Originally a pitcher in the Detroit Tigers organization, Howard Johnson became an infielder to allow his natural batting talents to blossom. When finally given a chance to play regularly with the New York Mets, Johnson established himself as one of the most well-rounded hitters in the game. In 1987 he and Darryl Strawberry became the first teammates to both hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases, and Johnson’s 36 homers set a National League record for a switch-hitter, which he would break four years later.
HoJo, as he became known, broke camp with the Tigers in 1982, but wasn’t in Detroit to stay until 1984, when he hit 12 dingers with 50 RBIs in 355 at-bats. However, as the team advanced to the postseason, manager Sparky Anderson chose to use Dave Bergman, Marty Castillo, and Tom Brookens rather than Johnson, who got only one pinch at-bat in the World Series.
Detroit’s lack of faith in his potential led them to trade him to the New York Mets that December for Walt Terrell. In New York, Johnson found himself in a platoon with Ray Knight, but his ability to play shortstop (albeit without much range) got him more chances to play — manager Davey Johnson was quite willing to stack his lineup offensively at the cost of weaker defense. But it wasn’t until after Knight left as a free agent that Johnson played every day, staving off the challenge of the promising Dave Magadan.
Usually hitting sixth or seventh, Johnson was easy to pitch around in 1987, but still slugged 36 homers and tallied 99 RBIs. Opposing managers, especially Whitey Herzog of the rival Cardinals, repeatedly had Johnson’s bat confiscated to check for cork. Eventually Herzog realized that Johnson’s power was for real — two years later he suggested that Johnson’s arms should be checked instead.
Johnson fell off to 24 homers and 23 steals in 1988, playing the second half of the season with a sore right shoulder. The Mets reached the League Championship Series, but Johnson hit very poorly in the team’s loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Over the winter, he was the center of many trade rumors, with hot rookie Gregg Jefferies supposedly ready to take over third base.
But the Mets held onto him, and soon reaped the benefits. Johnson moved to third in the lineup in 1989 but continued to draw walks, showing both that he was a patient hitter and that National League pitchers would rather pitch to anybody else, even Darryl Strawberry. At the All-Star break, Davey Johnson said, “the Mets’ season [was] a Howard Johnson highlight film.” HoJo finished with career highs of 101 ribbies, 104 runs, and 41 steals while batting .287 with 36 homers. With his second 30-30 season, Johnson became only the third player ever to accomplish the feat at twice.
A dead fastball hitter in his first few seasons, Johnson used a high-tech reflex program to hone his timing. His ability to hit even the best fastballs gave him many clutch late-inning home runs against opponents’ ace relievers, who tended to be fireballers. A favorite victim was the Cardinals’ Todd Worrell, who surrendered five home runs lifetime to Johnson before Whitey Herzog finally decided not to let Worrell pitch to Johnson in vital situations.
Johnson’s stats dropped significantly in 1990, fueling more speculation of a trade. But he bounced back once again in 1991, swatting 38 dingers, stealing 30 bases, knocking in 117 runs and scoring 108 times. With his third 30-30 season, Johnson joined Bobby Bonds as the only players to accomplish the feat more than twice. Setting or tying a handful of Met offensive records, Johnson noted that it was no coincidence that his best year came after he became a born-again Christian in the off-season. But while the inner peace he found with religion may have helped his hitting stroke, it certainly didn’t help his fielding. That same year, as the club began to shift him around in positions more than ever before, he made 31 errors at shortstop, third base, and outfield.
HoJo endured an awful 1992, playing in only 100 games due to a hairline fracture on his wrist he sustained in August, and tallying just seven homers and a .223 batting average. There would be no magical bounce-back this time: Johnson followed up the poor 1992 with a similar 1993 season, batting .238 with seven homers over 72 games.
When the Mets didn’t re-sign Johnson at the end of the season, he joined the Colorado Rockies in the thin, homer-happy air of Denver, hoping to revitalize his sagging career. He ended up batting .211 with ten homers over 93 games. Johnson then signed with the Chicago Cubs in April 1995 and quickly became a fan favorite, knocking seven home runs in limited play. But when nobody would sign him as a free agent following the ’95 campaign, he retired.
After taking a job as a coach for a rookie team in the fledgling Tampa Bay Devil Rays organization in 1996, HoJo felt the burning desire to play once again. He arranged a spring training tryout with the Mets for 1997, but fell short in his comeback attempt. After Johnson hit just .129 with one homer during spring training, he decided to hang up his spikes for good.
Johnson stayed with the Mets in other roles for the next couple of years, signing on to be a scout in October 1997. In December 2000, the New York fan favorite became the batting coach for the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Single-A affiliate of the Mets.