The No-Luck No-Hitter

In 2019 we saw four no-hitters: the two individual gems from Mike Fiers and Justin Verlander for their second and third no-hitter respectively, and two combined, both against the Mariners, by the Astros and the Angels. For the Angels it was their first home game since the death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs and the Angels were honouring him by having every team member wear his jersey.

As of the end of the 2019 season, there have been 303 no-hitters officially recognized by Major League Baseball, 260 of them in the modern era (starting in 1901, with the formation of the American League). The 152nd of these is quite different to the rest.

Some of you may know exactly what I am referring to and some of you may have guessed what is coming next from the title. But the game I am about to describe is something that hadn’t happened before and hasn’t happened since.

The year is 1964. The day is Thursday 23rd April. The location is Colt Stadium. Colt Stadium was the temporary and makeshift home of the expansion Houston Colt .45s for their first three seasons (1962–1964) while the Astrodome was being built. They were hosting the Cincinnati Reds, which included the likes of all-stars Johnny Edwards and Leo Cárdenas, future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, and future career hits leader Pete Rose. It was the final game of a 3-game series.

On the mound for the Colts was the knuckleballer Ken Johnson. Johnson had won his first two games of the season, including one against the aforementioned Reds, and went into this game with a 2.55 ERA, almost matching his 2.65 ERA (10th Best in the NL) from 1963.

Johnson started the game with a strikeout of Rose, the 1963 National League Rookie of the Year. He continued to look dominant and by the end of his first 8 innings pitched he recorded 10 groundball outs, nine strikeouts, and three infield popouts. Only twice did Reds batters hit the ball into the outfield and Johnson walked only two batters, both on full counts.

With the game still tied at 0-0 in the bottom of the eight, he nearly gave himself the lead when he sent Reds left fielder Bob Skinner back to the base of the fence but the 365-foot drive was caught for the third out.

In the top of the 9th, Johnson recorded the first out with opposing starter Joe Nuxhall grounding out to third. Rose came up next and dropped a bunt. Yes, you read that correctly, dropped a bunt!! Which was “obviously” not against the unwritten rules back then, even though it is now called a “chicken shit move” by some fans. Johnson pounced on it, half-straightened up and threw wildly to first baseman Pete Runnels. Rose made it to second on the error.

With a man on second, the next batter smashed a line drive off Johnson’s shin that left a significant mark. But the third baseman fielded the carom and fired to first to nip the runner as Rose took third. Needing one out to preserve the no-hitter and shutout, Johnson induced a routine grounder to second baseman Nellie Fox. The normally surehanded Fox (in his 18th in the majors) fumbled the ball, allowing Rose to score as Pinson reached first. Frank Robinson flied out to end the inning.

The Colts had one last gasp, to save Johnson from notoriety, in the bottom of the ninth when a man reached on an error at first base with two outs, but the next batter struck out. This gave Joe Nuxhall his shutout but landed Ken Johnson with the only losing solo no-hitter in MLB’s history.

Fox was reportedly near tears for making the error that caused Johnson to make history by losing. He approached Johnson in the dressing room immediately after. “Ken, I’m sorry I had to mess it up,” Fox said. “Don’t feel bad about it, Nellie,” Johnson replied as he put his arm around Fox’s shoulder. “I put the guy on myself. I came up throwing. A good throw would have nailed him.”

Johnson got both congratulations and condolences from teammates and fans but did not want sympathy and was not bitter. “What else can I do? I pitched the best game of my life,” he said. “I can’t feel bad because I lost it. I feel worse for the guys on the club. I guess that sounds funny but it’s true.”

Johnson retired in 1970 with a career record of 91-106 and an ERA of 3.46 (102 ERA+) over 1737.1 innings and was forever known as a hard luck pitcher. In 2004, Mr. Johnson admitted that he regretted being the answer to an arcane piece of baseball trivia. “Instead of the notoriety,” he told a local newspaper, “I’d rather have won the game.” Johnson passed away in 2015 at the age of 82.

In the absence of baseball that we currently find ourselves in, I suggest we raise a glass to Ken on the 56th anniversary of his performance.

“Well pitched, Ken. Well pitched”.

If you would like to know more, check out the SABR Bio and Game Projects on both the game and Ken Johnson.

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