John Dopson pitched in 144 major-league games over eight seasons from 1985 to 1994. He had a career-high 12 wins with the 1989 Boston Red Sox (against eight losses) – but arguably his best year came with the Montreal Expos in 1988, when he was 3-11. He started 26 games and had a 3.04 earned run average for the season but suffered from very low run support.
A right-handed pitcher who batted from the left side, John Robert Dopson Jr. was born in Baltimore on July 14, 1963. His father was John Dopson, a dentist, “known for his technical skills and personable demeanor.”1 His mother was Joan (née Almony), a nurse. He had three siblings – Valerie, who became a pharmacist; Matt, who retired from the horse industry; and Alexis, who as of 2021 runs John Dopson Pitching Instruction.
The family grew up in Finksburg, Maryland. The elder Dopson, who came from New York state, was a Yankees fan.2 However, John Jr. grew up rooting for the Baltimore Orioles at Memorial Stadium (about 30 miles away) during the franchise’s most successful era.3
Dopson was cut from the junior varsity baseball team at Westminster High School, near Finksburg, but then moved on to Delone Catholic High School in McSherrystown, Pennsylvania (a borough near the Maryland border, about 30 miles south of Harrisburg). The Chicago White Sox were interested in John’s brother Matt, but he elected not to pursue a career in pro ball. Both attended and pitched for Delone. John (who stood 6-foot-4 as an adult) was also a basketball star there. In his senior season, he pitched two no-hitters.
In June 1982, Dopson was selected in the second round of the major-league draft. He was Montreal’s top choice that year; they did not have a first-round pick. Herb Newberry was the signing scout. An April 1982 report filed by Brad Kohler for the Major League Scouting Bureau called Dopson “something like Jim Palmer, with long arms and trim legs.”4 The comparison to Palmer was no doubt flattering to Dopson, who told the Boston Herald several years later, “The only guy I ever idolized was Jim Palmer.”5 Dopson was 6-feet-1 and listed at 205 pounds at the time.
Dopson was placed with the Jamestown (New York) Expos in the Single-A New York/Penn League. He was 6-8 in 15 starts with a 3.97 ERA. He continued on to the Florida Instructional League, where he was 4-2 and named the rookie pitcher of the year.6
In 1983, he spent the full year in Single A, with the Florida State League’s West Palm Beach Expos. He posted a 3.44 ERA and a 13-6 record. Bumped up a level to the Double-A Southern League in 1984, Dopson was 10-8 (3.69 ERA) for the Jacksonville Suns.
A viral infection cost him spring training in 1985, but he recovered – and then some. He began with Jacksonville, where he won each of his first three decisions, with an excellent 1.11 ERA. Thus, he was promoted to Triple A with the American Association’s Indianapolis Indians. His ERA was 3.69 at the higher level with a 4-7 record in 18 starts. He was on the 21-day disabled list with tendinitis from June 24 to July 15.
The Expos called him up to the major leagues on September 3, after rosters had expanded. He made his debut in a Wednesday night game at Dodger Stadium on September 4. The 71-60 Expos were in third place in the National League East, nine games behind first-place St. Louis and eight games behind the Mets. Expos manager Buck Rodgers named Dopson the starter. The only baserunner against him in the first inning reached on an error by third baseman Tim Wallach, but Wallach made up for it with a solo homer to lead off the second, giving the Expos a 1-0 lead. In the bottom of the second, Greg Brock hit a two-out solo shot off Dopson, tying the game. In the third, a one-out single followed by Mike Marshall’s double gave the Dodgers another run. After a walk and a strikeout, Mike Scioscia singled in a third run and Brock singled in a fourth.
After four innings, Dopson had given up four runs on seven hits and two walks. He was removed for a pinch-hitter. The only other run in the game was another solo homer by Wallach, in the eighth. Dopson thus bore the loss. It was little surprise that he struck out in his first time at the plate in the majors; he did so in 34 of 55 big-league at-bats, while collecting just three hits.
On September 10, he pitched seven innings in Philadelphia, giving up just two runs (one unearned), but was not involved in the decision. He lost a second game in Montreal against the Mets on September 15, recording only two outs in the top of the first while giving up four runs. He had one other appearance, in relief, during a game in Chicago against the Cubs. The Expos won the game, 17-15, but Dopson had entered with the Expos up 15-3 and when he left an inning and a third later, he’d given up seven runs.
His next two years were spent in the minor leagues. He didn’t pitch much in 1986 – just 26 2/3 innings – amid two different stints totaling three months on the disabled list. He had two scoreless starts with West Palm Beach, and later started four games (0-3) with Indianapolis. He had arthroscopic surgery performed by Dr. James Andrews.
Back with Jacksonville in 1987, Dopson started 21 games and worked 118 1/3 innings. He was 1-4 in the early going but was 6-1 from that point, finishing at 7-5 (3.80). He threw a two-hitter over Charlotte in the first game of the Southern League playoffs.
Dopson got back to the big leagues with Montreal for most of 1988. He started the season with the Expos and got into one game, a start in which he only allowed two runs in five innings. He was optioned to Indianapolis but was recalled to the Expos on May 8 and stayed for the rest of the year. He lost his first decision, but then won his first major-league game by throwing six shutout innings on May 18 at Dodger Stadium as the Expos won, 3-0.
On July 3, Dopson almost set an odd record. Through 8 2/3 innings he had a shutout going against the Braves – despite giving up 14 hits. Had he retired the next batter, he would have tied the mark set by Larry Cheney of the 1913 Chicago Cubs for the most hits allowed in a shutout.7 Unfortunately, he gave up a 15th hit and then a 16th, which broke the shutout. He still got the win, 9-2.
Though Dopson finished with a miserable-looking won-lost record of 3-11, he pitched quite well in 1988. In 168 2/3 innings, he struck out 101 batters and walked just 58 (he usually had good control – his career strikeout-to-walk ratio was 1.94). His final ERA of 3.04 was marginally better than the team’s 3.08 and ranked 18th in the National League that year. Only twice did he give up more than three earned runs. In six of his 11 losses, the Expos were either shut out or scored just one run. In the 11 losses overall, the Expos scored more than two only twice. In those games, Dopson allowed a total of 26 earned runs – 2.36 runs per start.
Another start that exemplified Dopson’s season came on August 31, against the Dodgers at Stade Olympique. It was an anomaly in one respect, though – his only big-league extra-base hit, a fifth-inning ground-rule double off Tim Belcher, produced the third run of the game for the Expos. The Montreal pen couldn’t hold a two-run lead in the eighth inning, however, and Dopson got no decision in a game that the Expos won, 4-3, in the bottom of the ninth.
That December, he was traded to Boston with Luis Rivera for Dan Gakeler and Spike Owen. The hope was that Dopson could fill a void in the starting rotation left by departing Bruce Hurst. Hurst’s ERA had been significantly higher than Dopson’s – 3.66 – but he posted a very different won-lost record of 18-6.
Coming to the American League, Dopson was no longer likely to bat. Indeed, he never did so again in the majors; his career ended before interleague play was introduced in 1997. He remained a good fielder (.978 lifetime fielding percentage).
After a “less-than-inspiring” spring training, ascribed to a degree of nervousness wanting to do well for his new team, Dopson got off to a nice start. In early May he said, “I’m getting the breaks and bounces this year. I’m throwing the ball good. I’m hitting my spots and the guys are scoring runs for me. I hardly ever threw with a lead last year.”8
Dopson enjoyed a nice full season with the Red Sox, starting 28 games and producing a 12-8 record (with a 3.99 ERA), despite being out from August 2-28 with an inflamed tendon in his right forearm.10 (Other reports indicated a right elbow strain.) The dozen wins ranked third on the staff behind Clemens (17-11, 3.13) and Mike Boddicker (15-11, 4.00). Boston finished in third place, six games behind the first-place Blue Jays.
One stat of Dopson’s that stands out from 1989 was his 15 balks. The entire team had 18. It was a year, he said, when major-league umpires began to apply the balk rule more forcefully. On June 2 against Toronto, he balked in a run in the top of the third inning, the Jays’ third of the game. It was the difference-maker because Toronto won, 7-2.11 On June 13, he balked four times, yet beat the Tigers 8-7. Red Sox manager Joe Morgan said, “Every time I go out to argue a balk, I stop by the mound and ask John, ‘Did you balk?’ He says yes. Then I turn around and walk back to the dugout. I guess I wouldn’t make a very good defense attorney.” 12 By the end of the month, Dopson had largely conquered the problem.13
As the 1990 season began, Dopson was still only 26 years old. But he was unable to work much at all that year. He started three games that April, allowing no earned runs in 12 innings, but without getting a win. After a stint on the DL and reactivation, he made another start in early June. Altogether, he worked just 17 2/3 innings without a decision and a 2.04 ERA. Reporting elbow problems and numbness in two fingers of his pitching hand, he had bone chips removed and Tommy John surgery in late August. That caused him to miss most of the following season as well. In 1991, he worked a total of one inning in the majors, in relief on September 8.14
Fully rehabbed, Dopson returned to the Red Sox in 1992.15 He pitched for Boston in 1992 and 1993, posting identical 7-11 records. In 1992, he made 25 starts for Boston and six for Triple-A Pawtucket. His first win for the big club came on May 23 against Oakland, pitching seven innings and allowing just one run.
Dopson viewed his performance of June 9 as the most memorable night of his career. It came against his boyhood favorites, the Orioles, in front of 40-plus family members and friends at Camden Yards. He threw just 96 pitches, 60 of them strikes, and allowed just one run in 7 1/3 innings. Boston catcher Tony Peña called Dopson’s stuff “nasty,” adding, “He was getting his good sinker and slider over and getting a lot of ground balls.” Dopson was delighted to be all the way back and healthy.16
Six days later, he shut out the Yankees for eight innings at Fenway Park, with Jeff Reardon closing a 1-0 Red Sox win. His ERA for the season was 4.08. As had been the case in 1988, he didn’t get great run support. In his 11 losses, his teammates scored only26 runs. (The Red Sox finished in seventh [last] place in the AL East in 1992.) He went to salary arbitration with Boston in December, and prevailed, almost tripling his salary from 1992.17
In 1993, Dopson – who was approaching free agency – was named the third starter behind Clemens and Frank Viola. As it turned out, Danny Darwin led the staff both in starts (34) and wins (15). The Red Sox finished out of the hunt again that year in 1993, fifth in the AL East.
Dopson had 28 starts, including one shutout – his first in the majors, on April 19 (Patriots Day) against the White Sox at Fenway. He also relieved in six games. Before the All-Star break, he was 7-5 with an ERA of 4.24. He won three starts in a row in June and another just before the break. But after that, he lost his last six decisions. By the end of the season, Dopson’s ERA had climbed to 4.97.
GM Lou Gorman said, “I think it’s better for all concerned if we go in a different direction.”18 Dopson entered free agency at the end of October and signed a minor-league contract with the California Angels at the beginning of February, with an invitation to spring training.19 He was reunited with his former Expos skipper, Buck Rodgers, who by then was managing the Angels.20
The 1994 season proved to be Dopson’s last in the big leagues. In 21 games, he had five starts, all of which came in April. He won his first game with seven scoreless innings but lost three of his next four starts, with his ERA climbing to 6.00. From May onward, he worked in relief. On May 11, he earned his only career save, coming into a road game against the Texas Rangers. Mark Langston had started and the Angels had a 10-1 lead after five innings. Rodgers gave Langston the rest of the night off and Dopson took over, allowing just one hit in the remaining four innings.
His last game in the majors was on June 22.21 A sore right shoulder caused him to return to the disabled list (he’d worked 58 2/3 innings in total). He did not pitch again in 1994 – strike halted the season that August – and was released in early October. At the end of his major-league career, Dopson had won 30 games and lost 47. His career ERA was 4.27.
In 1995, the season started with the players still on strike. The Players Association set up their own training camp to prepare players without contracts. Dopson attended but was not signed by any team.
From there, as he explained in 2007, “I tried to make several comebacks from independent leagues in Tennessee and Seattle, but was forced to retire completely in 1999.”22 From 1996 through 1998, Dopson pitched for the Tennessee Tomahawks, based in Winchester, a small community north of the border with Alabama. The club was part of the Big South League in ’96 and the Heartland League the next two years. He was 6-5 (2.85) the first year, 10-2 (1.78) the second, and 8-1 (2.85) the third year, starting 13 or 14 games each year. In 1999, he joined the independent Western League and played in Pasco, Washington for the Tri-City Posse. His marks were 6-1 (4.30).
After his playing days, Dopson remained involved in coaching, running John Dopson Pitching Instruction, LLC in Odenton, Maryland.23 The operation built a strong base in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County and has also drawn students from nearby states such as Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia – all by word of mouth. He said he has never had to advertise and has been booked ahead for months at a time.
In an interview in 2007, Dopson gave deeper insight. “I offer individual pitching instruction. . . I currently instruct kids from ages 9 through 18. I help them develop their mechanics early in their pitching careers to avoid injuries and to be more effective. We take advantage of technology for the instruction such as frame by frame video analysis. You’d be surprised what you can’t see with your eye that frame by frame video will reveal. All young pitchers should take advantage of this technology to form the correct mechanics.”24
In correspondence with the author, Dopson said he was “very grateful for the opportunity to pursue the game of baseball. It also led to a great teaching profession after the game.”25 He is looking forward to retirement, perhaps in 2022, which will afford him more time for golfing, gardening, cooking, and fishing.
Last revised: January 20, 2022
This biography was reviewed by Darren Gibson and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Russ Walsh.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, SABR.org, and the John Dopson player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Thanks to Rod Nelson for scouting information.
1 Frederick N. Rasmussen, “John R. Dopson Sr.,” Baltimore Sun, April 1, 2009.
2 Rasmussen, “John R. Dopson Sr.”
3 Glenn P. Graham, “His Night to Remember,” Baltimore Sun, June 14, 1992.
4 Report #01282 from the “Diamond Minds” collection at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, courtesy of Rod Nelson.
5 David Cataneo, “Just a little idol talk,” Boston Herald, April 27, 1989: 96.
6 Ian McDonald, “3-Way RF Fight Includes Francona,” The Sporting News, November 29, 1982: 64, 65.
7 “Expos,” The Sporting News, July 18, 1988: 20.
8 Associated Press, “Dopson Finds a Home,” New York Times, May 8, 1989: C5. The “less-than-inspiring” phrase came from Steve Buckley, “Dopson works an impressive six innings,” Hartford Courant, April 3, 1989: B4E.
9 Mike Shalin, “Clemens to the rescue,” Boston Herald, May 14, 1898: B1.
10 The nervousness was noted in Steve Buckley, “Relaxed Dopson enjoys support from offense,” Hartford Courant, March 28,1989: E3.
11 He might have pitched longer, and balked more times, but was struck in the right forearm by a batted ball in the fourth inning; X-rays proved negative. A June 15 column in the Boston Globe quoted both Dopson and manager Joe Morgan on Dopson’s propensity to balk. Larry Whiteside, “A balky start for Dopson,” Boston Globe, June 15, 1989: 44. Another article on the subject, see Dan Shaughnessy, “Tough stretch,” Boston Globe, June 20, 1989: 65.
12 He balked once in the first inning, twice in the second (the second time resulting in a run scored), and the fourth. Paul Hoynes, “Seventh Inning Stretch,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 18, 1989: 56.
13 Steve Buckley, “No more talk of the balk,” Hartford Courant, June 30, 1989: D1. There was a two-balk game on July 22, though.
14 A few days earlier, he discussed the surgery and recovery. See Gus Martins, “Dopson gets a second life on mound,” Boston Herald, September 4, 1991: 11.
15 On the cusp of Dopson returning, see Sean Horgan, “Dopson keeps Sox waiting,” Hartford Courant, March 28, 1992: D1.
16 Graham, “His Night to Remember.”
17 “Wrapping up arbitration,” New York Times, February 22, 1993: C2. His 1992 salary was reported as $285,000. The Red Sox had offered $485,000. He was awarded $750,000.
18 “Boston Red Sox,” The Sporting News, November 15, 1993: 41.
19 “California Angels, The Sporting News, February 14, 1994: 23.
20 Mike Penner, “Friendship opens door for Dopson,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 1994: OCC1.
22 “John Dopson, Q & A Session,” Boston’s Pastime.com, April 6, 2007.
24 “John Dopson, Q & A Session.”
25 E-mail to author on October 15, 2021.