Johnson was a three-time Gold Glove winner for the Orioles at second base (1969-71) and a good enough fielder to play 43 games at shortstop, filling in for Mark Belanger. But he is known as a home run hitter and as a manager. In 1973 his 43 HR, one behind the NL leader, set the ML record for second basemen as the Braves became the only team ever to have three 40-HR men: Johnson, Hank Aaron, and Darrell Evans. Johnson hit .270 that year, with career highs of 99 RBI, 84 runs, and 81 walks, and was TSN’s NL Comeback Player of the Year.
The Orioles had traded him because manager Earl Weaver felt that Johnson had lost too much range afield by bulking up for power; Bobby Grich took over the job. Prior to that Johnson had led AL second basemen in putouts (1970), double plays (1971), fielding (1972), and errors (1966, his rookie season). Even before his surprising power in 1973, he’d been a useful hitter, finishing fourth in the AL in doubles in 1967 and third in 1969. That year, when the Orioles lost to the Miracle Mets in the World Series, Johnson’s fly ball to Cleon Jones was the final out. He had better luck in 1970, hitting two homers in the LCS as Baltimore swept the Twins. His best offensive figures for Baltimore came in 1971, when he hit .282 with 18 HR and 72 RBI. After he dropped off to .221 with five HR in 1972, he was traded to Atlanta with Pat Dobson, Roric Harrison, and Johnny Oates for Earl Williams and a throw-in. Besides his record-setting power performance, Johnson tied for the NL lead in double plays by a second baseman, but he also led in errors and couldn’t cover as much ground as he once had. He split 1974 between first and second and fell off to .251 with 15 HR, and after one pinch at-bat in 1975 he signed with the Yomiuri Giants for two years. In Japan, he became the only player to be a teammate of both Hank Aaron and Sadaharu Oh. He was a disappointment in his first year overseas (.197, 13 HR), but he improved to .275 with 26 HR in 1976.
Johnson made it back to the majors with the division-winning 1977 Phillies as a utility man and pinch hitter (9-for-26), hitting .321 with eight HR in 156 at-bats. In 1978 he tied a ML record with two pinch grand slams. But although he hit .333 in the pinch, his overall average dropped to .232.
Johnson began his managerial career in 1979. He won pennants in each of his three seasons in the minors and advanced quickly through the Mets’ system, jumping over more experienced managerial candidates. Mets GM Frank Cashen had been the GM at Baltimore during Johnson’s time there. Johnson, who earned a mathematics degree from Trinity (Texas) University, gained immediate attention for his use of computers to compile player data. His attention to batter-pitcher matchups for platooning and in-game switches was learned from Earl Weaver. Johnson’s strategy also owes much to his former manager. He dislikes the bunt and manages according to the credos of “pitching and three-run homers” and “play for one run, lose by one run.” Johnson took over a team that hadn’t won a pennant since 1973 but was ready to win after being rebuilt from the minors up by Cashen and the Mets’ new owners. Johnson went on to become the first NL manager to win at least 90 games in each of his first five seasons, winning the World Championship in 1986 and the NL East in 1988 and finishing second in the other years.