Rob Goldman, AngelsWin.com Historical Writer -
With the recent passing of Alex Johnson, the Los Angeles Angels' only batting champion, AngelsWin.com 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. AngelsWin.com 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.
Johnson’s baseball world crumbled rapidly the following year. Fined repeatedly for “loafing” in spring training, Johnson rebounded magnificently in April and was named the American League’s Player of the Month. But then old demons returned, and the fines and benchings for lethargic play began piling up, just as the media began piling on.
Herald Examiner reporter Melvin Durslag wrote on June 3, 1971: “’As I see it,” says manager Lefty Phillips, ‘Alex zones himself. He believes he has so much strength to spread over 162 games. When he hits the ball through the infield, he automatically decides how many bases this will be worth. If he judges it as a single, he won’t hurry and make the big turn. If he sees a double, he will run accordingly.’ The only flaw, according to Phillips, is that the play may not always go exactly the way Johnson first judges it. The outfielder, for instance, may fumble the ball, and instead of being at second, Alex is still at first.”
Jim Fregosi seconds the notion that Johnson’s ferocity on the field depended on the situation and who was watching.
“When we played in Detroit and his family was in the stands, he ran every ball out and played his ass off,” says Fregosi. “Other times, he wouldn’t even run to first base; he would take two steps out of the box and that was it. He played hard when he wanted to play hard. If he didn’t feel like it or something was bothering him, he took it onto the field rather then just letting it go.”
But Wright feels that Johnson’s attitude was blown way out of proportion.
“If he hit the ball hard right at somebody and it was obvious it was going to be an out, sometimes he just didn’t run,” says Wright. “But if he hit a ball that he thought he could beat to first base, he would run the thing out. If he wanted to go catch a line drive or a fly ball, he could go get it. He convinced me he could play when he wanted to.
“I say it was 50-50. Half of it was Alex’s part, the other half was the fans and some players and the writers. I wouldn’t go one way or the other.”
Johnson admits his actions may have influenced the team at times, but he blames unfair treatment by the press, the fans, and management—not himself.
“In essence, I’d agree that I didn’t have enthusiasm, and that I let the team down,” says Johnson. “I’m not gonna deny it. There were times I had the flu or genuinely saw something wrong with how the game was being played. I didn’t even want to be in the game in a situation like that.
“The problem was fans would come to the game to boo me because of what they read in the newspaper. It became disheartening simply going out on the field. I was highly spiritual during the game. I rose to a different level out there. But sometimes it just wasn’t there. I just couldn’t rise to a different level. Sometimes I wasn’t as fast as other times, and other times I didn’t run with as much enthusiasm as I may have before. … Sometimes you lose the fire.”
But even if he let the Angels down, Johnson says, the team “wouldn’t have won anyhow, the way it was acting. There were some games I shouldn’t have really been playing. The reactions they were giving me told me I wasn’t going to get a fair rap from the umpires or anyone else.”
In June, Walsh tried to trade Johnson—whose production had taken a nosedive from the previous season—to the Milwaukee Brewers for Tommy Harper. Milwaukee nixed the deal at the last moment and the Angels were stuck with him. On July 5, 1971, Ron Frimite of Sports Illustrated wrote a cover story on Johnson titled “The Fallen Angel.” The piece, which Johnson maintains “caused a lot of trouble,” quoted several Angels who didn’t hold anything back when it came to discussing their erratic teammate.
Pitcher Eddie Fisher said, “This man is the most unusual ballplayer I’ve ever run into in 14 years in the game. Every man on the team has tried to reach him. None of it has worked.” Phillips echoed Fisher’s frustration: “I came up in this game the hard way. I can understand if a man plays bad when he has no ability, but this fellow has great ability, super ability. … This fellow won’t even try. And that’s not just bad for us, it’s bad for baseball.”
Asked by Frimite to respond to his teammates’ assessments, Johnson suggested that the whole problem boiled down to racial prejudice against him.
“Hell yes, I’m bitter. I’ve been bitter since I learned I was black,” he was quoted as saying. “The society into which I was born and which I grew up in and in which I play ball today is anti-black. My reaction is nothing more then a reaction to their attitude. But they [the whites] don’t keep their hatreds to themselves. They go out of their way to set up barriers, to make little slights so that you’re aware of their messed-up feelings.”
But according to Cuban-born infielder Chico Ruiz, racism wasn’t the problem at all.
“The white guys on this club may dislike you, but I’m as black as you are, and I hate you!” the Los Angeles Times quoted Ruiz as telling Johnson in June of that year. “I hate you so much I could kill you!”
In the Frimite piece, Tony Conigliaro may have come closest to the truth in suggesting that Johnson was suffering from a mental sickness. “He’s got a problem deep inside him that he won’t talk about. He’s so hurt inside it’s terrifying. He’s a great guy off the field. On the field, there’s something eating away at him.”
Wright points out that for all of Johnson’s tirades and verbal altercations, he never got physical with the targets of his wrath. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t aggressive—nor does it mean that he would back down. Wright remembers one particular day in the locker room in Kansas City when Johnson got on him about something and Wright stood up and, brandishing his stool, challenged Johnson to fight. Whereupon Johnson picked up his own stool, broke it over his own head, and yelled at the pitcher, “That stool is not gonna save you!”
“Being a pretty smart lefthander, I took my stool and just set it back down on the floor and sat back down on it like a weak little old mouse,” Wright recalls. “I knew right then I was no match for Alex Johnson.”
Johnson’s feud with his former best friend Ruiz came to a strange head in June. They almost came to blows one day near the batting cage, and on June 13 another strange incident occurred after Johnson was taken out of a game for a pinch-runner. He headed to the clubhouse, showered, and then left. As he entered the long tunnel under the stadium leading to the players’ parking lot, he encountered Ruiz, who he said had a gun in his hand. Johnson reported it to the first policeman he saw, and the next day the media had a field day. There were subsequent reports about other players packing heat, and the Angels’ clubhouse became known as the “wildest clubhouse in the West.”
Today Johnson insists that his rift with Ruiz was caused, oddly enough, by Walsh. “Chico and me were good friends, and what happened was Walsh’s fault. There were a few days to go before the cutoff date and Chico had just bought a home near San Diego. He wanted to stay with the team because if he got sent down to Triple A, he would lose his house.
“Walsh said the players needed more harmony on the team. So the ones who were against me were most likely to get cut. Someone had told Walsh that Chico was an instigator, and Chico thought I had said it. I told him it wasn’t me, but he didn’t believe me. What happened is they turned Chico against me.”
In any case, with the Angels in a state of near anarchy, Walsh finally pulled the trigger, figuratively speaking. On June 25, after failing to run out a ball, Johnson was suspended without pay for “failure to hustle and improper mental attitude.” The Players Association, under Marvin Miller, immediately filed a grievance demanding Johnson be reinstated but put on the disabled list with full pay. Clearly, Miller said, Johnson had emotional problems that required treatment.
But the mindset in baseball at the time was that only physical disabilities qualified for compensation. Major League Baseball feared that if Johnson’s mental condition was sanctioned as a disability, other players would cite psychological problems anytime they wanted a break. On July 21, Johnson met with Miller in his New York office, and came away more convinced than ever that his client was mentally unstable.
“I’m only a layman in psychiatric terms, but it didn’t require a genius to see Alex was a disturbed person,” Miller says. “He didn’t stop talking for hours and he had these notes on him, all kinds of pieces of paper—airline folders, scraps of paper. And these were all scribblings that he had put down on the trip to New York so that he wouldn’t forget them. Well, he didn’t need those notes because he just talked without even referring to them.”
To everything Miller asked, Johnson’s response was, “It wouldn’t do any good.” “He adopted that as kind of a personal turtle shell he retreated into,” recalls Miller. “He was firmly convinced that no matter what he said, it would sound like an alibi, that nobody was sympathetic enough to examine it. I’m sure that racism was a good part of this. What working-class black in Detroit would not have carried this burden? But I think more specifically his baseball experiences were like that. He wasn’t dealing with great liberal thinkers out there with the California Angels.”
Following their meeting, Miller contacted American League President Joe Cronin and informed him that Johnson needed immediate help. He reminded Cronin that baseball had gone to bat for other players with mental illnesses, including Cleveland’s Tony Horton and Boston’s Jimmy Piersall, both of whom had suffered nervous breakdowns. Horton had once crawled back to the dugout screaming on his hands and knees after striking out, and Piersall had climbed up on the backstop during a game and began shouting obscenities.
Cronin argued that those cases were different from Johnson’s, and Miller found himself wondering if Horton and Piersall had been given the benefit of the doubt because they were white. When Cronin went on to say that it was “a mistake excusing players like Johnson who refuse to play all out,” Miller demanded to know what he meant by “players like Johnson,” and the conversation was quickly terminated. “With Joe Cronin, there were overtones of racism, no question about it,” Miller says.
Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn subsequently removed Johnson from the suspended list and placed him on the restricted list, in preparation to suspending him indefinitely. Meanwhile, the case moved to the arbitration phase. That’s when Miller met with whom he still considers “one of the most indignant men” he ever met—Dick Walsh.
“People used to ask me about him and I would ask them if they read that book about Captain Queeg. That’s who he reminded me of,” Miller says, adding that even the Commissioner’s office found Walsh offensive. “The Fuehrer” is just one of the nicknames Miller heard applied to Walsh.
During the hearings, several witnesses were presented by Major League Baseball to testify to Johnson’s flawed character. One of them was Phillips, whose catalog of sins against Johnson included his refusal to run out a ball when President Richard Nixon was in the stands for a game. Walsh called Johnson lazy and branded his demanding batting practice routine with “Iron Mike” as odd. In his excellent autobiography, A Whole Different Ballgame, Miller points out the contradictory nature of Johnson’s remarks, stating that somebody who stood for hours hitting against a pitching machine was hardly lazy.
When the hearings moved to Detroit, Johnson and his psychiatrist, Dr. Lawrence Jackson, both testified. Johnson told how, as a youth there, he had constantly faced racial injustice, and how its ramifications affected him later on. Throughout his whole career, he said, he had been treated unfairly by baseball, and in Anaheim, Walsh had made his life especially miserable. At times he rambled, but his pain was obvious and it was clear that Johnson was not a well man.
Dr. Jackson testified that after weeks of talking with Johnson his diagnosis was that Johnson was suffering from severe reactive depression, whose symptoms included excessive anxiety, anger, and feeling low and irritable. Johnson disagrees. “There wasn’t no damn anxiety!” he says. “I was just anxious to take care of some motherf---ing business. I get over anxiety about things because I’ve got ambition. But I can stop it if I want to. Anxiety is ambition. Ambition is determination.
“I didn’t have trouble with no damn depression out there. As far as severe reactive depression, if I’ve got it, I don’t know about it. And if I’ve got it, that means I’m doing a damn good job because I’m trying like a motherf---er.”
A few weeks later, arbitrator Lewis Gil informed Miller that he was ruling in favor of Johnson and removing him from the restricted list. But as a sop to the owners, he upheld the $3,750 in fines Johnson had received over the course of the season. And Gil intended to issue a statement proclaiming that it would be inadvisable for any player to cite his ruling as a basis for using emotional stress or mental illness in an effort to avoid disciplinary action.
The proposed statement appalled Miller, who told Gil that it negated the entire basic premise of the whole case—that Johnson was emotionally ill. How could Gil justify the fines, Miller asked, when the testimony of two medical experts was that Johnson was ill? But the decision and attendant statement still stood, despite Miller’s outcry.
Johnson was traded to the Cleveland Indians that October for Vada Pinson. He played five more years for the Indians, Yankees, Rangers, and Tigers. Although he never regained the stroke he attained during his successful 1970 campaign with the Angels, he remained a solid outfielder and designated hitter.
Johnson’s relations with members of the press mellowed considerably following his years with the Angels, but he always remained somewhat weary of them. At least one member of the press has also mellowed considerably since Johnson’s days with the Angels. If, as Johnson claims, the press was responsible for his situation, Ross Newhan is surprisingly willing to accept a portion of the blame on behalf of the Fourth Estate.
“I don’t recall the group that covered the Angels in those years, including myself, trying to delve into what made Alex the way he was, and that was probably a mistake on our part,” says Newhan. “I don’t think it was reflective of journalism, necessarily. I just think we were so fed up with Alex, the way he treated us, that who cared? I think if some of that same stuff went on today it would be dealt with quite differently.”
However, Fregosi, who played alongside Johnson for the two years, says that Johnson’s problems may have stemmed from a deep-rooted inferiority complex that didn’t qualify as mental illness.
“When he wasn’t in uniform he was one of the nicest guys you ever want to be around,” recalls Fregosi. “He was a very charitable guy. He hung around with the batboys and did things locally with kids. How can you be emotionally disturbed when you’re in a uniform, and off the field be a great guy? He was a pain in the ass as a player, but I don’t think he was emotionally disturbed. I think that once he put that uniform on, he was a changed person. I think he had to put that face on it because of some of the insecurity he had.”
Johnson’s arbitration hearing was a watershed event in major sports for several reasons. Not only did the case shed light on the owners’ insensitivity to mental illness, but it was also one of the first times that an African-American received genuine support from a players union. Prior to that, minorities had been virtually ignored. Johnson’s case along with Curt Flood’s landmark case in 1969, was among the first instances of a players union showing support for an African-American.
Marvin Miller: “I think the Alex Johnson and Curt Flood cases were an advertisement—at least the other black players in the major leagues took it as such—that this organization was not like others they had known or experienced. That a player with a legitimate problem got a hearing, and a sympathetic one, regardless of the color of his skin.”
Miller is reminded of an experience he had in his first year as a union head. It involved a Puerto Rican player, Pedro Ramos. Ramos had a small problem that Miller ironed out, and to the lawyer’s amazement, within six months almost every Latin player was familiar with every detail of the case. “Word of mouth was unbelievable. So a case like Johnson’s, which was not trivial and had wide publicity, was almost certainly talked about,” he says.
Most importantly, Miller says the treatment Johnson received helped him move on with his life. “It broke his stubborn philosophy that it doesn’t do any good to complain. I saw him in spring training the following year, and he was clearly better. I’m not talking performance-wise; I think he was somewhat past his prime at that point. Morale-wise, though, you could just tell talking to him for a minute or two that he was quite a bit better.”
Although adamantly shunning the mental illness defense, Johnson concedes that Miller helped him recognize some things in himself and is grateful to him.
“Marvin Miller’s a brilliant man,” says Johnson. “I was astonished about the type of character and the knowledge he had. He was extraordinary. Of all the people I met in the game, I put him at the top of the list. He explained some people’s actions toward me that I didn’t pick up. I see clearly now some of the things that happened to me.”
But even with this new understanding, Johnson says that given the chance to do his career over again, he wouldn’t change a thing. If anything, he’d be even more obstinate.
“I’d do the same thing, period,” he says. “Matter of fact, what I would do is drop a couple more f---er’s a little quicker. The thing they didn’t like about it was the fact that I would not surrender. And the more I wouldn’t surrender, the more they just kept coming. And that’s the reason I left baseball so quickly.”
Today, Johnson attends autograph shows, and when people tell him “Thanks for the memories,” it makes the self-described “God-fearing and doting grandfather” wish he had given them even more to remember. But today he’s more concerned about the state of America’s youth than his baseball legacy.
“Children are my No. 1 pleasure in life,” he relates. “I’ve got five grandkids and about 10 other ones who call me ‘Granddaddy,’ and it hurts me because this young generation is really lost. I blame the corporate people, the people who took prayer out of school. The people who decide they know more about human nature than God knows about human nature. It really hurts you to see some things out here. Depression isn’t economical or mental all the time; sometimes it’s spiritual, too. That’s what we’ve got going on now, a spiritual depression.”
Johnson will forever be characterized by certain memorable incidents that happened at the ball park, but possibly it is time to consider rewriting the past in favor of what we know now. Take, for example, yet another testimonial to Johnson’s nature away from the field. Ed Farmer, Johnson’s teammate when they played together for Cleveland in 1972, remembers that Johnson always carried a book about electronics with him. One summer in Texas, Farmer learned first-hand it was a subject that Johnson took very seriously.
Farmer and some of his teammates had borrowed the visiting clubhouse attendant’s car and were about to head to the ballpark in Arlington from their hotel in Dallas when they realized the car wouldn’t start. After several minutes of working on the engine in the hotel parking lot they looked up to see Johnson coming down the road. After pulling up and studying the situation, Johnson told the men he’d be right back, and several minutes later he returned wearing overalls and hauling a tool set.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness,’” says Farmer. “Alex then ordered me to ‘Get in the car,’ and he told me, ‘When I tell you to turn on the key—turn it!’ After a few minutes of tinkering with the engine he yelled, ‘Turn it!’ and sure enough it started right up.
“The last thing I remember him saying to us was, ‘Make sure you get all the way to the ball park and don’t stop! Once you stop the car won’t run.’ We got to the ballpark and I turned it off. But I was curious; I wanted to know if Alex really knew what he was talking about. So I turned the key again, and sure enough it was as dead as a doornail.
“Two things I learned about Alex Johnson that summer: he could hit and he definitely knew cars.”
Clyde Wright agrees that it’s time for everybody to remember the kinder, gentler Alex Johnson.
“Everybody made him out to be a bad person, but Alex is not a bad person,” says Wright. “I’ve never seen him threaten a player. I’ve seen him holler at players and I’ve seen players holler at him, but nothing ever came of it. I think more people remember him for the times he didn’t run out ground balls than the time he won the American League batting title, and that’s not a good way to remember him. The one big thing that stands out in my mind about Alex Johnson—and nobody ever put this in the paper—is that he never left a stadium without signing every piece of paper put before him. And to me that shows you something right there.”
© Once They Were Angels, A History of the Team-by Rob Goldman, Sports Publishing 2006