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Mudville: June 13, 2024 3:56 am PDT

Davey’s Goliath

The image that many baseball fans have of Davey Johnson usually includes a snapshot of him sitting in Shea Stadium’s home dugout in front of a wood-paneled wall, his hands crammed into the pockets of a shiny, satin New York Mets jacket. His six-plus seasons in the 1980s as the Mets manager remain the portion of his career for which he is best known, particularly among fans who grew up in that era.

Johnson, who was recently thrust back into the spotlight following the release of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on his World Series-winning 1986 Mets, has so much more on his baseball resume, including a 13-year career in the Major Leagues that saw him win a pair of World Series crowns, make four All-Star teams, win three Gold Gloves and set a record alongside Hank Aaron.

It was the latter of which that brought Johnson additional attention in September. When Toronto’s Marcus Semien connected for his 44th homer of the season on Sept. 29, he was thought by many to have knocked Johnson out of the record book. Well, sort of. Semien’s blast against the Yankees made him baseball’s all-time single-season homerun leader among second basemen, eclipsing the mark that Johnson has long-been credited with since hitting 43 homers in 1973.

Johnson, however, only hit 42 homers as a second baseman that season. The other came as a pinch-hitter on June 17 in Fulton County Stadium against the Cubs. He hit his 43rd homer in his 150th game that season to equal the mark set by St. Louis Cardinals Hall-of-Famer Rogers Hornsby in 1922. Though Johnson appeared in seven more games that season, he was unable to go deep once more and claim the record as his own. Minnesota’s Brian Dozier also hit 42 homers (2016) as a second baseman.

[On Sandy Koufax] “I saw him the next spring in Vero Beach, and I said, ‘Hey Sandy guess what, I got the last hit off you.’ And he said, ‘When you did I knew I was washed up so I retired.’”

“The record was a big deal at the time because when I was hitting some home runs they started writing about Rogers Hornsby [who had 42 homers in 1922],” Johnson, 78, said. “I wanted to do it in 154 games. I hit the 43rd off [Los Angeles’ Andy] Messersmith [on Sept. 19]. What I didn’t know was that because I hit one of my home runs as a pinch-hitter, they didn’t count it. I broke his record for 154 games then the stats said I didn’t because of that.

“So I was at 42 but Semien hit 45 so I guess he broke it either way and it didn’t matter. I never really thought about it how much records were worth to individuals. It’s just fun kind of history.”

Johnson, however, was officially part of history that season, joining the Hall-of-Famer Aaron [40] and Darrell Evans [41] to become the first three teammates to eclipse the 40-homerun mark in one season. It was an outlier of a season for Johnson, his first in Atlanta, who had never hit more than 18 in one year. Johnson required 559 at-bats to hit his 43 homers while Aaron only needed 392 at-bats to reach 40 [which was his 713th overall]. He accomplished the feat in his 119th game of the season. It was Aaron’s eighth and final 40-homer season. Evans, who also hit 40 in 1985 as a member of the Tigers, needed 595 at-bats to hit 40 with the Braves, picking up his final two homers in the third to last and penultimate games of the season.

The 1996 and ’97 Colorado Rockies also had three players apiece reach the 40-homer mark.

“Our pitching was kind of bad [in ‘73],” Johnson said. “So we knew we had to score runs. Our best pitcher was [Phil] Niekro [13-10, 3.31 ERA]. We didn’t think much about hitting home runs. Everybody said the ball carried better in Atlanta. But we hit a bunch on the road, too. We just couldn’t get our pitching staff together, that was the biggest problem.”

Still, Johnson got what he wanted in that first season in Atlanta. He had a miserable season in Baltimore in 1972 dealing not only with labrum issues that limited him to 118 games but with the emergence of Bobby Grich, the Orioles’ new, young star infielder. Johnson saw no future in Baltimore and, despite Baltimore’s success, wanted out.

Manager Davey Johnson of the New York Mets points as Keith Hernandez prepares to bat as Rafael Santana #3, Hubie Brooks #7 and George Foster #15 look on from the dugout during a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium in 1984 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

“I asked to be traded to the National League,” he said. “I always read that the National League was more aggressive and I wanted to see for myself. I enjoyed going over there. I got to play with some great players, Aaron, Dusty Baker etc. I really enjoyed it and learned a lot. I saw you can be more aggressive on the NL side.”

The 1973 season, as enjoyable as it was for Johnson, proved to be his last great hurrah as a player but it was just another one of his many brushes with history. Johnson spent two seasons – plus one game in 1975 – with Atlanta and had the chance to share in some more of Aaron’s record-breaking accomplishments. He was on hand when Aaron eclipsed Babe Ruth’s mark on April 8, 1974, sitting two batters behind Aaron in the lineup that night against the Dodgers.

Johnson left the Braves following an April 9, 1975 appearance as a pinch-hitter – he connected for a double against Houston – to sign with the Yomiuri Giants of the Japanese Central League. The significance of that move allowed him to play with Sadaharu Oh, the legendary Japanese slugger who would hit 868 career across 22 seasons with Yomiuri. Johnson, like his time with Aaron, was on hand when Oh passed the 700-homer mark on July 23, 1976 and later that season when he hit his 715th homer to pass Ruth.

“Both guys were incredible, but Sadaharu was more like Ruth because he came up as a pitcher and then [the Giants] put him in the outfield,” Johnson said. “He could hit the ball the opposite way and did a lot of things. He’d hit the ball wherever it was pitched. He worked hard at his skill and I can’t say enough about either one of them. He would have hit 700 home runs here, too. He was a great hitter with a great stroke.”

The historical happenings Johnson enjoyed during his playing career weren’t limited to the mid-70s, though. His first full season in the Major Leagues was 1966, which allowed him to not only be part of Baltimore’s World Series-winning squad – they swept the Dodgers – but it also provided him the opportunity to witness Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson, who had come over in a trade with Cincinnati, win a Triple Crown and his second MVP.

“We got Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas and he was such a great player,” Johnson said. “He taught us about not fraternizing with the other team and about being a better ball club. He took us to that level. When we got Frank, he taught us how to win.”

Infielder Brooks Robinson #5, Mark Belanger #7, Davey Johnson #15 and Boog Powell #26 of the Baltimore Orioles poses for this photo during spring training circa late 1970. Robinson played for the Orioles from 1955 - 77. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Johnson was also part of history in that World Series sweep in that he collected the final hit that Hall-of-Famer Sandy Koufax surrendered in his career – a sixth-inning single to right in Game Two.

“We had pitchers like Jim Palmer and Dave McNally going against known guys like Koufax, [Don] Drysdale and [Claude] Osteen,” Johnson said. “We read all the scouting reports about Koufax and I thought, he’s 5-foot-8, he can’t be all that good. The first time I saw him, though, he threw two pitches, low and away on the black. I said this guy can locate.

“I popped out twice against him and then in the sixth I got a base hit. They took him out and he didn’t come back. He retired. I saw him the next spring in Vero Beach, and I said, ‘Hey Sandy guess what, I got the last hit off you.’ And he said, ‘When you did I knew I was washed up so I retired.’”

That World Series was just the first of many big team events of which Johnson would be part. He would go on to make the last out of the 1969 World Series at Shea Stadium – and obviously he was on hand at Shea for the last out of their second World Series win in 1986 – and then win a second World Series with Baltimore a year later.

His eight years in Baltimore gave way to his time in Atlanta, which marked a 10-year stretch in which he got to call Robinson and Aaron teammates.

“Aaron was not like Frank” Johnson said. “Frank was a more dominant personality. Hank Aaron led by example. He had a lot of issues because people didn’t want him to break Babe Ruth’s record. He was such a good player and a teammate, though, and we all loved him.”

Johnson returned to the United States in 1977, playing a season and a half with the Phillies before closing out his career with the Cubs at the tail end of 1978. He had one more big moment in him, though. Well, two, actually. He hit pinch-hit grand slams on April 30, 1978 [off San Diego’s Bob Shirley] and on June 3 against L.A.’s Terry Forster to become the first player to collect two pinch-hit grand slams in the same season. Four other players have since equaled that mark – Mike Ivie [also 1978], Darryl Strawberry [1998], Ben Broussard [2004] and Brooks Conrad [2010].

darrell evans, hank aaron and davey johnson with the altlanta braves.

Darrell Evans, Hank Aaron and Davey Johnson all finished with 40+ home runs in 1973. (Photo: Focus on Sport via Getty Images)

Johnson then went on to manage in the minor leagues for the New York Mets following his playing days, winning three league titles in five years before taking over the parent club in 1984. He proved to be the perfect fit for a club on the rise. New York improved significantly in each of Johnson’s first two seasons as the manager before winning it all in ’86.

“In ’84 I knew we had some good players but I also knew we were missing a bunch of good players,” Johnson said. “I also handled the bullpen a certain way. I wanted to try and win the most games I could and still take care of the bullpen. In 1984 we got outscored by 18 runs and still won 90 games. If you were paying attention, you realized that was a great accomplishment.

“We cleaned up some of the problems in the pen the next year and won 98 games. I still had a few more things to clear up, though, and we took care of them over the winter. In spring training I told the guys we were going to dominate and we did. That’s just knowing your team, though, knowing when they are ready and going for it.”

Johnson believes that his club could have been even better moving forward. Several of his stars, like Dwight Gooden and Strawberry, were experiencing off-the-field issues, though. Johnson and then general manager Frank Cashen were butting heads about personnel as a result. Cashen felt that outfielder Kevin Mitchell – who would go on to win the 1989 National league MVP with the Giants – was a bad influence on the two aforementioned stars and dealt him away over Johnson’s objections.

Prior to his death in 2014, Cashen said in an interview that what he remembered most about those Met teams was that “Strawberry and Gooden screwed us. We built the whole team around them and they gave it away.”

Manager Davey Johnson of the New York Mets sits in the dugout during a season game. Davey Johnson managed the New York Mets from 1984-1990. (Photo by: Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images)

“Frank Cashen didn’t believe what I knew to be a fact,” Johnson said. “He ended up trading Kevin Mitchell [for Kevin McReynolds]. Mitchell was a great hitter. He didn’t drink and he didn’t smoke. He also got rid of [Rodger] McDowell and [Lenny] Dykstra and those were bad moves, too. He kind of took the team down.

“Mitchell kept all of those guys in line. When we got rid of him, they just went off the handle. That was the front office people. They thought Mitchell would be a bad influence but he’d bust any of them in the nose if they were out doing something wrong with him.”

Johnson managed seven years in New York and his team made the playoffs again in 1988, but he would never again reach the heights he did in 1986. He watched the recent documentary and while he enjoyed it he wondered whether it was really necessary.

“It was good but once you lived through it and experience all those emotions, do you need to go through it again and again and again?” Johnson said. “I don’t think so.”

Still, Johnson remains the winningest manager in Mets franchise history. He would also go on to manage the Reds, the Orioles, the Dodgers and the Nationals, posting a winning record with each club while enjoying a quartet of first-place finishes in his 10 managerial years after leaving the Mets. Throw in his time with Team USA and he has been a fixture in and around the game for more than five decades.

“I enjoyed every moment of my career; I enjoyed every moment of my managerial career and I enjoyed USA Baseball,” Johnson said. “Whatever I did, I enjoyed. I didn’t need to do anything more to make myself feel better about myself. It’s not like I was competing to get acknowledged in some way. I was just enjoying the ride.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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