Born: August 23, 1934
Died: February 24, 2019
John Anthony Romano Jr. was born on August 23, 1934, in Hoboken. His father, John Sr., worked as a longshoreman on the New Jersey waterfront and played semipro ball on the weekends. The elder Romano was a catcher with a powerful arm, whose nickname was Cannonball. Several teams tried to sign him, but he was making more money on the docks and playing ball locally than he would have made as a Depression-era minor leaguer, so he stayed in Jersey.
Good genetics plus the coaching of local baseball legend Tony Calland helped both Johnny and his older brother, Tony, follow in his dad’s footsteps. Tony set a record at Demarest High with a batting average over .600. Johnny came along and broke it with an average close to .700 his senior year. The Brooklyn Dodgers appeared to have both Romano boys to themselves. Coach Clyde Sukeforth often invited them to participate in batting practice at Ebbets Field.
When Johnny was old enough to sign, however, it was the Chicago White Sox who came through with the most appealing offer. He began his pro career in 1954 at age 19 and worked his way to the majors for a cup of coffee in 1958. In 1959, he was the backup catcher to All-Star Sherm Lollar on a White Sox team that shocked the experts by winning the pennant.
That winter, owner Bill Veeck set his sights on veteran Minnie Minoso of the Cleveland Indians. Johnny was part of a disastrous trade in which Chicago also lost Norm Cash. Cash won the batting title in 1961. The same year, Johnny batted .299 with 21 homers and 80 RBIs. He played in the All-Star Game in 1961 and 1962. He probably would have been an All-Star in 1963, but broke his hand in late May when he was hit by a pitch. The team rushed him back into action and he played the rest of the year essentially one-handed. The injury bothered him the rest of his career.
After the mounds were raised in the early 1960s, Johnny (along with most other sluggers) saw his home run totals drop and batting averages crash. He was still a rare power-hitting backstop—and he did a superb job handing the Cleveland pitching staff, which included young hurlers Sam McDowell, Tommy John, Luis Tiant and Sonny Siebert. In 1965, the Indians, A’s and White Sox engineered a three-way deal in which they gave up Johnny, Tommy John and Tommy Agee. All three ended up on the White Sox. The player the Indians got in return was Rocky Colavito, who was all but washed up at this point.
Johnny continued to hit home runs for the White Sox in 1965 and 1966, but with young Duane Josephson coming up from the minors, Chicago traded Johnny to the Cardinals for Walt “No Neck” Williams prior to the 1967 season. Johnny backed up Tim McCarver on the pennant-winning St. Louis team, but was not added to the World Series roster.
The Cards released him after the series and he retired as a player. Johnny sold swimming pools and worked for Bergen County during the 1970s and 1980s. He and his wife, Irene, moved to Florida in the late 1990s. Johnny passed away in Naples at the age of 84.
At a time when power-hitting catchers were almost unheard of, Johnny was a threat to put one in the seats every time he came to the plate. He hit .255 for his career with 129 home runs in 905 games.