Fiery Manager Davey Johnson Has a Reputation for Speaking His Mind, while Getting Results. Now With Los Angeles, He Has the Chance to Turn Around His Boyhood Idols
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99
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"Only stand-up guys like Davey, managers who take the heat and fear nothing, survive," says Sam Perlozzo, the Mets' former third base coach (fired in 1989, now with the O's). "Davey took it upon himself to save my job, to battle management on my behalf. He didn't have to do this, to risk losing his own job. But that's him, totally self-confident, gutsy, principled--a fighter you'd want to have in the trenches."
Military allusions aptly describe David Allen Johnson. Relentlessly driven by a code of honor, ever loyal to his players, and often undermined by a combative swagger, he personifies a soldier's story.
An Army brat, moving from base to base in Germany, Georgia, Texas and Wyoming, Johnson grew up knowing that his father, Frederick, a highly decorated Second World War tank commander, had seen "some very brutal things." These battle experiences, which won his dad a drawer full of medals, weren't ever discussed. They just loomed in the background, along with all the salutes and knowing looks of respect from other military men that formed an impression on his young son.
"Dad was very tough, a stubborn Swede on the outside but very caring down deep," recalls Johnson. "I'm stubborn, too. Yet even if he was hard, you still knew he was always thinking about his family, his soldiers, that he'd try to move mountains for them."
His father's silence about his war experiences lasted throughout Davey's adolescence, from the time he was a part-time bat boy for the old Washington Senators, to when he starred as a sure-handed shortstop in high school and won a baseball scholarship to Texas A & M. "I had the greatest coach in the world, Tom Chandler, a real classic who taught me real respect for the game, and gave me an opportunity to show what I could do."
At Texas A & M for two years, Johnson eventually recognized the difficulties of studying to become a veterinarian while playing winter ball, and left school to join the Baltimore Orioles' minor-league organization. His education continued, however, for along with taking computer and math courses at Johns Hopkins University, he finally learned about his father's wartime travails.
"A true survivor, he escaped from an Italian prisoner of war camp where they pulled his teeth out without any Novocain," Johnson says with a sigh. "One day they tied him up, and by stashing a knife on his body, he cut himself loose. He went on to live with the Italian resistance--a real hero, and a guy who wouldn't talk about this stuff because he didn't want to inflict pain on others."
Displaying his own mettle, a scrappy willingness to take hits at second base from sliding base runners, Johnson quickly moved up the minor-league ranks. He ultimately impressed O's manager Hank Bauer by barreling home from second on a routine fly ball in a 1966 exhibition game. Another no-fear firebrand, Bauer immediately converted D.J. into a second baseman and installed him in the lineup.
"The game was very macho back then, and I showed Hank I wasn't afraid to stick my head in anywhere," recalls Johnson, who hit a respectable .257 in 1966 while earning $6,500. "You played hurt, even with strep throat, since Hank demanded this aggressive, bust-a-gut style of play. I still believe you've got to get the guys' energy going, put pressure on defenses and make things happen. As a manager you have to be this kind of 'juice man.' "
While Bauer's exhortations led to a 1966 pennant and a World Series sweep of Sandy Koufax's Dodgers, life in the winner's circle wasn't all that charmed. At least not for Johnson, who in a rollicking, pennant-clinching celebration aboard a plane bound for L.A., paid dearly for the loss of his "virginity."
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