Ballplayers go to the figures each day like some people thumb first thing to the horoscopes; they see in them what they want to see. General managers look at numbers as if they were little knives to be stuck in the vulnerable hides of players, who in return use them for the same purpose against general managers. Some managers carry them around wherever they go, like cost accountants, always ready to assume a doubting eye. And for most of the fans, well, who knows what they would do if they didn't know who led the league in stolen hair blowers last year?
But for those fans who find figures too dry for their emotional tastes, for those who deplore them to the point of wishing they could have kicked Bob Cratchit in the stomach, and for those who fled the country for the summer away from great and terrible things, have you noticed the number next to the name of one player in the National League? If not, then let it be duly noted that Dave Johnson, a second baseman, is the home-run leader of the Atlanta Braves—not Henry Aaron, who has a more Olympian ambition.
That fact, of course, still may not mean much, unless you are familiar with the dossier of Dave Johnson and the threshold upon which he stands. Like Aaron, he, too, is close to being memorable. In a small way. That is, if you can ever imagine Rogers Hornsby being small in any way. For Johnson, who has hit 39 home runs this season, is only three away from tying Hornsby's record of 42, more than have been hit by any second baseman who ever played the game. The whole thing boggles the mind, and just goes to show you you can't count on anything anymore.
It is hard to guess what Hornsby, who considered himself a Van Gogh of hitters rather than a mere home-run producer, would say about all of this, but others may be saying it for him with one simple point. The architecture of the Atlanta ball park is the most persistent explanation of Johnson's sudden power. It is a park without any wind factor at all, and because of the altitude at which Atlanta sits, the ball goes out of there as if it were launched from Cape Kennedy. One look at this park and you've got to want to pick up a bat.
September 16, 1973
Aaron just comments incoherently on the subject of the park ("I don't know anything about any park thing"), and Johnson himself is equally at a loss for an explanation. "I think dumb now, I just attack now," says Dave. "That's what they do in this league—attack the ball. I go up trying to hit it as hard as I can." Johnson's work on the road lends credence to those who lean to the Atlanta park theory—he has hit 14 out on the road and 25 at home. But no matter how one looks at it, there is still this fact: 39 home runs by a second baseman who never hit more than 18 in his career.
Second basemen just don't hit 39 home runs, not even in the National League, where they are much more dynamic and definite threats as hitters. A second baseman always seems to work in anonymity, far in shade of the big guns from the outfield and the pitchers who win 20 games. Certain things are required of him, and none of them have anything to do with power. He must never blow a pivot, one of the most beautiful plays in the game. He must be a reliable No. 2 hitter, spray the ball all over, drive in about 45 runs and hit about .250, with or without a big mouth. Second basemen are often thinkers, and they seem to make manager material.
That is the collective image of the second baseman, and Johnson, throughout his eight years with the Orioles, did not do too much to disprove it. Yet there was always something about him that made you think he could be many cuts above the rest at his position. From 1969 through 1971 he hit .280, .281 and .282. He could go deep just when you least expected it of him. In the field he was a reliable spoke in a tough defensive wheel, and you could not take him out of a double play with a torpedo. And he used his head, much to the chagrin of Manager Earl Weaver and to the amusement of those he played with.
Pitcher Dave McNally still winces at this recollection. On one of the few occasions that McNally had ever been wild, Johnson trotted in from second base and said, "Don't you know about the unfavorable chance deviation theory?" McNally looked at him in disbelief. Johnson explained: "When you're wild, aim for the middle of the plate because, since you're wild, it won't go where you want it. The ball will hit the corners, which is what you really want." That was only one of Johnson's many sudden theories.
Says Andy Etchebarren: "We sometimes made fun of his theories because after he'd go 3 for 4 he'd make a change in his stance or something, thinking he was doing something wrong. He was dead serious. We were in Milwaukee last year, and he talked me into going to the park early so he could practice his flare swing. That's the inside-out swing by a right-handed hitter where he tries to hit the ball to right field with enough spin on it so it'll curve to the line."
Weaver was not spared Johnson's advice, either. Once Johnson asked, "Skip, why don't our runners try to steal more often when the count is 1 and 2 on the batter? The pitcher always throws a breaking pitch in that situation." Weaver asked, "Do you always get a breaking pitch on 1 and 2?"
"Not always," Johnson admitted. "Well," said Weaver, "I can't send our runners when it's 1 and 2 on you, then, now can I?"
Things went progressively sour between Weaver and Johnson last season. The club was going badly, and Weaver, religious about statistics and platooning, shuffled players constantly. Johnson resented the moves. He eventually lost his job to Bobby Grich. Weaver says he is fond of Johnson. "The only thing he couldn't cope with last season," Weaver says, "was the pain in his shoulder. He hurt it sliding a few years ago, and even though we sent him to all kinds of doctors, nothing seemed to help. That caused his bad year at the plate last season. Knowing he was having a bad year and wouldn't get a raise [Johnson is known as a hard contract], he became unhappy. So the trade worked out nicely. Dave will get a nice raise next season."
At the time Johnson was surprised at being sent to Atlanta. "The Orioles," he said, "gave up too much. Really, I'm serious. The Braves got two frontline pitchers, a good young defensive catcher, who hits line drives, and me. I consider myself a player who's just reaching his prime." Even so, Johnson had other thoughts before the season began, and Mark Belanger could not help but sense them when he visited Johnson during the winter in Orlando, Fla.; Johnson had a batting cage and a pitching machine in his backyard, and there was even a spotlight for practicing at night.
"That is great," Belanger said. "Is it helping you?"
"I don't know," replied Johnson. "I've only used it once. My shoulder is still bothering me. If I don't have a good year, I'll probably hang 'em up. I just can't swing the bat."
An isometric exercise eventually restored the swing, and now Johnson glitters even in the giant shade of Henry Aaron. But the Braves? They are a curious club, sometimes reminding one of a fat ballerina, if ever there was such a specimen. Their defense is comically porous, their pitchers don't fool anyone except maybe their catchers, and the innings can be long in the field. "My feet get awfully sore standing out there for 20 minutes," Johnson says. Yet they are not a bore to watch with bats in their hands. There is Aaron. There is Johnson. And there is Third Baseman Darrell Evans.
"Evans," says Johnson of his teammate, who has 36 home runs, "has a beautiful swing. If I was a manager and had to start a club, he'd be my third baseman."
"Has the emphasis of the bat on the Braves hurt you defensively?" Johnson was asked. He has committed 24 errors, and Evans has made 23. "Well," Johnson said, "I don't know about that, but I've never had such a bad year in the field."
Looking at him, it is impossible to equate him with the majesty that was Hornsby. Johnson makes you think of one of those young men who like to hang around garages in the South. Hornsby, with his cold blue eyes and blunt tongue, was a presence that challenged, and many over the years found they could do without it. Johnson is capable of achieving a rich life outside of baseball; for Hornsby there was only baseball. "People ask me what I do in the winter when there's no baseball," Hornsby once said. "I'll tell ya. I sit and stare out the window and wait for spring."
Johnson will do nothing like that this winter. He will sell real estate. He will go flying—he paid $3,000 for lessons. He will answer questions at banquets about how he came to hit all those home runs. "The difference," he says now, "is in the two leagues. Over here in the National League they let you play. The game isn't overmanaged. It's fun to play over here, but it wasn't over there." And most of all during the winter Dave Johnson will study his figures, those diabolical columns of reality upon which a player's worth stands, and he will most surely agree with Brooks Robinson, who, before Johnson's latest clout, said, "Thirty-eight homers; why, that's good even in a telephone booth."