SABR

Darrell Johnson

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Darrell Dean Johnson worked in baseball as a catcher, a coach, a manager best known for taking the 1975 Red Sox to Game Seven of the World Series, and as a scout. He was born in the small community of Horace, Nebraska, on August 25, 1928, but grew up on the West Coast, so much so that he was routinely described as a Californian.

After playing in the California state amateur tourney in 1949, Johnson was signed as an amateur free agent by St. Louis Browns scout Tony Robello. He was assigned to Redding (California) in the Class D Far West League and played in 88 games, batting .276 in 322 at-bats, with nine home runs and 58 RBIs.

Moving from Class D to Class C, Johnson played in 1950 for the Marshall (Texas) Browns in the East Texas League. Appearing in 131 games in the 136-game schedule, he had 13 home runs, 105 RBIs, and a .329 batting average. Johnson tied for the league lead with 36 doubles, and led the league’s catchers in fielding average (.979). Marshall won the league playoffs.

Moving further up the ladder, Johnson was jumped to Double-A, catching in the Texas League for the 1951 San Antonio Missions. He got into 49 games and hit .266 with three homers and 24 RBIs. He was remembered by the folks in Marshall, and some 300 fans from there traveled to Shreveport on May 23, 1951, to present him with a savings bond and manager Salty Parker with a hat.1 Johnson was accorded another honor when he was named to the South team for the July 12 Texas League all-star game, but he was unable to take part, because just a few hours before the team was announced, he had been sent down to Wichita Falls. It wasn’t that he couldn’t handle Double-A ball but that the Missions had won the championship the year before and not only did the team want to make room for a returning member of that squad coming from Toronto, but Wichita Falls urgently needed a catcher. So Johnson made his way to the Class B Big State League, where he finished the season with the Wichita Falls Spudders, batting .309.

Johnson was not on the Browns’ 1952 spring roster, but he elected to participate in advanced spring training. New manager Rogers Hornsby liked his work and kept him on the Opening Day roster. (At the time, teams often started the season with extended rosters and did not have to pare down to 25 men until 30 days after the season started.)

Darrell Johnson made his major-league debut on April 20, 1952, in the Browns’ sixth game of the season. He singled and scored in his one at-bat, against the Chicago White Sox’ Billy Pierce. There was an odd aspect to the game. It was suspended after seven innings with the White Sox leading, 10-2. The game was finished on May 26.

When fellow rookie Clint Courtney emerged as the regular catcher for the Browns in May, Johnson was sent down to San Antonio to get more playing time, so he wasn’t around when the April 20 game was finished. But Cliff Fannin was. Fannin had been the starting pitcher for the game, throwing to Johnson, but was pulled after 2⅔ innings. The very day the original game was completed, May 26, the Fannin/Johnson battery were working for the Missions; Fannin had also been sent down by the Browns. Shreveport beat San Antonio, 7-3, and Fannin was tagged with the loss – and also the loss in the American League Browns vs. White Sox game!

With the Missions, Johnson got into 24 games, batting .325 with three homers and 15 RBIs, and in June he was brought back up to the Browns. In all, Johnson played in 29 games for the Browns, batting .282 and driving in nine runs. He almost helped tie a major-league record on July 22. Three pinch-hitters in a row had hit safely, but Johnson flied out. A serious spike wound prevented him from getting a few more games under his belt. Then, on July 28, the Browns traded Johnson and outfielder Jim Rivera to the Chicago White Sox for catcher J.W. Porter and outfielder Ray Coleman.

With the White Sox, Johnson served as backup catcher behind Sherm Lollar, getting into 22 games but for only 37 at-bats. He hit .108 and drove in just one run.

Johnson spent the next four years playing minor-league ball. In 1953 he was optioned out and spent the entire season with the Memphis Chicks of the Double-A Southern Association, playing in 113 games and batting .249 with four homers and 44 RBIs. He was actually traded back to the Browns on June 13, sent by the White Sox with Lou Kretlow and $75,000 to St. Louis for pitcher Virgil Trucks and third baseman Bob Elliott. But under the terms of the deal, he remained with Memphis for the balance of the season.

There was no more St. Louis Browns team after 1953, as the franchise was moved to Baltimore and became the Baltimore Orioles. In 1954 Clint Courtney was still the regular catcher and Johnson was on the major-league roster early in the season, but was optioned to Richmond on cutdown day without appearing in a major-league game. For the 1954 Richmond Virginians (Triple-A International League), Johnson appeared in 90 games, hit six homers, drove in 37 runs, and recorded a .261 average. 

On November 4, 1954, Johnson was recalled by Baltimore and packaged in an 18-player trade sending him to New York Yankees, who in turn assigned him to their Denver Bears Triple-A club in the American Association. The Yankees were set at catcher with Yogi Berra and Charlie Silvera, and there wasn’t much room for Johnson. Silvera was traded after 1955, but both Elston Howard and Johnny Blanchard were emerging prospects and Darrell was the odd man out.

An interesting sidenote is found in an October 19, 1955, article in The Sporting News that said Johnson had never had an injury to his throwing hand in seven years of catching professionally. The reason cited was his double-jointed thumbs. “Most of the time a foul tip knocks the thumb into the other joint and I can just snap it right back in,” he said. He was reported to have a peculiar throwing motion; he would curve his thumb outward. Nonetheless, he had an outstanding throwing arm.

Playing under fellow catcher Ralph Houk at Denver, Johnson had a very full 152-game season in 1955 and hit for a strong .306 average, with four home runs and 49 RBIs. Never the fastest man around (he stole only one base in his six major-league seasons, and articles in The Sporting News in April 1957 and again in 1958 ranked him “slowest player afoot” on the Yankees), Johnson hit an inside-the-park home run on June 6 on a hard-hit grounder past first base, which took a carom and deceived the right fielder, who was looking under the bullpen bench when the ball was actually sitting on the field in fair territory.

In 1956, again with the Bears, Johnson appeared in 107 games and hit a strong .319, with seven homers and 48 RBIs. After the season, the Yanks sold Charlie Silvera to the Chicago Cubs and that opened up the possibility of a slot on the major-league team. Johnson played winter league ball with Licey in the Dominican Republic, though going 48 consecutive at-bats without a hit may have undercut his prospects. Johnson was an active golfer and won more than one tourney during his years in baseball, among them one in February 1957 involving more than 150 active and former ballplayers. Golf could have done him in. The whole story probably hasn’t been told, but in 1979 Whitey Herzog recalled a time when “Darrell Johnson, Don Larsen, Billy Hunter, and myself were all in golf carts and ran off a bridge.”2

Johnson impressed Yankees manager Casey Stengel and coach Bill Dickey at St. Petersburg in the spring of 1957 and made the big-league club. He spent the full years of 1957 and 1958 with the Yankees, but saw very little action. Yogi Berra played a pretty full year, so Johnson tabulated only 46 at-bats over 21 games in 1957. He hit one home run – his first in the majors, off Virgil Trucks on June 15 – and drove in eight runs, batting .217.

Elston Howard remained the backup to Berra in 1958, so while Johnson stuck with the Yankees as the third-string catcher, he appeared in just five games, hitting .250 without either a homer or a run batted in. In both years, he was on the World Series roster, and received a full share each year, and a ring, but didn’t see any action at all.

In 1959 Johnson began the season with the Yankees but didn’t appear in a single game. He was sent to the Richmond Virginians of the Triple-A International League, which had become a Yankees farm club. There, he played in 94 games and hit for just a .218 average, with four homers and 28 RBIs. He was selected the best-throwing catcher, in a poll of managers in the league.

Johnson was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the Rule 5 draft at the 1959 winter meetings. St. Louis general manager Bing Devine realized Johnson was rusty after a couple of underutilized seasons, but thought he might have a chance to hit. He was one of five catchers competing for a spot during spring training in 1960, a group that included a young Tim McCarver. Since Johnson had spent most of his major-league career in the bullpen, he was kept on the team as a catcher-coach. McCarver was sent to the minors, but when he was recalled on July 31, Johnson was released as a player, and promptly signed to a new contract as just a coach. He played just eight games with the Cardinals in 1960, going hitless in two at-bats, without driving in a run.

After the season, Johnson was named manager of the Cardinals’ entry in the Peninsula Winter League, which played on the San Francisco Bay peninsula during the wintertime.

Johnson began the 1961 major-league season as a coach with the Cardinals, but he was let go when manager Solly Hemus was fired on July 8. The very next day, the Philadelphia Phillies signed him as a player. They had to designate Pete Whisenant a coach to make room on the roster. Manager Gene Mauch was unhappy with Jimmy Coker’s catching, and hoped Johnson’s handling of pitchers would improve his pitching staff. Darrell played 21 games with the Phillies in July and early August, batting .230. On August 14 Johnson was sold to the Cincinnati Reds, his third major-league team of the year. The Reds had two rookies sharing catching duties, Johnny Edwards and Jerry Zimmerman, and they were looking for a veteran catcher for the pennant run. Johnson, a right-handed batter like Zimmerman, platooned with the lefty Edwards down the stretch as the Reds won the pennant.

Johnson appeared in 20 games for the Reds, batting .315 with one homer (on his second day on the job) and six RBIs in 54 at-bats. The Reds won the pennant, but Johnson almost missed out on postseason play when he pulled a muscle in his side on September 29. Expectations were that the “aging Darrell Johnson” would play rather than the two Reds rookie catchers, but Arthur Daley in the New York Times warned that “his only recommendation is experience.”3 Johnny Edwards saw more duty and batted .364, with four hits in 11 at-bats.

After sitting unused on the Yankees bench in the 1957 and 1958 World Series, however, Johnson finally got his chance to play in the Series – this time against the Yankees. He played in pain but started in the two games begun by New York lefty Whitey Ford – Games One and Four – and he went 2-for-4 off the Yankees ace, both hits in the fourth game. Ford shut out Cincinnati twice, 2-0 and 7-0. Jim Coates threw the final four innings of Game Four. Unlike the Yankees, who had voted Johnson a full Series share, while what he’d mostly done was catch in the bullpen, the Reds voted him only a quarter-share.4

The 115 at-bats for the Phillies and the Reds matched the total he’d had as a rookie for the Browns and White Sox in 1952, and stand as his career high.

Browns fans still had not forgotten Johnson, and he was named “Brownie of 1961,” an award given by the St. Louis Browns Fan Club of Chicago to perpetuate the memory of the Browns. At that point, Johnson was one of 11 former Browns still in the major leagues.

In the spring of 1962, the Reds moved Johnson to Baltimore for catcher Hank Foiles, though it was an unusual deal that saw Cincinnati releasing him on April 24 and Baltimore signing him on the same day.

Johnson was acquired to be a coach. O’s executive Lee MacPhail said he had always admired Johnson’s work while both were with Yankees, and thought he would be a good choice to manage the bullpen. In a pinch, he could always be reactivated.

Indeed, Johnson was activated, on May 22, after catcher Gus Triandos broke a finger. Johnson caught six games, batting .182, but resumed coaching after the Orioles acquired catcher Hobie Landrith from the New York Mets. Other than a brief, hitless appearance in one game while managing Rochester in 1965, that was the end of Darrell Johnson’s playing career. 

Before the 1963 season, the Orioles named Johnson manager of the Rochester Red Wings, their top farm club, where he spent three seasons, winning the International League championship in 1964. After a disappointing fifth-place finish in 1965, the Orioles promoted Earl Weaver from Double-A Elmira and gave Johnson the Elmira job, and the Pioneers team won the Eastern League pennant.

In November 1966 the Yankees hired Johnson as an area scout, and he served in that capacity in 1967. Beginning in 1968, he worked with the Boston Red Sox, as the big-league pitching coach under manager Dick Williams in ’68 and ’69, and as a minor-league pitching instructor and special-assignment scout in 1970. In 1971 and 1972, Johnson managed the Triple-A Louisville Colonels; they finished first in 1972 but lost in the International League playoff finals. While at Louisville, Johnson looked over Luis Tiant and pitched him regularly to help him get his form back. Tiant had already been released by two other clubs. In many respects, he owed his later success to the opportunity under Johnson.5

In 1973 Johnson managed the Pawtucket Red Sox (the Louisville Colonels had moved to Pawtucket); the team finished second during the season, but won the league championship playoffs and the Little World Series.

Johnson was named manager of the Boston Red Sox for the 1974 season, replacing Eddie Kasko. Under Johnson the team was firing on all cylinders before a collapse in August and September, and finished up somewhat worse than its 1973 record; it hurt losing Carlton Fisk to knee surgery for half the season, but there had been an overall power outage during the stretch drive – Boston lost both halves of a September 2 doubleheader to Baltimore by identical 1-0 scores.

With the addition of the Gold Dust Twins (Fred Lynn and Jim Rice), the Red Sox won 11 more games and the pennant in 1975. Darrell Johnson was back in the World Series once again, this time at the helm of the Red Sox. The Red Sox lost a very dramatic World Series, by one ninth-inning run to Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in Game Seven. This was the Series of the Ed Armbrister bunt, the Carlton Fisk home run in the bottom of the 12th in Game Six, and the question from the final game: Why did Johnson take out Willoughby? Asked years later about having Cecil Cooper (1-for-19 in the Series) pinch-hit for Jim Willoughby, Johnson said, “I wouldn’t change a thing, except that I’d probably have Cecil hit a home run.”6

Johnson was named 1975’s Major League Manager of the Year by The Sporting News. And once again he was given the St. Louis Brownie of the Year Award by those who still kept the faith. Sportswriters covering the World Series noted that Johnson had become more bitter, was livid regarding the Armbrister incident, and was observed as becoming “surly and quick-tempered in his relations with the World Series press.” Former Red Sox manager Dick Williams empathized with Johnson, noting the pressure, and called him an “intense, inward” but “outstanding” person who simply hadn’t adjusted as well to dealing with the press as Williams himself had.7 Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee had his criticisms, expressed in the immediate aftermath of the World Series: “Johnson has been falling out of trees all summer and landing on his feet.”8

Nonetheless, the skipper had piloted the Red Sox deep into a World Series against the odds-on favorite, and few questioned his being named Manager of the Year, an honor also awarded him by United Press International. Johnson was given a new two-year contract.

He wasn’t allowed long to bask in the glory. In the early morning hours the next day after getting the new contract, he was arrested for drunk driving near his home in Pinole, California. But it was the following summer that the knives came out. Just 10 days after Boston’s longtime owner Tom Yawkey died, and with the Red Sox struggling with a 41-45 record, Johnson was fired, on July 19, 1976. It was just six days after he served as AL skipper in the 1976 All-Star Game, a 7-1 loss at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Headlines in some papers reading, “Johnson Called Idiot” followed his choice of pitchers for the game. Jim Palmer was the reigning Cy Young Award winner and his Orioles teammate Wayne Garland had a 9-1 record at the time, but neither was selected, nor was Gaylord Perry. (Johnson started the Tigers’ Mark Fidrych.) “He’s an idiot,” said Palmer, “and maybe this is why the American League seldom wins an All-Star Game.” Palmer also castigated Johnson for his handling of the Red Sox pitching staff in the ninth inning of Game Seven of the World Series.9 Columnist Dick Young replied to Palmer’s charge with a Knight Wire Service story headlined, “First of All, Darrell Johnson Is Not an Idiot.” Young’s assessment? “Maybe a little retarded.”

On the morning of July 19, Hartford Courant sports editor Bill Newell wondered whether Johnson would become the scapegoat for the plunge in Red Sox fortunes. We don’t know if GM Dick O’Connell read the paper and decided to act, but that very day, Johnson was fired, which O’Connell explained in part by declaring, “We cannot blame everything on Darrell Johnson, but it’s easier to change managers than the team, which would be practically impossible.”10 Johnson was kept on as a Red Sox scout, and the managerial reins were handed to Don Zimmer. Boston finished in third place, 15½ games behind the Yankees and five behind the second-place Orioles. Phil Elderkin’s explanation in the Christian Science Monitor as to why Johnson bit the dust: “No communication.”11 It wasn’t unexpected. Elderkin had heard rumblings a full year earlier from those in the Red Sox front office, concerned with his lack of player discipline. At the time, it had been said that unless the Sox won the pennant, he’d be out. They won, but it had bought him only a half-season.12

The American League expanded for the 1977 season, adding two franchises and – looking ahead – Johnson was named the first manager of the new Seattle team on September 3, even before the 1976 race was done. With a new franchise, one doesn’t expect much of a team in its first season, but with 64 wins the ’77 Mariners finished a half-game ahead of the last-place Oakland A’s. Johnson, though, said he was happy. He’d felt really down with the way things ended in Boston, but now he was finding new life with a young, new team.13 He was rewarded early in 1978 with a pay raise and a two-year contract; the Mariners held down the cellar, but in ’79 improved significantly to finish 13 games ahead of Oakland. Johnson served as bullpen coach for the 1979 All-Star Game.

Johnson managed Seattle into the 1980 season. Though the team wasn’t faring well, he was given a vote of confidence by team president Dan O’Brien on July 5, 1980. But on August 4 he was replaced by Maury Wills, 105 games into the season, with a .375 winning percentage (or, perhaps more to the point, a .625 losing percentage). Back in Boston, Don Zimmer almost made it to the end of the season but had lost his job just a few days before. Zim promptly got the job managing the Texas Rangers. He hired Johnson as one of his coaches.

On July 28, 1982, Zimmer was fired and Johnson was named interim manager. He said he wouldn’t even sit in the manager’s chair for the first two days on the job, because he didn’t think it was right the way Zimmer was fired. Oddly, Zimmer kept managing for three games after he was fired; the whole story was an odd one.14 Johnson’s record at the helm in Texas was 26-40.

Johnson was a coach for the New York Mets in 1983. He served as a special-assignment scout, a position he held into 1993. He played in his first Old-Timers Game in 1984. In 1985 he also served as coordinator of minor-league operations for the Mets.

Johnson finally tasted World Series champagne with the Mets in 1986, when they beat the Red Sox and Johnson joined in the clubhouse celebration.

After working as the bench coach for the Mets in 1993, Johnson became a special assistant to the general manager from 1993 through 1999, which was his last year in baseball.

Darrell Johnson died of leukemia on May 3, 2004, in Fairfield, California. He was 75 years old. He had lost his wife, Dixie, in February. The couple left two daughters, Dara and Deana; a son, Douglas; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. The Red Sox were in first place the night before, some 39 games into the season. Later that year, they finally won it all, 29 years after Johnson had helped bring them to the brink.

 

Note

Wayne McElreavy co-authored the original version of this biography which was published in the book ’75: The Red Sox Team That Saved Baseball.

 

Notes

1 The Sporting News, June 6, 1951.

2 Hartford Courant, January 5, 1979.

3 New York Times, October 2, 1961.

4 Chicago Tribune, October 24, 1961.

5 Hartford Courant, August 6, 1974.

6 New York Times, May 6, 2004.

7 Washington Post, October 20, 1975.

8 Hartford Courant, October 24, 1975.

9 Hartford Courant, July 7, 1976.

10 Associated Press wire story, July 20, 1976.

11 Christian Science Monitor, August 16, 1976.

12 Christian Science Monitor, August 27, 1975.

13 Chicago Tribune, July 19, 1977.

14 See the New York Times, August 1, 1982.

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