From Kennedy School to the NY Yankees

Hello from the History Department.

In honor of the World Series, this week’s history post is about a NY Yankee who was also a Kennedy School alumnus: Don Johnson. (No, not that Don Johnson of Miami Vice, but this one of Portland….)

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“I was no superstar, but I played with the best players who ever lived,” Johnson recalled at Old-Timers’ Day in 2010, referring to Yankees teammates who included Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Tommy Henrich.  “Joe DiMaggio liked me. He took me under his wing. He said, ‘Stay off the booze and away from the broads.’ ” Johnson was asked if he took the advice. “Hell, no,” he said. – The New York Times, 2/27/15

Don Johnson was a bright kid of the Depression Era, even skipped a grade at Kennedy School because he did so well with his studies. Painfully shy, though, he ws embarrassed to talk in front of people in class, especially the girls, because of a childhood stutter.

Baseball became Don’s escape and ambition. When not in school, he’d play ball in a vacant lot with friends. Then at night, Don could often be found hurling a ball down his basement stairwell, sometimes until 4 o’clock in the morning, daydreaming about being the next fire-balling Major League pitcher like his idol, Bob Feller, the Cleveland Indians ace. And quickly it became evident that the boy truly possessed amazing, raw talent.

Home support for Don’s dream, however, was not forthcoming. Gus, Don’s dad, “was a tough old Swede” who sneered at the thought of his son playing baseball as a profession. His mom was more compassionate, but still didn’t hold out much faith in baseball as a career.

Someone who did help Don foster his Major League aspirations was Kennedy’s beloved janitor, Steve Hutton. A Scotsman, Steve was much more familiar with soccer, but was happy to play toss with Don, offer encouragement, and (best of all) attend his games, something his parents never did.

As a 7th grader at Kennedy, Don’s pitching beat the school’s undefeated 8th graders. In Legion ball, at age 15 in 1943, he threw six no-hitters, three in a row for the Albina Little Hellships—an astounding feat that may never be bettered. The next year, while a sophomore at Jefferson High, the New York Yankees signed him to a contract. In the 1947 photo shown, he was just 18 years old.

Remarkably, Don went on to play 16 years of professional baseball. A journeyman, he spent seven years in the big leagues on the rosters of some of the period’s best teams and some of the worst. He suffered through bad seasons when the stands would be all but empty but also played in sold-out World Championships, posting some great numbers along the way.

Don didn’t make it into the Hall of Fame and in the days before big salaries and multi-million-dollar shoe endorsements, he didn’t make a fortune either. But he was rich with memories of amazing, hilarious, and unbelievable exploits he shared with some of baseball’s biggest characters and greatest legends—pitching duels against Satchel Paige and Fidel Castro; playing alongside and befriending Yankee greats Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Joe DiMaggio; hitchhiking across the country with Billy Martin; never giving up a homerun to Ted Williams; wearing a World Championship ring on his finger. All of which amounted to a schoolboy’s dream realized.

We invited him back to Kennedy School in 2014 (shown here), in which McMenamins historian Tim Hills interviewed him on stage about his remarkable career.

For more about Don Johnson, read his full New York Times obituary here: https://nyti.ms/2BPQfOe

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