Deron Roger Johnson, one of many young Yankee players labeled the "next Mickey Mantle", spent 16 seasons as a major league slugger. His finest years was not as a Bronx Bomber but in the National League.
Born July 17, 1938 in San Diego, he became a dual -- football and baseball -- interscholastic sports star in his home town. Johnson played end, linebacker, kicker, and punter for San Diego High School. In 1955, Johnson scored 15 touchdowns for the Cavers as the team went on to capture the Southern California championship. His football coach Duane Maley said Johnson "would have been a great college player and a pro player...I saw him punt one 72 yards in the air." Maley further declared, "Deron was a coach's dream. He never missed a practice. He was never late." His baseball coach Les Cassie confirmed such and added the All-American end was among the top athletes ever to come out of San Diego High.
Pursued by several colleges, he was offered numerous football scholarships including one from the Notre Dame, but Johnson turned them all down. Upon graduation in 1956, having been also sought by the Yankees, Braves, Red Sox, Indians, and Pirates, Johnson inked a pact with the New York Yankees. Yankee scout Gordon "Deacon" Jones signed Johnson to a Class D contract for $1,000 a month.
Why wasn't Johnson authorized to be a Bonus Baby? A "Bonus Baby" was an individual who signed a contract for more than $4,000 and, by rule, had to be kept on the major league roster for two years. Brent P. Kelley in his book They Too Wore Pinstripes showed that New York skipper Casey Stengel simply did not play 1954's Frank Leja nor 1955 signee Tommy Carroll. So by mid-1956 the Yankees front office opted out of the "Bonus Baby" game. Additionally, Kelley reports that Johnson had determined he would rather be in the minor leagues playing every day. The D-level Kearney club of the Nebraska State League played only 63 games over two months. Thus, the net deal "was essentially the major league minimum ($6,000 a year)" and with a good season Johnson could be given a raise. Johnson figured correctly.
The 17-year-old outfielder was assigned to Kearney where he led the Nebraska State League in total bases (167), runs scored (70), RBIs (78), and home runs (24). Named to the circuit's All-Star team he also tied for the NSL lead in double plays by outfielders with four. The next year, the young phenom was promoted to Single-A Binghamton. Again the outfielder made his league's All-Star team, and led the Eastern League with 279 total bases, 103 runs scored, and 26 home runs. In 1958, Johnson moved up to Triple-A Richmond (International League), where he clubbed 27 doubles, five triples, 27 homers, and was selected as an IL All-Star. In addition to the outfield, the Californian was called upon to handle third base. From 1958 to 1959, Johnson served in the U.S. Army for six months under the Reserve Training Program, the first of several military stints during his baseball career. His 1959 and 1960 seasons were spent with Richmond.
On September 20, 1960 Johnson made his major league debut. The 22-year-old was called upon to pinch hit in the ninth inning of a 1-1 tie between New York and Washington, facing Senators southpaw Hal Woodeshick. Mantle flied out to right and Skowron doubled. Johnson advanced Skowron to third with a fly to center. The Yankees won 2-1 in the 11th.
Overall, Johnson donned the pinstripes for 19 games. While he had moved through the organization, the Big Apple sports media tagged him as a Mickey Mantle replacement, but on June 14, 1961, he was traded with Art Ditmar to the Athletics for lefthanded pitcher Bud Daley.
At Kansas City the rest of the 1961 season, Johnson batted .216. In October he was recalled to active army duty and discharged in August 1962. The remainder of the 1962 season he batted a paltry .105 for Kansas City. That October, he wed Lucille DeMaria. The couple would go on to have three children: two sons, Deron Jr. and Dominick, and a daughter, Dena. In April 1963, Kansas City sold him to the Cincinnati Reds organization.
1963 was a honeymoon of a year. Playing for Triple-A San Diego, he topped the Pacific Coast League with 33 home runs, tied for fifth with 91 RBI, and was picked as first baseman on the PCL All-Star team. This stellar performance pushed him onto the parent club's 1964 roster where he remained for four seasons. In They Too Wore Pinstripes, Johnson said of his full major league season in '64, "That was my first year. That was a hell of a pennant race. There was five teams right there: us, the Cardinals, the Phillies, the Braves, and the Giants. There was so many damned teams there, if you won one day you'd go from fourth to first. It was really fun. Once we were tied for first. Every day you go you know it means something."
Johnson had a banner year in 1965. He headed the league with 130 RBIs, shared top rank in sacrifice flies with 10, batted a career high .287, made The Sporting News and the Associated Press All-Star teams as a third baseman, and came in fourth for the NL MVP award. In commenting about that fantastic term Johnson told Brent P. Kelley, "I had a good year. I was on a good ballclub. We had some good hitters. We had Pete Rose and Vada Pinson. I had Frank Robinson hitting in front of me. I had a hell of a year, really."
After regressing to .257 with 24 home runs in 1966, the following year he hit just .224 with 13 round trippers. On October 10, 1967 the Reds dealt him to the Atlanta Braves for outfielder Mack Jones, pitcher Jay Ritchie, and first baseman Jim Beauchamp. Johnson's struggles continued, and his .208 season in Atlanta resulted in the Braves selling him to the Philadelphia Phillies in December 1968.
The move to Philadelphia revived Johnson. From 1969 to 1973, he clubbed 88 homers, 304 RBIs, and 82 doubles for the Phillies, despite only playing 12 games with the Phillies in 1973 1971 was his most productive year; Johnson batted .265, garnered 95 RBI, and hit 34 home runs. In fact, Johnson hit 22 home runs at home and broke Del Ennis' 1950 Philadelphia record. Further proof of his long ball skill happened July 10 & 11, 1971 as he belted four consecutive home runs against the Montreal Expos, three of them coming on the 11th.
On May 2, 1973, after nearly a decade of playing in the National League, Johnson found himself back in the American League, as the Phils traded him to the Oakland A's for third baseman/outfielder Jack Bastable. He clocked 19 homers, 81 RBI, and 14 doubles as the primary designated hitter for Charlie Finley's Athletics. The switch got him into the post-season, and a World Series ring as the A's bested the Mets in the 1973 Fall Classic. He also made another record, entering baseball history as the first player to net 20 home runs in a season divided between the two leagues.
He opened 1974 with the A's, but on June 24, 1974, he was dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers. On September 7, Johnson was sold to the Boston Red Sox, who were in the middle of a pennant fight they ultimately lost. The following April he signed with the White Sox.
In 148 games for Bill Veeck's club, Johnson hit 18 home runs, and drove in 72 RBI. On September 21, after Jim Rice had been injured earlier in the day, the Red Sox once again needed some supplemental power and reacquired Johnson, sending cash and a player to be named later. Later in 1975, catcher Chuck Erickson was named as the Boston player who was sent to the White Sox to seal the deal. Johnson's Red Sox role was to play first base and serve as designated hitter. On June 4, 1976, the New England franchise released him and he retired.
Over his playing career, Deron Johnson participated in 1,765 games, netted 245 home runs, 1,447 hits, 923 RBI and batted .244.
A Poway, California resident, Johnson owned a construction company in San Diego and operated a 40-acre cattle ranch. Nevertheless he still maintained his contact with baseball.
In 1978, he returned to the Pacific Coast League and piloted Salt Lake City to a 72-65 win/loss profile for a second place finish. The club lost in the playoff semi-finals to Albuquerque, three games to none.
For 1979 he became a coach for the California Angels. In addition to the Angels ('79-'80 & '89-'91), Johnson coached for the Mets ('81), Phillies ('82-'84), Mariners ('85-'86), and White Sox ('87).
In June 1991, Johnson was diagnosed with lung cancer. After a long fight with the illness, he succumbed to the disease on April 23, 1992. He is buried at Dearborn Memorial Park, Poway, CA. Over his 28-year baseball life he did tell Cooperstown staff his greatest game thrills were having played in the 1973 World Series and hitting four home runs in a row in 1971.
A version of this biography was originally published in '75: The Red Sox Team That Saved Baseball, edited by Bill Nowlin and Cecilia Tan, and published by Rounder Books in 2005.
Total Baseball, 7th Edition, Edited by John Thorn, Pete Palmer, & Michael Gershman, with Matthew Silverman, Sean Lahman, Greg Spira, Total Sports Publishing, Kingston, NY, 2001.
Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia, Edited by David Pietrusza, Matthew Silverman, & Michael Gershman, Total/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Kingston, NY,
2000, page 566.
Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Baseball, Revised & Expanded, Edition G-P, Edited by David L. Porter, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 2000, pages 751-752.
They Too Wore Pinstripes, by Brent P. Kelley, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, NC, 1998, pages 93-98.
New York Times obituary April 25, 1992, page 12
San Diego Union-Tribune, April 24, 1992
Some items from National Baseball Hall of Fame file
Minor league info provided by John Pardon's files