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A Conversation With: Bart Johnson

The White Sox phenom, who passed away on Wednesday, spoke with us in 2006
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He was one of the most impressive talents to ever don a White Sox uniform. He was in the major leagues at the age of nineteen. He had back-to-back games of 12 strikeouts in September 1971. The first time he pitched in Yankee Stadium, he tossed a complete game 5-1 win and had three hits.

Bart Johnson was a tall, lanky, right-handed pitcher who threw blazing fastballs. Johnson could also hit, run and had athletic ability far beyond many of his peers. But in his own words, Johnson “underachieved” in his years on the South Side.

Injuries and controversy surrounded him. Not all of it was of his own doing. Johnson had a strong sense of right and wrong, and he was of the generation that learned to question authority. It wasn’t enough to be told to do something; Bart’s generation needed to know why they were being asked to do it. His generation also tended to not put limits on themselves. If you had the talent, the will, you could do anything ... even change the world. To Bart Johnson, there was absolutely no reason why he couldn’t pitch for the Sox (when he wasn’t playing the outfield) and then in the "offseason suit up for the Seattle Supersonics of the NBA. Yes, he was that talented.

After leaving the field in the late 70's, Johnson became a scout and spent 17 years working with the White Sox organization evaluating talent. One of his finds, Ken Williams, eventually became the team’s GM. Then Johnson worked for the Tampa Bay Rays for another 10 years in their scouting department. 

Johnson passed away on Wednesday.

When we spoke in 2006, some of the things Johnson remembered  were things he hadn’t remembered in years. His honesty, humor and love of the game came through clearly in the time we spent conversing.

Mark Liptak: Bart, you were a terrific amateur athlete in a number of sports. Why did you decide to concentrate on baseball and sign with the White Sox? (At Torrance High School in California, Johnson went 20-2, in American Legion ball he went 23-2, and he was named to several high school basketball All-America teams. He also averaged 28 ppg as a member of the BYU freshman basketball team.)

Bart Johnson: I decided on baseball because I honestly thought I had the talent to become a Cy Young Award winner; in basketball, though, I wasn’t going to dominate, I’d just be a piece of the puzzle on a team in the NBA.

So you sign with the Sox and start in Appleton, Wis. In 1969 you dominated the Midwest League going 16-4 with 200 strikeouts in 170 innings with an ERA of 2.17. The Sox called you up and on September 8 you made your big league debut in Seattle against the Pilots. (Johnson went six innings, allowing two runs on four hits, walking four and striking out five in a 2-1 loss.) What it was like for you to be in the majors 15 months after you signed? 

It  was an incredible thrill just to put that White Sox uniform on. I remember thinking before the game that I belonged, and was pretty confident. Then when I went out to the mound, I realized it was like I was on an island and everyone was watching me. The first guy I faced, I think, was Tommy Harper, and I got him out. The next guy was Steve Whitaker, and he hit a home run off me to center field. As he was rounding the bases my catcher Eddie Herrmann came out to talk to me and told me that Whitaker was a fastball hitter. I remember thinking, ‘Why didn’t you tell me that before he came to bat?" [laughing]. The other thing I remember was that Luis Aparicio made an error, and he didn’t do that often. He was the best shortstop I ever played with.

You got your first win in the big leagues on September 16 in Chicago, going 8 ⅓ innings in a 7-4 win over the Angels. Was it as thrilling as you imagined it?

In my first win, I remember a couple of things. In that game I had a hit, scored a run, drove in a run, got a walk and stole a base. So I filled up the stat column pretty good. The other thing I remember was that Steve Kealey came in to pitch for the Angels. He grew up about a hundred yards away from me in Torrance, and we played together on the same high school team. Fred Kendall, Jason’s dad, was also on that same squad. So we had three guys make the big leagues from our high school team. [Kealey would be traded to the Sox and would be a teammate of Johnson’s again from 1971-73.]

After that showing in 1969 the hopes were high that you’d crack the rotation and be with the club from the start in 1970, but that didn’t happen. You were sent back down and didn’t rejoin the team until mid-May. Was there an injury?

Not an injury, but I had thrown a lot of innings in 1969. If you count the minor league and winter league records I won something like 30 games. That offseason Luis Aparicio asked if I’d play for him in Venezuela. The pay was great and I loved playing baseball, so I did. I went something like 12-3. When I got back to spring training, I just couldn’t get my arm loose. The Sox thought warm weather would help, so they sent me to Mobile and then Tucson to get it loose and back in shape.

I know you were still a kid, and only spent parts of the 1969 and 1970 seasons with the Sox, but those were pretty bleak years for the franchise. (In 1969 the Sox went 68-94, and bottomed that in 1970 when they were a franchise-worst 56-106.) Did all that losing bother you like it did the veterans, or was it still a question of being happy just to be in the majors even with a bad team? 

I had a blast. I was just trying to win. I didn’t realize all that other stuff that went on in the major leagues, especially for the veterans ... playing out the string, things like that. Those guys were so much older than I was.

Opening Day 1971 had the Sox are in Oakland. Charlie Finley of the A’s schedules the first Opening Day twinbill in history, figuring his club can make short work of the "Sad Sox" and get off to a good start. But this isn’t the same team under manager Chuck Tanner: You guys win the first game 6-5, then blow the A’s apart 12-4 in the nightcap. You started the second game, striking out nine with a complete game. Talk to me a little about Chuck. How was he able to change the attitude and perception of the club almost overnight?

Chuck did it because he was so positive. He wouldn’t tolerate negativity. The other thing was that he took the best guys north every year; he didn’t care how old they were. Remember Chuck could intimidate guys, too. He was, I think, 42 or so and he was a big guy. If you did something wrong or got him angry he’d take you into the clubhouse and just kick your ass.

And it wasn’t just the players. I remember one time one of the writers wrote something about us, quoting guys anonymously, and Chuck wanted to know who was quoted. Chuck called us together in the locker room and asked us about it. No one admitted that they said anything, so he got the writer into his office. We’re sitting there and we hear things getting thrown around: bang, boom, crash. The writer came out crying like a little boy. Chuck was trying to find out if one of the players said something, or if the writer was making things up. I think he slapped the crap out of him.

Now about that game itself?

Well, I immediately remember Carlos May missing home plate! [In the first inning of that second game, May hit what appeared to be a three-run home run to right field, only in the celebration at home plate, Carlos missed touching it! The A’s somehow picked up on it, appealed the play, and May was ruled out. It went as a triple and two RBIs.]

Opening Day is special to me and to a lot of baseball fans, but it is as special to you guys who actually played the game? Or is it just the start of a long, 162-game season?

No, it is special. I especially liked Opening Day at home. The crowd is out there and it’s so early in the season there’s not a lot of pressure on you: The fans don’t get on you, and you never know what’s going to happen.

In 1971 you won 12 games, saved 14, with 153 strikeouts in 178 innings. Your ERA was 2.93. So were you a starter, or a relief pitcher? And did the switching around bother you?

We didn’t have roles back then, and I just couldn’t see myself going up to Chuck and asking, "What’s my role?" If I did that, my head would be rolling! [laughing]. I started out that season as a starter and then as Wilbur [Wood] began starting I was moved into the bullpen. I remember one game where I got a save for Wilbur and threw I think four innings. [On Aug. 22, 1971, Johnson saved a game for Wood by throwing 3 ⅔ innings of relief in Cleveland. That season Bart also had three other saves where he threw at least three innings.]

I asked about the switching roles because a lot of Sox fans pointed out how perhaps top prospect Brandon McCarthy was affected by him having been a starter all his life, then having to pitch out of the bullpen in 2006. Is there a different mindset in starting a game as opposed to coming into it after it’s begun? I recall a comment by Jack McDowell where he said, "It doesn’t matter if you’re a starter or a reliever, your job when you’re on the mound is to get people out."

Well, I can’t speak for Brandon and I agree with Jack’s statement, you have to prove yourself on the mound. But I think it depends on your makeup. If a guy is an everyday player it can be hard if you’re not in the game a lot. When I was playing as a starter I found baseball boring. I couldn’t get used to the idea of only playing every four or five days. I enjoyed the bullpen more.

Something else happened that 1971 season that was unusual. On May 31, Memorial Day, in the eighth inning of the second game with Baltimore at Comiskey Park, you hit Don Buford with a pitch. Buford charged the mound, still holding his bat. (Then in the ninth inning with Buford standing in the on-deck circle, he was jumped by a fan, after having words with another fan along the box seat railing. The Orioles then came out of the dugout and beat the second fan to, in the words of Sox second baseman Mike Andrews, “a bloody pulp.”) Can you take us through what was going on? 

He hit a home run off me earlier in the game and I was going to knock him down. I wound up hitting him right in the backside, and he comes charging out waving his bat. Now I watched the game when Juan Marichal hit Johnny Roseboro in the head with a bat, so I started backing away. Frank Robinson came out of the dugout and grabbed him, trying to keep him from doing something that would result in a big suspension. While all this was going on I took a swing at Buford, which didn’t endear me to the Orioles.

I was out of the game when that fan went after Don, so I really didn’t see what went on. I’ve heard over the years, though, that the guy was a big Blackhawks fan and was a fighter. I may have even met him at one time, but I really don’t remember clearly.

In 1972, the strike-shortened season, you started in the bullpen. That first weekend in Kansas City you got charged with two extra-inning losses in back-to-back days, and you didn’t seem yourself that year. Did that start just screw with your head, or was there an injury? By June 3 you were shipped back to the minors and never got called back up. (Johnson’s short season was punctuated in a game on June 3. In relief against the Yankees, Bart gave up eight runs, three earned, with five walks in two innings of an 18-10 loss at home.)

I was supposed to be what’s now termed the closer for the Sox that year, and I got two losses in about 18 hours. I was hurt. I hurt my right knee in the offseason playing basketball. I immediately told the Sox about it, and they examined me and said the knee was basically OK but I did tear some cartilage. I rehabbed it hard, I gave it an honest attempt, but when I went out to pitch I just couldn’t push off it. When they told me I was going to be sent back down I didn’t want to go, because they were the ones who told me that the knee was OK. They said if I didn’t go that I’d be suspended, so I went back to Appleton. They wound up operating on my knee that September.

It was about this time that you told the Sox maybe it would be better if you became an outfielder. I know you liked to hit and were pretty good at it, but did you honestly think that at 22 you could make the change and get back to the major leagues?

Sure. I always thought I could hit. I had that confidence. I had no doubt I could hit well enough to get back to the majors as an outfielder. But the Sox were dead-set on me staying a pitcher. They told me that I’d never hit with enough power to be more than maybe a fourth outfielder. I remember that night, after I was told that, I hit a ball in Appleton that went out of the park and was found in a church parking lot. That ball had to go around 450 feet. I had enough power; I also knew when I wasn’t being told the truth.

You came up for a little while in 1973 and then pitched in spring training 1974. The Sox said they were going to ship you back to the minor leagues. You didn’t take that information very well and said that you were going to retire instead. You talked about doing publicity work for the Chicago Fire of the WFL and then in July trying out for the Seattle Supersonics of the NBA. The retirement didn’t last long, but could you tell me your mind-set at the time?

You can sense the negativity around you when it’s going bad. That spring I only pitched about five innings or so. I wasn’t being used. Later in the spring I’m told, "We want you to start, this is your chance to make the team." So I’m not going to say, "No, I haven’t pitched enough."

I go out there and throw five or six shutout innings. And they keep me out there. Remember, I haven’t thrown a lot that spring. I’m convinced if the game went 13 innings, they would have kept me out there. Anyway, I finally give up five runs, and after the game's over I’m told I’m being sent back to the minor leagues. That did it; I knew when I was being hung out to dry. I said I wasn’t going and went home. After a month, money and reality set in, and I reported back to the minor leagues.

I don’t know if working for the Fire was really an option, but I wanted to do something until July came along [when] I was going to try out for the Supersonics. That previous year, I went to one of their camps. Bill Russell was the head coach, and I did well enough that I was asked back to attend the full training camp. So I knew I had a chance to make their final roster.

To your credit, Bart, you did report to the minors and got called back up in the second half of 1974 and were outstanding: 10-4 in 18 games, with a 2.74 ERA. It looked like maybe you turned a corner. What were you doing differently?

I think it was the fact that I was more mature. I also had a more positive approach on the mound. I had gotten into doing what I could to help my chances; I started reading books on the power of positive thinking and taking a positive mental approach.

Despite that great second half, you didn’t throw an inning for the Sox in 1975. Were you hurt?

In spring training I was slated to be the No. 2 starter behind Wilbur [Wood]. We played the Reds in a game where it poured all day, but they wanted to play the game because there were about 8,000 fans still in the stands. We finally started around four o’clock [after a three-hour delay]. The field was a mud bath. I was pitching to Joe Morgan when my left leg slipped as I was throwing a pitch. My back jerked, and I herniated a disk. It was the same injury that had happened to Bill Melton in 1972.

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It got worse, because the Sox flew out to the coast where they were going to play the A’s and the flight stopped everywhere. Places like Yuma, Ariz., San Diego, Los Angeles then up to San Francisco. By the time we finally got to San Francisco I couldn’t get out of the plane, my back was so bad. I was in the hospital for about 10 days in traction, only they found out afterwards it didn’t do me a bit of good. The hospital bed I was on was too small. I’m 6´5´´ and my heels were hitting the footboard, contracting my spine, so the traction was useless.

In 1976 you were back with the club and made 32 starts, the most starts of your career. The 1976 Sox were a pretty bad team, and under the circumstances the 9-16 record you put up wasn’t that bad. (The 1976 Sox were so in a bind for starting pitching that they made “Goose” Gossage, the 1975 Fireman of the Year, a starter for the season. He went 9-17 — and made the All Star team!) What was it like playing for a Bill Veeck-owned team?

Bill was all right, although I got tired of the gimmicks. I guess I believe in the purity of the game, and it was hard to take at times. I’d be warming up, for example, before the game on the sidelines, when you had to stop what you were doing so all the Little Leaguers could pass on parade. Or you’d be trying to get loose and a bunch of motorcycles would be on the warning track kicking up dust and throwing rocks around. I still remember that game we played wearing shorts against the Orioles!

I loved Mike Veeck; thought he was a great guy.

The 1977 season was your final year in the majors, and you were a part of one of the most beloved White Sox teams of all time: The South Side Hit Men. Was there any indication in the spring this club would be as good as it became? (The 1977 White Sox were picked no higher than fourth place in the division, yet shocked baseball by winning 90 games, leading the West through the end of July and slugging a then-team record 192 home runs.)

No. But that’s because at the time we didn’t know how good of a hitter Oscar Gamble was. We didn’t know about the determination Eric Soderholm had to try to come back from his injuries. I began the season as a starter, but went to the bullpen as the year went on. One thing I remember from that year was I gave up a big hit to Dave May. [On Aug. 2, 1977 at Comiskey Park, Johnson gave up a three-run home run to May of the Rangers. The home run came after a Jack Brohamer error kept the inning alive. Texas scored six runs in the eighth inning, and wound up winning 9-8 after the Sox led 7-0.]

Looking back on that year, do you remember a play or a game or something that made everyone stop and think, "You know, we’re not a bad team..."?

Not that I can remember, but I do think Oscar was a big part of the reason we did so well. He was a professional hitter who had tremendous confidence in himself. I remember a spring game where Oscar came up and got a single. When the inning was over he’s back in the dugout talking, "Lousy single ... I’m a home-run hitter!"

I also remember a time that spring when we were just hammering a pitcher; we were just beating him around. Oscar’s in the dugout telling everyone, "Easy, easy we want this guy to make the team, remember!" [laughing] Oscar couldn’t wait to face this guy when the season started.

One of the things that defined the love affair between the fans and the team was the outpouring of support for you guys. The curtain calls, Nancy Faust with the "Na Na Hey Hey" song. Pretty tame stuff today, but back then it was controversial, wasn’t it?

Yes it was. I thought it was more controversial to the pitchers, though, than the hitters.

What were the guys’ reactions to all the hoopla? I’ve been told that some of the guys on the team didn’t care for that stuff, going out after a home run to acknowledge the fans and so on. Was that true?

I was in the bullpen by that time, so I didn’t feel bad about it. For the hitters, though, it was just asking to be thrown at.

By late July, the Sox were playing extremely well, you opened up a 6 ½ game lead on the Royals and Twins when you came from behind to win a third straight game against Kansas City. But the Royals blew the Sox apart in the second game of that Sunday twinbill and they started playing psychological games as well. Hal McRae slowly trotting around the bases and then tipping his hat to the Sox fans when he touched home plate. Amos Otis and Jim Colborn talking trash about how you guys were rubbing it in and you hadn’t won squat. Yet you guys hadn’t done a thing. I mean, the fans were the ones demanding that the players come out and so forth, right? I was at some of those games where the crowd was so loud and boisterous the game couldn’t go on until Richie Zisk or Oscar Gamble or Eric Soderholm acknowledged the fans. Why did the Royals basically say you guys were instigating all this?

They used it as motivation; they knew it wasn’t us personally. I knew Hal (McRae) well because he and I worked for the Rays and we talked about it at times. We didn’t play that badly, but the Royals just took off and beat everybody. [Starting August 1 the Royals went 46-17 to close out the season. They also had a 16 game win streak and an eight game one in that time period.] Besides, I don’t think Sox fans started the idea of the curtain call. I remember seeing it in Minnesota from their fans towards Rod Carew. Remember, that was the season he almost hit .400, and after he’d get on base or have an at-bat, their fans were calling him out. And yes the Royals were pissed off about that, too!

The next week the Sox opened a pivotal series in Kansas City. That series was emotionally charged and you were in the middle of it. On August 5 in a game the Royals would win 12-2, you came in to relieve Chris Knapp. On a ground ball in the fourth inning off the bat of Darrell Porter, you went to cover first and Porter plowed right into your back as you touched the bag. Dick Howser had to jump out of his coaching box to separate you two. Then in the sixth inning after John Mayberry grounded out ending the inning, you and Porter got into it at home plate. What happened? And is it true that you said to him as he was getting ready to start catching the warm-up throws, "Do you want it now?"

Yes, that’s true. I said something to him like, "We can do it now or later." What happened was that earlier in the game Jim Spencer knocked into him, so when he hit that ground ball he hit me. I just had that back surgery and didn’t appreciate him throwing his elbow right into the middle of it. After Mayberry grounded out, Porter was headed to home plate, and I just went up to him and made my comment. He raised his mask, which I appreciated, so I hit him. One thing I really remember was that his eyes were as big as saucers. He was wired on something, that’s for sure.

After the game, both he and George Brett came into our locker room and apologized to me for what happened.

The Sox were swept in that series and were never the same afterwards. It was almost like the Royals' comments about Sox fans and "not winning anything" hit home. Did the team play tight after all the controversy started?

It was a combination of things. We weren’t as good as we played earlier in the season, and we weren’t as bad as we played down the stretch. It’s not like we played under .500 or miserably, it’s just that the Royals were amazing. They won 16 in a row and something like 31 of 36. You’re not going to beat that, I don’t care who you are.

Your relationship with the fans was an interesting one. Perhaps because of your struggles or the publicity you sometimes generated, I don’t think they knew what to make of you. I remember when the “Sox Supporters” fan club in left field would unfurl that banner reading, ‘Oh No! Not Bart!’ You had to have seen that. How did that make you feel?

I was booed before and was made a target, so I was used to it. I never actually saw that sign in person, although I did see pictures of it later on. The fans that I met and talked to were never vicious or malicious, so I took the sign with a grain of salt. The fans always were good to me when I’d sign autographs and stuff before a game. I also think part of the reason some fans did that was because I was a California kid, cocky, and I went to college.”

The Sox released you in April 1978. Why did you decide to retire?

Well, I actually signed with Oakland after the Sox released me and played for their minor league team in Vancouver. Then, when Chuck [Tanner] became the Pirates manager in 1979, I tried out with them. They optioned me to the Mexican League and I pitched there until a strike came. I remember getting paid, and putting money in each of my shoes and left. I never went back.

How about life after baseball Bart? You’ve been a scout/talent evaluator for at least part of that time.

I got a call from Roland Hemond, and he offered me a position with the scouting department so I took it. I think Roland did that because he was the GM when I was hung out to dry in that spring training game back in 1974. Roland may have felt that I was shortchanged, so he gave me a chance and I appreciated it. I worked with the Sox from 1980 through 1997.

The biggest guy that I scouted and signed would be Kenny Williams. Kenny was a football player at Stanford, and everyone was saying to forget him because he was going to the NFL. But when I saw him play I got really excited about his abilities, and stayed on him to try to get him to play baseball.

I then went to work for the Rays and was with them until they let me and a bunch of other scouts go. They decided to go to a computerized scouting system instead. After I was let go, Kenny called me to let me know that he was sorry to hear what happened. That was nice of him. He was the highest-ranking guy in baseball who contacted me after that happened.”

You still live in Oak Lawn so you were right in the middle of White Sox country. What was it like being in the city during 2005's run for the championship?

It was awesome. I was so happy for some of the people who were in the organization. I was proud and happy for Kenny and was happy that I had an association with him getting to this point. There was a tingle of jealousy, too. When the Sox got their World Series rings, I thought how nice it would have been to also get one.

Watching the playoffs, I’m reminded there was a game where Fox had a graphic about when was the last time the Sox had four starters throw consecutive complete games. Joe Buck was talking about it and it happened in August 1974. I felt very proud to be a part of that. [It happened from August 21 through the first game of a twinbill on Aug. 25, 1974. The complete game pitchers were Wilbur Wood (loss), Jim Kaat (win), Bart Johnson (win) and Wood again (win).]

One thing I’ve always wondered about. As a fan I know how I get when I meet Sox players or speak with them even over the phone: I basically become a kid again. But how about the players themselves? Did you ever have a situation where you met one of your heroes or a player you admired, and how did you handle it?

I actually did. We played in the Game of the Week one time, and I was named player of the game. I’m in the locker room when a guy tells me that I’ve got to get back on the field because [Sandy] Koufax wants to interview me. I’m thinking, "Wow Sandy Koufax!" I grew up watching him pitch with the Dodgers. So I get out there expecting Sandy to speak with me for a few minutes. Instead, because of time constraints, all he can do is say, "And now here’s the player of the game, Bart Johnson... congratulations! Back up to you!" [laughing]

So I turn to go back to the locker room and he’s leaving the field when I hear him call out to me, "Bart! Use your fastball more!”

You also were telling me a basketball story about playing against Dusty Baker. Care to repeat it?

Sure. We were playing the Braves in the Hall of Fame exhibition game in Cooperstown [Aug. 12, 1974: Braves 12, Sox 9]. If you’ve ever been there, you know the place has everything : Baseball fields, basketball courts, swimming pool, the works. So I started the game, and after a few innings was removed. I go over to the basketball courts along with Terry [Forster] and Goose [Gossage] and we start shooting around. Dusty comes over with a couple of the Braves guys and he says, "Hey, you wanna play?"

So we do, and beat them pretty good. I think Dusty was kind of shocked that we could beat them like that. Maybe he underestimated us. I played ball in college and tried out with the pros, so I knew I could play.

How were Goose and Terry as players?

Goose was OK, and Terry was pretty good. He played ball in high school in Southern California. In fact, he played against Bill Walton becuase both were from the same area. Terry told me the story of the game he played against Bill.

Terry was pretty good, and had a pretty good team, when they went up against Walton’s team. Terry’s club gets the opening tap and Terry, I think he told me, scores the first two points of the game. So as Terry’s telling it, he’s saying to himself, "Hey, Walton’s team isn’t that tough. We can play with these guys..." Walton’s club misses a shot, Terry gets the rebound and he’s bringing it back down the court. So he decides to take a jump shot from about 20 feet away. He puts the shot up, and Walton catches the basketball. Just grabs it out of the air! [laughing]. Game over! The refs were stunned like everyone else and never called goaltending. Walton’s club just ran away with the game.

Sum up for me your time on the South Side will you, through the good times and the bad?

When I signed with the Sox, remember, they were the "enemy" to me. Growing up I watched the 1959 World Series when the Sox came to Los Angeles. It’s now a fact that I have lived far more of my life in Chicago then I did in California. I’m a South Side guy now more than a California guy. I always respected Sox fans and their knowledge of the game.