Jan 30, 2020

Former Mets Catcher Who Caught Nolan Ryan's First Game: John Stephenson (1964-1966)

John Herman Stephenson was born on April 13, 1941 in South Portsmouth, Kentucky . The educated Stephenson earned a degree at William Carey College, in Mississippi. The five foot eleven left handed hitting catcher went from A ball in 1963 right up to the Mets big league team in 1964.

He made the club out of Spring Training and appeared as a pinch hItter on Opening Day 1964 as well as in the first game ever played at Shea Stadium. He went hitless in both games. Stephenson would appear mostly as a pinch hitter & in 14 games at third base but he didn’t hit much. On Father’s Day 1964 he was the final out of Jim Bunnings's perfect game pitched against the Mets at Shea Stadium.

Stephenson's biggest thrill that season came on June 29th when he hit a leadoff HR in a game at San Francisco off Giants pitcher Bobby Bolin. Stephenson was back in the minors by July after hitting just .158. At AAA Buffalo he hit .298 the rest of the season, playing at catcher, outfield & at third base. Although he only batted .235 at Buffalo in 1965 he was brought up to the Mets anyway in late June. This time he was used as one of six catchers the ’65 Mets tried as well as a pinch hitter.

The cast of catchers included were; Cris Cannizzarro, Jesse Gonder, Jimmy Schaffer, Greg Gossen & player/coach Yogi Berra at the end of his career. All were used behind the plate at one time or another.

Walk Off Hits: On September 24th, Stephenson hit a walk RBI single, to beat the Philadelphia Phillies 3-2. A month later he would double off former Met Bob Miller with an August 24th walk off hit to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-3.

On September 16th he had a career day, hitting two HRs driving in four runs against Cincinnati in the Mets 7-3 win over the Reds.

Nolan Ryan's Debut: In that game Stephenson entered the game as a pinch hitter for Dick Selma in the 5th inning. He stayed in the game replacing Jerry Grote at catcher. He was behind the plate when a young rookie pitcher named Nolan Ryan made his MLB debut that very same day.

Stephenson made history catching the first strike out of Ryan’s career, it was pitcher Pat Jarvis. Two batters later, the great Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews struck out looking on a blazing fastball. He turned to Stephenson saying “what the hell was that!”  

Back when Ryan was first signed, Stephenson recalls; "It was me, Yogi Berra, Warren Spahn, scout Red Murff and Ryan . They told him to throw a fastball, but he didn't tell me. He hit me on the left side of my collarbone and I had to miss a week of play."

Two days later in Chicago he hit another HR, a two run shot in the Mets 4-3 loss to the Cubs. For the 1965 season Stephenson hit .215 in 62 games with four HRs, five doubles & 15 RBIs.

The next season he struggled to hit at the .200 mark all season. On August 4th, Stephenson hit an 8th inning two run HR off the Giants Juan Marichal in a game at Shea Stadium. He began a comeback rally that the Mets eventually won on a walk off HR by on Swoboda. It was a big game for New York since it was almost impossible for them to beat Marichal.

In 1966 Stephenson hit just .196 in 63 games then was traded to the Chicago Cubs to complete an earlier trade. He would spend time between the minors & majors with the Cubs, San Francisco Giants & California Angels through the 1973 season. In 1971 he played in a career high 90 games, batting .219 with three HRs & 25 RBIs for the Angels.

In 1972 he was once again reunited with Nolan Ryan & was a battery mate for Ryan at various times throughout the season.

On July 9th he was behind the plate in Anaheim as Ryan struck out 16 Red Sox & threw a one hit 3-0 shutout against Boston. Later in the month on July 27th, Ryan struck out 14 Texas Rangers pitching a two hit shutout victory in Anaheim, with Stephenson once again behind the plate.

The two were team mates once again in 1973, Stephenson's last year in the majors. In his ten season career he batted .219 with 214 hits 12 HRs 37 doubles 93 RBIs & a 271 on base %.

Retirement: After his playing days he became a long time coach, first at his alma mater, William Carey College (1974-1985). He then moved on to South eastern Louisiana University (1985-1990).

He came back to the New York Mets organization, managing the Gulf Coast Mets (1995/ 1998-1999) & then the Kingsport Mets where he finished in first place (1996). He then went to the Capitol City Bombers (1997 & 2000).

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