July 22 – Happy Birthday Cliff Johnson
On April 19, 1979, the two-time defending World Champion New York Yankees had just lost a Thursday afternoon game to the Baltimore Orioles and were in their Yankee Stadium home locker room peeling off their pinstriped uniforms. According to an account of the incident that appeared in the NY Times, Yankee closer Goose Gossage had removed the adhesive tape he used to hold up his game-sox, rolled it up in a ball and “playfully” tossed it at Cliff Johnson, who was undressing in front of his own locker about thirty feet away from the Goose’s cubicle. The wad of tape missed the huge Yankee DH but Johnson took the opportunity to come up with what I thought was a very clever line; “I don’t have to worry about you hitting me.” At the time of this incident, Gossage had been experiencing a season-long streak of wildness, during which he had walked seven hitters in the eight innings he had pitched thus far that year.
Never being known as someone who calmed down a situation, Reggie Jackson took the opportunity to ask Johnson how well he had hit Gossage when the two both played in the National League. Before big Cliff could respond, Goose piped in that Johnson simply swung at what he “heard.
Cliff Johnson had joined the Yankees in June of 1977, coming to the Bronx in a trade with Houston. He proved to be a valuable acquisition for New York. He had blasted twelve home runs in the 56 games he played in pinstripes that year and then hit .400 in the 1977 ALCS against the Royals. But the man they called “Heathcliff” could not keep that pace going in 1978. He hit just .184 during his second season in New York. The Yankees tried using Johnson as a backup catcher and first baseman but his defensive skills were lacking. He was pretty much a pure DH. The future of a Yankee DH who hits .184 in the George Steinbrenner era was precarious enough before Johnson followed Gossage into the showers after that April ’79 game against the Orioles.
Evidently, Cliff took Gossage’s “heard my pitches” retort as a personal insult. According to Goose, after the two entered the shower room, Johnson grabbed the reliever’s head and shoved it real hard. While attempting to push his angered teammate off of him, Goose tore the ligament in his right thumb. Unfortunately for the Yankees and for Johnson, Goose threw a baseball with his right hand.
Gossage’s injury required an operation and the reliever did not return to action for almost three months. By that time, the Yankees were in fourth place, nine and a half games behind first place Baltimore and Cliff Johnson was wearing the uniform of the Cleveland Indians.
Johnson’s final big league season was 1986. He hit 196 home runs during his fifteen seasons in the big leagues including 21 pinch hit home runs which was the Major League record in that category until Matt Stairs broke it in 2010.
Johnson shares his July 22nd birthday with this former Yankee closer who I bet smiled when he heard about the scuffle between Heathcliff and Goose. This former Yankee starting pitcher was also born on July 22.