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Ken Johnson Knows How Hawkins Feels : Baseball: Former Houston Colt .45 pitcher recalls disappointment when he no-hit Cincinnati in 1964 and lost, 1-0.

July 02, 1990|LARRY STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ken Johnson's phone started ringing Sunday evening.

"You're about the 10th call," he said from his home in Pineville, La., a small town located in the center of the state on the Red River.

Johnson, 57, hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 1970, but he was suddenly back in the spotlight, put there by the New York Yankees' Andy Hawkins.

Like Hawkins did Sunday, Johnson once lost a complete-game no-hitter.

Johnson, who pitched for seven teams during a 13-year career, was with the Houston Colt .45s (later the Astros) when he no-hit the Cincinnati Reds on April 23, 1964, at Houston and lost, 1-0.

It was pointed out to Johnson that in the 1965 edition of the Official Baseball Guide, he is quoted as saying, "I'm not happy about losing the game, but I know that if we'd won, people would have forgotten by next year that I'd pitched a no-hitter. This way, they'll talk about it for maybe the next 20 or 30 years."

Johnson said that didn't come from him.

"Pete Runnels, our first baseman, came up with that," Johnson said. "I was very disappointed to lose the game. They don't pay you to lose.

"It wasn't until a few years later that it set in that I had pitched a no-hitter. I was proud to have pitched it.

"For a pitcher, a no-hitter is the ultimate."

Johnson's frustration at the time is understandable. His ninth-inning error contributed to the loss.

With one out, Pete Rose bunted down the third-base line, and Johnson's throw to first was wide, enabling Rose to go to second. He went to third on a groundout and scored on an error by second baseman Nellie Fox.

"After the game, I saw Nellie sitting there with his head down and went over and told him, 'Hey, it was my fault. It was my error that cost us the game.'

"Runnels overheard me, and that's when he pointed out that at least they'd be talking about this for 20 or 30 years.

"It wasn't much consolation at the time."

Later, things were better.

Sandy Koufax and Jim Bunning also pitched no-hitters in 1964, Bunning pitching a perfect game against the New York Mets. Johnson and those two were honored for their no-hitters during a ceremony at the 1971 Hall of Fame inductions at Cooperstown, N.Y.

"It was quite a thrill to be grouped with those two guys," Johnson said.

Johnson was 11-16 in 1964, but improved to 16-10 in 1965 after he was traded early in the season to the Milwaukee Braves.

The Braves moved to Atlanta the next season, and Johnson had records of 14-8 and 13-9 before falling to 5-8 in the 1968.

His three-plus seasons with Houston were tough. "One year, I tied Don Drysdale with a 2.65 earned-run average, about seventh in the league, and Drysdale wins 23 games and I win 11," Johnson said.

"They used to say, 'Poor ol' Ken Johnson, they never score any runs for him.' I remember one game against the Phillies, they had a Runs for Johnson Night, and any woman with a run in her stocking got in free."

After leaving baseball in 1970, Johnson returned to his hometown of West Palm Beach, Fla.

Then in 1980, he and wife Lynn moved to Pineville, where Johnson got a job at Louisiana College, a liberal arts NAIA school of about 1,000 students.

Johnson was hired as the assistant baseball coach, and also given a fund-raising job and put in charge of the men's dorm.

He's semi-retired now, keeping only the coaching job.

Johnson was familiar with Louisiana College because sons Ken Jr. and Russell and daughter Janet all went there.

"I would visit every year, especially when both my sons were playing college ball," he said. "I used to tell 'em back in West Palm Beach that I was taking off for the spring, and I'd go out there and live in a dorm."

He got to know the baseball coach, Billy Algood, who was also the athletic director and basketball coach.

"During one of my visits, I kind of asked him if he needed any help, and he said yes," Johnson said.

It's been a peaceful life. Johnson said he spends most of his time fishing.

But things got a little more exciting on Sunday when the phone started ringing, and Johnson seemed to enjoy the attention.

"Thanks for calling," he said.

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