#CardCorner: 1987 Topps Howard Johnson
“I think he realized baseball was what I wanted to do,” Johnson told the Tampa Grandstand. “I think for our own good he was strict in that he didn’t give us the freedom to choose whether we wanted to play or not. The work habits I have now were formed by my father. When you get to a certain level of baseball, the things your dad teaches you really don’t matter anymore. But it’s the attitude – the things you think about when you have decisions to make – they’re the lasting things that you parents teach their children.
Playing year-round in sunny Florida, Johnson became a star for Clearwater High School, hitting .375 as a junior. But he seemed headed for a career on the mound, and as a senior Johnson batted just .275 but had a .91 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 91 innings.
The Yankees selected Johnson in the 23rd round of the 1978 MLB Draft, but Johnson enrolled at St. Petersburg College instead. In January 1979, the Tigers took Johnson to the first round of this draft, which was set up specifically for college players.
The Tigers sent Johnson, still just 18, to Class A Lakeland of the Florida State League in 1979. He batted .235 with 49 RBI and 18 stolen bases in 132 games, defending against players who had in average about three years. older than he was.
Johnson was returned to Lakeland in 1980, and this time he hit .285 with 10 homers, 69 RBIs and 31 stolen bases while being named FSL All-Star. The performance earned him promotion to Double-A Birmingham in 1981, and Johnson played in the Southern League – hitting .266 with 22 homers, 83 RBIs and 19 steals after a slow start that saw him lead the team in strikeouts and errors in the middle -Can. But after hitting home runs on both sides of home plate in a May 20 game against Chattanooga, HoJo — as he was already known back then — found his grove.
The Tigers brought Johnson to spring training camp in 1982 in hopes that he would spend that season with Triple-A Evansville. When Detroit manager Sparky Anderson sent him back to the minors on March 22, that decision came with a promise for the future.
“I told him this morning it won’t be anyone’s fault but his own if he doesn’t play in the major leagues next year,” Anderson told the Tampa Bay Weather. “He can hit, line up and run – and Howard has a great attitude. It has everything a player needs to play this game.”
But less than a month after being sent to Triple-A, Johnson was in the big leagues. Recalled after playing just one game in Evansville due to injuries to Rick Leach and Eddie Miller, Johnson made his Detroit debut on April 14 – batting in the lead and starting in right field against the Blue Jays. He was 1 for 4 with a run scored, playing regularly at third base over the next three weeks before being sent back to Evansville in May.
“I’m so high on Howard Johnson, it’s unreal,” Anderson told the Evansville Press. “If he’s not ready, who’s ready? I’ll tell you this, that Johnson is the third baseman of Detroit’s total future — and it could be sooner than that.
But with veteran Tom Brookens – an Anderson favorite – in the lineup, the Tigers could afford to bring Johnson in slowly. He beat Triple-A with a .317 batting average with 23 homers, 67 RBIs and 35 stolen bases in 98 games that summer before returning to Detroit in August, where he saw action in the field. outside and at third base for the remainder of the year – finishing with a .316 batting average and 23 runs scored in 54 games.
Johnson worked hard on his pitch during spring training in 1983 – and improved dramatically when he replaced his gloves with a smaller one more suited to an infielder. But Anderson kept the right hand hitting Brookens in the lineup curling him up with Johnson, and Johnson was hitting just .212 in late May when he was dropped to Triple-A.
He appeared in just three games with Evansville before fracturing his right index finger on June 2 and then breaking his digit again three weeks later while training on the field. The second injury required surgery which sidelined Johnson for the remainder of the 1983 season.
Brookens and Johnson shared time again in 1984, a situation complicated by the presence of prospect Barbaro Garbey, who also saw time at third base. But the Tigers put any problems aside with a record 35-5 start to the season – and Johnson pushed his batting average to .337 in mid-June. But he finished the year hitting .248 with 12 home runs and 50 RBIs in 116 games and had apparently fallen out of favor with Anderson, who played him in just one of Detroit’s eight postseason games – one appearance. hard-hitting in the final game of the World Series – as the Tigers won the world championship.