The 1968 season looked like the end of the line for Deron Johnson. In 127 games, Johnson hit only .208 with 8 homeruns and 33 rbi. Since a stellar 1965 season in which he slammed 32 homers and drove-in a league-leading 130 runs, the slugger’s numbers had precipitously declined and his career was in a downward spiral.

When the Phillies purchased Johnson from the Braves in December 1968, expectations weren’t high. With fading offensive contributions from aging stars Bill White and Johnny Callison, Philly took a chance on the strike-out prone infielder/outfielder in hopes he might rediscover his hitting groove in 1969.

During spring training, hitting coach Billy DeMars saw a major flaw in Johnson’s swing. He told the San Diego California native that he needed to keep his front left shoulder down. Johnson listened and implemented his new stroke. The results were good; the 31-year-old rebounded in ’69 with 17 home runs and 80 rbi in 138 games, providing decent protection for Dick Allen who smashed 32 round-trippers.

It was also at about this time that Johnson became a student of Hall-Of-Famer Ted Williams. He studied the Splinter’s book, The Science of Hitting and his offensive numbers took off. 

“If you want to be a good hitter, work at it extra hard,” he told the press, paraphrasing Williams.

In 1970, Allen was gone and the Phillies hoped Johnson would pick-up the offensive deficit created by the troubled player’s departure. The guy nicknamed “The Big ‘D’” didn’t disappoint; he belted 27 homeruns and knocked-in 93, good numbers in the pre-steroids era. In 1971, Johnson stepped it up a notch in the power department, delivering 34 long-trippers, including three in one game against the Expos. He also drove in 95 runs, as the main power source in a line-up that didn’t exactly remind anyone of the 1927 Yankees.

His work ethic was paying dividends and the Phillies saw no reason why a healthy Johnson couldn’t be the heart of their offense again for the 1972 campaign. However, Johnson injured his leg early in the season and never fully recovered. He spent much of the year on the DL and finished with just a .213 average and 9 homeruns.

The Phillies thought Johnson was finished and traded him to the A’s for a nobody in 1973. Just like the Braves before them, the Phils were wrong about Johnson. He continued to work hard and was a DH and first baseman for Oakland. In 131 games for the World Champions, Johnson smacked 19 homers and drove-in 81.

After staring 1974 with the A’s, Deron Johnson bounced around with several teams. His last decent year at the plate was 1975; he drilled 19 round-trippers playing for the White Sox and the Red Sox. 

Age finally caught up with Johnson in 1976; as a part-timer for Boston, he hit a paltry .132 with no dingers in home run-friendly Fenway Park. At 38, Johnson was through as a player after a 15-year career.  He would later spend an additional 13 seasons as a coach for the Angels, Mets, Mariners, Phillies and White Sox.

The man who worked so hard to extend a career that looked doomed in 1968 passed away in 1992 from lung cancer. 

His lifetime numbers weren’t Hall-of-Fame caliber (244 hr, 923 rbi , .244 avg).

But his work ethic was.

 

Written by Chris Williams

 

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