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Mudville: April 15, 2024 3:45 am PDT
Here's Johnny!

Here’s Johnny!

BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI

John Briggs spent a dozen years in the Major Leagues between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, fighting at first for playing time only to discover that after proving himself, a spot on a Major League roster was not guaranteed.

So, the Paterson, New Jersey native probably retired younger than he should have; but that doesn’t take away from a career that saw him witness first-hand Philadelphia’s epic collapse in 1964, play with Hank Aaron when the all-time great returned to Milwaukee in 1975, and join a select group of players who collected six hits in one game.

Briggs, who will turn 79 on March 10, remains a thoughtful, gregarious man, showing the kind of energy and enthusiasm that carried him through a career that included stops in Philly, Minnesota, Milwaukee, and Japan. He also played with Dick Allen for six years in Philadelphia and formed an incredible bond with the slugger. The two remained close friends until Allen’s death in 2020.

There won’t be any Hall-of-Fame talk surrounding Briggs as there is Allen but the former collected more than 1,000 hits in his career and garnered MVP votes in the American League [1973]. He retired following an aborted 1976 season in Japan and went on to serve in law enforcement and corrections for more than 25 years after leaving baseball.

“I tried to get back in the big leagues [after Japan] but they wanted me to go to Triple-A,” Briggs said. “I spent 12 years in the Major Leagues so I didn’t want to but I said, okay, I’ll go back if you just give me the Major League minimum salary. Nobody wanted to, so I said I guess it’s time for me to be a nine-to-fiver.”

Though Briggs embarked on a more traditional career following his time in baseball, there was a time when it seemed as if the young slugger was destined for stardom.

FROM SILK CITY TO THE CITY OF BROTHERLY LOVE

The Briggs house was a National League house when John Briggs was growing up. His father was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and when they moved to L.A., that fandom, void of a National League team in New York City, didn’t switch to the Bronx.

“We knew of the Yankees and the Giants (while I was growing up in L.A.), but I was a Dodger fan and Duke Snider happened to be my favorite,” Briggs said. “We played a lot of stickball and when I got up to the plate, I’d kick the ground the way Snider would for the hole to put his back leg in. I’d emulate all the players, [Jackie] Robinson, the way he held the bat, [Gil] Hodges, even Mickey Mantle. That was a real exciting time for me, growing up as a kid in Paterson. When I was very young I loved baseball to no end.”

Baseball loved him back. Though Briggs was a standout at Eastside High School in both basketball and football, he excelled in baseball and that is the career path he chose to follow. His ability had gotten him noticed and he went through several tryouts in the summer of ’62, a year after he graduated high school, one of which was for the Milwaukee Braves at historic Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson. The field was where Larry Doby, a fellow Paterson native, played in the Negro Leagues before joining the Cleveland Indians.

Briggs, however, ended up signing with Philadelphia at the end of that summer; and was headed to Bakersfield in 1963 to play in the Class-A California League. He was a force out West, finishing second in the Cal League with 21 homers, fourth with 83 RBIs, fifth with 59 walks, and sixth with a .297 batting average. He even rated a mention in the May 25th edition of The Sporting News, which mislabeled him as the San Jose right fielder. Still, the publication wrote “John Briggs rapped seven hits, including a homer, a triple, and two doubles in a three-game series. The rookie went 5-for-5 on May 11 and had two safeties the following day. He accounted for eight RBIs.” It all provided the Phils with reason to invite him to Philadelphia for the end of the Major League season.

“I sat in the stands because we weren’t allowed to suit up,” Briggs said. “We could suit up before the game but we couldn’t sit on the bench. I would look at the game and look at the pitchers and think, ‘I could do that’. I had the confidence that I could belong. The following year when I did make it there, I never felt like I was overmatched or that I couldn’t perform in that arena.”

“Richie took offense to it and said leave the kid alone. He and Frank Thomas got into it. That’s how he [Allen] got hit with a bat.”

Briggs was tossed into that arena full-time the following spring when the club invited him to Major League camp. While he didn’t light it up that spring – the April 25 edition of The Sporting News reported that he got only two hits and they were four weeks apart – Briggs was on the Major League roster when the season began with a 5-3 victory over the Mets on April 14.

“That [Spring Training] was the real exciting part,” Briggs said. “When I did go to Spring Training that year I remember playing against the Yankees and Mickey Mantle was on the field. That was exciting for me after seeing him on TV, emulating him and knowing all his feats. I got to play against big-time people like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, the guys had I read about or watched on TV. The opportunity to see these guys face-to-face was exciting for a kid who was only 20 years old.”

That excitement didn’t ebb even though Briggs was mostly a spectator in April. He drew a walk in his first big-league plate appearance on April 18 against Chicago’s Bob Buhl and scored a run as a pinch-runner on April 23 against Pittsburgh. He had only two at-bats through the first two months of the season before he began to see some action in June. Briggs collected his first hit on June 5 as a pinch-hitter, a single off San Francisco’s Ron Herbel, in the 11th inning of a 5-3 loss.

“[Manager] Gene [Mauch] felt I could add something to the team so he kept me on the roster,” Briggs said. “To me it was exciting. I was just 20 years old and it was my first year in the Majors. I didn’t know I was going to be there. But I got the opportunity to get some at-bats, do some baserunning, and start a few games. I did that and that made me feel like I belonged.”

“It was an exciting time and I didn’t experience that in the minors. It was exciting for me to be in a chase for the pennant. The clubhouse was electric the whole time.”

June proved to be Briggs’ most active month of the season. He had 32 of his 66 at-bats that month, making his first career start on June 14 against the Mets. He went 3-for-4 with a double, two RBIs, and two runs scored.

The Phils were in the midst of playing nine games in a two-week stretch against New York, the last five of which were at the newly opened Shea Stadium in Queens. Perhaps because it was against the lowly Mets that Mauch decided to play Briggs, who started six of the games – including the June 14 affair. Briggs went 7-for-24 with three RBIs and capped off that stretch in the second game of a Father’s Day doubleheader at Shea with his first career homer.

That homer off Frank Lary came in the first inning but it was a shot that is largely forgotten because of what happened in the opener. Jim Bunning pitched a perfect game for the Phils, an effort that remains an integral part of the history of both teams involved.

“It was exciting to be on the field for a perfect game,” said Briggs, who went 0-for-4 with a walk and a run scored in the opener. “I was the leadoff hitter in the second game and I was thrilled. It was Father’s Day and I had lost my father the year before so I was doubly excited to get my first homer on Father’s Day to honor the father I had just lost. My family was also there and they got an opportunity to see it. The fact that it was in New York, my family got to see it instead of seeing it on TV or hearing about it. They got to see me up close and personal.”

Ultimately, June would be the highlight of the season for Briggs because Philadelphia’s historic September collapse would also become an integral part not only of club lore but of baseball history. The Phils had a 6.5-game lead after Jim Bunning’s victory at Dodger Stadium on Sept. 20. There were 12 games left in the season and it looked as if Philadelphia would be headed to the World Series for the first time in 14 years. A 10-game losing streak, however, provided the Phils with a devastating end to the year.

“We led the league almost the entire year and were in first place up until 12 or 13 games remaining,” said Briggs, who went 0-for-5 in the final 12 games. “Back in those days, you went right to the World Series if you won and we thought we were going to win the pennant. Unfortunately, whatever could go wrong went wrong and we went into a tailspin at the end of the year.

“Consequently, we lost 10 in a row and St. Louis overtook us. Up until the last day, we had a chance, though. If the Mets beat St. Louis the last day we would have had a tie but it didn’t happen and we finished in a tie for second. Tempers got a little thin the last two or three weeks that season. We were losing and guys were pointing fingers. That didn’t happen prior to that but it was still exciting to be a part of.”

Johnny Briggs plaque

Johnny Briggs' Marker on the Brewers Wall of Honor. (Photo: Devon Polzar via hmdb.org)

DICK ALLEN

Allen was one of the game’s biggest lightning rods during his time in Philadelphia, often maligned and almost always misunderstood. The media had little patience for him and the racial tensions that plagued the city and much of the country during the decade certainly played a role in how Allen was perceived despite his being a dominant player.

Briggs and Allen were close from the moment Briggs arrived in Philly, though, and they remained close throughout their respective careers.

“He was more than just a good player, he was a good friend,” Briggs said. “I hung out with him quite a bit. I got in trouble a lot for hanging out with him. There was no one else on the team who was African American and close to my age. He and I had a great relationship. We had so many people back in the day who thought he was arrogant, though.

“The writers never gave him his due. He had a right to be the people’s favorite. He was a lot of kids’ favorite, too. They were writing so bad about him, though, especially in Philly. Love him or hate him, there was no in between. I say this with no malice, but he would deliberately come to the park and say ‘I’m not going to swing the bat today’ and he wasted one or two at-bats. His thing was with management and how they treated him and how the newspaper treated him.”

One incident that remains talked about when discussing Allen is his dustup on July 3, 1965 with veteran Frank Thomas, who had been with the team for less than a year after coming over in a trade with the Mets in August of ’64. Briggs witnessed the scuffle between Allen and Thomas, a fight that got a great deal of media attention.

“Let me give you a little insight into Frank Thomas,” Briggs said. “Frank Thomas was a kibitzer. He liked to play around and talk a lot. One day we’re around the batting cage and he was messing with me, talking trash to me, whatever. Richie took offense to it and said leave the kid alone. He and Frank Thomas got into it. That’s how he [Allen] got hit with a bat.”

Johnny Briggs Topps CardTime and retelling seem to have altered the story depending on who’s telling it. Other accounts have Allen standing near third base with Johnny Callison during batting practice when Thomas began chirping at Allen. Either way, Allen ultimately punched Thomas in the mouth, and Thomas responded by hitting him in the shoulder with a bat.

Thomas played his last game with the Phillies that night and was sold to the Astros the following week.

“We were in the hunt for a pennant that year,” Briggs said. “By him having that confrontation with Richie, it put a real drain on our offense at the time and put a damper on the pennant race.”

The Phillies were 4.5 games out of first on July 3 and ended up finishing 11.5 games back of the Dodgers for the pennant. The incident went a long way towards having some fans sour on Allen.

“He was at a point where he wanted to be loved by the fans,” Briggs said. “Any teammate he had, if you talked to them, they loved him. He would do things, though, like sit with the ground crew or in the dugout during rain delays where the other guys would be in the clubhouse.

“I never once doubted his ability. I was with Milwaukee at the time of his MVP [1972 with the White Sox]. His ball just jumped off the bat like there were elastic bands on the bat. There are players like that that don’t look like they hit the ball hard but the ball goes 400 feet or more.”

George Scott and John Briggs

Johnny Briggs (r) with George Scott

SEARCHING FOR PLAYING TIME

Briggs’ playing time nearly quadrupled in 1965 and he, as a 21-year-old, proved to be a productive player off the bench in what was ultimately another tumultuous season in Philly. He hit .236 in 229 at-bats but showed a great eye at the plate, walking 42 times [while striking out 44] and had a .349 on-base percentage.

It was a trend that would last Briggs’ entire career. He walked a great deal, never struck out much, and finished with a career OBP of .355 in 1,366 Major League games.

“I certainly felt more comfortable in 1965 and felt like I could have played more,” Briggs said. “I was constantly sharing time as a player and always looked forward to the time when I was an everyday player. But the Phillies didn’t give a whole lot of credence to younger players, they always went with the vets.”

“Mauch was a veteran type of manager. He didn’t depend on first- and second-year guys. He was a manager that wanted to win at all costs and I admired him for that. I learned a lot from being with him on the bench but I would have liked to have played.”

Briggs’ playing time slowly increased every season through 1968 when he hit .254 with seven homers, 31 RBIs, and a .364 OBP in 338 at-bats. Mauch was fired early during that season and replaced by Bob Skinner, who seemed to have more faith in Briggs.

Skinner, however, resigned midway through the ’69 season amidst what was reported to be a contract dispute. Briggs, however, had proven himself enough by that point to get some regular playing time regardless of who the manager was. He appeared in 124 games and had what were, up until that time, career highs in homers [12] and RBIs [46].

While Briggs hit .270 in 1970, changes were coming in Philadelphia. The club had a revolving door of managers between 1968 and 1973, which didn’t bode well for Briggs. When he got off to a slow start in 1971 – he hit .182 through 22 at-bats – he was traded to Milwaukee for Pete Koegel and Ray Peters.

“I was terribly surprised that I was traded,” Briggs said. “I was thinking that in 1970 I had a pretty decent year and then they name Frank Lucchesi manager. A couple of guys had good springs and I went to the bench and was traded. Roger Freed and Ron Stone had decent springs but didn’t do well the year before. But Lucchesi chose to put them in the starting lineup over me.

“So, I was a little angry about being traded because two guys had decent springs. As it turned out, they were flash in the pans, more or less. Go back and look at their credentials. They didn’t hit over .220 or .230 and the year before I hit .270. It all worked out for me, though. I wouldn’t have gotten an opportunity with the Phillies; Lucchesi just rid of a lot of guys. I went to Milwaukee and had the opportunity to play more. I had some good numbers with them even though they were lowly as a franchise at that time.”

Briggs makes a good case. Stone and Freed hit .227 and .221, respectively, in 1971 and were never more than bit players for the rest of their abbreviated careers. Briggs, meanwhile, went to the Brewers and flourished as an everyday player, hitting .264 with 21 homers, 59 RBIs, and a .378 OBP after the deal. He hit 21 homers again in 1972 while driving in 65 runs.

It led up to a 1973 season that would prove to be one of Briggs’ finest. Though he hit only .246, he had 18 homers and drove in 57 runs. He had career highs in steals [15] and runs scored [78]. His career-high 87 walks were also notable because he only struck out 83 times and finished 23rd in the American League MVP voting.

The highlight of the season, though, came on Aug. 4, though, when he went 6-for-6 in Cleveland. Briggs had two doubles and four singles, the last of which came in the top of the ninth off Jerry Johnson. He was, at the time, the 42nd player to record a six hit game joining the likes of Hall-of-Famers Ty Cobb and Frankie Frisch who had accomplished the feat 50 years earlier. Pittsburgh’s Rennie Stennett eclipsed the mark on Sept. 16, 1975, with a seven hit game against the Cubs.

“I was hitting third around that time and I wasn’t hitting well,” Briggs said. “I say not well because I wasn’t hitting home runs or for distance. Del Crandall was the manager and he said, ‘I’m going to get him more at-bats at leadoff.’ So, he put me first that particular day. I don’t remember all the pitchers but I remember Dick Tidrow [started for Cleveland]. All I can remember is saying to myself [before my last at-bat] was ‘Holy Christmas, I have a chance to go 6-for-6’. I got the last hit and wondered, ‘does this get me in the record books?’ I’m sent a lot of articles in regard to that game but I am also reminded of that day because I have a granddaughter, Jayla, who was also born on that day but not that year.”

Briggs had another fine season in 1974, hitting .253 with 17 homers and career highs in RBIs [73], hits [140], and doubles [30]. That season included a 16-game hitting streak in April and May.

HAMMERIN’ HANK AND THE END

The 1975 season figured to be a big one for Briggs and the Brewers. Aaron, in the twilight of his career, was traded to Milwaukee, giving the home run king the chance to finish his career in the city in which it began. Injuries slowed Briggs at the start of the 1975 season, though; and on June 14, after appearing in only 28 games, he was traded to Minnesota, limiting his time with Aaron.

“It was a little exciting,” Briggs said. “But I remember we were in Cleveland [on April 19] and I was batting third or fourth and Hank came up with runners on first and third. I had just gotten a hit and I was on first. Hank hit a grounder and me being the player I was, I tried to break up the double play. I slid too close to the base and hurt the tendon in my ankle and was out for a couple of weeks. No sooner than I came off the DL I got traded to the Twins; but Milwaukee was where I wanted to be.”

“I only got to play with Hank a few months so I never truly connected with him. But I never saw him get upset about anything. By that time, he had already broken the home run record. I never saw him get upset. He would come back to the dugout and he was not a guy to throw a bat or a helmet or show disgust. He was a mellow kind of player.”

Briggs appeared in 87 games for the Twins, hitting .231 with seven homers and 39 RBIs. But he retained his knack of getting on base, recording an OBP of .371. He walked 60 times for Minnesota and struck out only 41 times. He appeared in what would be his last Major League game on Sept. 28 against the White Sox. He went 1-for-3, collecting a seventh-inning double off Rich Hinton in his final at-bat.

“I went to Minnesota and played a little there but they wanted me to play first base and I wanted to play the outfield,” Briggs said. “So, the season ends and they send me a contract and they tried to cut salary. I wasn’t with them long enough for them to cut my salary so I took offense to that. I didn’t sign it and just sent it back to them and a month or so later they called me and said a Japanese team would like me to sign a contract with them. I signed with them.

“It turned out to be a bad decision. I went there and I got off to a decent start but I was feeling weak and tried and I wasn’t hitting well after a while. I told them something was wrong and I went to their doctor and the hospital and had all the tests but they never could find anything. They told me it was all in my brain and that I just missed being home. I had just lost my sister in the United States and I wasn’t able to be there and I didn’t want to die in Japan; so I went home and went to my own doctor and found out I had parasites.”

Briggs appeared in 47 games for Lotte of the Japanese Pacific League. Though he hit only .227, he was invited back the following year but declined, fearful that he would get sick once again. His attempts to return to the Major Leagues were also unsuccessful so he retired.

“I had an older brother that worked for the sheriff’s department and I needed a job,” Briggs said. “At the time jobs weren’t plentiful. He said I can get you a job but you’re going to have to work 16-hour days. I said okay because I wasn’t going to lose my house by not working. So, I did that and ended up being there for 25 ½ years.”

Briggs still remains popular in his hometown. He has a little league field named after him and later this year he will participate in a ceremony marking the reopening of the renovated Hinchliffe Stadium. The first annual Johnny Briggs Classic, a high school tournament, will be held at Hinchliffe on May 7.

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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