One-time White Sox ‘Mr. Smoke’ Bart Johnson dies at 70 after long career as scout

By  Dr. David J. Fletcher, CBM President

Bart Johnson as a teen-age hard thrower who soon got his "Mr. Smoke" nickname.

Bart Johnson as a teen-age hard thrower who soon got his “Mr. Smoke” nickname.

Bart Johnson, the free-spirited White Sox right-hander from Torrance, Calif. nicknamed “Mr. Smoke” for his 95 mph fastball, died April 22 in Palos Hills, Ill.  He suffered from complications from Parkinson’s disease, with which he was afflicted for a number of years.

The Sox’s No. 1 draft pick in 1968, Johnson, 70, spent 30 years with the organization – 12 as a player and 18 as a scout. He became a lifelong Chicago-area resident, making his home in southwest suburban Oak Lawn with his wife Nora.

The 6-foot-5 Johnson, whose birth name was Clair Barth Johnson, played his entire eight-year MLB career (1969-74, 1976-77) as a Sox, then scouted from 1980 to 1997, discovering future White Sox GM Kenny Williams, among others. He flirted briefly with coming out of retirement in 1985 at age 35 at the urging of Roland Hemond, then Sox GM.

For Sox fans, who had seen the franchise go from narrowly missing the pennant in 1967 to utter free-fall  in 1969-70 with talk of a franchise relocation,  the arrival of Johnson on the scene in late’69 as a 19 year-old provided hope. Johnson was followed to the majors by fellow home-grown  hard throwers in future Hall of Famer Goose Gossage and Terry Forester.

Johnson was touted as a future Nolan Ryan. For two seasons, (1971 and 1974) he was a budding star, but injuries shortened his promising career.

Before he had signed with the Sox after being scouted by George Norga and Doc Bennet, Johnson had considered a career in basketball as he was named to several high school All-America teams.

“I decided on baseball because I honestly thought I had the talent to become a Cy Young Award winner – in basketball, though, I wasn’t going to dominate, I’d just be a piece of the puzzle on a team in the NBA,” Johnson said in a 2006 interview with Sox historian Mark Liptak.

His athletic talent was such that UCLA head coach John Wooden recruited him. Johnson even thought he could play both pro baseball and basketball at the same time. In fact, he tried out twice for the Seattle SuperSonics.

After a solid 1971 campaign where he went 12-10 with a 2.93 ERA (10th best in the American League) and had back-to-back games with 12 strikeouts in September, Johnson sustained a knee injury in an off-season basketball game. He was limited to nine appearances in 1972, when the Sox nearly won the AL West behind the MVP season of Dick Allen.

At the 1972  Sox team reunion in June 2012 that was sponsored by the Chicago Baseball Museum, Johnson  recalled: “That year was very frustrating for me especially after my great year in 1971 and expectations were high with Goose making the team that year and Terry (Forster) having pitched well in his rookie year (1971).

“We lost the entire opening series of the 1972 strike-shortened season that opened in Kansas City on April 15.  We lost each game by one run. Two games went extra innings, and I  suffered two of the losses in relief, including the opener where we lost 2-1 in 11 innings.

“In less a time span of 18 hours I was 0-2 and was worried that I would be shipped down to the minors as I had hurt my right knee in the off-season playing basketball. I immediately told the Sox about it, and they examined me and said the knee was basically OK, but I did tear some cartilage. When I went out to pitch, I just couldn’t push off it. They wound up operating on my knee that September after having been sent down to the minors after getting my third loss to the Yankees in June.”

Fastball lost some zip

Fans and the media were unaware that Johnson was pitching hurt. ”Bart Johnson, the perplexing fastball expert who for unexplained reasons can no longer zip a fastball, surrendered eight runs in the 13th inning.” wrote Chicago Tribune beat writer George Langford in his lead paragraph in his June 14, 1972 story “Johnson Shelled, Sent Down.” Speculation around Johnson surfaced that he was afraid to hit batters after three times close pitches by him in 1971 ignited brawls. The incidents earned Johnson some notoriety as one of the “Fighting White Sox” that had been featured in 1972 Sox publicity material, upsetting the young pitcher.

At first, the 22 year-old Johnson resisted going down to the Sox Triple-A team in Tucson. He ended up going back to the Class A Midwest League Appleton Foxes, where in 1969 he went a stellar 16-4 with a 2.17 ERA and league-leading 200 strikeouts. However, he returned to Appleton to convert to an outfielder. A lifetime .215 MLB hitter (20 hits in 93 at-bats before the DH rule went into effect), Johnson hit .329 in helping the Foxes win a division championship.

“I always thought I could hit,” he told Liptak. “I had that confidence. I had no doubt I could hit well enough to get back to the majors as an outfielder. But the Sox were dead-set on me staying a pitcher. They told me that I’d never hit with enough power to be more then maybe a fourth outfielder

“I remember that night after I was told that I hit a ball in Appleton that went out of the park and was found in a church parking lot. That ball had to go around 450 feet. I had enough power; I also knew when I wasn’t being told the truth.”

Though he had hit well in 1972 with the Foxes and Double-A Knoxville Sox, the  big-league club wanted him back as pitcher, and so he underwent surgery on his knee.

In 1973, coming back from the operation, he only pitched in 22 games for the Sox. He pitched 80 innings, but struck out 56 strikeouts, showing some signs of regaining his old form.

His 1974 season started off with limited appearances in spring training in Sarasota, Fla. The Sox were going to ship him out to Des Moines to start the year in Triple A. He stormed out of camp.

“That did it,” Johnson said. “I knew when I was being hung out to dry. I said I wasn’t going and went home.”

He took a ticket salesman job with the Chicago Fire football team, a new entry in the short-lived World Football League while waiting for another tryout with the Seattle SuperSonics of the NBA in July 1974.

Sterling second-half in ‘74

“After a month, money and reality set in, and I reported back to the minor leagues,” he recalled. Johnson started to regain his form. By July 5, the Sox recalled Johnson to the majors. He was outstanding with a 10-4 record in 18 games and a 2.74 ERA.

Johnson thought he had turned the corner because he felt he “was more mature. I also had a more positive approach on the mound. I had gotten into doing what I could to help my chances; I started reading books on the power of positive thinking and taking a positive mental approach.”

Yet despite that great second half in 1974, he did not play at all in 1975 because he got hurt in a 1975 spring training game.

Bart Johnson in his mid-20s. He pitched through the "South Side Hitmen" season in 1977.

Bart Johnson in his mid-20s. He pitched through the “South Side Hitmen” season in 1977.

“We played the Reds in a game where it poured all day but they wanted to play the game because there were about 8,000 fans still in the stands,” Johnson recalled. “The field was a mud bath. I was pitching to Joe Morgan when my left leg slipped as I was throwing a pitch, my back jerked and I herniated a disk. It was the same injury that happened to Bill Melton in 1972.”

Johnson ended up in the hospital for 10 days in traction which did not help him.  He eventually had back surgery and  missed the entire 1975 season.

He was able to come back and pitch in 1976, throwing 211 innings for a 97-loss team. His last year was on the 1977 South Side Hitmen team — for whom he went 4-5 — that led the  American League West into August before falling off to a  third-place finish.

After a disappointing spring training in 1978, Johnson was released after a career 43-54 White Sox won-lost mark and 3.94 ERA. He signed with the Oakland A’s who shipped him out to their Triple-A team in Vancouver.

Johnson tried to get back with the White Sox in 1979, pitching in eight games in Des Moines for the Triple A team. Chuck Tanner, his former Sox manager, had moved on to the Pirates, where Johnson was granted a tryout. Pittsburgh shipped to him to the Mexican League, where he pitched in 1979 and 1980. At 30, his last pro season was at Osos Negros de Toluca in ’80.

Hemond brings Johnson back as scout

After that season, Hemond offered Johnson a scouting job, and he stayed with the White Sox to 1997. Later he scouted for the Tampa Bay Rays and Washington Nationals.

Johnson was part of the 2000 Olympic Baseball Team staff in the only Summer Games the American Team won the Gold Metal and earned him an Olympic Ring.

Johnson was a devoted Catholic and family man. When the CBM caught up with him in June 2012 at the ’72 Team reunion, his love of his family was evident. He was not bitter that he never became the next Nolan Ryan.  He wishes that he had received better medical treatment when he injured his knee in the off-season before the start of 1972.

Bart Johnson (No. 21) shakes Bill Melton’s hand at the 1972 Sox’s 40th anniversary reunion in 2012. Injuries to Johnson and home-run champion Melton likely cost the Sox the American League West title amid a close race with the Oakland Athletics.

Bart Johnson (No. 21) shakes Bill Melton’s hand at the 1972 Sox’s 40th anniversary reunion in 2012. Injuries to Johnson and home-run champion Melton likely cost the Sox the American League West title amid a close race with the Oakland Athletics.

He was beloved by his teammates. Hank Allen, Dick Allen’s brother and a member of ’72 White Sox, also had a long career in scouting. Of Johnson, he said:

“I have just learned with great sadness of the passing of my teammate and dear friend Bart Johnson. May I add my sincere sympathy to his family and many friends who have known him and admired for years.  I’ve had the honor and privilege to have known Bart as both an outstanding teammate and friend, and his loss will be felt by many, for a long time. To his family — true friends are ones who never leave your heart, even if they leave our lives for a while.”

On Twitter, former teammate and Sox broadcaster Steve Stone wrote: “His arm was as good as Goose Gossage’s arm. He was a great baseball scout and a fine human being.”

Jim Kaat, another teammate of Johnson, said: “Bart was an extremely talented athlete. Basketball and baseball. Bart did scouting after his playing days were over and I had the chance to have many conversations with him. He was a gentle soul. Condolences to his family.”

Johnson, Faust break in together

One person who was familiar with Bart Johnson his entire 30 years in the Sox organization was team organist Nancy Faust.

“He was one player that I knew about from day one (April 7, 1970 was Faust’s first game as Sox organist),” she said. “I felt a connection when, years later, I saw him regularly and on a first name basis as he’d scout from an area near my perch. A rare privilege. What a great guy he was. It really hit me hard to learn of his passing.”

“I know when I was first asked how the ‘walk-up song’ came about,  I was told (by top Sox honcho Stu Holcomb) to play a player’s state song. Bart Johnson is always the example that I give because he was from California and I played ‘California, Here We Come.’

“So I remember him vividly  from the very first day, and then to think years later he appeared again as he was scouting in the Nineties sitting right by the organ. He was just a real gentleman and pleasant. He called me by my first name.”

During the ’72 team reunion Johnson also talked about his struggles with Parkinson’s, a progressive neurological disease as well as his chronic back pain. He recalled his brief interview with Sandy Koufax in 1971, when the all-time southpaw was part of the NBC Game of the Week broadcast team. Johnson had been picked as the Player of the Game and he was heading  back to the locker room, when Koufax told him to throw his fastball more.

Looking at all his old teammates who came back to Guaranteed Rate Field 40 years later, he mused, “If Melton and I did not have those off-season injuries, we would have won the AL West in ‘72. And I would have thrown a lot of fastballs in the ‘72 ALCS.”

We don’t doubt Mr. Smoke.

RIP, Bart Johnson, who became a life-long South Sider.

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