Cliff Johnson Gets Ticket to 'Bronx Zoo'

Jim McIsaac

Astros -Yankees History: Astros Trade Slugger Cliff Johnson to Tumultuous Late 70's Yankees

The Yankees won World Series championships in 1977 and 1978. The daily controversies on that team make it one of the most colorful championship teams in baseball history, and led to the team's nickname, "The Bronx Zoo," as well as the ESPN mini-series, "Bronx is Burning." Owner George Steinbrenner cemented his reputation as a serial hirer and firer. Billy Martin fought his own players, and the players fought each other. The Astros gave their young backup catcher and slugger, Cliff Johnson, a ticket into this tempest, when he was traded in June, 1977.

JOHNSON'S ASTROS CAREER

The Astros drafted Cliff (Heathcliff) Johnson out of San Antonio Wheatley High School in the 5th round of the 1966 draft. At 6-4, 215, he was a tall catcher who also played 1b and outfield. In the Astros' minor leagues, Johnson had seasons with 33, 28, and 27 (twice) HRs. Johnson was given very brief exposure to the majors in 1972 and 73. At age 26, Johnson was called up to the Astros big league club for good in 1974. Johnson was used mainly as a back up catcher and 1b, as well as pinch hitter. He had 210 PA in 1974 and 350ish PA in 1975-76; he was on pace for about 400 PA when he was traded in 1977.

Johnson did not have a reputation as a great fielding catcher; he is one of those players whose best position is in the batter's box. Johnson's power hitting with the Astros was prolific, considering his limited playing time. Johnson has the 125th best career at bats per HR in baseball history--which is particularly noteworthy considering that he batted a significant amount of time in the Astrodome. In 1976, Johnson had 21 doubles in only 318 at bats. Johnson had a .842 OPS with the Astros, producing a 142 OPS+, which takes into account the lower run environment of the 70's. Johnson had a .972 OPS when he was traded in 1977. Those offensive numbers are so good that one wonders why the Astros couldn't figure out how to get him more at bats with the team.

On June 15, 1977, Johnson was traded to the Yankees for pitcher Randy Niemann, utility infielder Mike Fischlin, and a PTBNL, which turned out to be first baseman Dave Bergman. Niemann and Fischlin had brief careers with the Astros and Bergman was used as back up first baseman and pinch hitter for several years.

As a fan at the time, I wasn't really happy with the trade. Johnson had rare power on a team that needed power, and he always seemed to get big hits that won games or gave the Astros the lead in games. Looking back now, we can see that Johnson's HR rate per at bat was better than contemporary Astros sluggers like Jim Wynn, Lee May, and Bob Watson. Because batting average was considered the most important statistic at the time (and OPS had yet to be invented), perhaps the Astros undervalued Cliff, because of his .256 batting average. Johnson's excellence at drawing walks was underappreciated in that era: his OBP with the Astros was about 120 points higher than his batting average. He has the profile of a hitter who would be valued on the current Astros team.

In retrospect, the Astros may have been justified in looking at Johnson's age (29) and following the adage that it is better to trade a player too early than too late. They couldn't predict that Johnson would continue hitting productively through age 39.

JOHNSON'S 1977 - 79 SEASONS AS A YANKEE

Johnson joined a team with big names and big personalities like Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Lou Piniella, Sparky Lyles, Ron Guidry, and Thurman Munson. So, it's no suprise that he was not well known or considered more than a role player. But, Johnson was an important part of that 1977 100 win team, hitting .296, .405, .606 in 56 games with a 171 OPS+. The Yankees were down 2-1 to the Royals in the AL Championship game and came back to win the series, 3-2, before defeating the Dodgers in the World Series. Johnson played a memorable role in the AL Championship series, hitting .400 with a 1.17 OPS, including 1 HR and 2 doubles in 16 PA. This NY Daily News link includes a photograph of Cliff Johnson sitting atop the lockers, watching the Yankees party after the World Series win. Johnson hit poorly during the 1978 season and received only 174 at bats. Johnson's offense appeared to be returning in 1979, hitting 20 HRs for the Yankees before mid-season. But a shower room incident with Goose Gossage would end his Yankees days.

JOHNSON'S FIGHT WITH GOSSAGE

This incident made Johnson famous. Johnson and Goose Gossage got into a fight in the showers in 1979; Gossage slipped and fell on his hand, breaking his thumb, putting the all star closer out of action for two months, and foretelling an end to the Yankees World Series string. By all accounts, Gossage and Johnson were friends and the "fight" started with the two player ribbing each other, but escalated to punches when Gossage questioned Johnson's hitting prowess in the National League. Steinbrenner was furious and fined both players. Not surprisingly, Johnson was traded to the Royals shortly thereafter. (Sports Illustrated link.) This incident probably received more attention because of the Bronx Zoo's reputation for fighting. Not only did Billy Martin frequently challenge his players to fights, but Steinbrenner, himself, would be accused of fighting a Dodgers' fan in the stadium elevator not too many years after this incident. Johnson, for his part didn't like being defined by the incident, saying that he was never a "pugilist."

A couple of interesting post scripts to the incident. This "don't mess with Heathcliff" link is funny, with a photo of Johnson talking to a Yankees pitcher who hit him with a pitch a few months after the trade. Reportedly, Billy Martin paid the pitcher $100 to hit Johnson after Cliff had launched a HR in the previous at bat. After he was hit by the pitch, Johnson would hit a second HR against the Yankees in a blow out win by the Indians. This USA Today article points out that Johnson hit a HR off Gossage in the 2001 Yankees Old Timers game. Gossage responded by hitting the next old timer with a pitch. Sometimes you can't make this stuff up.

SUBSEQUENT CAREER

Johnson is one of those sluggers whose career was extended by the DH. He would hit almost 200 HRs before retiring after the 1986 season; along the way, in addition to the Astros and Yankees, he played for the Indians, Cubs, Blue Jays, A's, and Rangers. He participated in post season games for the Blue Jays and A's. Johnson held the MLB career pinch hit HR record until Matt Stairs passed him in 2010. He lives in San Antonio.

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