The Orioles have had good second basemen throughout the years. Bobby Grich roamed there for years. So did Roberto Alomar. And Brian Roberts. And Jonathan Schoop.
One of their finest, however, played on what was undoubtedly the greatest team the Orioles ever fielded.
That was Davey Johnson, who played in Baltimore from 1965 to 1972, and was a vital cog in a dynasty that dominated baseball in the late ’60s and early ’70s. In Johnson’s Baltimore stint, the Orioles won four American League pennants, won two World Series titles, and won an average of 94.5 games.
The strengths of that Orioles team were pitching and defense, and while they were making or competing for World Series trips, their infield was the best in the sport. Brooks Robinson (16 Gold Gloves and the third best defensive WAR of all time) was incomparable at third, Mark Belanger (eight Gold Gloves and the second best defensive WAR ever) was brilliant at shortstop, and Boog Powell was deceptively agile and adept at first base despite his size and bulk.
Not to be overlooked, however, was Johnson, who won three Gold Gloves and made three All-Star teams and started a franchise-high 21 World Series games while forming a terrific double play combination with Belanger. His best years at the plate came after he left Baltimore, but the player who would go on to hit 43 home runs and drive in 99 runs for Atlanta in 1973 began to slowly emerge in his final years with the Orioles.
Johnson made his debut in 1965, but became a starter with the Orioles in 1966. At that point, Baltimore was making the jump from up-and-coming team into true championship contender with the arrival of Frank Robinson, and Johnson had to prove he belonged on a team with growing expectations. He did just that, batting .257 with 56 RBI to finish third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting, and he then helped the Orioles win their first championship with four hits in 14 at-bats in the World Series victory over the Dodgers.
Johnson’s next two seasons were unremarkable; he went up to 10 home runs and 64 RBI in 1967, but batted only .247. He went down to nine home runs and 56 RBI in ’68, and mustered only a .242 average.
In 1969, however, the Orioles took a step forward and Johnson followed suit. Baltimore won 109 games, and Johnson raised his batting average to .280 while ranking third in the American League with 34 doubles. He also won his first Gold Glove, but the accomplishments of that season — both his own and the team’s — were spoiled by a crushing World Series loss to the underdog Mets, during which Johnson hit only .063 (one hit in 16 at-bats) in the five games. He also made the last out of that series, flying to Cleon Jones in left field.
In 1970, however, Johnson and his team redeemed themselves. The Orioles won 108 games to make it back to the Fall Classic, with Johnson batting .281 with 10 home runs and 53 RBI and winning his second Gold Glove, but this time he and the O’s were ready for the postseason. Johnson hit .364 with two home runs as Baltimore beat the Twins in the ALCS, and he hit .313 in the World Series as the Orioles beat the Reds in five games. He went 5-for-16 in the Series, hitting two doubles and driving in a pair of runs.
In 1971, Johnson began to show he was turning into one of the best offensive second basemen in the game. He hit .282, but nearly doubled his career high with 18 home runs and drove in 72 runs, and finished 19th in the MVP voting. The power didn’t come at the expense of his defense as he captured a third straight Gold Glove, and he turned in another strong ALCS, batting .300 in a three-game sweep of the Athletics. The World Series was a different story, however, as Johnson drove in three runs but batted only .148 (4-for-27) in a seven-game loss to Pittsburgh.
An injury-addled Johnson’s numbers dipped greatly in 1972 to a .221 average, five home runs and 32 RBI, and the Orioles sent him to Atlanta in a six-player deal after the season. The trade immediately came back to hurt the Birds, as Johnson came out of the blue in 1973 with 43 home runs, 99 RBI, a .916 OPS and a performance that was good enough to get him 13th in the National League MVP voting.
Johnson had 15 home runs the next year, then hit .321 in 78 games for the Phillies in 1977 after a stint in Japan, but his best days were behind him — on the field, that is. Johnson became one of the best managers in baseball, winning the World Series with the 1986 Mets, then guiding the Reds to the 1995 National League Championship Series before returning to his old team as the manager of the Orioles in 1996.
Johnson’s tenure in Baltimore was brief, but it was more successful than anyone else’s until Buck Showalter a decade and a half later. Johnson guided the Orioles to the ALCS in both of his seasons, 1996 and ’97, and won Manager of the Year in 1997 for keeping the O’s in first place from the first day of the season to the last.
His time as skipper is the first recollection of the man for many of the teams’ fans, but Johnson proved his worth as a player long before. His defense made him a starter, and his bat soon after made him an All-Star. On the greatest Orioles team of all time, Johnson was a player who made his mark.