John Henry Johnson — the lefty pitcher, not the Pro Football Hall of Famer or the baseball executive1 — pitched in eight big-league seasons from 1978 to 1987. He enjoyed his greatest success as a 21-year-old rookie. Primarily a starter in his early years, Johnson moved to the bullpen and was effective at times, though he also spent some stretches back in the minors. Arm problems began toward the end of Johnson’s rookie year after he’d jumped from Class A to the majors and pitched more innings than he ever had before. Assorted other nagging injuries also hindered his career.
Looking back in 1988, Johnson remarked on his career and development as a pitcher. “There are a lot of great hitters in the game today. Our team’s scouts had stats and had each player’s strengths and weaknesses. Knowing a player’s strengths and weaknesses helped me stay in the majors. I was very fortunate to stay in the majors that long.”2
John Henry Johnson was born on August 21, 1956, in Houston, Texas. His parents were Theron Lovell Johnson (a carpenter)3 and Clarice Agnes Moore (a cook).4 They were both natives of Kansas. The family also included three sisters (Jessie, Debra, and Elizabeth), two brothers (Arthur and Michael),5 and several half-siblings from Theron’s previous relationships.6
Johnson’s mother was a Prairie Band Potawatomi Indian.7 His Native American heritage drew attention when he made it to the majors, and Johnson was proud of it. As he said in 1978, “They’re the ones who made America.”8 He noted his nickname as “Chief” on a promotional questionnaire routinely filled out by baseball prospects.9 At least one Native American newspaper, the Navajo Times, wrote about Johnson with some frequency over the years. These accounts varied with regard to tribe, however, with some saying that one of his parents was a Mission Indian.
The Johnsons moved to California’s Sonoma Valley when John Henry was young. He said in 1978 that he wasn’t sure why his parents gave him that name, and that he didn’t like it as a schoolboy. (The great running back by the same name was starring in the NFL in the 1950s and ’60s, though that was likely just coincidence.) By the time he’d reached the majors, though, Johnson was saying, “It has a good ring now, though. I’ll stay with it.”10
An impressive athlete, Johnson lettered in baseball, basketball, and football at Sonoma High School. Although he’d played Little League baseball, he didn’t follow the game. He recalled, “I was only out for sports because my friends were.”11
Johnson appeared on the prospect radar in 1973 as a junior. He pitched 12 innings of a 14-inning game that Sonoma High School went on to lose against Healdsburg High School. He struck out 17 and walked six, allowing three runs, two of them earned, on four hits before yielding to a relief pitcher.12 In a game on April 26, 1974, Johnson fanned 16 in a game, again against Healdsburg High.13
On June 5, 1974, Johnson was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the 15th round of the 1974 amateur draft. He was signed by the club near the end of June.14 He got a $1,500 bonus. Johnson had thought that the Giants wanted him to play the outfield, but scout Eddie Montague — who had seen Johnson’s 16-K game — made sure the organization kept him on the mound.15
Still just 17 when he turned pro, Johnson pitched well in rookie ball, posting a 2.73 ERA, mainly in relief. He then had an adjustment period with Cedar Rapids of the Midwest League, going 4-12 with a 3.76 ERA while starting 21 of his 22 appearances. The 1975 season was notable off the field because Johnson married his high-school sweetheart, Davene Collier. They’d met when he was 15 and she was 14.16
Johnson then went 27-4 over the 1976 and 1977 seasons in Single-A ball, enhancing his status as a prospect. In the spring of 1978, however, he went to the Giants spring training camp expecting to be sent back to the minors for further development. It was later reported that he did not agree with that assessment and chafed at the prospect.17
To that point in his career, Johnson had thrown 440 innings in the minors, none higher than advanced A ball in the California League, and he had not exceeded 150 in any single season. In a similar situation in 1974, the Giants had put a highly touted first-round draft pick, John D’Acquisto, in their rotation. The previous year, they’d taken a chance by promoting D’Acquisto from High-A to Triple-A, bypassing Double-A. However, there were major differences in development: D’Acquisto logged 709 minor-league innings in his first four pro seasons, including three straight years of 200-plus innings.
San Francisco included Johnson as part of a package sent to the Oakland A’s for Vida Blue on March 15, 1978. Also in the deal were Gary Alexander, Dave Heaverlo, Phil Huffman, Gary Thomasson, Alan Wirth, a player to be named later, and $300,000. Mario Guerrero went to the Athletics on April 7 to complete the trade. “We gave up as much as anybody ever did in that trade,” said Giants farm director Jack Schwarz in December 1979 — specifically referring to the organization’s loss of depth at Class AAA.18
The A’s were trying to rebuild — or perhaps more aptly, keep the franchise afloat. Team owner Charlie Finley had dismantled the roster that had won five straight AL West division titles from 1971 to 1976, including a World Series “three-peat” (1972-74). Finley was then in negotiations to sell the team to Denver oilman Marvin Davis. Johnson provided a “hometown boy makes good” angle, which ostensibly would help ticket sales when he pitched in Oakland. Blue commanded a salary that Finley deemed too rich.19
Despite his lack of seasoning in the high minors, the 21-year-old Johnson (who stood 6-feet-2 and weighed 190 pounds) was immediately inserted into the A’s starting rotation in 1978. According to A’s manager Bobby Winkles, Finley — who served as his own GM — said, “Now that we have the kid, let’s throw him out there.”20 Johnson responded by doing well in his big-league debut on April 10, pitching six scoreless innings against the Seattle Mariners in a home game. Oakland was clinging to a 1-0 lead when the M’s loaded the bases with nobody out in the seventh, but Heaverlo got out of the jam and kept Seattle scoreless the rest of the way to secure the win for Johnson.
In his third start, at Seattle, Johnson threw a six-hit shutout. After allowing just four hits in a complete-game victory on May 5, he said, “I just go out and do it. I have no fear of getting beaten.”21
Winkles had praise for Johnson after the rookie fired his second shutout of the season, a three-hitter against the Chicago White Sox on May 21. “John Henry has been a real revelation to us,” said the manager. “We didn’t think he was ready to pitch in the major leagues this year, but we felt we owed him the chance to show if he could. I’d have to say he has proved he can.”22
Johnson went on to record his best season, winning 11 games — his career high in the majors — against 10 losses for an Oakland team that lost 93 games after a hot start. He tied for the team lead in shutouts, led the staff in complete games, and posted a 3.39 ERA. He was also named to the Topps 1978 All-Rookie Team.23
Ahead of the 1979 season, in an interview with A’s beat writer Tom Weir, Johnson expressed relief that Oakland had parted ways with manager Jack McKeon (who’d succeeded Winkles in midseason). At the end of the 1978 campaign, McKeon had stated plans to go with a four-man rotation if he returned in ’79. Johnson had amassed a career-high 186 innings and his shoulder was sore late in the year, making him less effective. “I’d like to stay in the five-man setup,” he said, “because of the shoulder thing and because I mainly throw hard.” He said that he wanted to develop his breaking pitches. He also wanted Oakland to bring back Lee Stange as pitching coach and replace McKeon with a manager “who knows how to handle younger players.”24
Stange did in fact return, and Finley hired Jim Marshall as skipper. Despite resting over the winter, however, Johnson began the 1979 season poorly. One could say that he was struggling with what was then referred to as the “sophomore jinx” — but in the early going, he was pitching on just three days’ rest. That fit Marshall’s pattern in his prior tenure as manager of the Cubs, Tom Weir observed — he “preferred a four-man rotation early in the season, then a five-man rotation when fatigue set in later.” Johnson was on record as saying he needed more time before he could be ready for such a regimen.25
Johnson won only two of 10 decisions with a 4.36 ERA in 14 games with Oakland before Charlie Finley shipped him to the Texas Rangers in mid-June in exchange for Dave Chalk, Mike Heath — and cash, which was a pattern with Finley ever since the A’s dynasty had ended.
Johnson was happy with the trade. As Tom Weir put it, the pitcher was glad “to be away from the A’s chaos.” That article mainly discussed how on June 24, shortly after the deal, Marshall got into “a near-brawl with a bat-wielding Miguel Dilone.” As it happened, the opponent was Texas, and Johnson was watching from the Rangers dugout. He said, “I saw what happened over there and just laughed.”26
Johnson was placed in the Rangers’ starting rotation. In the short term, his fortunes improved with the change in scenery — he won his first two starts while allowing just two earned runs in 12 innings. He did not win again that year, though, winding up 2-6 in 17 games with an ERA of almost 5.00. He finished the season with a combined 4-14 record.
Johnson was still a young left-handed pitcher with potential, but the Rangers believed that his repertoire would work better out of the bullpen. He was tried in short relief while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico and did well in the role.27 However, he also experienced arm problems there and was given a medical release to come home. Rangers executive Eddie Robinson expressed hope that rest would help, but was concerned.28
Johnson did not make the Rangers roster out of spring training in 1980 — the competition for the 10th and last spot on the Texas staff came down to him and another lefty, Dave Rajsich. Manager Pat Corrales said that the club wanted Johnson “someplace where he can pitch in a rotation.”29 Thus, he began the season at Triple-A Charleston, where he started 10 times in 16 games. However, the organization transitioned him back to relief. Corrales commented, “As a starter, John Henry had great stuff for three or four or five innings, then he’d lose it. We switched him in Charleston and he showed us something right away.”30
Veteran relievers Jim Kern and Sparky Lyle struggled for Texas in the first half of 1980. Thus, Johnson was called up to the Rangers around midseason. He was utilized primarily as a setup man. In 33 appearances, he won two games, saved four, and posted an impressive 2.33 ERA. Over the last month of the 1980 season, he allowed only two runs in his final 14 appearances.
Johnson thought well of Pat Corrales, who was fired at the end of the 1980 season. He said that the skipper treated him well and had confidence in him, even though the opposition hit him hard at times.31
Johnson remained effective in his relief role in the strike-shortened 1981 season, posting a 2.66 ERA in 24 appearances, although his strikeout ratio dropped off sharply. His ERA+ for the 1980 and 1981 seasons was 168 and 132, respectively (100 equals league average). Nonetheless, his name was mentioned in trade talks — the Rangers were looking to clean house after struggling in the second half of 1981.32
Indeed, on April 9, 1982, Johnson was traded by Texas to the Boston Red Sox for right-hander Mike Smithson. Boston sportswriter Peter Gammons noted, “The Rangers had a number of good offers on [Johnson] last fall but declined them, then this spring he was hit hard, fell off [Rangers manager] Don Zimmer’s dance card, and when he was optioned to Denver refused to report.”33
At first, Johnson was assigned to the Florida Instructional League. Old friend Lee Stange had become Boston’s pitching coach the year before. According to Peter Gammons, Stange was “convinced that if John Henry is healthy — which he says he is now — they can work out his mechanical problems and get him back to the big leagues.” Gammons noted that lefty relievers were “a rare commodity” and that Johnson was still just 25.34
As it developed, Johnson spent the entire 1982 season in the minors. With the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox, he relieved in 29 games, with a 4.04 ERA and a 3-1 record. Gammons later observed, “At the time of the deal, Johnson’s fastball — which once had been in the 92-mph range — was down to the low 80s, his shoulder was weak, and he spent the year slowly bringing it back under the guidance of Dr. Arthur Pappas, Lee Stange, and [Pawtucket manager] Joe Morgan.”35
Veteran lefty reliever Tom Burgmeier left Boston via free agency, which gave Johnson an opportunity to return to the major leagues in 1983. Johnson appeared in 34 games that year, all but one in relief, closing 19 of them, with a record of 3-2 and a 3.71 earned run average. When he got his first save of the year on July 22, he said, “I have to admit after all the arm troubles I had, that I never thought that I’d ever throw fastballs like that again.”36
Unfortunately, during spring training in 1984, Johnson’s arm problems resurfaced — he received a cortisone shot for stiffness in his left shoulder.37 He landed on the disabled list in June with a rib injury.
Indeed, that offseason, Jim Kaat had brought up the prevalent issue about Johnson in baseball circles: his availability. Kaat was shopping for a job to extend his career when he called Lou Gorman, then Red Sox GM, and said, “You can use a left-handed pitcher.” Gorman replied, “You’re 45 years old, Jim, and we got this young kid, John Henry Johnson…”
Kaat responded, “I’ll make you a deal, Lou. If I’m on the disabled list, you don’t have to pay me. You can put it in my contract. …I’ve never been on the disabled list in my entire career for an arm injury. John Henry Johnson is on the disabled list every year.” Gorman wouldn’t go for the deal.
Kaat recounted that while unemployed and home in Florida, he picked up a newspaper and “read the baseball news and there it was. Disabled list, John Henry Johnson.”38
Overall in 1984, Johnson got into 30 games and worked 63 2/3 innings. He posted a 3.53 ERA and a record of 1-2. Three of his appearances were starts, and he finished nine games.
That November, Johnson had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.39 He was ready to compete for a job with Boston again in the spring of 1985, but “his days were numbered when the Sox decided to move Bobby Ojeda from the starting rotation to the bullpen.”40 The Red Sox released Johnson near the end of camp, on April 1.
Johnson saw things differently. In 1986, he said, “I had two bad outings. They just released me like that. Johnny Mac [manager John McNamara] said it was the chemistry of the team . . . whatever the hell that means. I don’t think the organization liked me.”41
Ten days later, Johnson’s 1985 season resumed when he signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was placed with their Triple-A team, the Hawaii Islanders. On May 2, 1985, Johnson pitched a no-hitter with the Islanders against Calgary. Interviewed after the game, he said. “I hope this shows people I can still pitch.”42 He was, however, released by the Pirates on July 26. Pittsburgh needed a roster spot for José DeLeón, who’d been sent down.43
A month later, on August 26, Johnson signed as a free agent with the Milwaukee Brewers. They assigned him to their Pacific Coast League affiliate, the Vancouver Canadians. After initial reluctance, he went. He’d turned down offers from the Yankees and Dodgers and was about to quit, but his wife changed his mind. “I kind of gave him a little shove,” Davene said. “Deep down, I knew, and he knew, he wasn’t finished. I just couldn’t see him sitting at home when he wasn’t done playing.”44
Johnson spent the first half of 1986 with Vancouver. Thanks to a self-taught forkball, he produced some exceptional statistics.45 In 32 1/3 innings over 22 appearances, he allowed just one earned run, a homer, for an ERA of 0.28. He was brought up to Milwaukee and first appeared on July 20. He worked in 19 games overall for the Brewers, with an ERA of 2.66 and a record of 2-1.
Johnson and Davene had taken up residence in Reno, Nevada in 1980. They had two children: Christine and Adam. In a 1986 interview, the Reno Gazette-Journal described Johnson as “an affable fellow with a down-home wit that has not always been appreciated.” He was also frank about his approach to life. “l don’t party like I used to. The last two years I haven’t. I just try to clear up the reputation as a partier. I earned a reputation as a young boy. I ran hard. I’m 29 now. I take it easy and lean back.”46
Although his solid performance in 1986 boded well, 1987 displayed a return to the injuries and inconsistency that plagued Johnson throughout his career. He was with the Brewers coming out of spring training but appeared just once before going on the DL again, this time with a pulled hamstring.47 After he returned, he got into nine more games, with a total of 26 1/3 innings pitched through June. His ERA, however, was 9.57, inflated by surrendering 13 earned runs in the last nine innings of his major-league career. Those included two emergency starts, of which manager Tom Trebelhorn said, “It’s no fun if you pitch guys out of the bullpen as starters. You’re going to get some good performances, but you’re only asking for trouble. J.J. gave it everything he had, but that’s not his role.”48
Johnson’s last game in the majors was on June 29. He was 30 years old. He was sent to the Denver Zephyrs, Milwaukee’s Triple-A club in the American Association, and appeared in 26 games.
It was his last year pitching in pro ball. The Brewers dropped Johnson from their 40-man roster in September, and in February 1988, they sold his contract to Columbus of the International League (then the top affiliate of the New York Yankees). Subsequently, he retired.
In June 1988, the Navajo Times caught up with Johnson while he was visiting a former minor-league roommate in Gallup, New Mexico. Johnson said, “It was a great feeling being in the major leagues. Baseball was good to me. Earning a living playing major league baseball was great.” He added, “Being a pitcher in the majors has its pressure . . . I pitched against a lot of great hitters. I enjoyed every minute of it.”49
Johnson didn’t give up the game entirely, though. News reports from 1994, 1998, and 2001 show him as part of squads of ex-big-leaguers playing exhibitions at Reno’s Moana Stadium against teams made up of media representatives. The headliner was none other than Vida Blue.50
Otherwise, Johnson has kept a low profile during his post-baseball career. As of 2021, he and Davene resided in Sparks, just a few miles away from Reno.
Last revised: August 5, 2021
This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin and David Bilmes and checked for accuracy by SABR’s fact-checking team..
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author used baseball-reference.com and retrosheet.org for statistical data, transactions, box scores and/or play-by-play information.
1 John H. Johnson (1921-88) served from August 1970 to late 1978 as administrative assistant to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, and subsequently as president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues until his death. Research has not yet uncovered what his middle initial stood for.
2 Oree Foster, “Hurling in the majors was great experience,” Navajo Times, June 23, 1988: 11.
3 Rick Talley, “A’s wide-eyed Johnson raises eyebrows himself,” Chicago Tribune, May 29, 1978: 57.
4 Clarice Johnson, findagrave.com (https: //www.findagrave.com/memorial/10198624/clarice-agnes-johnson)
5 Michael Lovell Johnson obituary, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation website, March 2008 (https: //www.pbpindiantribe.com/gambotek/michael-lovell-johnson-obituary/)
6 Theron Johnson, findagrave.com (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/5185488/theron-lavell-johnson)
7 Talley, “A’s wide-eyed Johnson raises eyebrows himself.” Specific detail about Prairie Band from Michael Lovell Johnson obituary. Further information about Clarice Moore Johnson’s ethnicity is not presently available.
8 Tom Weir, “A’s Johnson Proud of Indian Blood,” The Sporting News, May 13, 1978: 20.
9 U.S., Baseball Questionnaires, 1945-2005. From the American Baseball Bureau and found on ancestry.com..
10 Weir, “A’s Johnson Proud of Indian Blood.”
11 Weir, “A’s Johnson Proud of Indian Blood.”
12 “SCL: Anything Can Happen This Year.” Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, California), March 28, 1973.
13 Joe Sargis, “Sonoman sharp in mound debut,” Press Democrat, April 11, 1978: 29.
14 “John Henry ‘loose’ and a winner, too” Press Democrat, June 28, 1974: 29.
15 Weir, “A’s Johnson Proud of Indian Blood.”
16 “Forkball Sticks Reno Pitcher Back in Majors,” Reno Gazette-Journal, August 10, 1986: 24.
17 Talley, “A’s wide-eyed Johnson raises eyebrows himself.”
18 Nick Peters, “Kids Give Giants Reason to Grin,” The Sporting News, December 8, 1979: 57.
19 Sargis, “Sonoman sharp in mound debut.”
20 “A’s chief shares the credit,” Press Democrat, April 25, 1978: 33.
21 “A’s rookie doesn’t worry, Oakland continues to win,” Akron Beacon Journal, May 5, 1978: 22.
22 “Johnson paces A’s over Sox,” The Californian (Salinas, California), May22, 1978: 17.
23 John Henry Johnson’s 1980 Topps baseball card.
24 Tom Weir, “Johnson Hopes A’s Pilot Can Count to Five,” The Sporting News, January 13, 1979: 33.
25 Tom Weir, “A’s Langford Works on New Style,” The Sporting News, March 17, 1979: 47.
26 Tom Weir, “Hot Dilone Given A’s ‘Passport’ to Ogden,” The Sporting News, July 14, 1979: 13.
27 Randy Galloway, “Rangers Notes,” The Sporting News, January 12, 1980: 42.
28 Randy Galloway, “Rangers Notes,” The Sporting News, February 9, 1980: 38.
29 Randy Galloway, “Rangers Roundup,” The Sporting News, April 26, 1980: 33.
30 Randy Galloway, “Darwin, Johnson Prop Up Ranger Bullpen,” The Sporting News, July 26, 1980: 35.
31 Foster, “Hurling in the majors was great experience.”
32 Randy Galloway, “High Trade Winds Blowing in Texas,” The Sporting News, October 17, 1981: 21.
33 Peter Gammons, “Sox open with doubleheader in Baltimore,” Boston Globe, April 10, 1982: 27.
34 Peter Gammons, “George’s Deals Don’t Make Baseball Sense,” The Sporting News, April 26, 1982: 11.
35 Peter Gammons, “Johnson brought heat of the night,” Boston Globe, July 24, 1983: 44.
36 Gammons, “Johnson brought heat of the night.”
37 Joe Giuliotti, “Sox Footnotes,” The Sporting News, March 19, 1984: 42.
38 Jim Kaat and Phil Pepe, Still Pitching: Musings from the Mound and the Microphone (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2003), 114.
39 Joe Giuliotti, “Red Sox’ Hopes Fade,” The Sporting News, December 3, 1984: 46.
40 Joe Giuliotti, “Sox Yarns,” The Sporting News, April 15, 1985: 20.
41 “Forkball Sticks Reno Pitcher Back in Majors.”
42 Rod Ohira, “Islanders’ Johnson Notches No-Hitter,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, May 3, 1985: 25.
43 “Forkball Sticks Reno Pitcher Back in Majors.”
44 “Forkball Sticks Reno Pitcher Back in Majors.”
45 “Forkball Sticks Reno Pitcher Back in Majors.”
46 “Forkball Sticks Reno Pitcher Back in Majors.”
47 “Brewers,” The Sporting News, May 4, 1987: 27.
48 “Brewers,” The Sporting News, July 6, 1987: 46.
49 Foster, “Hurling in the majors was great experience.”
50 “Major League ‘Heroes of Baseball’ Game vs. Media No Stars,” Reno Gazette-Journal, June 26, 1994: 36; “Vida Blue in Reno Tonight,” Reno Gazette-Journal, June 16, 1998: 11; Michael Traum, “We need you to be a chump in the chance of a lifetime,” Tahoe Daily Tribune, December 19, 2001.