Jerry Johnson had the right stuff, but the wrong timing, in his short, strange stay with the Cardinals.
A right-handed pitcher who grew up rooting for the Cardinals, Johnson was acquired from the Phillies in the trade that brought slugger Dick Allen to St. Louis.
The Cardinals needed quality relief pitching and Johnson provided it, but, after making a mere seven appearances, was dealt to the Giants.
Johnson developed into the Giants’ closer and helped them win a division title. He died Nov. 15, 2021, at 77.
A son of an oil rigger, Johnson was born in Miami, lived briefly in Illinois and was raised in Odessa, Texas.
In addition to playing baseball and football in Odessa, Johnson was a Golden Gloves boxer and won 14 of 15 fights, according to the Wilmington (Del.) News Journal.
After he graduated from high school in 1962, Johnson signed with the Mets and was a third baseman in their farm system. As a hitter, he lacked power and failed to make consistent contact. “I couldn’t hit the curveball,” Johnson told The Sporting News.
According to Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Mets were prepared to release Johnson in 1963 until his teammate on the Salinas, Calif., farm team, pitcher Dick Selma, spoke up to management.
“How can you release a guy, no matter how poor he looks at the plate, when he can throw harder from third base than I can from the mound?” Selma asked.
The Mets reconsidered and converted Johnson to a pitcher. but, because of subsequent military service and a shoulder injury, it was 1967 before he had a full season of pitching.
With the Class AA Williamsport, Pa., team in April 1967, Johnson, 23, got national attention when he was matched in a start against future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, 40, who was attempting a comeback with the Phillies’ Reading, Pa., affiliate after 19 seasons in the majors. Johnson won the duel, pitching a shutout in a 1-0 Williamsport win.
Though Johnson had a 2.78 ERA in 26 starts for Williamsport, he was left off the Mets’ 40-man winter roster and picked by the Phillies in the November 1967 minor-league draft.
During the baseball off-seasons, Johnson was employed as an iron worker on bridges and high rises. “I’ve worked as high as 300 feet above the ground,” he told The Sporting News.
The heavy lifting built muscle, but made it difficult for Johnson to loosen his pitching arm. When he reported to training camp “looking like he should be on muscle beach, rubbing his pectorals with baby oil,” the Phillies told him to find a different off-season job, the Philadelphia Daily News noted.
Johnson began the 1968 season at Class AAA San Diego, posted a 1.95 ERA in 10 starts and was called up to the Phillies in July.
Relying on a fastball and slider, Johnson had early success against the Cardinals. On Sept. 24, 1968, he pitched a complete game in a 2-1 Phillies victory at St. Louis. The hard-luck losing pitcher was Ray Washburn. Boxscore
In 1969, Johnson beat the Cardinals twice in six days. On April 27, he pitched a shutout in a 1-0 Phillies win at Philadelphia. Boxscore He followed with another win on May 2 in a start at St. Louis. Boxscore Washburn was the losing pitcher in each game.
Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst harrumphed to the Post-Dispatch, “A third baseman beat us. From where I watched, he looked nice to hit.”
Cardinals general manager Bing Devine, who was a Mets executive when Johnson was transforming into a pitcher in their system, was more impressed than Schoendienst. After the 1969 season, he acquired Johnson, Dick Allen and Cookie Rojas from the Phillies for Curt Flood, Tim McCarver Joe Hoerner and Byron Browne.
Johnson’s mother was from Flora, Ill., about 100 miles east of St. Louis, and Johnson lived there as an infant. When he’d return with his mom for family visits, “they indoctrinated me” with stories about the Cardinals, Johnson told The Sporting News.
“All I heard from the time I could remember was the Cardinals and Stan Musial,” Johnson said to the Post-Dispatch. “The Cardinals have been my ballclub since I was old enough to know about baseball. Later on, I became attached to Mickey Mantle, too, but the Cardinals still were the family ballclub.”
The Cardinals projected Johnson to be a spot starter and reliever, but at spring training in 1970 he was sidetracked by a “recurrence of an elbow ailment and a pulled side muscle. The latter injury occurred when he reached too abruptly for a telephone,” The Sporting News reported.
Johnson opened the 1970 season in the minors and was called up to the Cardinals on May 1. In his first game with them, he pitched three scoreless innings and earned a save against the Astros. Boxscore
In seven appearances, Johnson was 2-0 with a save and 3.18 ERA.
The Cardinals were in Houston on May 19 when Johnson went to a movie theater to see a western, “Barquero,” starring Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates. When he returned to the hotel that night, coach Dick Sisler approached Johnson in the lobby and informed him he’d been traded to the Giants for reliever Frank Linzy.
“I’m shocked,” Johnson said. “I can’t believe it.”
The Cardinals wanted an experienced late-inning reliever and liked Linzy, a sinkerball specialist, for the AstroTurf at Busch Memorial Stadium. Linzy was 9-3 with 20 saves and a 1.43 ERA for the Giants in 1965 and had 17 saves and a 1.51 ERA in 1967. His ERA for the 1970 Giants was 7.01, but the Cardinals were convinced Linzy, 29, could return to form.
The next year, with Johnson as their closer, the Giants won the National League West Division title. He led the team in saves (18) and games pitched (67), and was third in wins (12).
“Jerry always had smoke on his fastball. Now he has the poise to go with it,” The Sporting News observed.
Linzy was 4-3 with six saves and a 2.12 ERA for the 1971 Cardinals.
The 1971 season was Johnson’s career highlight. In 10 years in the majors with the Phillies, Cardinals, Giants, Indians, Astros, Padres and Blue Jays, Johnson was 48-51 with 41 saves and a 4.31 ERA.
In 1975, when Johnson pitched for minor-league Hawaii, a bullpen teammate was Frank Linzy.
When the Blue Jays entered the American League as an expansion team, they selected Hawaii manager Roy Hartsfield to be their manager. Hartsfield gave Johnson a spot on the Blue Jays’ Opening Day roster. Johnson was the winning pitcher in their first regular-season game on April 7, 1977. Boxscore