Catching Up With Former Yankee Johnny James
If there is anything more difficult in baseball than making it to the major leagues, it is making the roster of a successful team. Thus imagine the upward climb that pitcher Johnny James had as he worked his way through the New York Yankees farm system in the 1950’s, the golden age of the game’s signature franchise.
James, a slight righty, was signed by the Yankees in 1953 out of the University of Southern California. In his first two professional seasons, he won 14 and 11 games, but was not close to making the powerhouse Yankees. Not only was James facing the many star pitchers on the New York staff, but the profile and resources of the team allowed them to keep their minor leagues stocked with top-end talent.
The road to the majors started to get a little clearer when the Yankees turned James into a reliever during the 1955 season. He continued to have success, winning 10, 11, 8, and 8 games, pitching primarily out of the bullpen. Finally, his success could not be ignored by the Yankees, who if they had one weak area, it was their relievers.
In 1958 they Yankees had Virgil Trucks, Sal Maglie, and Murray Dickson, all wonderful pitchers, working out of the bullpen. The downside was that each member of the trio was 41 and no longer as effective as they had been in their youth. One of the young players who was brought up that year to see if they could plug the bullpen gaps was James. His debut was his only major league game of the year. He pitched the final three innings of a loss to the Washington Senators, and recorded his first strikeout, getting slugger Roy Sievers.
James never got a chance to be on the Yankees’ roster for a full season, but did appear in a total of 29 games in 1960-1961, posting an impressive 5-1 record with 2 saves. He was traded to the Angels in May of 1961 in a deal that brought back popular, but washed up Bob Cerv.
The expansion Angels did not prove to be the opportunity that James needed, and after pitching all of 1962 in the minors, he hung up his spikes for good. He appeared in a total of 66 major league games during his career, with a 5-3 record and 4.76 ERA. He struggled at times with his control, as evidenced by his 73 strikeouts and 84 walks in 119 innings. More information about his career statistics is available at http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/j/jamesjo01.shtml.
In speaking with John “Johnny” Phillip James, I found a man who was extremely happy with his lot in life. I am sure he would have enjoyed a little more time in the majors, but he also accomplished quite a bit just by making it there. He still has many fond memories of his career in baseball, which he recently shared with me.
Johnny James Interview:
What was your experience like when you signed with the Yankees?: Back in those days, you’re probably aware that there wasn’t a draft. You could sign with any scout you wanted to or sign with any team you wanted to.
I was going to USC at the time and the USC baseball coach was a close friend of Casey Stengel, and he was kind of scouting the area for the Yankees. When I told him that I wanted to go play pro ball…. He never told me this, I am assuming this is what happened; he got a hold of the Yankee scout and had him come over and make me an offer. I also had an interest from the Dodgers, and the St. Louis Browns. But I always wanted to play for the Yankees, so when the Yankee scout came over, I signed and got a $1,500 bonus spread out over two years. I was not a sought after prospect; I only weighted about 140 pounds at the time, and was only 5’10, so I was anxious to get out and start playing.
What type of pitches did you throw?: I had a good arm. My fastball ran in to right-handed hitters, with sink. After playing three or four years, I picked up a slider, which gave me a breaking pitch I could throw for strikes. I couldn’t consistently throw my curveball for strikes. I could throw pretty hard. I think anybody who saw me play back in those days, if you were to ask them, would say that I threw really hard for a person my size.
What was the strangest play you ever saw?: In my first year of C-ball we had an outfielder who was bald and he was sensitive about it. Chasing a fly ball one day, he crashed into the wall, along with the ball. The ball went one way and his hat the other. He chased the hat down first and put it on and then got the ball.
Another case of a right fielder was in Triple-A ball; we had an ex-major leaguer playing right field. Where he lived in Richmond, it had rained all day, but not at the ball park, which he didn’t know. He decided it would be a good day to have a few beers before he went to the park, where he assumed the game would be called off, which of course it wasn’t. In the first inning a fly ball was hit to right field where it hit him on the head and went for a triple.
How were you treated while you were on some of the great Yankee teams (1958 and 1960-61)?: The players were like any other people. They were in a market that gave them a lot of attention, but even to this day, if I run into any of them, which I have, they have a credo of ‘once a Yankee, always a Yankee.’ They treated me like one of them. I was a long way from having the kind of success that a lot of them had.
In 1960 I was doing pretty well. I was 5-1 and had pitched in more games than any other pitcher. Casey comes with a left-handed pitcher who was playing down in Richmond, named Billy Short. He called me into the office after I had pitched the last four innings of a game against the White Sox, and sent me back to Richmond. I had an option left in my contract. The guys told me he didn’t really want to send me back, he wanted to get rid of Duke Maas, but Casey had a thing about, a fear I should say, about giving up a player who might be picked up by another team in the American League, and the possibility of hurting the Yankees later on.
Since they had an option on my contract, they didn’t have to ask waivers on me. They sent me back, which really kind of broke my heart, and I didn’t really react to it very well.
Who was your favorite coach or manager?: That would be Eddie Lopat, who was my manager for two years in Richmond, and pitching coach one year in New York. He was the only one in 10 years of pro ball who tried to teach me how to pitch. We did not get good coaching at any level of baseball in those days, including the Yankees. No minor league roving hitting or pitching coaches like they have today. I’m talking strictly pitching coaches with the Yankees.
What was Freddie Fitzsimmons like as a manager?: That’s a tough question to answer. ‘Fat Freddie’ as he was known as, didn’t like guys from California, and I was from California; Hollywood, California. I was playing for him for a little while and I was doing well, and so he kind of loosened up towards me.
I would say he was a typical old timer from the era; the ’30s and ’40s. He was kind of tough and rough and no fooling around. He was a good baseball guy and it was fun to play for someone like that because when you were in your teens growing up, and read a lot of books about baseball, those guys from that era were really tough people. I enjoyed playing for him.
What modern player reminds you the most of players from your era?: There would be several, but my favorite of recent vintage would be Andy Van Slyke. He never wore batting gloves, wrist bands, or other modern accouterments. He played the game right.
If you could do anything differently about your career, what would that be?: I would work on a change up more as well as control. Lift weights. Think more about how to pitch. For the most part I was a “thrower” not a pitcher.
What have you been up to since you stopped playing?: After playing minor league ball… And of course we had to work in the off-season to make some money. I lived in southern California and there was a department store chain there called Broadway. I got a job one winter working for Broadway and every year thereafter they kept a job open for me; a lower management position. When I left baseball, I went on their major training program and had a successful career with them, and ended up managing stores. They transferred me from southern California to the Phoenix area in the late ’60’s.
About the mid-’70’s I got tired of the retail business and went to a local shopping center developer, and ended up managing shopping centers and became the vice president of management. I had a great career and was very fortunate in later life. I did well in terms of a job, so I was able to support my family.
Andrew Martin is the founder of “The Baseball Historian” blog where he posts his thoughts about baseball on a regular basis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach him on Twitter at @historianandrew.