Most of you have never heard of Ken Johnson. He toiled in the major leagues for 13 seasons, pitched for some bad teams and was what you would call a “late bloomer.”
He died in obscurity on November 15, 2015. He was 82 years old. His death was routinely ignored, much as his career was. His won-loss record over his big league career was 91-106 but his earned run average was a spiffy 3.46 and he struck out 1,042 hitters. He started out his career with the Kansas City Athletics and finished it with the Montreal Expos. He didn’t have a colorful name or a blazing fastball. But his baseball career had an impact on the Cincinnati Reds.
Ken Johnson was a late-season pickup by the Reds during their pennant winning stretch in the 1961 season. His record was 6-2 for the Reds, his ERA was 3.25 and he recorded a save. His pitching helped the Ragamuffin Reds make the World Series.
Three years later on April 23, 1964, while pitching for the Houston Colt 45s (now Astros) against the Reds, Ken Johnson hooked up in a classic pitchers duel against Joe Nuxhall in front of a sparse crowd of 5,426 at Colts Stadium in Houston. Those were the days of politically incorrect team nicknames– the space race was still in it’s infancy and “Astros” came a little later once Houston became the capital of the race for the moon by LBJ — President Lyndon Baines Johnson, not LeBron James). Those were the Reds that featured hitters like Pete Rose, Vada Pinson, Frank Robinson, Leo Cardenas and Deron Johnson.
Ken Johnson no-hit the Reds that night. He struck out nine and walked just two hitters. And he lost.
“I pitched the best game of my life and lost.” said Johnson after the Reds defeated his Houston Colt 45s 1-0, “It’s a hell of a way to get into the record books.”
Ken Johnson is still the only pitcher to ever throw a no-hitter in 9 innings of play and lose.
On that night in Houston– Colts Park was on the south side of that city, next to where the Astrodome is now– the Reds only managed to get two balls out of the infield for the first eight innings of the game. Johnson was primarily a knuckleball pitcher but also had a fastball, curve and changeup. He kept the Reds off balance all night. Johnson struck out Pete Rose to start the game. The hardest hit ball came off the bat of Deron Johnson but third baseman Bob Aspromonte threw him out. Ken Johnson walked just two batters (Vada Pinson and Bob Skinner) and struck out nine. Nuxhall got out of a major jam in the 7th inning (first and third, no outs) to keep the game scoreless.
Reds Manager Fred Hutchinson let Nuxhall bat in the top of the 9th inning leading off. After Johnson retired him, Rose came to the plate. The Reds leadoff hitter dropped a bunt down the third base line. Johnson fielded it cleanly but threw wildly to first. Rose advanced to second base.
Chico Ruiz then lined a shot off Johnson’s leg. Ruiz was thrown out by Aspromonte but Rose advanced to third base and this brought up Pinson. The speedy Reds centerfielder hit a routine ground ball to second baseman– and future Hall of Famer– Nellie Fox. The normally sure-handed Fox bobbled the ball for an error and Rose scored. Johnson then retired Frank Robinson on a fly ball to left field.
Nuxhall, now staked with a 1-0 lead, pitched a scoreless 9th, striking out Colt 45 leftfielder John Weekly to finish the Reds 1-0 win. After the game, Fox approached Johnson in the clubhouse and apologized for his miscue at second base. Johnson’s reply was “Don’t feel bad about it Nellie, I put the guy on base myself.”
Ken Johnson’s career with the Reds lasted only a few months. He pitched only 2/3 of an inning in the World Series against the Yankees because Hutchinson went with his Big 3 starters– Jim O’Toole, Joey Jay and Bob Purkey.
Houston picked up Johnson in the expansion draft after the season; 1962 was the first year for the Colt 45s and the New York Mets. For a three-year period from 1965-1967, Johnson’s numbers were impressive– a 43-27 record. He also pitched for the Cubs in 1969 (a memorable season for them) and finished up with the Montreal Expos in 1970.
But for one game, Ken Johnson did indeed throw a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds— but lost.
John lives in Galesburg, Illinois and has been a Reds fan all of his life. He is a retired firefighter and a Veteran who served for 32 years but stays active at the local Humane Society. His favorite Reds players include Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Tony Perez, Eric Davis, and Bronson Arroyo. While writing, he frequently listens to the music of Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan. He is flanked in the photo by ever-loyal “Reptar.”