Starkey: Little-known Johnston Pittsburgh’s answer to Bo, Deion
Within minutes, the Tim Tebow-tries-baseball story took me down the rabbit hole of two-sport professional athletes.
Who was the best? (Jim Thorpe, probably, but I’ll take Bo Jackson).
Who played the longest?
Did anyone outdo Deion Sanders, who played a football and baseball game in the same 24 hours?
And what about Pittsburgh? Were there any two-sport pro athletes here? That led me to Rex Johnston, whose name appears on a Trivial Pursuit card.
Question: Who is the only man to play for the Steelers and the Pirates?
The 6-foot-1, 202-pound Johnston appeared in 12 games for the 1960 Steelers, who played at Forbes Field. He returned kicks and punts and carried the ball four times for 12 yards.
He appeared in 14 games for the 1964 Pirates, all in the outfield, and went 0 for 7 with a run scored. He crossed home plate May 10, 1964, in the second game of a doubleheader at Forbes Field against Hank Aaron and the Milwaukee Braves. Roberto Clemente brought him home with a single.
A bout with hepatitis C and his father’s death from prostate cancer — somebody now needed to run the family business — put a premature end to Johnston’s sports career.
Now 79 and living in Long Beach, Calif., Johnston finally is slowing down. He had to give up golf a few years ago. He can’t jog anymore. And his gregarious, 59-year-old wife Sandy tells me to speak slowly into the phone when I ask him questions.
She also tells me Rex scored the winning run for USC in the 1958 College World Series (indeed, he led off the 12th against Missouri with an infield single and came around), still owns the industrial paint company he inherited from his father, helps run the USC Marching Band tailgate parties, has three sons, a daughter and grandchildren, keeps having to get “parts replaced” on his aging body, is headed for an ablation heart procedure next month and is, in general, “very modest.” And good-looking.
“Did you get a word in edgewise?” Rex wonders as he takes the phone.
Our time is short. I have many questions.
How does he look back on his brief time in Pittsburgh?
“I loved it,” he says. “It all happened so quick. It was amazing. Do you know why it happened, how it happened?”
This leads to the tale of him rising through the Pirates ranks with the likes of Steve Blass (“Tell Steve I said hello”) and Willie Stargell after Johnston signed as an amateur free agent in 1959.
“We were all up in North Dakota in the Northern League, and I was hitting less than my weight, and all of a sudden, these bird dogs from football come sniffing around, saying, ‘You’re not going to make it in baseball, why not sign a football contract?’ ” recalls Johnston, who played both sports at USC. “Well, the Pirates gave me a pretty good bonus (around $40,000) to sign, and I can remember it like it was yesterday: I called Branch Rickey Jr., who was the head of the farm system, and I said, ‘These scouts for football want me to play for the Steelers.’ He says, ‘Rex, I look at your stats every day. If you got something else to do, you better do it.’
“I said, ‘Will I still get my bonus?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ So I signed with the Steelers.”
Then a funny thing happened: Johnston started to hit like crazy. Steelers owner Art Rooney let him finish the baseball season in North Dakota. He had a week to make the Steelers roster. He did — but he was stuck at running back behind the great John Henry Johnson and Tom “The Bomb” Tracy.
That drove Johnston back to baseball, where he would encounter the likes of Mickey Mantle. He’ll never forget a ball Mantle hit at him during spring training.
“I think about this a lot,” he says. “He hit a line drive right at me, and I went three steps forward, and it went out of the ballpark! I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me!’ It just kept rising. I was in center field. He was limping around the bases. I could only imagine what he was like when he was healthy.”
I asked Johnston for a thought on some other legendary figures he encountered …
• Clemente: “Best bad-ball hitter I’ve ever seen. (Laughs heartily) The ball would be at his chin or above and he’d hit the damn thing out of the ballpark. He was unorthodox, too. He threw underhand further than I could throw overhand. He was quite a guy.”
• Willie Stargell: “We went through the whole program together. I taught him how to catch a pop-up. When he started hitting the baseball — I’ve never seen anybody hit it farther.”
• Art Rooney: “He would see me at (Steelers) headquarters at the (downtown) Roosevelt Hotel and say, ‘Kid, come here!’ and he would want to talk about sandlot baseball. He’d show you all his photos. He didn’t want to talk football. He wanted to talk baseball.”
• Bobby Layne (quarterback of 1960 Steelers): “(Laughs) I was wondering when you were going to mention him. He was one of a kind. Tough as nails. His shoulder pads had almost no protection. He didn’t even wear his hip pads. He did like the booze, I’ll tell you. I remember asking the guy next me out of the huddle when I first got there, ‘What the (heck’s) that smell?’ He starts laughing and says, ‘That’s Lane’s breath.’ He was a great guy, though. If he liked you, he gave you everything.”
Johnston was with the Steelers, at the Roosevelt Hotel, when Bill Mazeroski hit his World Series-winning home run in 1960.
“Oh, that was unbelievable,” he says. “I had to recuperate from that. I walked out of the hotel to go to a party, and I was kissed two or three times. The whole town went crazy. It was that way for three days. People just got out of cars and left ’em on bridges. Have you ever seen the pictures of it?”
Turns out Johnston, a California native, returned to Pittsburgh only once, about a decade ago on his way to see friend Ron Yary get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He doesn’t follow pro sports much — “He calls them the funny papers of life,” Sandy tells me — but does take note of them every now again.
“Whenever I hear of the Pirates or Steelers,” Johnston says. “I perk up.”
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at email@example.com.