Mark DeJohn was never a household name. As of 2015 he was monitoring minor-league practices for the St. Louis Cardinals. Though his title, field coordinator, was modest and his public profile was low, DeJohn fulfilled his two primary goals: “I just want to stay in the game and be a Cardinal.”1
DeJohn was a light-hitting, sure-handed shortstop who toiled in the minor leagues from 1971 to 1983. He played with and against dozens of future big leaguers. He savored a short stint with the Tigers in 1982.
Although he batted just .223 in the bush leagues, DeJohn was a respected student of the game. When it seemed his baseball life was over, his career arc was lengthened by one seminal conversation with a baseball lifer from the Branch Rickey/St. Louis Cardinals era. He managed in the Cardinals and Tigers’ minor-league system for 16 years. He was Tony LaRussa’s bullpen coach for four Cardinals campaigns and bench coach for two.
Ultimately, Mark DeJohn’s story is about persevering when you don’t have all the athletic tools needed to reach the big leagues.
Mark DeJohn was born in Middletown, Connecticut, on September 18, 1953, to Lucy and Dan DeJohn. He was the second of five children: three girls and two boys. The family resided in solid, working-class neighborhoods.
DeJohn showed promise as a pitcher in Little League. In the district playoffs, he struck out 22 batters in two consecutive starts. In his first start, DeJohn struck out 13 Guilford All-Star batters. In his next start, he struck out 9 Pat Kidney All-Star batters. In so doing, DeJohn helped the Bernie O’Rourke All-Stars to the league championship in 1966. From Little League he progressed to American Legion baseball and his high-school team.
DeJohn’s Middletown Post 75 Legion team consistently played well and made the playoffs. In 1968 he batted .367 and Middletown Post won the state championship. The team advanced to the New England title game against Manchester, New Hampshire, and faced future Orioles All Star Mike Flanagan. Middletown made just one hit against Flanagan that day and that runner was wiped off the bases with a double play. Flanagan threw a complete game, facing just 27 batters.
DeJohn attended Woodrow Wilson High School in Middletown, where he developed into a smooth-fielding shortstop. His varsity batting averages of .219, .268, and .242 foretold that his glove, not his bat, would be his entrée into professional baseball. In 1971, when he was a senior, it was not impossible to be a major-league shortstop without a booming bat if you could pick it like Luis Aparicio or Mark Belanger. DeJohn had a chance. His hands were sure and he had a rocket for an arm. He dreamed of being drafted.
Selected by the New York Mets in the 23rd round of the June 1971 amateur draft, DeJohn was excited that it was the Mets that drafted him. They were a leading organization in 1971 and had top pitchers like Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan, and Gary Gentry. He looked forward to speaking with the Mets and getting his career started. In compliance with the rules, Mets scout Len Zanke waited until after Mark’s graduation before visiting the DeJohn home.
Zanke did not dazzle DeJohn and his parents with a big bonus. He told them that Mark would play for the Mets’ Rookie League team in Marion, Virginia, under manager John Hiller. The pay was $500 per month. In consideration of the fact that DeJohn was a good kid and well-liked by the Mets, Zanke added, Mark would receive a $1,000 signing bonus.
DeJohn was 17 years old and without financial savvy. He had hoped his bonus might approach $30,000. He told Zanke, “No thank you” and said he would enroll at Southern Alabama University and play college ball for Eddie Stanky. Several days later Zanke offered a $4,000 signing bonus. He said he had talked the Mets into stretching to sign DeJohn. He also said, “Take it or leave it.” This was a final offer.
DeJohn took it. He flew with Ernie DiStasi, another Mets prospect from Connecticut, to Virginia. They checked into the Lincoln Hotel in Marion, in Virginia’s coal country. They got used to their sixth-floor room with no air-conditioning. They were told by the locals not to be seen out after 8 P.M. with their African American teammates. The boys tried to fit in. DeJohn battled homesickness. He and DiStasi struck up a friendship that endured. (“A catcher with a good arm, good bat, just a little rough behind the plate. Today he’d be a major leaguer,” DeJohn said of DiStasi.)
DiStasi said DeJohn was “small, covered a great range, fast-footed, the best minor-league shortstop … always the first player on the field. He constantly took fielding practice. He turned himself into a great shortstop and won a Triple-A Gold Glove.”
DiStasi retired from pro ball in 1976 and DeJohn took a 13-year journey through the minors. The 17-year-old overcame his homesickness and played in 1,323 minor-league games.
In 1971 DeJohn played shortstop and third base base for Marion, registering a .219 average with just one extra-base hit in 114 at-bats.
At the Mets’ spring-training camp in 1972, coaches converted DeJohn into a switch-hitter. The change paid no dividends as DeJohn batted only .209 for Batavia of the New York-Pennsylvania League. Forty-four of his 53 hits were singles, but he did hit his first professional home run.
In 1973 DeJohn was with high-A Pompano Beach. His batting average rose to .243 and he whacked 13 doubles. In 1974 he was the full-time shortstop for the Victoria Toros of the Texas League under manager Joe Frazier. The Toros won the Texas League title, going 79-57, winning the East Division and defeating El Paso for the league crown. DeJohn batted .222 with 15 doubles and 2 triples.
By 1975 DeJohn felt solid and tested at his baseball job. He was moved up to Triple-A Tidewater. Joe Frazier made the move with DeJohn. There they hooked up with major-league-bound players Skip Lockwood, Craig Swan, Ron Hodges, and others. While DeJohn posted a .241/1/25 line at the plate, the pitching-rich Tidewater Tides led the International League with a 2.80 ERA. They went 86-55 and nipped a Rochester team (with Mike Flanagan) for the league title by a one-game margin.
In 1976 DeJohn was a major-league-ready shortstop, but still didn’t get promoted. His batting average for Tidewater dropped to .199. In 1977 his batting average was virtually unchanged at .201. He was frustrated by his failure to take the next step. His former manager, Frazier, was now at the helm of the Mets while he was stuck in Triple-A. After the season DeJohn told the Mets that he wanted to be promoted. The Mets chose to release him.
At that point, DeJohn had seven years in the minors, was 24 years old and was without a contract. In April of 1978 he asked the Tigers for a tryout with the Evansville Triplets. The Triplets signed him. His batting average rose into the .240s with the 1978 Triplets and he continued to play outstanding defense. He further established himself as a proven Triple-A player and became a regular at Tigers spring training.
When Jim Leyland became Evansville’s manager in 1979 he saw in DeJohn an accomplished veteran leader. He made him a player-coach. Thus, DeJohn gained his first formal teaching position in the game.
For the next three years DeJohn batted .235 while providing tip-top defense. He played with and coached a talented group of future major leaguers including Jack Morris, Kirk Gibson, Dan Petry, and Howard Johnson, earning their respect and impressing the organization.
At spring training in 1982 Tigers manager Sparky Anderson made DeJohn the last cut before Opening Day. “It was the hardest cut I had to make. I didn’t want to do it,” said Anderson.2
Three weeks later, 28-year-old Mark DeJohn was called up to the Tigers. C.L. Munoz noted the promotion in the Hartford Courant:
“DeJohn savored the moment. He knew all too well the years he had invested in the big payoff.
“There was a lot of frustration. When you play that long, there’s more than usual. There were numerous times I felt like quitting. But the next day I would wake up and say, ‘I really don’t feel like quitting.’”
“ ‘He’s one of the best shortstops around,’ Tigers Coach Alex Grammas said. ‘He’s been around a long time and he deserved a shot in the major leagues. … He doesn’t have the range of a Dave Concepcion, but he will field anything he gets.’ ”3
DeJohn played for the Tigers from April 28 until June 29, backing up shortstop Alan Trammel. In his major-league debut, at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, on the 28th, he doubled off Minnesota Twins pitcher Pete Redfern in his first at-bat and went 1-for-3.
In his 63 days with the Tigers, DeJohn played in 24 games, mostly as a late-inning replacement or in one game of a doubleheader. He started six games. He batted .190 (4-for-21).
DeJohn’s brief tenure as a major leaguer produced many great memories. He tagged Rickey Henderson out as Henderson attempted to steal his fifth base of a game on May 30. He watched Billy Martin, manager of the Oakland Athletics, “a feisty little sucker,” hit infield practice, “a little guy in a big baggy uniform.” He started behind Jack Morris, who fired a complete-game victory. He grounded out in his last major-league at-bat to two future Hall of Famers, Cal Ripken to Eddie Murray.
DeJohn’s playing stint in the big leagues was over and he cherished the memory. Looking back, he knew he owed his cup of coffee to Sparky Anderson, with whom he had developed a close friendship. “His decision to promote me was a decision of the heart, not of the head,” said DeJohn. “Sparky played a little second base for the Phillies. He was not a great player. We could relate.”
After Detroit sent DeJohn down, he played for Evansville through 1983. He became a coach in extended spring training and with the 1984 Tigers Lakeland affiliate. He got his first taste of managing in the minors in 1985, as one of four men to manage the Birmingham Barons that season.
Two months into the Barons 1985 season, DeJohn’s career took a sudden turn. “I had a falling out with Tigers general manager Bill Lajoie over some promises made to me that were not kept. Lajoie let me go. It turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. I went home. It was a tough time to find a job but I got a call from Art Stewart, the scouting director for the Royals, and was offered a coaching job in Eugene,” said DeJohn.
After finishing the 1985 season as a coach with the Kansas Royals’ Class A affiliate in Eugene, Oregon, DeJohn was offered the manager’s job on that team. He turned it down. It was a time of introspection for DeJohn. His playing career was over. His reputation as a polished professional and leader was established. But he was unclear about what he should do.
While DeJohn was in Eugene, Howie Bedell, the Royals’ minor-league field coordinator, said, “I want you to be the best baseball man that you can be. I want you to get with George Kissell of the Cardinals.”
Bedell had been coached by George Kissell in 1963 and 1964 when Bedell played outfield in the Cardinals’ minor-league system. Kissell coached in the Cardinals’ system from 1946 to 1968. When Kissell died, the New York Times wrote of him, “Kissell never played in the major leagues, but he tutored virtually every player who made it to the Cardinals through their minor league system going back to the 1940s, and he imparted his baseball wisdom to players arriving in St. Louis from other major league teams. What became known as the Cardinals way — their approach to fielding, hitting and strategy — was essentially the Kissell way. … In 2005, the Cardinals named their spring training clubhouse in Jupiter, Fla., for him.”4
Kissell was a baseball lifer. Signed by St. Louis boss Branch Rickey in 1940, he remained a Cardinal for 68 years. Like Anderson and DeJohn, Kissell was also an infielder who labored long in the minors, learning all the while.
DeJohn said meeting with Kissell changed his life.
They had met in passing before. “I thought he was a grouchy old man. But he turned out to be the opposite. To him, anybody with a Cardinals jersey was special. He was your teacher and your friend.” said DeJohn.
DeJohn sat down with Kissell for a heart-to-heart talk at the Tigers’ spring-training camp in 1986. It turned into a series of conversations. “He gave me the best advice I ever got. He was old school. We just sat and talked baseball. Then he asked me what my goals were in the game. I told him that I wanted to manage in the big leagues,” said DeJohn.
DeJohn learned from Kissell that to have a shot at managing in the majors, he had to be able to do two things: “Gotta learn the Game. Gotta be able to teach.”
Dejohn also reached out to friend and former player Jim Riggleman, who at the time was the manager of the Arkansas Travelers, the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate, and spoke with Lee Thomas, the Cardinals’ farm director with the Cardinals. Thomas hired him to manage Savannah of the South Atlantic League for the 1986 season. For the next 6 seasons DeJohn managed Cardinals farm teams in Savannah, Springfield, Illinois, Johnson City and Louisville, followed by 1 year as the Manager of the Detroit AA affiliate, the London, Ontario, Tigers.
In 1996 DeJohn again rose to the majors, this time as bullpen coach for Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. He served in that role from 1996 to 1999, and then as La Russa’s bench coach in 2000 and 2001.
DeJohn was the bullpen coach when Mark McGwire passed Roger Maris in 1998 on his way to hitting 70 homers in a season. “It was an amazing time,” he said. “A big thrill. When Mark and (Sammy) Sosa were producing those accomplishments, nobody realized it was the steroid era. … It’s not for me to judge Mark McGwire. He was a good guy and a good teammate. He was a born home run-hitter. He could have hit 63 or 64 home runs naturally. It’s hard to judge people if you haven’t walked in their shoes.”
DeJohn returned to managing in the Cardinals’ farm system in 2002. In 2009 he finished his 16th season as a minor league manager and began working as the Cardinals’ minor-league quality control manager, roving to monitor team practices.
After a lifetime in the game, DeJohn said he felt his efforts have been repaid in abundance. “There are a lot of good ballplayers capable of playing in the major leagues. … Sometimes it takes luck. … Sometimes it takes a sponsor. I’ve been a real lucky guy, especially given my talent (level).”
After 25 years with the Cardinals and 40 years in the game, DeJohn said he had no big dreams or mountains yet to climb.
He said simply, “I just want to stay in the game and be a Cardinal.”
Last revised: June 3, 2015
Booher, Kary. “Kissell’s Teachings Have Become the Cardinal Way,” Springfield (Missouri) News Leader, July 21, 2013.
Middletown (Connecticut) Press.
The Sporting News, April 24, 1982.
Mark DeJohn, telephone interviews by Karl Cicitto, January 2011 and April 2015.
Mark DeJohn, interview by Brian Walton, February 2, 2012, thecardinalnation.com.
Ernie DiStasi, telephone interview by Karl Cicitto, January 2011.
DeJohn’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York.
Middletown (Connecticut) Sports Hall of Fame.
Olin library, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut.
Russell Library, Middletown, Connecticut.
St. Louis Cardinals HOF Museum.
1 Quotes from DeJohn in this article are taken from telephone interviews by Karl Cicitto in January 2011 and April 2015, and by Brian Walton on February 2, 2012, as reported in the cardinalnation.com.
2 The Sporting News, April 24, 1982.
3 Hartford Courant, May 5, 1982.
4 Richard Goldstein, “George Kissell, 88; taught the techniques of baseball,” New York Times, October 9, 2008.