Ken Johnson did something no one has ever done. He pitched a no-hitter . . . and lost. It happened on April 23, 1964 at Colt Stadium in Houston. Pitching for the Colt .45s (now Astros), he gave up no hits against the Cincinnati Reds. The game’s only run was scored in the ninth inning. Pete Rose reached second base on an error by Johnson. He went to third on a ground out and then scored on another error, this one by the great Nellie Fox, playing second base. Reds’ pitcher Joe Nuxhall retired the side in the bottom of the ninth to make Johnson a no-hit loser.
Johnson had a successful 13-year career pitching for the Kansas City Athletics (1958-61), Cincinnati Reds (1961), Houston Colt .45s/Astros (1962-65), Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves (1965-69), New York Yankees (1969), Chicago Cubs (1969), and Montreal Expos (1970). With a career ERA of 3.46 and 1,042 strikeouts, Johnson had a record of 91-106, playing mostly for poor teams. But it was his one loss in the first month of the season in 1964 that Johnson is known for. It was the day that perfect wasn’t good enough.
By pitching a no-hitter, Ken Johnson did something Grover Cleveland Alexander, Lefty Grove, Steve Carlton, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez never accomplished. He didn’t give up a hit. On April 23, 1964 Kenneth Travis Johnson was perfect. But perfect wasn’t good enough. It would have been, but for a couple of unintended errors, one by himself.
Wise old Solomon said, “There is no one on earth who is righteous” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). Paul said, “There is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). It took President William Howard Taft less than two months in office to conclude, “We are all imperfect. We can expect nothing more.” He went on, in his Washington address of May 8, 1909, to lower the bar of high expectations for his administration.
In life, we all strike out. In baseball, Babe Ruth did it more than anyone. We all fail. Billy Graham, speaking to David Frost, used “failure” as the one word that best described his life. And when we aren’t committing gross sins (whatever those are), we still make errors. Another former Houston Astro, Joaquin Andujar, famously said, “In America, one word says it all – ‘you never know.'”
In life, one word says it all – “perfect isn’t good enough.” Because we all make errors, we are at risk of losing even the best-pitched game. But we have something Ken Johnson didn’t have 51 years ago. We have a God who gets the last at bat. And no matter the mess we have made of our lives, God is the ultimate clean-up hitter. The lesson of Ken Johnson is that good isn’t good enough, and perfect isn’t even good enough. But God is.