Johnson, West, and Graham: PCL Padres Sluggers

In 1998, Greg Vaughn became the only Padres player to hit 50 home runs in a season. Six years earlier, Fred McGriff became the only one to lead the National League in homers, with 35.

The last Padres player to lead a league in home runs before McGriff? That would be Deron Johnson, who knocked 33 dingers in 1963 to pace the PCL. It was a great season for the Poway native and graduate of San Diego High School, which later produced Graig Nettles and Jacque Jones.

It was also Johnson’s only season playing for his hometown team. The next year, he hit 21 homers for the Cincinnati Reds. A year later, he led the NL with 130 RBI. He won a World Championship with the A’s in 1973 and finished his career with 245 homers. Johnson, who remained in baseball as a coach after his playing days were over, died far too soon, succumbing to lung cancer in 1992 at age 53.

Before Johnson, you have to go back to 1949, when PCL Hall of Famer Max West launched 48 bombs. West also led the PCL in 1947. And when he graduated to the NL’s Pittsburgh Pirates a year later, fellow lefty slugger Jack Graham filled the void, leading the PCL with 48 in ’48 and being named the circuit’s MVP. He would’ve hit even more if not for a horrific beaning (they didn’t wear helmets) that cost him 46 games.

West had a nice, if too brief, big-league career. He hit .254/.344/.407 in roughly 3,000 plate appearances, most with Casey Stengel’s Boston Bees (which became the Braves in 1941). Playing alongside Vince DiMaggio, Al Lopez, Al Simmons, Ernie Lombardi, and Paul Waner, West led Boston in homers in ’39, ’41, and ’42. In 1940, his first-inning three-run jack in the All-Star Game off future Hall of Famer Red Ruffing paced the NL to a 4-0 victory.

Graham, who attended the same high school as Hall of Famer Bob Lemon and former Padres third baseman Sean Burroughs, spent even less time in the big leagues than West did. In 1946, despite being a part-time player (295 PA), Graham finished second–to the great Johnny Mize–on the New York Giants in home runs. After two more years in the minors, Graham led the sad ’49 St. Louis Browns in homers, with 24 at age 32. That wasn’t enough to get the man who’d wanted to be an Army aviator another look at the highest level, and he spent his final five seasons (three in San Diego) kicking around various minor leagues.

West, Graham, Johnson, and McGriff are the only four men to lead their league in homers while donning a Padres uniform. West is the only one to do it twice.

The West/Graham era PCL schedule was grueling, nearly 190 games long. San Diego finished eighth in the eight-team league in 1947, seventh in 1948, and fourth in 1949. And although the Padres’ combined winning percentage for those three seasons was .459, at least they had West and Graham to keep fans interested (well, sort of; the team finished last in attendance in 1947 before climbing to the middle of the pack the next two years):

Player

Year

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

HR

BB

Max West

1947

689

.306

.434

.603

43

120

Jack Graham

1948 582 .298 .427 .677 48 97

Max West

1949 823 .291 .466 .596 48 201

Unlike Johnson, who spent just one season in San Diego, West and Graham became fixtures here. Each hit more than 120 home runs while playing for the Padres:

Player

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

HR

BB

Max West

2139

.294

.438

.575

121

419

Jack Graham

2422 .286 .386 .535 125 314

To provide perspective, only six men have hit more homers as members of the NL Padres. We’re not known for our sluggers around here, but that in no way diminishes what West and Graham did back in the day.

So the next time you find yourself musing about great Padres power hitters of the past, go ahead and mention the obvious names–Nate Colbert, Adrián González, Dave Winfield, etc. Then give West and Graham their props.

Guys who only did it for one year? Sure, there’s Bret Boone and Reggie Sanders. Just be sure to remember that Johnson did it first.

This is our history, folks. Celebrate it.

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