Originally a pitcher in the Detroit Tigers organization, Howard Johnson became an infielder to allow his natural batting talents to blossom. When finally given a chance to play regularly with the New York Mets, Johnson established himself as one of the most well-rounded hitters in the game. In 1987 he and Darryl Strawberry became the first teammates to both hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases, and Johnson's 36 homers set a National League record for a switch-hitter, which he would break four years later.
HoJo, as he became known, broke camp with the Tigers in 1982, but wasn't in Detroit to stay until 1984, when he hit 12 dingers with 50 RBIs in 355 at-bats. However, as the team advanced to the postseason, manager Sparky Anderson chose to use Dave Bergman, Marty Castillo, and Tom Brookens rather than Johnson, who got only one pinch at-bat in the World Series.
Detroit's lack of faith in his potential led them to trade him to the New York Mets that December for Walt Terrell. In New York, Johnson found himself in a platoon with Ray Knight, but his ability to play shortstop (albeit without much range) got him more chances to play -- manager Davey Johnson was quite willing to stack his lineup offensively at the cost of weaker defense. But it wasn't until after Knight left as a free agent that Johnson played every day, staving off the challenge of the promising Dave Magadan.
Usually hitting sixth or seventh, Johnson was easy to pitch around in 1987, but still slugged 36 homers and tallied 99 RBIs. Opposing managers, especially Whitey Herzog of the rival Cardinals, repeatedly had Johnson's bat confiscated to check for cork. Eventually Herzog realized that Johnson's power was for real -- two years later he suggested that Johnson's arms should be checked instead.
Johnson fell off to 24 homers and 23 steals in 1988, playing the second half of the season with a sore right shoulder. The Mets reached the League Championship Series, but Johnson hit very poorly in the team's loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Over the winter, he was the center of many trade rumors, with hot rookie Gregg Jefferies supposedly ready to take over third base.
But the Mets held onto him, and soon reaped the benefits. Johnson moved to third in the lineup in 1989 but continued to draw walks, showing both that he was a patient hitter and that National League pitchers would rather pitch to anybody else, even Darryl Strawberry. At the All-Star break, Davey Johnson said, "the Mets' season [was] a Howard Johnson highlight film." HoJo finished with career highs of 101 ribbies, 104 runs, and 41 steals while batting .287 with 36 homers. With his second 30-30 season, Johnson became only the third player ever to accomplish the feat at twice.
A dead fastball hitter in his first few seasons, Johnson used a high-tech reflex program to hone his timing. His ability to hit even the best fastballs gave him many clutch late-inning home runs against opponents' ace relievers, who tended to be fireballers. A favorite victim was the Cardinals' Todd Worrell, who surrendered five home runs lifetime to Johnson before Whitey Herzog finally decided not to let Worrell pitch to Johnson in vital situations.
Johnson's stats dropped significantly in 1990, fueling more speculation of a trade. But he bounced back once again in 1991, swatting 38 dingers, stealing 30 bases, knocking in 117 runs and scoring 108 times. With his third 30-30 season, Johnson joined Bobby Bonds as the only players to accomplish the feat more than twice. Setting or tying a handful of Met offensive records, Johnson noted that it was no coincidence that his best year came after he became a born-again Christian in the off-season. But while the inner peace he found with religion may have helped his hitting stroke, it certainly didn't help his fielding. That same year, as the club began to shift him around in positions more than ever before, he made 31 errors at shortstop, third base, and outfield.
HoJo endured an awful 1992, playing in only 100 games due to a hairline fracture on his wrist he sustained in August, and tallying just seven homers and a .223 batting average. There would be no magical bounce-back this time: Johnson followed up the poor 1992 with a similar 1993 season, batting .238 with seven homers over 72 games.
When the Mets didn't re-sign Johnson at the end of the season, he joined the Colorado Rockies in the thin, homer-happy air of Denver, hoping to revitalize his sagging career. He ended up batting .211 with ten homers over 93 games. Johnson then signed with the Chicago Cubs in April 1995 and quickly became a fan favorite, knocking seven home runs in limited play. But when nobody would sign him as a free agent following the '95 campaign, he retired.
After taking a job as a coach for a rookie team in the fledgling Tampa Bay Devil Rays organization in 1996, HoJo felt the burning desire to play once again. He arranged a spring training tryout with the Mets for 1997, but fell short in his comeback attempt. After Johnson hit just .129 with one homer during spring training, he decided to hang up his spikes for good.
Johnson stayed with the Mets in other roles for the next couple of years, signing on to be a scout in October 1997. In December 2000, the New York fan favorite became the batting coach for the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Single-A affiliate of the Mets. (AG/SH)
Contribute your recollections of Howard Johnson by clicking here.
FROM THE BASEBALL CHRONOLOGY
»June 8, 1978: Bob Horner, the College Player of the Year, is selected first in the free-agent draft by the Braves. Horner will skip the minors and debut on June 16 with a homer in his first game, off Blyleven. The Blue Jays make Lloyd Moseby the 2nd selection. The Yankees, with three first-round selections awarded as compensation in player signings, pick Rex Hudler, Matt Winters, and Brian Ryder. On the 23rd round they take a Clearwater RHP named Howard Johnson, who will make the ML as an infielder. MSU's Kirk Gibson, who most teams assume will play football, lasts until the 12th overall pick when his hometown Tigers take him. He signs for $200,000 and promises to drop football. Kent Hrbek lasts until the 17th round, and Ryne Sandberg goes the Phils on the 20th round. Besides Horner, three other draft picks, all high schoolers, will jump directly to the majors after signing: the A's Mike Morgan (June 11); Blue Jays Brian Milner (June 23) and the A's Tim Conroy (June 23).
»June 4, 1984:
The Tigers break a 33 tie in the 10th when Dave Bergman golfs a three-run homer into the upper deck at Tiger Stadium. Bergman had fouled seven pitches off Roy Lee Howell before connecting. Howard Johnson had a three run homer in the 7th to account for the other half of Detroit's scoring.
»June 10, 1984:
At Baltimore the Tigers sweep two from the O's, winning 104 and 80, before 51,764 fans. Kirk Gibson has six hits and six RBIs in the two games, while Alan Trammell and Howard Johnson each have five hits. Reliever Doug Bair wins the opener and Dan Petry allows just three hits in the nitecap win. Detroit now leads by seven games.
»December 7, 1984: In a straight trade, the Mets send P Walt Terrell to the Detroit Tigers for 3B Howard Johnson. Hojo will start for eight years in New York. Terrell will have six seasons in Detroit, interrupted by stays with four other teams.
»July 22, 1986:
The Mets win a crazy five-hour marathon with the Reds in 14 innings, winning 63 (as recalled by Bill Deane). Setting the tone, Darryl Strawberry is ejected after arguing a called 3rd strike in the 5th. In the 9th, Howard Johnson inadvertently kicks the ball after Reds C Bo Diaz drops a third strike. Johnson runs out of the baseline and is hit in the back with the throw from pitcher Ron Robinson. Reds coach Billy DeMars is ejected for arguing the safe call. The Mets, down 31, with two out, tie the game when Dave Parker who drops a routine fly ball. In the 10th, Davey Johnson sends in pitcher Rick Aguilera to hit for pitcher Doug Sisk. Aguilera walks, but is stranded. In the Reds 10th, pinch-runner Eric Davis steals 2B and 3B, bumping into Ray Knight. Knight decks Davis and both benches empty. Knight, Davis, Kevin Mitchell and Mario Soto are ejected. Gary Carter moves to 3B, McDowell comes in to pitch, and Orosco moves from the mound to RF. With two out and a runner on 2B in the 11th, Orosco returns to pitch, McDowell moves to LF, and Mookie Wilson shifts to right. Rose protests when Orosco is permitted eight warm-up pitches. Orosco whiffs Max Venable to end the inning. In the 12th, The Mets are forced to lead off the inning with Orosco and McDowell, and go down in order. McDowell returns to pitch in the 13th and gets Tony Perez to fly to Orosco in right. Howard Johnson belts a three-run homer in the 14th and McDowell retires the side in order.
»September 11, 1987: Howard Johnson steals his 30th base of the season in the Mets 64, 10-inning loss to the Cardinals, becoming the 8th player ever to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in a season. Mets starter Ron Darling tears ligaments in his thumb while fielding a Vince Coleman bunt during the game and will miss the rest of the season.
»September 21, 1987: Darryl Strawberry joins Howard Johnson as the first teammates ever to achieve 30 homers and 30 steals in the same season, stealing two bases in the Mets 71 win at Chicago. Strawberry is only the 10th member of the 30-30 club, but the 4th to accomplish the feat this season. The sinning pitcher is Doc Gooden, who had his 10-game win streak over Chicago snapped in August; however, today's win will start him on another 12-game win streak over the Cubs.
»April 3, 1989: The Mets win their 11th consecutive home opener 84 over St. Louis at Shea Stadium. New York has won on Opening Day in 18 of the last 20 seasons. Dwight Gooden is the winner, helped by a home run by Howard Johnson.
»August 20, 1989: Howard Johnson hits his 30th home run of the season in the Mets 54 loss to the Dodgers and joins Barry Bonds and Willie Mays as the only players to achieve 30 home runs and 30 SBs in two different seasons.
»September 24, 1991: Howard Johnson of the Mets strokes his 37th home run of the season to set a new National League record for switch-hitters, in NY's 10-8 loss to Pittsburgh. Johnson himself had set the previous mark in 1987. He will finish the year with 38 homers and 117 RBIs, becoming the 1st switch-hitter to lead the NL in driving home runs.
»October 6, 1991:
It's Fan Appreciation Day as David Cone of the Mets ties an National League record by striking out 19 Phillies in a 70 Mets win. The total gives Cone 241 for the year, as he leads the league for the 2nd straight season. Teammate Howard Johnson ends the season with 117 RBIs to lead the NL, the first Mets player to do so. He's also the first NL switch-hitter to lead in ribbies.
»June 27, 1992: The Mets edge the Cards with all the runs coming on homers: Dave Gallagher and Jones match dingers, and Howard Johnson's homer in the bottom of the 9th makes John Franco (6-0) a winner. It is Johnson's last homer of the year.
»July 28, 1992: In the Mets 86 win over the Phils, Howard Johnson suffers a hairline fracture of his wrist. He'll go on the DL August three and miss the rest of the season.
»September 18, 1992: Pittsburgh's Barry Bonds hits his 30th home run of the season off Philadelphia's Terry Mulholland in the Pirates' 52 win over the Phillies. Bonds thus becomes the 5th player in history to have a pair of 30-HR, 30-stolen bases seasons. The others include his father, Willie Mays, Howard Johnson, and Ron Gant.
»September 22, 1996:
Cincinnati SS Barry Larkin hits his 30th home run of the year in the Reds' 63 win over the Cardinals in the opening game of a twin bill. He thus becomes the 1st SS to join the exclusive 30-30 club. Mets 3B Howard Johnson is the only other IF to perform the feat. In the nightcap of the twin bill, Reds P John Smiley holds the Cardinals to a single hita Royce Clayton singlein shutting St. Louis out by a count of 60.