Friday, March 6, 2015

With the recent passing of Alex Johnson, the Los Angeles Angels' only batting champion, received special permission from Rob Goldman to publish the entire chapter from his book "Once They Were Angels, A History of the Team" dedicated to this fiery and complex member of the team. For ease of publication online, we will be splitting this entire chapter into two separate posts as arranged by Rob Goldman. wishes to pass along our sympathy for his loss to his family and friends, and hopes that by sharing this, Angels fans from all generations will learn more about this important player and his memory will endure. Fans can learn more about Alex Johnson and other historical Angels players by reading the entire book by Rob Goldman, which can be purchased here

Rob Goldman, Historical Writer - 

Crank, swish, smash.

Crank, swish, smash.

Like repetitive rifle shots, the sound of the bat striking the ball reverberates off the nearby building, alerting all within earshot that something serious is going down in the batting cage. Peering into the cage one expects carnage, and that’s precisely what one sees: a black man in white flannels hitting baseballs with staggering verve and force.

Alex Johnson turns with such violent precision on the ball that it seems to deaden on contact before it smashes into the cage’s nylon netting. Kids along the edge of the cage squirm, not sure if the net will contain the comets screaming their way.

Johnson’s stoic gaze is unsettling to say the least. It leaves one to wonder if Johnson would rather hug you or kill you. Then there is his nickname,  “Black Bull,” an appropriate moniker for a player who is strong, surly, and defiant.

The pitching machine—or “Iron Mike,” as it is called—is Johnson’s most frequent companion. Its metal arm slings ball after ball at game speed, serving as a self-sufficient avenue to success in the real batter’s box. Most good hitters spend a fair share of time staring down a pitching machine; Alex Johnson lives 60 feet from one.

Crank, swish, smash.

Crank, swish, smash.

Just when you think that Johnson—or the machine—may need a rest, he does the unthinkable: he creeps up on the machine. Then you fully grasp the strength, timing, agility, and quickness that Johnson displays as he smacks pitch after pitch. Johnson, whose forearms resemble bridge cables, continues to move forward as he hits, until he is almost halfway between the implacable machine and home plate. It’s an awesome display of bat-speed, concentration, reflex, and most of all, defiance.

The batting cage can’t contain his defiance, which makes him a great batter. Like a Lakota warrior, his existence has been built around warfare. His Louisville Slugger is his war club, his means of survival, and his life’s work; it’s an expression of self, his manhood. Best not mess with a warrior’s weapon, or so goes the legend. Herald Examiner reporter Dick Miller tried once, and Johnson retaliated by putting coffee grinds in the scribe’s typewriter. Who’s to say that warriors don’t have a sense of humor?

This, of course, is only his exterior. This “hit man” is both physical and cerebral. But no one really knows the real Alex Johnson. How could they? He doesn’t even know himself.

Suddenly something happens so unexpected you need to blink for comprehension.

Like Sonny Liston singing Christmas carols, it just doesn’t take. During a lull in Johnson’s massacre of baseballs, one of the kids works up the nerve to ask for an autograph. Without smiling, Johnson walks over with the same purpose and conviction he displayed in the cage, takes the boy’s scrap of paper, and writes legibly and deliberately: A-l-e-x J-o-h-n-s-o-n. The script is slightly tilted forward, crisp and legible. Like his hitting, he takes pride in his cursive. And with that, this cold statue to Ted Williams has morphed into a Pied Piper of sorts. More kids emboldened by the first brave lad cluster around and begin to thrust their bits of paper toward Johnson. There is a conviction in their body language that says this is not just a regular player. Sincere love and adoration widens their eyes as if they have some secret connection to this hero that grownups could only dream about.

As the mob of kids grows, one smallish tyke in front is being crushed by the onslaught. The growing pack is oblivious. The tyke’s air is squeezed from him but he defiantly holds on, extending his paper as far as his small arm can take it. It seems to him his idol’s signature is worth dying for.

Alex observes the child and as he reaches for his scrap barks with authority, “Move back.” Like obedient toy soldiers, the kids obey. Once assured the child is out of harm’s way, Johnson continues signing, and the gasping boy celebrates by running anywhere to show anyone his prize. For the next half-hour, Johnson signs his autograph for adoring fans. When all are satisfied, he heads back into the cage, into his own private sanctuary, the place “where coaches fear to tread.” He pours a fresh bag of balls into Iron Mike, takes his stance, and attacks.

Crank, swish, smash.

Crank, swish, smash. …

Crank, swish, smash.

* * *

The snowstorm was so fierce it shut down Detroit. Downed power lines and ice forced drivers to abandon their cars on the freeways. For the newest Angel, Alex Johnson, it meant he was going to be late for spring training, and as he waited out the storm out in a diner, he wondered if the storm was an omen of the season ahead. Would his first season with the Angels be this bleak?

A few days later, the skies cleared and Johnson resumed his drive to California and his new team. As his car crossed the Michigan line into Indiana, his mind raced back to other teams, other storms. To Philly where it all began, and Gene Mauch, who called him the fastest runner he had ever seen going from second to home. Johnson chuckled to himself recalling when Richie Allen had called him “the baddest of the bad… even badder than myself.” He also remembered Allen telling him that his bad rap was his own doing: calling everyone “dickhead” scared the front-office guys to death.

Allen also liked to talk about the day when a stadium employee’s car broke down on the expressway, and how Johnson jumped in his own car and helped him out. “He came back an hour later,” Richie said in wonderment, “grease up to his elbows. Now, is this man a mental case, or is this a man I want as my friend? Just leave him alone and let him play baseball!”

“That would have been nice,” thought Johnson. In St. Louis, the managers thought they knew more about hitting than he did. Skipper Red Schoendienst tried to change his approach at the plate, and when Johnson refused, they traded him to the Cincinnati Reds in January of 1968. In Cincy, manager Sparky Anderson didn’t seem to care for Johnson, thinking he was lazy. Despite two productive seasons, he was dealt again—this time to the Angels. Maybe Anaheim would be different.

When the sun rose the next day he was in Utah. The flatness of the terrain reminded him of Detroit and the dusty sandlots he played on as a teen with Willie Horton and Bill Freehan. They both played for the hometown Tigers and had won a championship in 1968. Johnson was still searching for his.

As Johnson neared Las Vegas, thoughts of home rushed to him. He thought of how proud his dad was of him and his brother Ron, who had rushed for 1,000 yards for the New York Giants the previous year, and of how well they got along. As he crossed the California border the desert reminded him of the Roadrunner cartoons he watched as a kid. His dad had kept switching the channel to the baseball “Game of the Week.” Johnson didn’t like that at first, but soon he warmed to his dad’s appreciation of the national pastime.

He thought of Arkansas, Indianapolis, and Detroit, how his family had struggled at each place with segregation, stares, and disappointments. It was hard for a black man to get started, but Johnson’s dad was tough. He began on the assembly line, then started his own trucking repair business. Johnson used to tell Allen, “That’s where I got my big arms, from shoveling junk around at the shop.”

When he finally arrived in Palm Springs, the Angels were out of town. Injured outfielder Jim Hicks was there, though, and he let Johnson know what lay in store.

“Jim Hicks didn’t know me, he just knew about me and he assumed the sportswriters wouldn’t like me,” Johnson recalls. “He told me a few things about Anaheim. He told me about different characters, how I was going to relate to them. And, sure enough, it all turned out to be true.”

Alex Johnson is the most complex and compelling figure in Angels history. He has been labeled the following, often by the same person: brilliant, self-destructive, mentally disturbed, incredibly talented, chronically depressed, and downright surly. For all his ups and downs, Johnson became a key cog in an emotional roller-coaster ride that lasted two seasons but shook the franchise for years.

Although much has been written about Johnson, very little can be attributed to him directly because he did not trust sportswriters and rarely granted interviews during his playing days. Of the few interviews he did acquiesce to, most degenerated into emotional, obscenity-laden diatribes. Some former teammates are also not anxious to talk about Johnson. “Blown out of proportion,” says Jim Fregosi of Johnson’s impact on the team. “Leave it be,” advises Clyde Wright. Now, some 30 years later, others are finding it easier to talk, including Johnson himself. Possibly, time heals wounds. It speaks to the severity of the wound, however, that it took that long for sufficient healing to occur.

When Johnson hooked up with the team in the spring of 1970, he discovered a young Angel club loaded with potential. Clyde Wright was the unproven veteran of the rotation at age 29. He was complimented by a trio of youngsters—Andy Messersmith, Rudy May, and Tom Murphy—each ripe with promise. Together they formed a solid pitching staff that was bolstered in the pen by 33-year-old Eddie Fisher, rookies Dave LaRoche and Greg Garrett, and second-year closer Ken Tatum. Jim Fregosi and first baseman Jim Spencer anchored the Angels offense, and second baseman Sandy Alomar contributed speed and smarts.

The Angels remained competitive for most of the 1970 season, thanks in no small part to the offensive contributions of Johnson, who led the team with 86 RBIs and a .329 batting average. They were led by manager Lefty Phillips, who had the team playing .500 ball over the final three-quarters of 1969 season after taking the reins from Bill Rigney. Overweight, with the long face of a basset hound, Phillips could chew a cigar and spit tobacco at the same time, although not artfully enough to keep from constantly streaking his chin and jersey with tobacco juice.

Phillips’s timid nature and poor communication skills left him ill-equipped to handle a force like Johnson. He could not comprehend Johnson’s occasional lack of “enthusiasm,” and did little to solve the problem. On top of all of that, Phillips suffered from chronic asthma and other health ailments that interfered with his coaching career and ultimately ended his life at age 53.

Johnson’s reputation had certainly preceded him, and almost from Day One it was rough going for the temperamental star. “I got kicked out of my first game in the American League, and I said, ‘Well, if they’re gonna play that game, I’m gonna take care of some motherf---ing business out here,’” Johnson recalls. “My first job was to be a person, not a slave to somebody doing something wrong.”

Even though he was a leader with a bat in his hand, Johnson was criticized for “dogging it” in the press. His reaction was to heap epithets on every sportswriter that came near him. When Ross Newhan became the beat reporter for the Los Angeles Times  and joined the Angels midway through the 1970 season, Johnson was ready to give him a proper introduction.

“I had heard vicious things about Alex, but had made up my mind to make my own decisions about him,” Newhan recalls. “I walked up to him on the field in Yankee Stadium and said, ‘Hi, I’m Ross Newhan. I’m going to cover the club for the L.A. Times the rest of the way.’ He glared at me and before turning away called out, ‘You’re no different than those other motherf---ers.’”

Newhan recalls another incident when he and another reporter, Dick Miller, pulled up to the team’s hotel in Cleveland in a cab. “We were taking the bags out and all of a sudden we hear this guy screaming, cussing us out. We look out, and it’s Alex leaning out of the hotel window just throwing invectives at us.”

Johnson denies nothing, but says his outbursts were occasioned by reporters’ refusal to abide by the unspoken credo of the day: “What you see here, what you hear here, stays in the clubhouse.”

“I cussed them out, there’s no question about that,” he readily admits. “They used their jobs as opportunities for payback. There were some of them who were really genuine, who wrote the truth, but some were just inhibited by evil, who liked to write ‘interesting things’ to sell some papers, and they didn’t give a damn about the truth.”

Besides, he says, he wasn’t damning anyone to hell, just doing some innocent cussing.

“You don’t have to use profanity to wish evil on people,” he says. “Profanity is just a word to call somebody’s attention to the fact that they’re doing something wrong. … I’m ornery to the point of determination, but not evil. When I played, I was considered a mean and ornery person. ‘Mean’ is not necessarily a bad word. For example, if you’ve got a football player and he tears somebody up, you would say, ‘That’s a mean S.O.B.!’ But if you’re playing a game, it can also be construed as excellence. In that context, the word ‘mean’ can be another word for determined.”

Whatever the rationale, nobody on the ball club dealt with the problem, because the Angels were competing for the pennant, and Johnson’s bat was even scarier than his tongue. Combined with a career year from Fregosi, who hit 22 home runs and drove in 82, the Angels had a nice 1-2 punch. But pitching was the Angels’ strong suit. Wright, on his way to 22 victories, threw a no-hitter in July. A native from Jefferson City, Tennessee, with a down-home Southern twang to his talk, Wright was a treat to both fans and sportswriters, in counterpoint to Johnson.

By July the Angels were serious contenders for the divisional title. Inside the clubhouse, though, they were contenders for the title of Most Dysfunctional Team. Johnson’s problems with sportswriters and even teammates worsened. Two of his favorite targets were Herald Examiner reporter Dick Miller and infielder Chico Ruiz. Nicknamed “Hog-head,” Miller had been with the team since its inception and had a reputation for aggressive reporting, which of course put him high up on Johnson’s hit list.

“I’ll tell you one thing about Dick Miller: God, could he lie!” Johnson says. “He could fabricate some things.”

The friction between the pair reached a head when Miller, who didn’t know when he was well off, hid Johnson’s bats right before a game. Johnson found them, but then refused to take batting practice on the grounds that the reporter might steal something else of his. Not long after that, Johnson took some old coffee grounds and sprinkled them in Miller’s typewriter. Much to Miller’s chagrin, Philips found the coffee incident humorous. Johnson recalled Lefty coming up to him and laughing; “You got that son of a bitch!” His teammates agreed. Says Wright: “Some of the shit Dick Miller wrote, he deserved to have coffee grounds poured in there.”

As for Ruiz, he was actually Johnson’s best friend when they played together on the Reds. Johnson had even made Ruiz godfather to his adopted daughter. But their relationship frayed in Anaheim, and they were constantly at each other’s throats.

It seemed the only solace for Johnson was hitting. He spent hours with “Iron Mike,” experimenting with different approaches to batting and developing several theories about the art.

“One of the reasons I liked baseball was that its creativity is unlimited. There’s always a multitude of things going on there and I enjoyed that. As kids in Detroit, we used to play between two telephone poles at the field,” Johnson says, “and my job was to hit straightaway between them. So consequently my power was to centerfield. What I was trying to do in the cage was to redevelop, restructure my body to pull a little better.”

His teammates were awestruck by Johnson’s hitting ability—and paid special attention to his habits in the batting cage. His method of creeping up on “Iron Mike” during batting practice became known throughout the league, and made opposing pitchers hesitant to throw him fastballs.

“They started throwing me curves, but I was a good breaking-ball hitter, too,” Johnson says. “The key to hitting a breaking ball is attacking the ball. I had no trouble with it.”

Johnson’s well thought-out theories might’ve made for good reading on the sports pages, but that would’ve required him to have an obscenity-free conversation with reporters, which wasn’t in the cards.

“It was difficult covering the club because you would walk into the clubhouse and here would come this stream of epithets directed at the writers,” says Newhan. Even when the reporters were interviewing other players, Johnson would scream at them in the background. It finally got to the point where several reporters jointly petitioned the league office to do something about Johnson’s foul mouth. The Angels issued a letter over Johnson’s signature informing the press that henceforth the hitting star would not have anything to say to reporters, period.

Despite the ongoing battles off the field, the Angels were still playing well on the field as August gave way to September. Heading into play on September 1, the club was only three games behind the league-leading Minnesota Twins. Then, on September 4, the Twins visited Anaheim Stadium for a three-game series, and promptly swept the Angels. After that, recalls Johnson, the team collectively gave up.

“I was on the bus getting ready to go to the airport, and the guys were down,” says Johnson. “They all had the attitude that said, ‘Let’s go home now, because we ain’t gonna win anyway.’ They carried that stigma with them the rest of the season, and we lost six more games. … The team gave up, no question about it. I’m not knowledgeable enough to say what it was that made ’em quit on themselves, but it was obvious they lacked the substance and desire to follow through. A blind man could see it.”

Quitting was not in Johnson’s vocabulary. “No way in hell Alex liked to lose!” Wright says. “That was his one big quality. When he played, he played to win. If some other guys didn’t play up to their capabilities, he would just stare at them and they knew exactly what he was thinking.”

Even with the season lost, Johnson had one personal goal to accomplish. Never before in the club’s history had an Angel won a batting title. With one game to go, Johnson trailed Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski in the batting crown race by .005 percentage points. To win the title, he needed to go at least two-for-three against the White Sox, who were starting Gerry Janeski, a rookie with a 10-17 record. In his first at bat he grounded out to first, but in his second at bat he singled to right. When he got up again in the fifth inning he needed just one more hit to win the crown.

“I wasn’t thinking about winning the batting championship at the time because Lefty had said I needed to go two-for-two or three-for-three to win it,” recalls Johnson. “In my next at bat I hit one over to Bill Melton at third that I beat out for a single, and when I got to first I heard a lot of noise and saw the scoreboard lighting up. Suddenly I saw Jay Johnstone running out of the dugout toward me. He’s yelling, ‘You’ve got to leave the game! You’ve got to leave the game! Lefty says you’ve got to leave the ball game whether you want to or not!’ It totally surprised me. Then I looked at the scoreboard and my name was ahead of Yastrzemski’s. So I put two and two together. Maybe I had heard Lefty wrong or something, but the next thing I knew, people were cheering and I was running into the dugout.”

Much has been made in the press about how Johnson himself wanted to be taken out to ensure his coronation. But he calls that just another media lie.

“I wasn’t gonna go out unless Lefty told me to come out,” says Johnson. “I was willing to stay in the game whether I won the batting title or not. When he told me I had to leave, it was a total surprise, because I figured I still had to get at least another hit depending how long the game went.”

The game went 13 innings, with the Angels winning in dramatic fashion, 5-4. But the real winner that day was Johnson; capturing the title would turn out to be his crowning achievement. Meanwhile, the Angels finished the season in third place with 86 wins, a distant 12 games in back of the Twins. The win total tied the franchise mark, set in 1962. It was just the fourth time in ten years that the Angels finished above .500. They wouldn’t do so again for another eight seasons.

© Once They Were Angels, A History of the Team by Rob Goldman, Sports Publishing 2006
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