SABR

Johnny Lewis

This article was written by John Stahl.

Standing 6-feet-1 and weighing 189 pounds, young Johnny Lewis had all the raw tools necessary to become a baseball star. Lewis could run, throw, field, and hit both for average and power. St. Louis Cardinals manager Johnny Keane once described the left-handed-hitting Lewis as “one of the few five-point players I have ever seen,” and compared him to Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Roberto Clemente.

Overcoming a 1961 family tragedy, Lewis played in 40 games for the 1964 Cardinals and spent three seasons with the New York Mets, completing four years in the major leagues. After his playing career he worked as a baseball front-office executive, a major-league hitting coach, a minor-league manager, and a minor-league hitting instructor.

Johnny Joe Lewis was born on August 10, 1939, in Greenville, Alabama. When he was an infant, his family moved to Pensacola, Florida, where Johnny starred in football, baseball, and basketball for Washington High School. He attended Washington Junior College. According to Baseball-Reference.com, he signed with the Detroit Tigers before the 1959 season, then was sent by the Tigers to the Cardinals “in an unknown transaction.”  

Lewis played for three Cardinals Class D farm teams in his first season: Wytheville (Appalachian League), Keokuk (Midwest League) and Hobbs (Sophomore League) He spent most of the season at Wytheville, where he hit .306 and was named to the league all-star team. The Cardinals promoted him in 1960 to Winnipeg in the Class C Northern League, where he played for former major-leaguer Whitey Kurowski. Lewis had his best season in professional baseball there. He batted .299, led the league in home runs (23), total bases (247), and RBIs (104), and again made the all-star team. Kurowski and Lewis both moved up to Tulsa in the Double-A Texas League in 1961, where Johnny hit a solid .291, led the league in walks (96), was second in home runs (22), and made the league all-star team for the third season in a row. To earn extra income for his family, Lewis played winter baseball in Venezuela.

During his absence the 22-year-old Lewis suffered a major family tragedy; his wife was killed in a car accident, leaving him with two infant sons, Jeremiah and Johnny Jr., to raise. Johnny’s mother took the two young boys so he could continue his baseball career.1

In 1962 Lewis got off to a very slow start with Atlanta in the Triple-A International League. After 41 games his batting average was just .178. The Cardinals sent him back to Tulsa, where he rebounded strongly under Kurowski. He finished at Tulsa with a solid .293 batting average and 18 home runs in 85 games. He returned to Atlanta in 1963 and had a good year, hitting .280 in 136 games.

During the Cardinals’ 1964 spring training, Lewis was clearly one of the best young players in camp. He hit .333 and showed tremendous speed and potentially awesome power. The Cardinals took notice. Assessing Lewis’s spring performance, team vice president Stan Musial liked what he saw. “Johnny doesn’t have to hit a ton to help,” said Musial, “because he’s fast on the bases, an alert runner, and a good defensive outfielder with a pretty strong throwing arm. I’m sure he’ll hit enough and even if he doesn’t hit many home runs—few young players do—he’ll hit with enough power.”2

Teammate Ken Boyer hoped the Cardinals would nurture the young player, saying: “The kid should be a good player. I just hope they don’t expect him to break down the fences the first few years.”3 First baseman Bill White volunteered to room with Lewis on the road and school him on the opposing pitchers.

After nearly winning the 1963 National League pennant, finishing in second place behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cardinals needed to quickly regain their momentum in 1964. Lewis’s strong spring-training performance raised his expectations and those of the Cardinals. His first start came in Los Angeles against Don Drysdale on April 15. In four at-bats, he got his first hit and scored his first run. Four days later, against San Francisco, he hit his first major-league home run. Lewis started 20 of the team’s first 25 games. On May 10 he was batting .275.

On May 27 Lewis was struck out four times in a row by the Giants’ Juan Marichal in St. Louis. After that his batting average began a slow but steady decline. His hitting problems were compounded when he suffered a severe ankle injury while playing against San Francisco. On June 11 the Cardinals sent Lewis to Triple-A Jacksonville, where his batting woes continued. In his first 94 at-bats he hit .234 with 22 hits, two home runs, 13 walks, and 23 strikeouts. Meanwhile the Cardinals traded for Lou Brock, who went on to stardom in 1964.

According to The Sporting News, in early August the Cardinals discovered that Lewis had actually suffered a hairline fracture of his left ankle in late May.4 At Jacksonville he wound up hitting .262 in 72 games as the team won the International League pennant. In mid-September Lewis and 11 other minor leaguers were called up by the Cardinals, but he didn’t get off the bench as the Cardinals fought for the pennant, and after they won it he was ineligible to play in the World Series. When the team divided its winning World Series shares, Lewis was awarded a half share ($4,311.99).

At the start of the Cardinals’ fall 1964 East Coast Instructional League, Lewis remained the Cardinals’ “best young outfield prospect.” They tried to make him a switch hitter bit it didn’t work out.5 On December 7 the Cardinals traded Lewis and pitcher Gordon Richardson to the New York Mets for pitcher Tracy Stallard and minor-league infielder Elio Chacon.

Reflecting a year later on his 1964 Cardinals season, Lewis said he believed his performance was directly related to the pennant-race environment. “Playing with the Cardinals, it was a case of making good instantly or you were gone,” he said. “I don’t blame them for that. They were pennant contenders and they couldn’t afford to wait. But for me it meant that I always was more conscious of making mistakes. I couldn’t take chances. I was constantly tight.” 6

Although the 1964 Mets had been one of the worst teams in history, Lewis viewed his trade as a positive career opportunity. “With (the Mets) I can be relaxed,” he said. “They can let me develop. I don’t have to worry about each and every play. If I make a mistake, I can try to do better the next time.” 7

Unfortunately for Lewis, the 1965 Mets again finished last (50-112), 47 games out of first place. The team tumbled into last place on May 28 and never left, spending its last 122 games season in the cellar. Wes Westrum replaced the 74-year-old Casey Stengel as the manager after 96 games.

The Mets as a team may have been atrocious, but Lewis had his best season in the major leagues. Playing in 148 games, the most in his major-league career, he hit .245 with 15 home runs and led the Mets in runs, walks, and on-base percentage. He posted a .975 fielding average while playing the most innings of any Mets outfielder (1,127). He led Mets outfielders in assists and putouts, while splitting his playing time between center field (383 innings) and right field (744 innings).

Primarily playing right field and usually hitting near the top of the batting order, Lewis started strong and finished April with a .288 average. He also played exceptional defense. In three consecutive games in the first week of the season, he threw out baserunners at second, third, and home. The out at home plate, on April 15, was part of a triple play.8 With runners on first and third, Jim Wynn hit a fly ball that Lewis grabbed in medium right field. His one-bounce throw nailed Walt Bond at the plate, then catcher Chris Cannizzaro threw to shortstop Roy McMillan, who tagged out Bob Aspromonte at second to complete the triple play.

On June 14 at Cincinnati, Lewis hit a towering home run in the 11th inning to spoil Jim Maloney’s bid for a no-hit game. Overpowering throughout, Maloney struck out 18 Mets, including Lewis three times. Facing him at the start of the 11th inning, Maloney attempted to throw a fastball inside but got it a little too far over the plate. Lewis crushed it for a home run to dead center, and the Mets won the game, 1-0.9

Asked about his game-winning blast, Johnny redirected the spotlight to Maloney’s outstanding performance. “He did get the ball out over the plate on me,” Lewis said, “but I want to tell you I’m not sure I saw the pitch. All I know is that it was a fastball. In my entire career, I never saw any fastballs like he threw in this game.” 10

Lewis his .242 in May and .222 in June. After a strong July (.312), he slumped again in August (.191). Concluding that the reason for his slumps was his inability to clearly see certain pitches, the Mets in early August told him to begin wearing eyeglasses. The glasses helped a little bit as he hit .242 in September.

Lewis had a busy offseason after the 1965 campaign. Shortly after the season he married again (June) in Pensacola, Florida, and moved his family to New York.11 In early 1966 he sought a 100 percent raise from his 1965 salary (estimated at $10,000). In late February he settled with the Mets for a reported $15, 000.12

During 1966 spring training, the Mets concluded that Lewis’s hitting problems might be due not to eyesight but to his batting stance. In 1965 he had unconsciously begun closing his batting stance, allowing his shoulder to effectively block his view of inside breaking pitches. Lewis experimented with new batting stances throughout the spring.13 He again got off to a good start, hitting.292 in April. He slumped badly in May (.179) and June (.203). On June 30 his batting average was .209. On July 7 the Mets sent Lewis to Jacksonville, by then a New York farm team. At the time the Mets stood in ninth place (35-44), 14½ games out of first place and well on their way to losing 95 games. Lewis reportedly was “bitterly disappointed” and publicly expressed his frustration. “I had more homers and runs batted in than the Mets’ four other outfielders,” he said. “I only played when someone was hurt but I was always in there against the top pitchers. If (manager Wes Westrum) had something against me, or if I had done something wrong, I’d understand. I must say I didn’t get a fair shake by the Mets. But I’ll give them 100 percent.”14

Reporting to Jacksonville, Lewis played in 71 games, hitting .284 with 13 home runs. In September the Mets brought him back to the major leagues, where he played in 13 games and finished the year. For the season he hit.193 in 65 games for the Mets.

Lewis started the 1967 season with the Mets but played in only 13 games before being sent to Jacksonville. Those 13 games were his last in the major leagues. Lewis’s four-year major-league career totals were 175 hits in 771 at-bats (.227), 74 RBIs, 22 home runs, 95 walks, and 194 strikeouts.

At Jacksonville in 1967 Lewis played in 103 games and hit only .218. A freak accident in early August didn’t help. As Lewis sat in the dugout, an opposing first baseman crashed into him when he fell into the dugout while chasing a popup. Lewis’s face was badly cut and three teeth were knocked out.15

The 1968 season was Lewis’s last as a player. With a Philadelphia Phillies farm team, the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League, he played in 123 games and hit .270 with 16 home runs. (The Padres became a major-league team the next season.)

After retiring as a player, Lewis had a long career in front-office and coaching positions. In December 1969 the Cardinals appointed him assistant sales and promotions director. In 1971 General Manager Bing Devine made Lewis the Cardinals’ administrative coordinator of player development and scouting. In 1971 Johnny and June had their third child, Leslie.16

In April 1973 Devine made Lewis the Cardinals’ first black coach, noting. “Lewis has always been a good man for the organization and seems to be better oriented to a field position.”17 Lewis was the first-base coach under manager Red Schoendienst through 1976.

From 1985 through 1989, Lewis was the Cardinals’ hitting coach under manager Whitey Herzog.18 He also was a minor-league manager (Calgary and Gastonia) for the Cardinals.19 From 1999 through 2001, he was the minor-league hitting coordinator for the Houston Astros before being named the team’s hitting instructor.

As of August 2011, Lewis lived in retirement in Cantonment, Florida.

 

Notes

1 Milton Gross, “Cardinals’ Johnny Lewis: He Remembers Tragedy,” Des Moines Register, April 14, 1964, 30.

2 Bob Broeg, “Lewis Listens to Stan,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in Johnny Lewis player file, National Baseball Hall of Fame.

3 Jack Herman, “Cardinals Dust Off ‘Oh, Johnny’ Lyrics, Croon ‘Em for Lewis,” unattributed clipping in Johnny Lewis Hall of Fame player file.

4 “Fracture Idles Suns’ Lewis,” The Sporting News, August 12, 1964.

5 The Sporting News, November 21 and 28, 1964.

6 Barney Kremenko, “Lewis Forecast: Less Pressure, More Base-Hits,” The Sporting News,

January 9, 1965.

7 Ibid.

8 “Lewis Uncorks Rifle Throws,” The Sporting News, May 1, 1965; “Mets’ Lewis Belongs,” Johnny Lewis Hall of Fame player file.

9 Til Ferdenzi, “Funny Mets No Joke to Maloney,” unattributed clipping, Johnny Lewis Hall of Fame player file.

10 Ibid.

11 The Sporting News, October 30 and November 23, 1965.

12 Larry Fox, “Foster, Lewis Derail Mets’ Salary Express,” and “Lewis Agrees to 15 G,” Johnny Lewis

Hall of Fame player file.

13 “New Stance For Lewis,” The Sporting News, Johnny Lewis Hall of Fame player file.

14 “Lewis Joins Suns, Irked By Demotion,” unattributed clipping, Johnny Lewis Hall of Fame player file.

15 “Buffs Win Twinbill From Suns,”, Port Arthur (Texas) News, August 15, 1967.

16 Cardinals press releases, December 23, 1969, and December 8, 1971, Johnny Lewis Hall of Fame player file.

17 “Lewis Back In Uniform,” unattributed clipping, Johnny Lewis Hall of Fame player file.

18 “Cards Demote Batting Coach,” unattributed clipping, Johnny Lewis Hall of Fame player file.

19 “Johnny Lewis Calgary,” unattributed clipping, Johnny Lewis Hall of Fame player file.

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