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.
The late Mel Queen is best known these days as a pitching guru. In Toronto, Pat Hentgen and Roger Clemens won Cy Young Awards under his watch.
Queen also worked with a young right-hander who had a great arm but who didn’t know how to pitch. According to John Lott’s article in the December 17, 2009, Ottawa Citizen, Queen tweaked the hurler’s delivery and gave him some tough love:
There’s no one I made such drastic changes to and verbally abused the way I did Doc. There aren’t many people that would have gone through what I put him through. I had to make him understand that he was very unintelligent about baseball. He had no idea about the game.
“Doc” is Roy Halladay. He turned out to be pretty good.
Before Queen made his mark molding other arms, he was a pitcher himself (as was his father, Mel Queen Sr., before him). The right-hander out of San Luis Obispo went 14-8 with a 2.76 ERA in 1967, his first full season in the Reds rotation. Unfortunately Queen blew out his arm the next year and, despite enjoying marginal success out of the Angels bullpen in 1971, never was the same.
Queen first reached the big leagues as an outfielder but earned rave reviews from teammates who took batting practice against him. As he noted, “My fast ball would really move and the guys would talk about it. I can make it take off or sink depending on how I hold it.”
In 1963, when a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon cost $1.44 and you could fly from Los Angeles to San Diego on PSA for $6.35, the 21-year-old Queen still played the outfield. With the Padres that year he hit .260/.308/.472, and tied for fifth in the PCL with 25 homers, just ahead of future Minnesota Twins star Tony Oliva. Read More…