The Big Unit made his major league debut on September 15, 1988 as the tallest player in league history, supplanting 6-foot-9 Johnny Gee, a left-handed pitcher who played for Pittsburgh and the New York Giants during the Second World War, as the tallest player ever to play in the majors.
A newspaper reported:
For Johnson, the road he hopes will lead to the Hall of Fame began at 7:35 p.m. last night when he threw a fastball for a strike to 5-foot-7 Pittsburgh leadoff hitter John Cangelosi.
Cangelosi, who would be looking uphill at Johnson without the pitcher’s mound, got in his licks before the game.
“I hope he doesn’t hit me (with a pitch)” Cangelosi said. “I’d hate to have to charge the mound.”
As it turned out that wasn’t necessary. Johnson’s control was less than perfect – he threw 96 pitches in his five innings of work – but he walked only three batters while striking out six, hit no one.
Advertised as a hard thrower, Johnson certainly wasn’t overpowering to Glenn Wilson, who homered off him in his first two at-bats. They were the first National League homers this season for Wilson, who came over to the Pirates from the Seattle Mariners on July 21.
Johnson admitted he spent a restless night – “I didn’t get to sleep until 4 a.m.,” he said – but insisted that he wasn’t nervous.
“Well, maybe a little,” he said. “Then I came to the park and I was a little more nervous. But I was really nervous when I finished warming up in the bullpen and was walking in.
“But when that first pitch was a strike, I was comfortable.”
“I don’t think my size means anything, except that some batters might find it intimidating,” said Johnson. “I’d like to be able to use my height to give me that advantage.”
Wilson said: “If he develops a changeup to go with that fastball, he’s going to be tough, very tough.”
“The big thing was that my slider was working,” Johnson said. “Everybody knows that I’m a power pitcher, but you can’t throw fastballs past these hitters. Glenn Wilson proved that.”
Johnson has been widely touted as the top left-handed pitching prospect in the minors and his debut was widely heralded. Montreal fans managed to ignore it for the most part, however. Only 9,494 fans turned out.
A few days later, on September 20, came news of improvement by Johnson:
CHICAGO – Randy Johnson, the tallest player in major-league history, made short work of Chicago Tuesday night.
Johnson, a six-foot-10 left-hander making only his second major-league appearance, allowed six hits and struck out 11, leading Montreal over the Cubs and a split of their doubleheader.
Chicago won the opener on Jerry Mumphrey’s two-out, bases-loaded single in the 11th inning.
Johnson, 25, ran his record to 2-0 after being recalled from Indianapolis a week ago.
”I think being tall gives me an advantage,” said Johnson, who struck out five over five innings in his major-league debut. ”And I’m kind of animated; I show enthusiasm out there. I think that gives me an advantage.
”I think tonight they were intimidated from the get-go. I had intensity, and I felt like I was in command of the game. That’s important. But I was more nervous tonight than in my first game, though I don’t know why. Maybe because it was a night game and it was outside.”
The nervousness didn’t seem to bother him — he walked just one and retired 11 straight between the fifth and ninth innings.
”He pitched well tonight,” said Expos manager Buck Rodgers. ”He’s got good stuff.
”He throws about 95 miles per hour. Tonight I was happy with his command. If he has control of his stuff, he’s going to win a lot of ballgames.”
“Tonight I was just wild enough to keep ’em off the plate,” said Johnson – who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the face of punk rocker Sid Vicious under his uniform. “I know I need my breaking stuff to be good. And I keep feeling more confidence about it with each outing.”
Johnson said it was his second complete game in four seasons as a professional. “I got one against Rochester. I also made it to the ninth my last game in Triple-A before things got pretty hairy, too.
“I don’t know what happened tonight. I think I just lost my concentration.”