By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Jerry Johnson, who was the Toronto Blue Jays’ winning pitcher in their first-ever game, passed away on Monday after a long battle with Lewy Body Dementia and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
He was 77.
His wife, Susan Trautmann Johnson, announced his death on her Facebook page this afternoon.
“I am the luckiest woman alive, I had my very own Prince Charming!,” wrote Trautmann Johnson in her Facebook tribute. “The life we lived together was nothing less than a miracle. Many people have said that we had a fairy tale love affair. I don’t see any other way than that to describe the 19 years I spent with my Jerry.”
Johnson had already spent parts of nine seasons in the big leagues when the Blue Jays acquired him from the San Diego Padres on February 16, 1977 in exchange for catcher Dave Roberts.
In the Blue Jays’ first game, played in the snow at Exhibition Stadium, Johnson relieved starter Bill Singer with one out in the fifth inning with his club leading the Chicago White Sox 5-4. Singer had permitted back-to-back singles to Brian Downing and Ralph Garr before Johnson entered and got Alan Bannister to line out to third base and Jorge Orta to ground out to first to preserve the one-run lead.
Johnson went on to allow one run in 2 2/3 innings in relief in the Blue Jays’ 9-5 win. The Blue Jays would continue to use the 33-year-old right-hander primarily as a middle reliever for the rest of the season. In all, Johnson posted a 4.60 ERA and recorded five saves in 43 appearances, spanning 86 innings.
No Blue Jays pitcher, who pitched exclusively out of the bullpen, hurled more innings for the club than Johnson that season, which would prove to be his last in the big leagues.
Born on December 3, 1943 in Miami, Fla., Johnson was initially signed as an infielder by the New York Mets in 1962. His defensive struggles at third base convinced the Mets to convert him into a full-time pitcher in 1965.
Two years later, he was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies from the Mets in the minor league draft. He’d make his big league debut with the Phils on July 17, 1968 and was a solid contributor for them down the stretch, posting a 3.24 ERA in 16 appearances, including 11 starts.
After another season with the Phillies, Johnson was part of the landmark trade in which the Phils dealt him, along with Dick Allen and Cookie Rojas to the St. Louis Cardinals for Curt Flood, Tim McCarver, Byron Browne and Joe Hoerner. Flood would refuse to report to the Phillies and challenge baseball’s reserve clause and set the wheels in motion for free agency for major league players.
Johnson made only seven relief appearances for the Cards in 1970 before he was dealt to the San Francisco Giants. He enjoyed his finest big league season with the Giants in 1971 when he registered 12 wins and a 2.97 ERA while notching 18 saves in 67 relief appearances. For his efforts, he finished sixth in the National League Cy Young Award voting.
Johnson pitched one more season with the Giants and then endured one-year stints with Cleveland and the Houston Astros, prior to signing with the San Diego Padres on February 20, 1975. He recorded a combined 5.23 ERA in 45 appearances with the Padres before he was dealt to the Blue Jays.
Blue Jays manager Roy Hartsfield was familiar with Johnson because the veteran righty had made 17 starts for him while he was managing the Padres’ triple-A Hawaii Islanders in 1976.
Johnson’s strong middle relief work in the Blue Jays’ first game was a sign of things to come. Ten times that season he worked four or more innings in relief for the Blue Jays, including twice throwing more than five innings (April 28 vs. Cleveland and May 19 vs. Milwaukee).
He had a season-best five strikeouts in four scoreless innings against the Oakland A’s in the Blue Jays’ 7-3 win on June 5. He was also credited with a save in that contest.
Johnson returned to the Blue Jays in 1978 but was released near the end of spring training.
In 1989, Johnson returned to pitch for the St. Lucie Legends in the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association.
Johnson’s death comes just six week after fellow 1977 Blue Jays reliever Chuck Hartenstein passed away at the age of 79. Johnson is the sixth member of the inaugural Blue Jays squad to die. Doug Ault (2004), Jesse Jefferson (2011), Gary Woods (2015) and Ron Fairly (2019) have also passed away.
*Special thanks to Blue Jays super fan and historian Paul Bychko for letting me know that Jerry Johnson had passed away.