Monday, April 14, 2014

Card #13: Lamar Johnson

Welcome back from the break.  Let's get back at this.

Who Can It Be Now?
Lamar Johnson Sr. was born in Bessemer, Alabama in September of 1950.  Bessemer is a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, known for being a majority-minority city which for most of the twentieth century was the home of the Pullman Standard railroad car manufacturing plant.

The story that comes up every time Lamar Johnson is mentioned is a game on June 19, 1977, which former Chicago White Sox pitcher Wilbur Wood calls "The Lamar Johnson Game."  Johnson sang the national anthem before the White Sox home game against the Oakland Athletics and then proceeded to be the only White Sox player to get any hits at all. He actually had three hits -- two of which were solo home runs -- and won the first game of a doubleheader for the Sox singlehandedly by a score of 2-1.  

Apparently, Johnson sang the national anthem before the game because Bart Johnson spoke with the secretary for owner Bill Veeck about having Lamar sing.  Veeck was never one to turn down a good promotion -- indeed, he is credited for having Harry Caray start singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch while Caray was the Sox broadcaster -- so Veeck green-lighted the idea.  Veeck was quoted as saying that if Lamar kept hitting as he did in the June 1977 game, then Veeck would, "stop every game after 4-1/2 innings and have him sing it again."

Johnson only played through the 1982 season, capping off an eight-year career.  Johnson was released after spring training in 1983 by the Texas Rangers. After a few years out of baseball, Johnson was hired by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1988 as a minor-league hitting instructor and, in 1993 and 1994, he managed the Stockton Ports in the California League.  

In 1995, Johnson became the Brewers major-league hitting instructor.  He stayed there until 1998, when the Brewers fired him in August after losing to the Reds by scores of 17-0 and 4-0 in consecutive games.  From there, he went to the Kansas City Royals in the same role for five seasons before being let go at the end of the 2002 season.  The Mariners hired him for a season to perform the same role, but they did not renew his contract.  Since 2005, he has been a roving instructor in the New York Mets organization.

Everybody Wants You
For those players who did not play in 1982 for the team on which they are pictured in the main set, there are two categories.  I'll introduce this category today, and the second category will appear in due time.

The first group are those players who were signed as free agents by a club other than the one in whose uniform the player is pictured.  The category is named for the opening song off Billy Squire's Emotions in Motion and reached #32 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.  It was also the #1 song on the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart for six weeks during 1982.

Johnson reached the end of his contract with the White Sox after the 1981 strike-shortened season.  He had struggled to find playing time that season -- effectively platooning with the light-hitting Mike Squires at first base.  Squires was a left-handed hitter and got 334 plate appearances to Johnson's 142 that season.  

Johnson signed with the Rangers in January of 1982 and served mainly as the Rangers designated hitter.  A designated hitter with an OPS+ of 93 doesn't really cut it, though, so the Rangers cut him in 1983.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
My recollection of Lamar Johnson is from his days as a player for the White Sox.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Packers-Bears rivalry tended not to end well for the good guys in Green and Gold, so Wisconsinites turned to the Brewers games against the White Sox for opportunities to pull one over on their more urbane rivals to the south.  

If you look at career stats, Johnson enjoyed hitting against the Brewers.  The only teams he had better success against (measured by OPS) were the White Sox (in only 7 games, though) and the Baltimore Orioles.  Much of that damage was done in Milwaukee County Stadium, as well -- a career SLG there of .510 and a career OPS of .881 -- by far his best showing in any location where he appeared in at least 15 games.

Frankly, I recall well that I was happy when I heard that Mike Squires would play a lot more than Johnson would -- and that is a remnant of how he killed the Brewers.  Perhaps that is why he was hired as the hitting coach.

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