Fleeting fame of the last man to play for Pirates and Steelers

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You think you have trouble moving up in your job? Consider Rex Johnston, the only man to play for both the Pirates and Steelers.

In 1960, when Johnston joined the Steelers as a running back, those jobs were taken by future Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson and Pro Bowler Tom Tracy.

Four years later, when Johnston made the Pirates as an outfielder, the starting jobs were taken by Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente and Bill Virdon, two future Hall of Famers and one of the great defensive center fielders of his era. The fourth outfielder was Manny Mota, who could hit in his sleep.

So Johnston's careers in the NFL and major leagues lasted no longer than a bug's life. Yet in this, the 72nd summer in which pro football and baseball teams have shared the spotlight in Pittsburgh, Johnston remains the only guy to suit up for both.

I punched Johnston's name into an Internet search after hearing about him from Harry Patterson, who is to Pittsburgh sports trivia what Albert Einstein was to theoretical physics. Johnston ran the ball four times for the Steelers in 1960, gaining 12 yards. He came to plate 10 times for the Pirates in 1964, reaching base three times, all on walks. His major-league career lasted 26 days.

I tracked him down in his native Southern California. Johnston, 66, picked up the phone at the industrial painting company he owns in Paramount. He went into his father's business after giving up baseball in 1966, and intends to pass it on to his own children. But he took some time from his work to be as gracious as any trivia answer could ever be.

It seems Johnston's unique journey began conventionally enough. After graduation from the University of Southern California, he signed a contract with the Pirates, but by the first of July in 1960, he wasn't even hitting his weight for the Pirates' farm team in Grand Forks, N.D. So when a Steelers bird dog came sniffing around, Johnston called Branch Rickey Jr., head of the Pirates' farm operation, to see if he could play both sports.

"I'll never forget what he said: 'Rex, I look at your stats every day. If you've got something else to do, you'd better do it.'"

So he signed a football contract, his bonus "a thousand dollars and some shoes." Then he started hitting baseballs like never before. Steelers owner Art Rooney, a great baseball fan, let him finish out a good season in Grand Forks.

By then, Johnston had missed every football exhibition but the last. In that one, against the Bears in Chicago, 275-pound defensive end Doug Atkins, a champion high jumper in college, leaped right over Johnston to cream quarterback Bobby Layne. Layne never had much use for rookies and didn't call Johnston's number much after that.

About all he did was run back punts and kicks. The highlight of his autumn was being in the Roosevelt Hotel when Bill Mazeroski hit the home run to win the 1960 World Series. Johnston joined the street party that lasted two days.

He went back to baseball in 1961, but took ill the next spring. It was 21*2 months before he could play two consecutive games. He didn't make it to the big club until April 1964. Former Pirates pitcher and current Pirates announcer Steve Blass, whose first game for the Pirates was Johnston's last, said, "If he wasn't so good looking, I would have felt sorry for him."

With his jet black hair, Johnston looked like Li'l Abner. "Anytime we were around women," Blass said, "I was ignored."

Don't get the wrong idea. "He was one of the great guys ... a first-class gentleman," Blass said. "He's probably still real good looking."

I can't say, but I do know Johnston is living in the wrong place to benefit much from being the answer to this trivia question. He hasn't been back to Pittsburgh in 40 years, though he has passed through it. One of these days, he plans on stopping. There have been two-sport players in other cities since, but only one played them both in Forbes Field. He's confident that record won't even be tied.

Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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