But Charles Sr. persists, and the machine spits another fastball that whacks the boy in the chest. Then another and another. "It was the scariest moment of my life," says the father, then the baseball coach at Westwood High, who still teaches algebra at the school, about 100 miles north of Miami. "But I couldn't let him know it."
Something remarkable happens with the fifth pitch—the boy catches it. "He started smiling," Charles Sr. says. "It was like a light went on. He realized, If I can catch the ball from 10 feet away, 60 feet is no problem. All fear left him."
Charles Jr. came to be in front of that machine, and to catching, by choice. He had spent the previous year, his first in Little League, mostly in the outfield, which bored him so terribly that he took to tossing blades of grass into the wind. "I want to be a catcher, Dad," he told his father. "I want to be a big leaguer." It was a novel idea. When Charles Jr. stared down the barrel of that pitching machine in the summer of 1981, 25 of the 26 regular catchers in the big leagues were white. One, Tony Pena, was Hispanic. None were black.
"Yes, I did notice," Charles Jr. says. Not since 1979, when Gary Alexander was behind the plate for the Cleveland Indians and Charles Jr. was eight years old, had a major league team employed a black man as its every-day catcher. Johnson found inspiration closer to home. His cousin Terry McGriff, a catcher on his father's team, had just signed with the Cincinnati Reds as an eighth-round draft pick. "Whenever we played," Charles Sr. says, "Charles would stand behind the backstop and stare at Terry. He was fascinated with catching."
Terry's father, Roy, and Charles Sr., both of them former college players, began tutoring the boy. Using the Johnsons' backyard toolshed as a backstop, they taught him about footwork, framing pitches and blocking balls in the dirt. Day after day Charles Sr. fired 50 baseballs into the ground in front of him; if the boy blocked 45 of them, he was treated to a Big Mac. Sometimes he'd cry if he failed. The shed took such a pelting that a hole was blown through the side. "They finally just took it down," Charles Jr. says. "A toolshed with a big hole in it isn't much use. Anybody could have walked inside and taken anything."
"It was hard work, and he was tough on me, but I liked it," adds Charles Jr. "It was like yard work. You're out there in the heat cutting the grass, but when you're done you can look back at it and feel like you accomplished something. That's the way I looked at it."
Says his father, "What we stressed even more than baseball was being good and respectful around the house. Baseball was just a game. The person, that's the most important thing."
The boy would hurry home from school to clean the house, having it spotless by the time Gloria arrived from her job as an accountant. The eldest of four children, he would also volunteer to wash dishes after dinner. "My father and mother grew up having to pick oranges and tomatoes in the hot sun," he says. "I never had to. How hard was cleaning compared to what they did? I was happy to do it. I still like to grab a mop and clean my own house."
At 13, Charles attended a baseball camp in Winter Haven, Fla. During one game a college player attempted to steal a base. Charles hummed a pea to second, nailing him. "I was sitting in the stands," his father says, "and I got goose bumps all over. I'll never forget it. Seeing him do that, I knew he was something special."
The local papers were full of stories about Charles Jr. The father would save them but instruct his son not to bother reading them. "These can't help you," he told him. "It's all in the past."