Five times in the major leagues’ modern era, a team has given up no hits and failed to win. But in perhaps the game’s starkest good-news-bad-news case, only once did a single pitcher complete a nine-inning game without yielding a hit and still manage to lose it. The man who owns that two-faced distinction, Ken Johnson, whose otherwise middling 13-year career in the major leagues included stints with seven teams, died on Saturday in Pineville, La. He was 82.
His son Kenneth Jr. said that his father had been bedridden with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and that he died after contracting a kidney infection.
For three seasons in the heart of his career, 1965-67, pitching for theHouston Astros and the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves (the franchise moved after the 1965 season), Johnson was an effective starter, going 43-27 with 26 complete games. It was earlier, however, on April 23, 1964, that while pitching for Houston (then known as the Colt .45s) against the Cincinnati Reds, he claimed his spot in history.
A right-hander who featured a knuckleball to go along with a fastball and breaking pitches — “He always said it was the knuckler that got him to the big leagues,” his son said — Johnson pitched a brilliant game, walking just two, striking out nine and mowing down a lineup that included two All-Stars, catcher Johnny Edwards and shortstop Leo Cardenas; a future Hall of Famer, Frank Robinson; and the eventual career hits leader, Pete Rose.
The Reds hit only three balls out of the infield. In the top of the ninth inning, however, Johnson helped author his own undoing; with one out, he fielded a bunt by Rose and threw wildly to first, allowing Rose to reach second. Rose scored two batters later on an error by second baseman Nellie Fox.
Joe Nuxhall, who allowed five hits for Cincinnati, completed his shutout. Nuxhall was himself the answer to a baseball trivia question. In June 1944, more than a month before turning 16, he pitched two-thirds of an inning for the Reds against the Cardinals, becoming the youngest player ever to appear in a major league game.
Kenneth Travis Johnson Sr. was born in West Palm Beach, Fla., on June 16, 1933. His father, Ernest, was a bank teller; his mother, the former Marjorie Lois Travis, was a waitress.
Young Ken played baseball in high school, joined the Army and later spent a year at the University of South Carolina. There he met Joanna Lynn Ergle, known as Lynn, whom he married in 1955.
She survives him. In addition to their son Kenneth Jr., a medical doctor, he is survived by a second son, Russell; a daughter, Janet Lynne Johnson; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Johnson was signed by the Philadelphia Athletics before the 1952 season and played in their minor league system, advancing to the majors (by then the team had moved to Kansas City) in 1958.
In addition to Houston and the Braves, Johnson pitched for Cincinnati, for whom he pitched two-thirds of an inning in the 1961 World Series; the Yankees; the Cubs; and the Montreal Expos. Over all, he pitched in 334 regular-season games with a record of 91-106 and an earned run average of 3.46.
After his retirement, he worked as a community service coordinator at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida and later as a baseball coach at Louisiana College in Pineville.
Un video recordando los doce innings perfectos de Harvey Haddix, en 1959 (perdió en el inning 13).
Johnson’s no-hitter deserves mention with other fateful performances that at one point led the New York Times columnist Arthur Daley to refer to the pitcher’s mound as “Heartbreak Hill.” In Chicago in 1917, Hippo Vaughn of the Cubs and Fred Toney of the Reds, pitching against each other, combined for a nine-inning double no-hitter before Vaughn gave up two hits in the 10th and the Reds won. In 1959, in perhaps the greatest game ever pitched, Harvey Haddix of the Pittsburgh Pirates threw 12 perfect innings against the Milwaukee Braves before losing the game in the 13th.
“I pitched the best game of my life and still lost,” Johnson said after he pitched the best game of his life. “A hell of a way to get into the record books.”