Local man fondly recalls his baseball career

At 89, Clayton Johnson of Marshalltown is lean and trim.

The Coon Rapids native, who grew up in a baseball family, looks like he could still whip a baseball “around the horn” play a keen game of Pepper, or turn a double play.

A thick scrapbook, started by his late mother, is crammed full of black and white photos mixed in with yellowed copies of of old sports pages with baseball stories and box scores, tells part, but not all of his career.

“Johnson made what was acclaimed by many as the best play of the season here, a dashing catch of a fly ball in left field,” was recounted in a Sept. 7, 1949 edition of the Des Moines Tribune.

“I won a sport coat for making that play,” Johnson said.

He never made it to the major leagues, but played with and against major leaguers during his career and held his own.

Some are Hall of Famers and others not: Don Black, Dizzy Dean, Sammy Esposito, Jim Fanning, Bob Feller, Dusty Rhodes and Birdie Tebbets.

As the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals controls the national sports stage, Johnson took time at his Marshalltown home Friday to reflect back on his time as a shortstop in the Chicago Cubs system.

Joining him was Jean Johnson, his wife of 63 years and his biggest fan.

The two, proud members of “America’s Greatest Generation” had fun while they turned back the clock in their kitchen to a time when baseball was king, players had nicknames like Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, Main Streets were full of businesses and many an Iowa town had a local baseball team that locals followed with passion.

Coon Rapids was one.

“Coon Rapids was one of the first towns to have lights installed at the baseball field,” Clayton said.

He recalled the “all Johnson infield” where he played second base, his father was catcher, and late brothers Thurman, Lloyd and Harold played third, shortstop and first.

He took time to include his late sister Helen, who didn’t play baseball, but excelled in other sports.

And it was on ball fields of Coon Rapids and later at Iowa State, where Clayton played for the legendary Cap Timm and learned his craft.

World War II became a chapter in Clayton’s scrapbook too, as he was an aerial photographer from 1942-46.

But there was time for baseball.

He tried out for the Dallas Naval Air Station baseball team.

“It was hard making the team, because they all were officers,” he said. “But I was determined. They hit ground balls to me until I was blue in the face. I made the team the next day.”

Clayton attributed his success to support from his family, practice and training.

“I didn’t chew, drink, smoke, or stay out late at night,” he said. “I would run in the country and climb trees to gain strength.”

He was scouted and signed in 1948 at age 24, by Jack Sheehan, a Chicago Cubs scout.

His professional career was underway in 1949, where he completed spring training in Florida.

Clayton was then assigned to Cubs minor league team Decatur, Ill., where he hit .247 in 26 games.

“I was told I would earn a bonus if I stayed with the team 30 days,” he said. “I stayed 31 and earned my bonus, $500. Then, I was sent to Sioux Falls (S.D.).”

He had more success at Sioux Falls, hitting .285 in 77 games.

A sprain is supposed to be worse than a break, it is said, but Clayton discovered it had benefits.

The injury happened while chasing down a ball and yet it yielded his biggest baseball prize, wife Jean.

“Clayton played sports since he was able to walk,” Jean said. ” And he never had an injury. But in Sioux Falls they had a cinder track around the baseball field, and that is where he sprained his ankle.”

Jean, a Sioux Falls native, worked nights at the airport but spent her days at the swimming pool which adjoined the ball diamond.

And Clayton went to the pool to recuperate.

“I guess I flirted with him, or he flirted with me,” Jean said.

The two were married in 1950.

Clayton was then assigned to Des Moines that year and played under Bruins’ manager Charlie Root.

He fondly recalled meeting the Des Moines Register’s famed sports writer, Sec Taylor.

Clayton also played for another Cubs’ affiliate the Los Angeles Angels, in the AAA Pacific Coast League, where he was paid $650 a month.

He was sent back to Des Moines, where the minor-leaguers played the major league Cubs three times and won them all.

After his professional career, Clayton played semi-pro baseball and completed his education at Iowa State.

The couple moved to Marshalltown in 1963, and Clayton coached a local team.

“Mike Moehrl and Dave Stegman were outstanding players,” he said.

Clayton and Jean attend about one game a year in Des Moines, they said.

He was a celebrity there several years ago, being given the honor of throwing out the first pitch at a game in which Marshalltown native Jeff Clement, then with a Seattle Mariners AAA affiliate, played.

The conversation returned to the World Series and Clayton thinks it will go seven games.

Clayton did not hesitate in describing his biggest thrills in playing baseball from youth to professional.

“Every game,” he said.