Howard Johnson rubbed his first big league manager the wrong way. And if you were in Sparky Anderson’s doghouse, the bones were few and far between.
In his three seasons with the Detroit Tigers, Johnson went from hot prospect to persona non grata, and finally to ex-Tiger.
Johnson was a switch-hitter with a short swing. He was originally drafted as a shortstop out of high school, but his glove was never the most alluring part of Johnson’s game. He was offense-first, and after he smacked 22 homers at Double-A Birmingham and followed it with 23 homers at Triple-A Evansville, the Tigers were ready to anoint him the “third baseman of the future.”
The Tigers had been looking for a third baseman who could hit for about twenty-five years, and when Johnson hit .316 as a rookie in 1982, he looked like he may be the best thing to happen at the hot corner for Detroit since Ray Boone. But in his second season, Johnson battled injuries and managed to appear in only 74 games and hit .212 with three homers. In 1984, when the team traveled north, Johnson was one of the guys who might get playing time, but Sparky’s patience was running thin.
“I never seemed to get a chance to play a month [at third] under Sparky,” Johnson remembered years later. “I would go hitless in back-to-back games, and then I’d sit. I couldn’t convince him to let me face lefties either.”
What was Johnson’s mistake? He wasn’t one of Sparky’s guys. Anderson loved veterans on his bench, for the most part. And in his mind, the young Johnson wasn’t a starter, wasn’t polished enough to be his everyday third baseman. Sparky liked to play Tom Brookens, one of his pets, and he had Darrell Evans, who could play third very well even at that stage of his career.
After HoJo played a limited role for the 1984 World Champions, the Tigers traded him to the New York Mets in a straight-up deal for right-pitcher Walt Terrell. It proved a decent move for both teams, but Tiger fans would have preferred if Sparky had figured out a way to play nice with Johnson.
The second manager who found HoJo in his clubhouse was Davey Johnson, a baseball lifer who was only slightly less stubborn than Sparky. Manager Johnson wasn’t sure if player Johnson was good enough to be in the lineup every day and he already had Ray Knight on his roster. For two years, Davey used switch-hitting HoJo mostly against right-handed pitching. The Mets were also suspicious of Johnson’s ability with the glove: he averaged 27 errors per 162 games in his first three years as a Met. But in 1987, HoJo finally got to play. That season the pull-hitting Johnson hit 36 home runs, lofting many of them down the left and right field lines at Shea Stadium. He finally proved capable from the right side of the plate, hitting 15 homers off southpaws. With that type of pop, the Mets didn’t care how Johnson played the field, and from 1987-91 he averaged 31 homers and 95 RBIs per season. In 1991 he won two-thirds of the triple crown, leading the NL in homers (38) and runs batted in (117).
It wasn’t only Johnson’s teams that doubted him, three different managers accused him of corking his bat: Roger Craig, Whitey Herzog, and Hal Lanier, all during MLB’s Home Run Explosion of 1987. That season home runs increased by 17 percent. Johnson denied wrongdoing. “My ability is being challenged,” Johnson told reporters after Craig asked an umpire to confiscate Johnson’s bat during a game between the Mets and Giants in 1987. “I’m hitting home runs fair and square, the right way.” Over the years as he continued to be among home run leaders, Johnson would at times act coy, teasing reporters as to whether he used a corked bat or not. Many years later, when asked about HoJo’s power surge, Davey Johnson said, “Did he probably cork his bat? Yes.”