RHP ∙ 1970
Bob Johnson was involved in two brilliant trades by wizard/Royals GM Cedric Tallis. In the ’69—’70 off-season, the Mets had their eye on Royals third baseman Joe Foy. In what was called at the time a calculated risk, the Royals sent the Mets Foy, a steady, known quantity, for two prospects, Johnson and Amos Otis. In retrospect, it is one of the game’s great lopsided trades. Foy faded while Otis famously went on to stardom with KC. Tallis also got one excellent season out of the little remembered Johnson and then packaged him in another steal of a trade.
The 27 year-old Johnson impressed the Royals with his power arm in spring training and earned a spot in the bullpen to start the 1970 season. After a few relief appearances in April and some casualties in the starting rotation, Johnson was tapped for his first big league start on May 2 and shined with 10 strikeouts to just one walk in eight innings of work. He earned his first win in his next start, after which manager Charlie Metro let Johnson burn a $100 check he’d written as a fine for missing curfew a few nights prior. “Thank God for strong arms,” pitching coach Bob Lemon said after the game. “The guy made 155 pitches and was still throwing hard at the finish.”[i] Johnson anchored the Royals pitching for the rest of the season. After a string of good starts, he was shifted back to the bullpen in mid-June, but this time as the fireman. He pitched well, but was “going crazy…I’m better suited as a starter. I have to get psyched up for a game. I really get keyed up. In relief, I had to get up every day, and that’s tough.”[ii] That experiment lasted just a couple of weeks before Johnson got his wish and returned to the rotation. He suffered from poor run support on a bad Royals team, but just went out and put together fantastic start after fantastic start. Right handed hitters might as well have not even stepped into the box against him. He especially racked up strikeouts in historic fashion. In his last game of the year, he fanned 10 Twins to finish with 206 strikeouts. He was just the ninth rookie to reach 200 Ks since 1901. He was also the first major leaguer in Kansas City to strike out 200 in a season, and only Dennis Leonard, Kevin Appier, and Zack Greinke have pulled the trick since.
With Johnson’s value sky-high after such a promising rookie year, Tallis made the gutsy move to ship him to Pittsburgh along with Jim Campanis and Jackie Hernandez in exchange for Bruce Dal Canton, Jerry May, and Freddie Patek. Tallis was wary about how the fans would react to losing Johnson, but “was pleased to discover that most of the fans were willing to accept the idea that the Royals needed a shortstop and a catcher even more than they needed a pitcher of Johnson’s potential.”[iii] Tallis certainly deserved the benefit of any doubt, and the trade wound up being another master stroke. Patek of course became a franchise cornerstone while Johnson never came close to finding his 1970 form again.
[i] “Johnson Puts $100 Fine to the Torch,” The Sporting News, May 23, 1970.
[ii] Sid Bordman, “Kaycee’s Big 4 of ’69 Royal Flop This Year,” The Sporting News, August 29, 1970.
[iii] Joe McGuff, “Royals Delighted At Fans’ Support Of Johnson Deal,” The Sporting News, December 26, 1970.