Deron Johnson looks strong, substantial, and seemingly unconquerable on his 1974 Topps card. Rugged and Bunyanesque, he looks like he could snap the bat he is holding into two pieces. With his thick forearms and rock-solid legs, Johnson epitomizes the idea of the invulnerable slugger.
When Johnson died in 1992 at the age of 53, the notion of baseball mortality really started to hit me. As a fan, I had already been assaulted with the tragic mid-career losses of Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson, but their deaths had occurred while I was still a child, when I still didn’t fully appreciate life and death. By the time that Johnson died, I was 27 years old. Here was a guy I remembered well from my earliest days watching baseball. How could this towering man, who looked so imposing on his baseball card, die so young?
Throughout his career, Johnson struck a gruff, intimidating pose. An examination of some of his earlier Topps cards confirms this appearance. Stern and grizzled, he looked like a character actor in one of John Wayne’s westerns. Like Alex Karras in Blazing Saddles, Johnson once punched a horse. The horse had it coming, since it had kicked Johnson. Longtime executive Buzzie Bavasi recalled the details of the story for the Los Angeles Times. “One day he came to the park with a black eye and bruises all over his body,” said Bavasi. “Said he had been kicked by one of the horses he used to raise. He looked awful. I told him I was sorry and he said, ‘Yeah, but you should see the horse.’ ”
In reality, Johnson was a soft touch, a likeable man who developed a close rapport with teammates and earned respect for his work ethic. Later on as a coach, his hitting students came to revere him.
Though he’s best remembered for his days with the Reds and Phillies, Johnson actually began his career with the Yankees, who signed him as an amateur outfielder in 1956. Assigned to the nether regions of the Nebraska State League, Johnson tore up the opposition, hitting .324 while powering 24 home runs. In 1957, the Yankees bumped him up to Binghamton of the Class-A Eastern League, where he hit 26 home runs and batted a cool .303. He showed exactly the kind of power that one would expect from a young man who had once operated a jackhammer as a teenager.
Johnson looked so good in his first two minor league go-rounds that the Yankees advanced him all the way to Triple-A Richmond of the International League in 1958. For the next three seasons, Johnson remained at Richmond, where he played mostly third base and averaged 26 home runs with solid slugging percentages each summer. Emerging as a top prospect at a time when the Yankee farm system had started to go barren, Johnson was dubbed “another Mickey Mantle” by some of the New York writers.
In most organizations, he would have moved up to the major league team, but the Yankees posed special problems. In addition to the unfair comparisons to Mantle, Johnson faced other obstacles. He faced a roadblock in Clete Boyer, the veteran mainstay who had made fielding at third base an art form. As a third baseman, Johnson made a good first baseman; at 210 pounds, he lacked the agility and range needed for the hot corner. Unfortunately, first base was also blocked, by veteran slugger Moose Skowron.
“The Yankees never seemed to have more than one rookie break into their lineup in any year,” Johnson told sportswriter Allen Lewis, “so it was a little tough getting a chance to play.” After two brief look-sees by the Yankees in 1960 and ‘61, Johnson headed out of town. In June of 1961, the Yankees packaged Johnson and right-hander Art Ditmar, sending them to the Kansas City Athletics. In return, the Yankees received only journeyman left-hander Bud Daley, making this one of the few bad trades that general manager George Weiss ever made with Athletics owner Arnold Johnson.
With a little more foresight, the Yankees would have held onto Johnson. He could have been the eventual replacement for Skowron, who had just turned 30 and would see his time with the Yankees come to an end within two seasons. If only Johnson had been allowed to spend the bulk of his career in pinstripes, the Yankees might not have struggled though a mediocre succession of first basemen like Danny Cater, Johnny Ellis, and Ron Blomberg.
Johnson spent the next two summers as an unproductive part-time player for the A’s. Ever impatient, A’s owner Charlie Finley grew disenchanted with Johnson and dumped him, sending the still-young prospect to the Reds in a straight cash deal.
The Reds wisely sent Johnson to their San Diego affiliate in the Pacific Coast League, where they hoped he would regain his stroke and his confidence. He did both. Blasting a league-leading 33 home runs and slugging .541, Johnson showed himself ready for another opportunity in the major leagues.
Johnson began the 1964 season on the Reds’ bench, but manager Fred Hutchinson soon turned to him as a frequent first baseman and outfielder. Johnson responded with a solid season: 21 home runs and a .472 slugging percentage. Though he walked only 37 times against 98 strikeouts, he showed legitimate promise as a middle-of-the-order slugger.
In 1965, Johnson fulfilled all of that promise. Lifting his average to .287, he clubbed 32 home runs, posted an OPS of .815, and led the National League with 130 RBIs. He accomplished all of that despite making a difficult transition back to third base, where he played exclusively that summer. For his efforts, he posted a fourth-place finish in the MVP balloting.
One of his teammates noticed a change in Johnson’s approach at the plate. “I was at Kansas City in 1961 when Johnson was there,” Joe Nuxhall told Cincinnati sportswriter Earl Lawson. “The Johnson I saw then and the Johnson I see today are two different persons. With the Athletics, Deron was swinging from his heels on every pitch… tried to pull everything. You never saw him hit shots to right the way he did [for the Reds].”
After the peak of 1965, the 1966 season saw Johnson revert to previous form: unspectacular but solid. A spring training shoulder injury hampered his swing, but he still hit 24 home runs and slugged .461 while filling a difficult role as a starter at three positions: left field, third base, and first base. Though not a strong defender at any position, Johnson’s versatility gave his managers flexibility in mixing and matching lineups on a given day.
After showing durability during his first three seasons with the Reds, Johnson appeared in only 108 games, largely because of the emergence of two young infield sluggers, Lee May and Tony Perez. At the plate, Johnson struck out five times for every walk. Frustrated by his lack of hitting discipline, the Reds traded him that winter, sending him to the Braves for a package highlighted by outfielders Mack Jones and Jim Beauchamp.
Johnson’s 1968 season turned into a disaster. Perhaps no hitter epitomized the perils of the “Year of the Pitcher” more than Johnson. Johnson batted .208, hit only eight home runs, and slugged .316 while splitting time between the infield corners. Simply put, he looked lost at the plate. He missed several weeks with hamstring and groin problems.
The Braves didn’t realize that he had also played all season with a broken bone in his right hand. Johnson didn’t know it either, at least until after he was sold to the Phillies during the winter and given a physical, revealing an injury that dated back to the spring of 1968.
Allowing the bone to heal, Johnson reported to spring training healthy. Blocked by Richie Allen at first base and Tony Taylor at third, Johnson spent a good portion of the season in left field. He regained his stroke, hitting 17 home runs and drawing a career-best total of 60 walks.
After the 1969 season, the Phillies opened up first base by trading the disgruntled Allen to the Cardinals in the ill-fated Curt Flood swap. Settling in at his best defensive position, Johnson put up even better numbers over the next two seasons, culminating in a career-high 34 home runs and an .836 OPS in 1971.
Injuries and advancing age started to take their toll in 1972. The 33-year-old Johnson played in only 96 games and lost playing time to the defensively superior Tommy Hutton. Johnson’s season coincided with a dismal campaign for the Phillies, who hit rock bottom by losing 97 games.
A slow start to the 1973 season mandated some changes for the rebuilding Phillies. Johnson was so well liked, by both players and members of the front office, that the Phillies decided to trade him to a pennant contender. Phillies president Paul Owens struck a deal with the A’s, receiving only obscure minor leaguer Jack Bastable, a non-prospect who would never make the majors, in return. “I traded him for a catcher named Jack Bastable,” Owens told Bill Madden of the New York Daily News. “I could have gotten more for him, but I just felt so much of him, I wanted to get him a chance to be in a World Series.”
The A’s didn’t disappoint Owens—or Johnson, for that matter. The A’s won the American League West, but Johnson did more than just tag along. Solving Oakland’s designated hitter void, he hit 19 home runs and drew 59 walks, solidifying a black hole in Dick Williams’ lineup.
The A’s disposed of a very good Orioles team to launch themselves into the World Series, where Johnson played a key role as a pinch-hitter and part-time first baseman. He batted .300 for the A’s in their difficult seven-game World Series victory over the Mets. At least one Oakland beat writer felt the A’s would not have won without Johnson. For a quality player and general good guy near the end of a long career, it was a fitting and just reward, one that resulted in his only Topps card with Oakland.
Having given the A’s a boost in their title run, Johnson could not continue the momentum into 1974. A slow start resulted in a trade in late June, just after the trading deadline. The A’s sent Johnson to the Brewers for journeyman right-hander Bill Parsons and cash. Johnson continued to flail in Milwaukee, hitting a mere .151, and was jettisoned in early September, sold to Boston. The Red Sox gave him 25 at-bats, but he looked dismal, picking up only three hits. After the season, the Sox gave him his unconditional release.
It appeared the end had come. Johnson remained without a team until the following April, when the White Sox signed him just before Opening Day and made him their regular DH. Johnson put up an OPS of only .671, but he did hit 18 home runs, and that was enough to entice the Red Sox, who acquired him in late September for a player to be named later. But he batted only .132, and given the lateness of the acquisition, did not qualify for the memorable 1975 postseason.
The Red Sox brought Johnson back to start the 1976 season, but he once again did not hit. At 37, he had nothing left. The Sox released him in early June, ending his major league ride at 16 seasons.
After a brief stint as a minor league manager, Johnson settled in for a long tenure as a coach, including time with the Angels, Mets, Phillies, Mariners, and White Sox.
Johnson died in the spring of ‘92 while working as the batting coach for the Angels. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer the previous June. After the diagnosis, he asked the Angels’ beat writers not to mention or publicize his illness in print. He continued to coach while carrying an oxygen tank with him. For those players and coaches who knew him, that kind of gritty toughness was typical of Johnson. Even after he became too ill to continue his duties with the Angels in the spring, he continued to refuse hospitalization and treatment because he wanted to live out his remaining days at home. Once again, for those who knew him, such a decision typified a family man like Johnson.
“I think it’s obvious he fought right to the end, just like he played the game,” Angels manager Buck Rodgers told the Los Angeles Daily News. “He was a fighter, a man’s man, a baseball player’s player.”
He certainly was. Deron Johnson was a dignified man, a good teammate, and a productive ballplayer. As fans, we really can’t ask for much more than that.