There’s a thing that happens to old ballplayers, a strange and salty suspension that leaves their approach to the game frozen at precisely the moment they left it and tends to lead them to spend the rest of their days grousing spicily about everything that happened since. That never happened to Davey Johnson, for a couple of reasons.
One of these is that Johnson stayed in the game far longer than just about any of his peers—he played in the Majors for 12 seasons and Japan for two more, winning two World Series as the second baseman for the Orioles juggernauts of the late 1960s and early 1970s and then tying Rogers Hornsby’s record for the most home runs in a season by a second baseman as a teammate of Hank Aaron’s in Atlanta. He then went on to manage teams into the postseason in four decades, starting with the New York Mets in their dazzling and world-historically rowdy 1986 championship season. His most recent visit, and almost certainly his last given how happy Johnson seems to spend time with his wife and their two large and well-loved dogs, came with the Nationals in 2012.
That 1986 team meant a lot to me when I was a kid, and was a big part of why I was both eager and a bit nervous to sit down with Johnson. I was eager because Johnson knows a lot about baseball and because I wanted to learn some of that from him. I was nervous because the thing that defined Johnson’s career, even more than all that success, was a deep allergy to bullshit. Given that I am more or less in the bullshit business, this seemed like a potential stumbling block. It wasn’t, as it happened. It turns out that if you ask an opinionated baseball guy his opinions on baseball, he’s more than happy to share them with you.
The sweep of his career, start to finish, is astonishing—he faced a 58-year-old Satchel Paige and managed a 19-year-old Bryce Harper, was teammates with Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron and Sadaharu Oh and Mike Schmidt, was managed by Eddie Mathews and got hitting tips from Ted Williams, and was manager to Adrian Beltre and Stephen Strasburg. Johnson’s thinking about the game never curdled in part because he never really left it; laid end to end, as Johnson does in his recent memoir Davey Johnson: My Wild Ride In Baseball And Beyond, there’s something Forrest Gump-ian about the sweep of his life in baseball.
But that’s not the right comparison, at all, because the other thing that makes Davey Johnson different, both from his peers and Tom Hanks’ saintly doofus, is that he has always thought about the game differently than most. Johnson got his degree in mathematics from Johns Hopkins while playing with the Orioles, and was interested in statistics a lot earlier than just about all of his peers; he famously kept a computer in his office while he was managing the Mets and referred to it in his decision-making during an otherwise Jurassic period in baseball. He stuck around long enough to see the statistical revolution—and is more than happy to declare numerous recent aspects of it to be bullshit—but he was there before, too.
Johnson’s career was long and successful, but he was prevented from doing more than he did by a badly misdiagnosed injury that he suffered at the end of his time in Baltimore. As a result, Johnson played for two difficult years through both a subluxation—an injury in which a muscle is pulled off the bone, which is significantly less delicious in a non-barbecue context—and a great deal of physical discomfort. It’s the way the game was played, and he seems to have no complaints about it. The Braves diagnosed and treated the injury properly, and Johnson was an All-Star again.
Johnson joined us around the middle of what appears to be both an exhausting and exhaustive book tour; when he showed me the itinerary he had in his pocket after we were done talking, multiple pages and staples were involved to keep it all together. (If you are keeping score at home: we did get to talk to him before the Paul Verhoeven-verse weirdos at Fox & Friends did.) In his book and in our conversation, Johnson disavowed any real wish to write an autobiography; he ultimately wound up doing it, he says, in large part to benefit the education nonprofit Support Our Scholars, which Johnson and his wife support. All the proceeds from the book will go to that organization, and once the book tour is over, Johnson will go back to Florida to play with his dogs, relax, and probably not watch much baseball. He’s already lived as much baseball as anyone could.