November 28, 2004

Clifford "Connie" Johnson Jr. passes away November 28, 2004

Mr. Clifford "Connie" Johnson, Jr., 81, Kansas City, MO, died November 28, 2004. Services will be 11 a.m., December 3, at Bethel A.M.E. Church, 2329 Flora; burial in Leavenworth National Cemetery. Visitation from 9-11 a.m., at the church. (Arr.: L.A. Jones & Sons Funeral Chapels (816) 921-1800).


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Posted on Wed, Dec. 01, 2004

Johnson's pitching, and spirit, were ageless
Negro Leagues lose yet another legend with his passing

Connie Johnson died Saturday in a retirement home, and nobody stopped the presses. Nobody broke into regularly scheduled programming. Word did not even get out for a few days. The world does not stop spinning for a tall, gentle 81-year-old man who, many years before, won 40 games in the major leagues.

He won the bulk of those 40 games in two seasons — 1954 and '55 — when he was in his mid-30s and his body was much older. He had spent his youth pitching in the Negro Leagues; the story Connie liked to tell is that they pulled him out of the stands to pitch his first game for the Toledo Crawfords. He was only 18, but he pitched in the East-West All-Star Game that year. He was part of the amazing Kansas City Monarchs pitching staff of 1942, a group that included Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith.

The next year, he went to war.

He returned to America in time to see Jackie Robinson sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“Connie,” his friend and teammate Joe Greene told him. “You know what this means? You're going to pitch in the major leagues someday.”

“Don't want to,” Johnson said. “I don't need that.”

He pitched some more with the Monarchs. Then he went to Canada in 1951 to pitch. He had no intention of going to the big leagues, not at 30 with an arm he could barely raise above his head. He would often tell the story. He was in St. Hyacinthe, and he had won 11 games in a row — “I couldn't break glass, but I knew just where it was going,” he would say — when a telegram arrived. He had been bought by the Chicago White Sox. “You're going to pitch against the best,” his sister told him.

“I've been doing that for 10 years,” he said.

He won a few games with the White Sox and then he was traded to Baltimore where, at age 34, he had his best season. He won 14, was third in the league with 177 strikeouts and threw four shutouts. Four decades later, Brooks Robinson would remember what it was like watching Connie Johnson pitch that year. “He looked about 50,” Robinson said a couple of years back. “But he threw so easy. He was just smart. He didn't have his great stuff by then, but he still threw plenty hard. I wish I'd seen him when he was young.”