Book excerpt: Manley Johnston, the first two-way superstar of the ‘modern’ Southern League

“Never a Bad Game,” which chronicled the first 50 years of the Southern League, has been updated and re-released. (Ordering information below). Over the coming weeks, I’ll present excerpts from 10 of my favorites of the 50 stories told in the book.

Manley Johnston, a towering figure with a huge, strong right hand that could smother a baseball, looked back at the 1964 season, the first year of the modern era of the Southern League.

“Some years things go for you and some don’t. It seemed like everything that year went my way,” he said.

Johnston won 20 games for the Lynchburg, Va., club. No pitcher has won 20 since; in fact, between 1991 and 2013, only two pitchers even surpassed the 15-win total. He led the league with a 2.46 ERA. He started 29 games and twice pitched in relief, throwing 227 innings. What brought equal pride was his hitting. He batted .292, had seven homers – two in one game – and drove in 30 runs.

And, the capper, the White Sox edged Birmingham by one game for the pennant, and Johnston had five wins over the Barons in ’64. Groused Barons manager Haywood Sullivan, who was raised only a few miles from Johnston, “If it hadn’t been for (Johnston), we’d have won easily.”

Johnston grew up in Ashford, Ala,, just outside of Dothan. His dad always called him “Hot Shot” and when a classmate heard it, the nickname stuck. “Somehow,” Johnston said, “the ‘Hot’ got dropped.” He earned a scholarship to play baseball and basketball at Auburn, playing there two years, first on the freshman teams, then the varsity. Auburn won the 1958 Southeastern Conference baseball championship and one of Johnston’s teammates was Lloyd Nix, who had quarterbacked the Tigers to the national football title the previous fall.

Truth be told, “I really loved basketball better than baseball. I thought I was a better basketball player,” Johnston said. But after watching him in a summer baseball league, the Chicago White Sox dangled a $50,000 contract. He signed, then bought a brand new white Chevrolet Impala and banked the rest. “I never had any money,” he said, “so I didn’t know how to spend it.”

Johnston was signed to play outfield. He hit .352 with 18 homers his first full season in 1959, then had 26 homers and 105 RBIs the next year. Finally, in 1962, the White Sox opted to make him a pitcher. He learned an effective slider in spring training and they sent him to Class A Savannah, on a team that included future big leaguers like J.C. Martin and Don Buford and future NBA star Dave DeBusschere. There he won seven games in a row, then took the mound in search of No. 8. It would be an audition, he was told. Win this, you’re headed to Chicago. Instead, Portsmouth-Norfolk lit him up.  “I couldn’t get ‘em out,” he said. “Maybe it was the pressure, knowing I was going up.”

He spent 1963 as a pitcher and part-time outfielder at Lynchburg and Class AAA Indianapolis, setting the stage for his unmatched 1964 season. But after two more seasons in Triple-A, the innings had taken their toll. He had started 139 games and completed 130 of them.  His arm was constantly sore and Johnston “questioned my arm being good enough to pitch in the majors.” So did the scouts. By then he was 25 and raising a young family. He retired to Dothan, working at a paper mill, then getting involved in real estate.

“All I’d ever done is play ball,” he said. “I didn’t know anything but ball. Once you get out of baseball and get an 8-to-5 job, you can never get used to it. It’d have been best if I stayed in sports.”

To order a personalized copy of Never a Bad Game, email markfmccarter@gmail.com and provide an address, and we’ll bill $22 via PayPal or Venmo (postage included). Or send check or cash to me at 604 Vance Road SW, Huntsville, AL 35801.

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