would just as soon play out here on the Coast than with a fringe major league team like, for example, the Browns. The word we use now days is laid-back. That's a good way to describe the old Coast League."
Deciding to stick almost exclusively with his off-speed stuff and use a variety of unusual windups along with an assortment of on-the-mound gyrations, Johnson went out and had the best year of his professional career. He went 22-13 with the Seals, pitching a career-high 310 innings with a respectable 3.51 ERA for Manager Lefty O'Doul's ballclub.
"It was around that time that a sportswriter out here asked Chet if he had played in the major leagues," Earl said. "He told him no, he had pitched for the St. Louis Browns. It might have been that same interview, I'm not sure, but when asked what his best pitch was, Chet said my change-up off my change-up. Both answers make a lot of sense, if you think about it."
In the odd way their careers, and lives, intertwined, while Chet Johnson was reviving his career on the West Coast Earl Johnson was ending his on the East Coast. "No mystery what happened to me," Earl said. "I just couldn't stand playing for Joe McCarthy, that's all. He just about took the love of baseball out of me. Whatever I had left went out the window in 1951 when I played for Rogers Hornsby in Seattle. Those two guys may be in the Hall of Fame but they were miserable to play for. To me, you have to stay loose to play baseball effectively. Those two guys were what we now call control freaks. You didn't dare crack a smile in the dugout. That's not the way I played. So I quit."
But not before getting to see his brother pitch in person.
"I was playing for Hornsby at Seattle in 1951 but not pitching much, since he and I had already had our differences. Well, Chet came into town with San Francisco and pitched against us. Because he knew what I thought of Hornsby, he really put on a show that night. He did all the off-beat stuff, like double and triple-pumping his arms on the windup, talking to the baseball, bowing to the umpire after a close call went his way, running off the mound after a strikeout, getting down on his hands and knees to dust off the pitching rubber, just Chet being Chet. Well, as this was going on Hornsby is getting hotter and hotter. He was muttering about what a disgrace to baseball Chet was and all that, and finally Chet struck out one of our guys and kind of did a mincing walk back to his dugout.
"That really set Hornsby off. He yelled and screamed for a while, and then turned to me in our dugout and stared daggers at me. I just shrugged my shoulders and said 'Don't look at me, I ain't my brother's keeper.' That broke up our bench, which sent Hornsby into a real rage. He eventually got into a big argument with one of the umpires and got kicked out. After the game he chewed me out and asked what I had to say for myself. So I told him I was going out to dinner with my brother and asked if he wanted to come along. He didn't think that was funny, either. Some people have no sense of humor."
Chet Johnson had a rough 1951 season, going 7-18 with a 5.67 ERA and being traded by the Seals to the Oakland Oaks during the year. After the season, the Oaks released him. By writing a letter to management, he managed to catch on the Sacramento Solons, the worst team in the PCL, for the 1952 season.
"That's the year I joined Sacramento, so I got to see a lot of Chet in action over the next five years," pitcher Bud Watkins said. "He really knew how to pitch, was very effective at changing speeds. But of course by then he was definitely into his act. Sometimes I think even he forgot that we were playing a real game, not some Hollywood movie."
Chuck Stevens, by this time playing for the Hollywood Stars in he PCL, agreed.
"As a player, you either loved Johnson's antics or hated them," Stevens said. "He knew when to pick his spots, I will say that. If it was an important game in the standings for the other team, or if it happened to be a plate umpire who didn't go for any guff, Johnson would play it straight. But there were other times when I thought the umpires let him get away with murder. It's one thing to do that stuff on the sidelines, but to do it during a game, I don't know. Only in the Coast League, I guess."
In addition to the increasingly elaborate windups, Johnson also threw a hesitation pitch and a blooper pitch, both quasi-legal according to the record books. He occasionally would fire the ball in underhanded, like a softball pitcher. But figuring out his pitch selection was easy compared to what he did before ever throwing the pitch.
"Oh my God, he would go through the strangest stuff out there on the mound," Watkins said. "He might pretend to not be able to see the catcher's sign. So he would creep in closer and closer and squint and shake his head until he finally was right in front of home plate, which is pretty funny in and of itself. Then he would get down on all fours and stare at the catcher's crotch for a couple seconds, then stand up and shout 'Eureka! I got it!' and run back to the mound. OK, very funny, right? But Chet's topper was the classic. He would then take his position on the rubber and, very seriously and deliberately, shake off the sign. If you weren't laughing by then, you weren't human."
Another Johnson pre-pitch routine involved his warm-up tosses. As he sent them plateward, slower and slower, the catcher would fire them back, harder and harder. Again, a very funny sight, but the Johnson touch was evident when, after the softest warm-up pitch and the catcher firing the ball back as hard as he could, Johnson would let a yell and shake the hand with the glove in it. He would then proceed to remove the glove like a little boy would remove a Band-aid over a cut. Underneath, he had an oversided fake thumb, wrapped in a bloody bandage. The absurdity of it all usually sent even the umpires into hysterics.
"It wasn't easy working one of Chet's games," Cece Carlucci, a PCL umpire of that era, recalls. "You had to watch the guy like a hawk because you never knew what the hell he was going to try to pull. But, God yes, he could be funny. The first time I saw that sore thumb bit, I just couldn't stop laughing. I went out and told him. 'Chet, don't ever do that to me again. I gotta work here and you're making it impossible.' He was a good guy but just a little screwy, you know?"
Watkins has his own theory.
"Chesty was crazy, crazy like a fox," said his former Solons teammate. "His thing was, do whatever it takes to drive the hitters nuts. And he did. I'll never forget a game where he struck out Portland's Joe Brovia, one of the top hitters in the league, three straight times, the last time on three pitches which were slow, slower and slowest. The game was at Portland and they had these extra-long mats made of metal and rubber on the floor of the dugouts. After striking out that third time, Brovia was so mad he threw bats, the ball bag, the water cooler and finally one of those mats, which had to weigh about 400 pounds, out onto the field."
The reality was, Johnson began to take his antics more seriously than the game itself.
"What Chet would do is, during the off-season he would think these things out and maybe try some of the stuff in front of a full-length mirror," brother Earl said. "Like rehearsing a routine, which is how Chet thought. He could be spontaneous, but usually he had a pretty good idea going into a game what he was going to do. He tried to save the wildest stuff for his appearances at Hollywood or Wrigley Field in L.A. Usually when he pitched at Seattle, he would tone it down a bit. He never wanted to do anything to embarrass himself or his teammates, but I suppose his teammates would be better judges of that."
"I hated that stuff," Bob Dillinger, a teammate of Johnson's with both the Browns and Solons, said. "I just didn't think it was right. He may have known what he was doing, but all I remember is having to stand around a lot while he went through some nutty stuff. But I will admit, it put fans in the stands. We had such a bad ballclub there in Sacramento that Johnson was about the only thing that folks would pay to see."
Bob Hunter, at this time writing a sports column for the Examiner in Los Angeles, remembers Johnson for, among other things, he crazy attire.
"For one thing, Johnson's uniform never fit," Hunter said. "It just hung on him. So that was funny. Then he would wear these ridiculous outfits. One time it was a coonskin cap, this at a time when the TV show Davey Crockett was popular. Another time it was a thick set of eyeglasses, which he wound up offering to the umpire. One time in Hollywood, he took the mound wearing a fake mustache like Groucho Marx used to wear. He might bring a umbrella up to home plate instead of a bat on a rainy day, or on a foggy day go up there wearing one of those miner's helmets with the light on top. I guess one of his favorites was carrying around a bright red hankerchef, about the size of a small tablecloth, around in his back pocket. On a very cold spring day here in L.A., he threw one warm-up pitch and then took out this hanky and wiped the 'perspiration' off his forehead."
The red hanky could also be an effective prop. Often times Johnson would use it like a matador's cape, striking a bullfighter's pose and waving it as a batter stepped into the box. Or, after a batter hit a long home run off him, Johnson would follow him around the bases, fanning him with the hanky like a trainer cooling off a boxer between rounds.
At times subtle and at times downright surreal, Johnson worked to perfect his routines while pitching for the hapless Solons from 1952 to 1956. Watkins remembers a game at Portland, on a very gray day.
"It was tough to see that day anyway," Watkins said. "And at Portland there was this foundry out beyond right field, and on this day whatever they were doing there caused a big, thick cloud of smoke to drift into the ballpark. The umpire stopped the game until this cloud went away. When he signaled play ball, Johnson was still on the mound where he had been before, but now he was facing out toward second base, bent down like he was looking for the catcher's sign. It was just a little thing, but funny as hell."
Johnson's piece de resistance came on a day he was pitching for the Solons against Hollywood at Gilmore Field. Since the Stars were a Pittsburgh Pirates farm club, in attendance that day was team president Branch Rickey. Rickey was known for many things, but a sense of humor was not among them. In fact, several players warned Johnson before the game to keep the clowning to an absolute minimum.
But Hollywood was always one of his favorite places to pitch, and Johnson launched into his act from the first pitch, using the fake thumb routine for starters. By the third inning, Rickey was laughing right along with the fans.
"Mr. Rickey told Chet he was the funniest guy he'd ever seen," Earl Johnson said. "And he said if he thought he could get away with it, he would take Chet back to Pittsburgh with him to pitch for the Pirates. Chet liked that."
Watkins had an interesting take on the man who became known as the Clown Prince of the PCL.
"You might think he was a funny, witty guy off the field," Watkins said. "But he wasn't. He looked, and acted, just like a schoolteacher. I can't remember Chet, in street clothes, ever doing or saying anything remotely amusing. It was really weird. He was a real-life Jeckyl and Hyde character. Once he got out on the mound, his goofy side would take over."
One of Johnson's inspirations came from a teammate who kept a little black book in which he wrote down notes about opposing pitchers. Johnson went out and bought such a book, and used to carry it around in a back pocket of his uniform. He would whip it out as a particularly hot hitter came to bat and stand around behind the mound studiously reading it. Then he would slam it shut, whirl around and get back on the mound, ready to pitch. Should the hitter get a hit, Johnson would whip out the book again, take a pencil and proceed to cross out whatever was written there. Should the hitter hit a home run, Johnson would open the book, tear out the page and throw it away. Once, after the other team had gotten five or six extra-base hits in a row, he tore up the entire book, right there on the mound.
What bits of baseball wisdom were in the book? Absolutely nothing, according to Earl Johnson.
"He used to buy those things by the box," Earl said. "He would go through them pretty quick, but he never really had anything written down in 'em. It was just another thing to do to keep the hitters thinking."
Chuck Stevens remembers a day at Gilmore when Frankie Kelleher of the Stars grew upset over Johnson's antics, including the little black book routine. It turned out to be a close game, and Johnson wound up facing Kelleher in the bottom of the ninth with the game on the line. Kelleher hit a mammoth home run to win the game for the Stars. As his teammates waited to congratulate Kelleher at home plate, Johnson walked in and waited in line to shake Kelleher's hand.
"Frankie didn't know whether to kiss him or slug him," Stevens said. He did neither. He shook Johnson's hand.
Unfortunately, baseball in the 1950s was changing rapidly. Not only did there cease to be a St. Louis Browns major league team where the Chet Johnsons of the world could ply their trade, PCL teams became affiliated with major league franchises rather than functioning as independents. There just wasn't room on a roster for characters anymore. After a 1956 season in which he pitched only 12 games for the Solons, Johnson was sold to the San Diego Padres.
When new San Diego general manager Ralph Kiner offered him a cut-rate contract, with a clause calling for absolutely no clowning, Johnson decided to retire. Thus 18 seasons, nearly 600 games and countless laughs came to an end.
"From time to time after that Chet talked about going back to the PCL," Earl said. "But there just wasn't any place for his type of player anymore. He had all kinds of problems with his manager, Tommy Heath, that last year at Sacramento. Heath wasn't a fan of Chet's style of play and wouldn't pitch him. Chet said the fun had gone out of baseball, and he was right. 'No one wants a rugged individualist anymore,' he told me. As I look back on his career, I think what a shame it was he didn't pitch in the current era, when everything is videotaped and shown on TV. He would be on SportsCenter every single time he pitched, I guarantee. I'd give a million bucks for a video of Chet's routines.
"As for Chet, he wouldn't care. He wasn't really big on nostalgia or souvenirs or stuff like that. About the only thing he kept up on a wall of his home was a fan letter from Groucho Marx, in which Groucho complimented Chet on his routines. That's like Babe Ruth complimenting you on your hitting, don't you think?"
Johnson died of cancer on April 10, 1983. He was 65.
"Chet and I were always very close, really best friends as well as brothers," Earl said. "Everyone used to call us Frick and Frack because we did everything together. In early 1983 I was getting some symptoms and Chet said it sounded like it might be cancer. He said he would go for a checkup and tests if I would go. So we both went. My tests came back OK, but Chet's showed cancer. He died about six weeks later. A lot of love, and a lot of laughs, went out of my life that day, I'll tell you."
About the Author
Jim McConnell is a two-time recipient of the SABR/McFarland Award for baseball research, for articles published in "Grandstand Baseball Annual." A graduate of Mt. San Antonio Junior College and Cal Poly Pomona, McConnell has been a sportswriter for 30 years, the last 15 of those with the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. During that time his columns and articles have won several major honors, including those from Associated Press, California Publishers Association, Greater Los Angeles Press Club, Donrey Media Group, News Media Group and the American Cancer Society. A native Southern Californian - born in Compton, raised in Pomona - McConnell currently resides in Covina with wife Diana and daughters Laura and Irene. His favorite PCL memory is from 1955, when his dad took him to a Hollywood Stars game at Gilmore and he bumped into Jack Benny as Benny was exiting the men's room.