In a back room of his mother’s house, Alex Johnson picked up the silver bat. He gripped it as though he were hitting, checked a swing, then slowly ran his hand over the surface, which was tarnished with age.
Johnson was awarded the bat for winning the 1970 American League batting championship--the only Angel to have been a batting champion. It was one of the closest races in history, Johnson edging Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox by .0003.
He won the title on his last at-bat of the season, beating out a high chopper to Chicago White Sox third baseman Bill Melton. The infield hit raised Johnson’s average to .3289. Yastrzemski finished at .3286.
“I distinctly remember (Angel teammate) Jay Johnstone running out to first base and I was wondering, ‘What the heck is he doing?’ ” Johnson said. “He told me I was out of the game. I ran into the dugout and saw everyone standing and clapping. I looked out at the scoreboard and it showed that I was the batting champion.”
It was Oct. 1, 1970, and Alex Johnson had experienced his last joyful moment in baseball. After that, things went to bad to worse to unbearable for Johnson, the Angels and their management.
Nearly 20 years later, Johnson held the bat in a room filled with photographs, trophies and and other reminders of a major league baseball career that spanned 13 seasons and eight teams.
There was a picture of Johnson, swinging from the heels for the Cincinnati Reds, and another of him in an Angel uniform, again taking a cut. Others showed him posing with Willie Horton, Ferguson Jenkins and other friends. On the wall was a plaque, reading, “Alex Johnson, Pacific Coast League’s Most Dangerous Hitter, 1966.”
Johnson, however, concentrated on the bat, which brought back more memories--some as tarnished as the silver.
The year after winning the batting title, Johnson was fined, benched and, eventually suspended indefinitely by the Angels for what they said was lack of hustle and an improper attitude. Although he filed a grievance and was reinstated later in the 1971 season, Johnson never again played for the Angels.
He spent his last five seasons bouncing from Cleveland to Texas to the New York Yankees, and, finally, to his hometown Detroit Tigers. But Johnson never fully recovered from his roller-coaster ride with the Angels.
“I lost all my enthusiasm for the game,” said Johnson, 47. “I saw so much negativism with the Angels, that I couldn’t help but lose it. I never got the enthusiasm back.”
Alex Johnson loved baseball. In fact, he loved it so much that he passed up a football scholarship to Michigan State to play sandlot ball in Detroit in 1960.
He was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies later that summer. Johnson hit no worse than .313 during his three years in the minor leagues and was called up by the Phillies in 1964.
He spent two seasons with them as a part-time player. Before the 1966 season, he was traded to St. Louis but spent most of that season in the minors. And in 1967, he hit only .223 for the Cardinals. He was traded to Cincinnati before the 1968 season, and there, for the first time, became a full-time player.
Johnson hit .312 for the Reds and was selected as the 1968 comeback player of the year by the Sporting News. The next season, he hit .315 and clearly established himself as a consistent offensive threat.
His confidence as a hitter was characterized by his motto: “You hit when you can; I hit when I want.”
“He used to drive Jim Fregosi crazy with that,” said Dave LaRoche, who was a relief pitcher for the Angels and now is a coach with the Chicago White Sox.
“I used to feed the pitching machine for Alex sometimes. Johnson would move up about 20 feet and would still be hitting line drives. He really could hit when he wanted to.”
But Johnson’s critics said he didn’t always want to. He developed a reputation as a loafer by not running out ground balls and by his casual play in the outfield.
Johnson made 14 errors in 1968 and 18 in 1969, the most among outfielders in the major leagues.
Was there an attitude problem?
“A lot of that came from when I was in St. Louis,” Johnson said. “They wanted to change my batting stance, but I understood my abilities better than they did.”
Neither the attitude nor the defensive shortcomings seemed to matter to Angel General Manager Dick Walsh, who wanted to beef up the team’s pitiful offense. After the 1969 season, Walsh traded pitchers Jim McGlothlin, Pedro Borbon and Vern Geishert to the Reds for Johnson, infielder Chico Ruiz and pitcher Mel Queen.
“We figured we had the pitching, but we needed a guy who could pick up the offense,” said Walsh, now general manager of the Los Angeles Convention Center. “We needed someone who could hit for average and drive in some runs. Alex Johnson was the best that was available.”
And in that 1970 season, Johnson lived up to Walsh’s expectations.
By June, Johnson was second in the American League in hitting with a .351 average. The Minnesota Twins’ Rod Carew, who was coming off the first of his seven batting titles, was leading the league, but suffered torn ligaments in his knee on June 22.
With Carew out, the batting race suddenly was wide open.
“To tell you the truth, I really didn’t think about winning the batting title,” Johnson said. “My job was to win games. It didn’t matter how high I hit if we didn’t win.”
But the Angels did win. They challenged Minnesota and Oakland for the West Division title through most of the season.
Late in August, Johnson had four hits, scored four runs and drove in three in a doubleheader sweep of Detroit. The victories left the Angels 3 1/2 games behind the Twins.
They stayed close until early in September, then lost nine consecutive games.
“It still makes me mad because we should have won it that year,” Johnson said. “We had the best pitching in the American League, but we didn’t have the character. If you tell yourself you’re only going to swim 20 yards, that’s all you’re going to swim.”
The Angels finished third with an 86-76 record, equaling their best record in their first 10 seasons. With the team out of race, the focus fell on Johnson, who was running neck and neck with Yastrzemski.
The Red Sox and Yastrzemski finished their season the day before the Angels’ final game. Johnson knew he needed two hits in no more than three times at bat to win the title.
“That morning, the phone started ringing at 6 a.m.,” Johnson said. “People back in Boston were calling me and it wasn’t just newspaper people. They wanted to know if I would stay in the game if I got ahead of Yastrzemski.”
Angel Manager Lefty Phillips put Johnson in the leadoff spot against the White Sox, in case his star needed an extra at-bat. Johnson grounded out his first time up, but singled the next time.
In his third at-bat, Johnson hit a ground ball down the third base line. Melton got to the ball quickly but Johnson--the man Red Manager Dave Bristol once said was the fastest right-handed batter from home to first base he ever saw--beat the throw.
“Lefty Phillips came over to congratulate me after I came out of the game,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘The people in Boston are going to be mad at both of us.’ He started laughing.”
The laughter ended the next season.
The problems actually didn’t begin in 1971. Even in his glory season of ’70, Johnson was fined by Angel management for failing to run out grounders.
In late July, rumors surfaced about a rift on the team. Although Johnson had some supporters, other players said he was aloof and abusive.
At one point during the 1970 season, it was reported that Johnson’s taunting of an Angel pitcher nearly started a free-for-all in the clubhouse.
“There were problems in the sense of some of the players were jealous,” Walsh said. “Alex was getting a lot of recognition. But he was no Rhodes scholar. He had some trouble adjusting. He didn’t seem to make or retain friends, at least not with the ball club.”
After the success of 1970, Walsh expected big things from the Angels in ’71. When he acquired Tony Conigliaro, Walsh predicted that the Angels would not only win the division title, but the American League pennant as well.
“I thought that was the last piece to the puzzle,” Walsh said. “Now we had a guy who could consistently hit the ball out of the ballpark. I thought we had the best team in the league. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.”
Tension between Johnson and Phillips grew during spring training in 1971.
During an exhibition game, Johnson leaned against the left-field fence, trying to stay in the shade. After another game, he was fined $100 for loafing.
Phillips, who died in 1972, even pulled Johnson out of an exhibition after one inning and fined him for indifferent play.
“I never had any problems with Lefty,” Johnson said. “Of course, Lefty had some problems with me.
“You always hear people say they give 150%, that’s not possible. You can only give 100%. I had my up days and my down days. It happens to everyone.”
But, according to some of his teammates, it happened more frequently to Johnson.
“One day he wanted to run, the next day he didn’t,” Fregosi said. “He was really like two different people. I saw him do tremendous things for kids when he was out of uniform. Then he’d put the uniform on and he’d change. If he didn’t feel like doing something, like running hard, he wouldn’t do it.”
Johnson was fined a total of $3,750 in ’71, and he was also benched five times for his lack of hustle.
“After one game, Lefty told us, ‘Alex Johnson will never play for the Angels again,’ ” Fregosi said. “Two days later, he put him back in the lineup. Lefty gained one player and lost the other 24 that day.”
The Angels, a loosely knit team at best, quickly unraveled.
After one game, there was a story that Ruiz pulled a gun on Johnson in the clubhouse. The story was at first denied by Walsh, who later admitted during Johnson’s grievance hearing that the incident indeed happened.
“Chico had a gun and I was worried about him, so I went and told the security guard,” Johnson said. “Let’s leave it at that.”
Some Angels said that Johnson was being made the scapegoat for the team’s poor showing. The club won seven consecutive games in April and was tied for first place, but by late May they were sliding toward the cellar.
Conigliaro didn’t pan out as a power hitter and retired at mid-season because of injuries. Fregosi and Clyde Wright, two of the cornerstones in 1970, were hurt and missed part of the ’71 season.
“I think Alex took the heat for everybody,” LaRoche said.
At one point in the season, several of the pitchers went to Phillips to complain about Johnson’s fielding.
“I never had a problem with Alex,” Wright said. “He always played hard when I pitched. But he didn’t for some of the other guys. If a ball was hit to left field, they better go get it because Alex wasn’t (going to).”
Walsh tried to trade Johnson in June, but found no takers. Finally, on June 27, Johnson was suspended.
“There was really no last straw, it just had been building throughout the season,” Walsh said. “He just didn’t put out. I would bring him into my office and Alex would promise to do better. Then he would go to the locker room and continue to do the same things.”
Marvin Miller, the head of the players’ union at the time, saw it differently.
“Dick Walsh was one of the main villains in that case,” said Miller, who filed and won the grievance for Johnson. “In the middle of everything that was going on--the fines, the benching, all of that--Walsh called Johnson’s wife and, in essence, complained to her about Alex. That really set Alex off.”
Miller said that Johnson talked for 11 hours during their first meeting, using notes he had written about incidents.
“He had written them on old airline tickets and things like that,” Miller said. “He had been through so much that season. I became convinced there was an emotional illness because of it.”
Miller said that a psychiatrist confirmed his suspicions, although Johnson claims he didn’t have an emotional illness.
“The situation was more or less a show,” Johnson said.
Walsh requested that Johnson see a second psychiatrist, one selected by the Angels.
“That was a really terrible thing to do,” Miller said. “How can you make a guy go through a second ordeal like that? But when their psychiatrist came back with the same findings, that Johnson could continue playing provided he underwent treatment, the Angels had lost their case.”
After the September hearing, the Angels were ordered to reinstate Johnson and give him back pay.
A month later, Johnson was traded to Cleveland, along with Gerry Moses, for Vada Pinson, Frank Baker and Alan Foster. Shortly thereafter, Phillips was fired.
Those were the final two moves of Walsh’s tenure as general manager. He was fired two weeks after trading Johnson.
Said Johnson: “I was young back then and didn’t know about human beings. What I saw on that team was evil. You get too many negative things and you get your mind off the main objective, which was winning baseball games. A lot of guys on that team were more concerned about watching me then doing their own jobs.”
Johnson works these days at the Johnson Trucking Service in Detroit, which rents dump trucks to construction companies. Arthur Johnson, Alex’s father, founded it nearly 50 years ago and Johnson took it over in 1985, after his father’s death.
It has been 14 years since Alex Johnson was released by the Detroit Tigers. In all that time, he hasn’t been to a baseball game.
“The game has no meaning for me anymore,” he said. “I loved it. But I found out that the game is a fantasy.”
He picked up the silver bat once more.
“How much is silver worth these days?” he asked.
CLOSEST BATTING RACES
Year League Player Team Average 1910 American Ty Cobb Detroit .3851 Nap Lajoie Cleveland .3841 1911 National Honus Wagner Pittsburgh .3340 Doc Miller Boston .3328 1928 American Goose Goslin Washington .3794 Heinie Manush St. Louis .3777 1931 National Chick Haffey St. Louis .3489 Bill Terry New York .3486 Jim Bottomley St. Louis .3482 1935 American Buddy Myer Washington .3490 Joe Vosmik Cleveland .3484 1945 American Snuffy Stirnweiss New York .3085 Tony Cuccinello Chicago .3084 1949 American George Kell Detroit .3429 Ted Williams Boston .3427 1953 American Mickey Vernon Washington .3372 Al Rosen Cleveland .3356 1970 American Alex Johnson Angels .3289 Carl Yastrzemski Boston .3286 1976 American George Brett Kansas City .3333 Hal McRae Kansas City .3320 Rod Carew Minnesota .3305 1982 American Willie Wilson Kansas City .3316 Robin Yount Milwaukee .3307
Source: The Baseball Encyclopedia.