Connie Johnson

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"I don't think it was luck, but things happened so funny. God was answering my prayers, but I didn't know it until four or five years ago--'til I had realized what I did. Because the things that happened to me just didn't happen ordinary like to an ordinary man."
--Connie Johnson

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Negro Leaguer of the Month
January, 2005

Clifford "Connie" Johnson

Born: December 27, 1922 in Stone Mountain, Georgia
Died: November 25, 2004 in Kansas City, MO
Ht:6'-4", Wt: 200
Batted right and threw right
Position: pitcher
Years: 1940-1958
Teams:Toledo Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs, Colorado Sky Sox, Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles

Connie Johnson's story is a fairy tale. No player in Negro League history rose to stardom faster, and no player had more fun living the life of a ballplayer than Clifford "Connie" Johnson.

From the age of five, Johnson had only one dream: to travel like his chauffeur brother and visit four places: New Orleans, New York, California and Chicago.

In early 1940, Johnson had never played baseball in his life. He liked softball, and was very good at it, but wanted nothing to do with "hardball."

One day, he was in the stands at a friend's sandlot game in Stone Mountain Georgia, when a player was injured and Johnson was asked to join the game.

Johnson: "I said, 'No, I can't play no hardball. I had never caught a hardball. It was hard, that's the only thing I knew--that it might hurt. They kept asking me so I said, 'Okay, I'll go in the outfield but I'm not gonna catch no ball. I'll pick it up and throw it back and try to get the man off, but don't ask me to catch it 'cause I'm not gonna catch it, I'm telling you that now!'"

As if written in Hollywood, a ball was hit to Johnson, who made a fantastic catch and doubled a runner off base. Johnson was an immediate star and he loved the attention he got from the crowd!

"Oh man! Now I'm the greatest ballplayer in the world! Girls trying to catch me and kiss me. Then the team on the other side wanted me to play with them! I wasn't even thinking about playing ball but that's how it started."

Later that week, the Toledo Crawfords and Kansas City Monarchs came to town to play a game and Johnson watched his first Negro League game. He was awed by the skill of the players, but still had no intention of playing baseball..

While the Crawfords were in Stone Mountain, manager Oscar Charleston and track star Jesse Owens (who had interest in the team) came to visit Johnson on his family farm (just as Johnson was about to run away!).

"We heard you have a good arm and want you to play with us," said Charleston.

Despite Johnson's explanation that he didn't play baseball, Charleston wanted him to play a game with the Crawfords and Johnson relented. When they got to the game, Charleston told Johnson he was going to pitch--against the Kansas City Monarchs!

"I had a good arm, but I'd never pitched before!" remembered Johnson. Wearing a jersey that was many times too large for his skinny frame, Johnson proceeded to throw a great game against the Monarchs. Charleston asked Johnson to play the rest of the season and, snap!, Johnson was a Negro League pitcher. As a matter of fact, with his incredible fastball, Johnson was so good, so quickly, that he made the East-West All-Star game two months later--the youngest player ever to appear at age 17!

One night that season, Johnson woke up Oscar Charleston after he had realized his childhood dream had come true!
"I woke up Oscar at 2 o' clock in the morning. He said, 'what are you waking me up for?'"
I said, 'Do we go to Chicago?'
'Do we go to New York?'
'How 'bout New Orleans?'
'Yeah, we go to New Orleans. They got a team, too.'
'What about California?'
'No, we don't go to California.'
I said, 'Shoot. This is what I want.' (Johnson played baseball in California many times in the Winter Leagues and after joining the Major Leagues)

Johnson jumped to the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1940s and joined a staff with Satchel Paige, John Matchett, Hilton Smith and Lefty LaMarque. Johnson was probably the hardest thrower on the staff, and in many towns was mistaken for Satchel himself.

Johnson made his second All-star appearance 10 seasons after his first, in 1950, allowing 1 run in 3 innings and striking out 3. Johnson also tripled in two at bats.

When the color barrier was broken, Johnson was signed by the Chicago White Sox at age 30 and spent parts of five seasons in the Majors. His best year was 1957 when he went 14-11 with a 3.20 ERA.

In his years in the Negro Leagues and Majors, Johnson listed Alec Radcliffe, Harvey Kuenn and Ted Williams as the toughest hitters he faced (Williams got the first two hits off Johnson in the Majors!)

Johnson thought that Major Leaguers of the modern day are about as good as those in his day, but believed they didn't have nearly as much fun. "I see players now," he remembered. "And they don't seem like they have fun. We got dressed up and went out on the town!"

Johnson, one of my favorite interviews, died last November. I will always cherish our time together.

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