Monday, December 17, 2012

#131 Deron Johnson The Sporting News Rookie Star

Deron Johnson showed some serious power in the minors which is probably why Topps had him on a rookie card a couple of seasons before he made a real impact in the majors. After four years of full time duty in the Yankee chain, three at AAA, Johnson saw a handful of games late in 1960 in New York.

But with the stacked Yankee line-up at the time he had no place to play. In June of 1961 he was traded to the Athletics (insert eye-roll here). His time in Kansas City was interrupted by a stint in the Reserves and he hit poorly when he was available. By 1963 the A's had sold him to Cincinnati who had him play at AAA San Diego for the season. Being in his hometown proved to be a tonic and Johnson tore up PCL pitching that year.

Back in the majors for good in 1964 with the Reds, Johnson reeled off a dozen years of solid big league work with the Reds, Braves, Phils, A's (again..and he won a Series ring here in '73), Brewers, White Sox and Red Sox. His high water mark came in 1965 when he hit career highs in homers (32) and RBIs (130). That latter mark led the league. Interestingly he didn't make the NL All Star team that year. He had been switched back to the outfield by the Reds that year after working at first, third and in left. That's what happens when you played in the time of Mays, Aaron, Clemente, Frank Robinson, etc. He did finish 4th in MVP voting that year. The implementation of the DH rule was a blessing for Johnson. Nearly all the time he played in the AL was in that role.

Johnson, who was a highly acclaimed multi-sport star at San Diego High School, had turned down numerous college and pro sports offers to sign with the Yankees. He played through 1976, coached after that and died at the young age of 53 in 1992.

As usual SABR has an extensive and interesting bio of Johnson. It's full of interesting notes  including the story of how Johnson and the Yanks avoided the dreaded 'Bonus Baby' tag which would have required him to cool his heels with the big club for two seasons listening to Casey Stengel in the dugout while taking up a locker.

Looking at Johnson's career I got to wondering how many players in this 1959 set were still active in his last year in the majors, 1976. I looked into it and found that less than ten were still active that year. Those players include (with final season noted)... Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Tony Taylor (along with Johnson all 1976)... Brooks Robinson and Mike Cuellar (1977)... Ron Fairly (1978)... and finally Minnie Minoso who had a couple of at bats in 1980 but that was more gimmick than big league baseball so I can't really consider him part of this group.

Several others with cards in this set, including some major stars, nearly made it to '76 having finished their career in 1975. Those incude Harmon Killebrew, Bob Gibson, Lindy McDaniel, Claude Osteen, Jim Perry, Orlando Pena, and Vada Pinson.

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