When Deron Johnson died in 1992, the notion of baseball mortality really started to hit me. Oh, I had already been assaulted with the tragic mid-career losses of Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson, but their deaths had occurred while I was still a child, when I still didn’t fully appreciate life and death. By the time that Johnson died, I was 27 years old and working fulltime. Here was a guy I remembered well from my earliest days watching baseball. Deron was strong, sizeable, and seemingly unconquerable.
A burly right-handed slugger who won the National League’s RBI title in 1965 with the Cincinnati Reds, Johnson died in the spring of ‘92 while still employed as the batting coach of the California Angels. Johnson, only 53, had been diagnosed with lung cancer the previous June. After the diagnosis, Johnson asked the Angels’ beat writers not to mention his illness in print. He continued to coach while carrying an oxygen task with him. For those player and coaches who knew him, such toughness was typical of Johnson. Even after he became too ill to coach, he continued to refuse hospitalization and treatment because he wanted to live out his remaining days at home. Once again, for those who knew him, such a decision typified a family man like Johnson.
Throughout his career, Johnson struck a gruff, intimidating pose. (Like Alex Karras in Blazing Saddles, he once punched a horse, which had kicked him.) In reality, Johnson was a soft touch, a likeable man who developed a close rapport with teammates, and later as a coach, with his hitting pupils. Johnson was so well liked, by both players and front office types, that the Philadelphia Phillies once dealt him to the Oakland A’s as a way of helping him earn a World Series ring. Phillies president Paul Owens received only minor league utilityman Jack Bastable, a non-prospect who would never make the majors, in return from the A’s. Owens could have held out for more, but he wanted to send Johnson to Oakland, where he would have a better chance to play in his first World Series.