“Davey has created a happy-go-lucky feeling. It’s like, Give 110 percent and leave the rest to me.’”
Johnson has had three major traumas in his baseball life: getting beaned as a minor-leaguer, getting traded by the Orioles and getting fired by the Mets. Each has defined him while also revealing him. Each time, so far, he’s fought back to the top.
Ballplayers talk about beanball injuries with a kind of grisly awe. Those who saw Johnson get it, back in 1963, have never forgotten it.
“My first memory of Davey is in Elmira in AA,” says Baltimore General Manager Pat Gillick, who was then a bush league Orioles pitcher. “He really got gonged good. It was bad. I never saw a guy who wanted to get back in the fire that fast. It really spoke to the competitor in him.”
Johnson hasn’t forgotten anything about that evening. The game was in Binghamton, N.Y. The sun was setting. The pitcher was a Kansas City farmhand with a big curve and a fastball in the low 90s. Earl Weaver was the Elmira manager and Johnson was his hot star, hitting .330 with 13 homers in 60 games. The Binghamton manager was also the team’s catcher. And Johnson had been wearing his pitchers out. Johnson should have known what was coming. But he was only 20.
“I missed two curveballs to fall in a hole,” he recalls. “I thought he’d throw another one and I remember telling myself, Don’t budge, Davey, and you’ll just kill it.’ “
Instead, Johnson never saw the fastball until it was a foot from his nose. “I saw it here,” he says, holding his hand in front of his face. “I knew I was going to eat it. Broke my nose and a couple of teeth. The ball went all the way back over the pitcher’s head. Somebody on the bench yelled, Run.’ They thought it must have hit my bat from the sound and where the ball went.
“Unfortunately, I never passed out. At the hospital, the nurse looked at me -- my nose spread all over my face -- and said, Where did it hit you?’ “
The next day, after morning surgery, Johnson was back in the dugout, his nose full of silver stuffing and his brain full of codeine to kill the pain. In the late innings, with the bases loaded, Johnson told Weaver, “I’m ready to play.”
Weaver, always old school, thought the best time to get back on a bucking horse was immediately. The pitcher was a junkballer named Grilli. “He threw me three big slow curves and I swung at ‘em after they were already in the catcher’s glove,” Johnson says. “I didn’t know that the pain pills had slowed down my reflexes. All I remember that night was crying. I thought that was my career. Now I can’t even hit a slow curve with the bases loaded.’ I’d be the guy they pointed out who’d lost his nerve after getting hit in the head.”
The next day, informed that the codeine had probably caused his problem, he begged Weaver to let him back into the lineup, though he was still a gruesome sight. And he began to hit again. But for a year and a half, “I could be walking down the street and see a ball coming at my face. I’d throw up my hands and dive out of the way.”