This article was written by John Saccoman
In an effort to lessen the fledgling United States’ dependence on manufacturing in other countries, Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s secretary of the treasury, created the Society for the Establishment of Useful Machines, whose aim was to harness the power of a 77-foot waterfall, the Great Falls of the Passaic River. That act led to the establishment of Paterson, New Jersey, as the first industrial city of the United States. Many flocked to the town for the promise of work, and Paterson earned the nickname Silk City because of its many silk mills. Wright Aeronautics produced aircraft engines in World War II and was a source of civic pride in the largely working-class town.
It was against this industrial backdrop that John Edward “Johnny” Briggs, a seldom used 20-year-old rookie with the 1964 Phillies, was born on March 10, 1944. The seventh of 10 children of Jessie and Nettie Briggs, Johnny was a multisport athlete.1 He made All-State in baseball, football, and basketball at Paterson’s Eastside High School. A powerfully built 6-foot-1, 190-pound athlete, Johnny was known for some long home-run clouts in his Eastside High career, and is in that school’s Sports Hall of Fame.
After graduating from Eastside in 1961, Briggs attended the now-extinct Paterson campus of Seton Hall University for several semesters, However, there is no record of his ever playing a game for the Seton Hall University baseball team in the yearbooks or archives from that time.
On September 12, 1962, Briggs signed with the Phillies. Their scout, Jocko Collins, got to the Briggses’ house just before New York Mets scouts arrived with their offer, and Briggs signed with the Phils for a bonus of $8,000.2 He was wistful about the missed opportunity to play for a hometown team. “I never found out the kind of offer the Mets had in mind for me. I sure would’ve liked to have known, because I know the Mets’ scout, Pete Gebrian, liked me a heck of a lot,” he said in 2011.3
The Phillies assigned Briggs to their Bakersfield affiliate in the Class A California League for 1963. He led the team with 234 total bases, had a .500 slugging percentage, and hit 21 home runs. Briggs reached that home-run total twice in his major-league career. He had ten errors in the outfield, but 16 assists as well. These numbers were good enough to get the youngster a look with the big club in 1964, and he was kept on the major-league roster for the entire season. (Eighteen-year-old Rick Wise was also kept on the roster for the full season. Both Briggs and Wise were kept on the roster because of new rules instituted by the major-league owners to keep down the cost of signing young players.4)
The season at Bakersfield turned out to be Briggs’ only minor-league campaign. Sadly for Johnny, his father, an avid baseball fan, died in 1963 before ever seeing his son play professional baseball.5
Living with an aunt just a few blocks from Connie Mack Stadium, Briggs was able to walk to work.6 He played in 61 games in his rookie year, 49 of them as a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner, plus a handful of games in the outfield. In his 11th game of the season, all as a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner, he got his first major-league hit, a pinch-single against the San Francisco Giants in the bottom of the 11th inning.
Briggs got his first start on June 14 against the New York Mets at home. Playing left field, he went 3-for-4 with two RBIs and two runs scored. His first big-league homer came on the 21st at Shea Stadium against the Mets. Starting in center field in the nightcap of a doubleheader, Briggs led off the game with a four-bagger off Frank Lary, but his effort was overshadowed by Jim Bunning’s perfect game in the opener. It was Briggs’s only homer of the 1964 season, and the first of 139 for his career.
Briggs had almost half of his at-bats for the season in June, 32, and batted .281 with a .343 on-base percentage and a .406 slugging percentage.
Perhaps Briggs’s biggest moment that season involved a late July game against the Giants. The Phils entered the action in first place, a half-game ahead of the Giants. The visiting Giants plated a run in the tenth for a 3-2 lead. In the bottom of the inning, young Gaylord Perry, primarily a relief pitcher until the following season, gave up a leadoff double to Johnny Callison. Perry drilled Tony Taylor with a pitch, and Dick Allen reached on an infield single to third. Briggs, who had pinch-run in the eighth and stayed in the game in left, was the next batter. Giants manager Alvin Dark brought in lefty Billy O’Dell to face Briggs.
Forty years later Briggs recalled, “I looked back at Mauch, thinking he’d yank me out of there, but he clapped his hands and said, ‘C’mon, kid, you can do it.’ I hit the ball off the tin wall in right to win the game.”7
For his part, Mauch seemed impressed by his rookie outfielder, saying, “There’s no telling how highly I regard Johnny. He goes out and works before a game. He plays seven or eight innings of outfield in batting practice. He doesn’t cut or slash in batting practice, trying to knock down the fences. The kid’s going to be a great ballplayer. He has talent to go with desire.” Briggs appreciated his manager’s confidence, saying, “Being a rookie, I was just happy to be in the major leagues. Just to have the prestige of being a major-league player, I had no reason to complain. It was a dream come true for me.”8
Johnny was physically gifted, and his manager tried to work on the cerebral side of his game as well. Briggs recalled Mauch advising him to “study pitchers’ motions to first base and home plate, and to try to steal coaches’ signals.” He also was told to watch opposing outfielders throw during batting practice to “see if they had sore arms.”9
Briggs started the 1965 season on the bench again. However, he became the starting center fielder in June, and for much of the rest of the season he batted leadoff. Over the last three months, he batted .263 and slugged .368. July of that season was one of the biggest months of Briggs’s early career. On the 17th at Cincinnati, he went 3-for-5, scoring two runs and driving in five. According to some accounts, he was also a principal in the controversial July 3 clubhouse fight at Philadelphia between Frank Thomas and Dick Allen. The New York Times account of the brawl indicated that there was no racial component to the fight, which occurred two hours before a Phillies-Reds game. Apparently, after some needling and an “exchange of words,” Allen hit Thomas in the mouth, Thomas retaliated with a baseball bat, and then Allen repeatedly punched Thomas, breaking his jaw, and requiring “seven or eight” teammates to separate the men.10
Other accounts say Thomas had been calling Briggs “boy” and Allen took exception, breaking Thomas’s jaw after he hit Allen with a baseball bat.11 In any case, Thomas was sold to the Houston Astros a week later.
In 1966 Briggs’ appeared in fewer games than he did in 1965, but had more plate appearances, 297. He had ten home runs, after totaling five in his first two seasons, and he posted career-best numbers in batting average (.282) and slugging percentage (.490).
Over the next four seasons, Briggs appeared in between 106 and 124 games. From 1967 through 1969 he was a fourth outfielder and part-time first baseman. On July 14, 1968, he hit two home runs, driving in three runs in a 9-2 Phillies victory over the Mets. On June 28, 1969, against the Montreal Expos, Johnny went 4-for-4 with five RBIs, leading the Phils to a 13-8 win. On July 11, 19169, he had another multiple-homer day, hitting two in a 7-5 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
In 1970 Briggs was the starting left fielder for much of the season but spent part of May and June on the disabled list with a pulled leg muscle. On July 6, 1970, he homered twice and drove in four runs in the Phillies’ 7-5 loss to the Pirates. On April 22, 1971, Briggs was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for first baseman/outfielder Pete Koegel and pitcher Ray Peters. The move to the American League resulted in some of the most productive seasons of his career, along with some MVP consideration in 1973. He wound up batting .251 for his Phillies career, but his Phils on-base percentage was .349, an impressive number not fully appreciated at the time.
Relocating to Milwaukee also was good for Briggs personally. He married a woman from Wisconsin, and their children and grandchildren still resided there in 2013. Recalling his time with the Brewers, Johnny said, “The fans were great. I always had a great rapport with the fans.”12
Milwaukee finally gave Briggs the opportunity to play every day, and he responded with 21 home runs and a sparkling .378 on-base percentage and a .467 slugging average in 1971. He split his starts almost equally between first base and the outfield, primarily left. He saved some of his finest offensive exploits of the season in games against his future team, the Minnesota Twins, drawing four walks (one intentional) in their June 27 contest and clubbing two home runs on September 21. Briggs hit two round-trippers (with five RBIs) on July 17 against the Red Sox.
Briggs held out before the 1972 season, and was the last Brewer to sign a contract for the year. When general manager Frank Lane implied that Briggs was overweight, the ballplayer replied,” I am working out at William Paterson State College here, where my brother Joe is on the basketball and baseball teams.”13 Lane also said that more than “100 hitters in the American League outhit him last year.”14 Lane may have been referring to batting average; however, Briggs had a respectable .830 OPS (on-base average plus slugging) in 1971.
In the course of negotiations, Lane offered Briggs a bizarre “negative bonus” of $1,000 if Johnny failed to duplicate his 21 home runs of 1971. Said Lane, “I would rather see him cut down on his swing.”15 The stalemate ended when Briggs signed his contract on March 11, having grown a beard during his holdout.16 If Lane’s gimmick of the “negative bonus” was actually included in the $32,000 contract for 1972, Briggs didn’t profit.
Briggs again hit 21 home runs but had slightly lower on-base and slugging marks. He played less at first base and more in left field. He had a pair of two-homer days, on July 6 and 14 against the California Angels. The July 14 game was notable not only for his six RBIs, but also that they came at the expense of future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.
In 1973 Briggs had his best all-around campaign. He wound up with18 home runs, and his 15 stolen bases were his career high. He also reached career highs in runs scored (78) and walks (87), and he led the league in range factor (putouts + assists per game) for left fielders. Briggs saw some time at designated hitter in 1973, the first year of the DH.
The most impressive day of Briggs’s career occurred on August 4, 1973. Leading off (for the first time in ’73) and playing left field against the Indians in Cleveland, he started the game with a single and a run scored. In the second, he doubled and scored a run, and then he singled in the fourth and sixth innings, doubled in the eighth, and singled for the fourth time in the ninth, becoming one of only 67 major leaguers since 1901 to have six or more hits in a nine-inning game.17
The 1974 season represented Briggs’s best season for run production; he had his best RBI total (73) and second best runs scored total (72). He also had 55 extra-base hits, fifth in the American League, and ten assists from the outfield. He had two-homer games on May 25 and June 29, and he had two homers and four RBIs each time. May of 1974 was the hottest month of Johnny’s career: a.614 slugging average, 9 home runs, 20 RBIs, and 16 runs scored. At one point in the month he boasted a 16-game hitting streak.
Even though he was in Milwaukee for only 4½ years, Briggs was named the left fielder on the Brewers’ all-decade team for the 1970s.18
On June 14, 1975, Briggs was traded to the Minnesota Twins for Bobby Darwin in an exchange of outfielders. Briggs had missed about a month of the season because of injury, but he was batting .297 at the time of the trade. Even though his season average was .246, his on-base percentage was a career-high .388. He made what turned out to be his last appearance in major-league baseball on September 28, in the Twins’ last game of the 1975 season. He went 1-for-3 with a run scored in the Twins’ 6-4 loss to the Chicago White Sox. He doubled and scored in the seventh inning in what would turn out to be his last at-bat in the majors. Briggs was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth. He earned $69,000 for the 1975 season, the most of his career.
In February 1976 Briggs requested his release from the Twins so that he could sign a contract to play in Japan.19 Briggs had been a solid major leaguer. His teams could count on him for an average of 16 home runs, 60 RBIs, and 71 runs scored per 162 games, with an OPS of .771 and 203 total bases. He was an above-average defensive left fielder. (Briggs’s move to Japan denied him a reunion with Gene Mauch, who was signed to manage the Minnesota club for the ’76 season. Johnny had fond memories of playing for Mauch. “I enjoyed playing for Gene Mauch,” he said in 2008. “To this day, I don’t think [the 1964 collapse] was all his fault.20)
Briggs signed a two-year contract to play for the Lotte Orions, a contract he would not complete. He became ill from food parasites and left the team early, never returning to play in Japan.21
After Japan, Briggs worked in Wilmington, Delaware, for three years and played semipro baseball. He then moved back to his hometown of Paterson and took a job in the Passaic County Sheriff’s Department. He worked as a corrections officer from 1982 until 2007. He continued his association with athletics, serving for two decades as a Paterson recreation supervisor, running baseball leagues, conducting clinics, and counseling youths.22
Briggs was remarried to Renvy, a detective in the Passaic County Sheriff’s Department. Their two sons, Jalen and Julian, could play their youth baseball games at Johnny Briggs Park (formerly Westside Park, but renamed in 2008). Briggs acknowledged the honor of having a field named after him in humble fashion. “It’s a nice tribute,” he said, “especially because we don’t have many fields in our city, but to have one named after me is an honor … way beyond anything I ever expected.”23
In 2008 the Paterson Little League’s 13-14-year-old division was named the Johnny Briggs Division. Bill LaSala of the Little League said, “Aside from Larry Doby, Johnny was the greatest athlete to come through Paterson. … He’s regarded very highly as a ballplayer and a person, probably more important as a person.”24
This biography is included in the book “The Year of the Blue Snow: The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies” (SABR, 2013), edited by Mel Marmer and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.
Kashatus, William C., September Swoon: Richie Allen, the ’64 Phillies, and Racial Integration (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005).
Bangor (Maine) Daily News
Bergen Record (Hackensack, New Jersey)
Newburgh (New York) Evening News
New York Times
Spokane (Washington) Spokesman Review
Seton Hall University Archives and Library – thanks to Professors Alan Delozier and Anthony Lee.
Thanks also to Principal Zatiti Moody, Eastside High School, Paterson, New Jersey.
1 Newburgh (New York) Evening News, August 7, 1973.
2 Keith Idec, “Tardy Mets Might Have Had Paterson’s Briggs,” Northjersey.com/sports/121972273.
3 Bergen Record, May 17, 2011.
5 Newburgh (New York) Evening News, August 7, 1973.
6 Philadelphia Tribune, April 4, 2003.
8 William C. Kashatus, September Swoon: Richie Allen, the ’64 Phillies, and Racial Integration (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005).
9 Philadelphia Tribune, April 4, 2003.
10 New York Times, July 4, 1965.
13 Milwaukee Sentinel, February 26, 1972.
14 Milwaukee Sentinel, February 29, 1972.
15 Milwaukee Sentinel, March 3, 1972.
16 Spokane (Washington) Spokesman-Review, March 13, 1972.
18 Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com/sports/brewers/89477947.html
19 Bangor (Maine) Daily News, February 18, 1976.
20 Philadelphia Tribune, September 26, 2008.
21 Bergen Record, Hackensack, New Jersey, May 17, 2011.
23 Philadelphia Tribune, September 26, 2008.