This week, former Major League pitcher Ken Johnson passed away, at age 82. Johnson pitched 13 years in the Major Leagues, from his debut with the Kansas City Athletics in 1958 until1970 when he ended his career with the Montreal Expos, his seventh team.
As a right handed starting pitcher, he had a mediocre career, winning 91 and losing 106 and compiling a career 3.46 ERA. Not exactly the stuff legends are made of but he did accomplish one thing that no other pitcher in baseball history has ever done. He pitched a nine inning no-hitter and lost the game, 1-0.
On April 23, 1964, he started on the mound for the Houston Astros against one of his old teams, the Cincinnati Reds, in Colts Stadium. In the first inning, after striking out Pete Rose for the first out of the game, he walked Vada Pinson but got out of the inning with no scoring. In the bottom of the first, former Chicago White Sox second baseman and future Hall of Famer, Nellie Fox, finishing his career with the Astros, doubled for Houston but was thrown out trying to steal third.
In the second and third innings both Johnson and the Reds’ Joe Nuxhall got the sides in order. In the bottom of the fourth, Astros first baseman Pete Runnels singled to center but center fielder Johnny Weekly hit into a double play to end that threat. In the top of the fifth, Johnson walked the Reds left fielder Bob Skinner for his second walk of the game but got out of the inning with no scoring.
The Astros threatened in the last of the seventh when Fox singled, Runnels reached on an error but Weekly hit into another double play to end that rally. In the eighth the Astros wasted a lead off double by center fielder Jim Wynn and left him stranded on second.
The game went to the ninth, 0-0, with Johnson still throwing a no hitter. He got Nuxhall, who, surprisingly, hit for himself, to ground to third. Rose then hit a ground ball back to Johnson who threw wild to first allowing Rose to reach second with one out. Third baseman Chico Ruiz then grounded out with Rose going to third. Center fielder, Vada Pinson, then hit a grounder to second which Fox misplayed and Rose scored the game’s only run. Johnson then got another future Hall of Famer, right fielder and cleanup hitter, Frank Robinson, for the last out of the top half and the game went to the last of the ninth with the Reds up 1-0 but Johnson’s no-hitter still intact.
In the last of the ninth, Nuxhall, who had given up just five hits, got shortstop Eddie Kasko on strikes and got Fox to ground to short for the second out. Runnels then reached on an error by first baseman Deron Johnson but Nuxhall struck out Weekly for the third out and the Reds had won a game without a hit and Ken Johnson had become the only pitcher in baseball history to lose while throwing a complete game no-hitter.
Only 5,426 fans were on hand for the game which lasted just one hour and 56 minutes. Johnson walked just two batters and had nine strikeouts en route to his no-hit loss. The two teams, between them, had just one less error than hits in the entire game as they both committed two miscues, Houston’s two in the ninth costing Johnson the game.
The Astros finished in ninth place that year, with a record of 66-96 and the Reds finished in third at 92-70. Johnson’s opponent Joe Nuxhall, who pitched a complete game, five hit shutout, finished the season at 9-8.
Johnson won 11 and lost 16 in 35 starts that year with a 3.63 ERA. He was traded from the Houston Astros to the Milwaukee Braves on May 23 of the 1965 season and had his best year in the Majors going 16-10 between the two teams with a 3.21 ERA in 37 starts.
Ken Johnson may not have been one of the greatest pitcher to play the game but his performance that day and the lack of support from his teammates combined to make it a one of a kind game, a distinction I am sure he would rather not have had.