Alex Johnson, RIP: The fires within

When Whitey Herzog wrote his memoir You’re Missin’ a Great Game, he included remarks about Alex Johnson that must have dropped every jaw in southern California who remembered Johnson’s tempestuous tenure (to put it politely) in an Angel uniform. To hear the White Rat say it, Johnson—who died 28 February at 72, after a battle with cancer—was anything but a handful, once you played things straight with him.

Alex Johnson proudly holding a ball with his title-winning 1970 batting average.

Alex Johnson proudly holding a ball with his title-winning 1970 batting average.

[M]ost of the ‘problem guys,’ I’ve found, ain’t a thing in the world but decent people nobody’s bothered to figure out yet . . . But as terrible as his reputation was . . . I had no trouble with Alex Johnson. He’s a good person, a religious guy; his wife was a very nice woman. The main thing you had to know about him was, when he put the uniform on, he hated umpires. Loathed the sight of ‘em. He thought every umpire’s job was to take the bread right out of his mouth. He believed that; that’s how fanatical a hitter he was. But like I told him, if he ran the ball out for me, I didn’t give a damn about it, and once I levelled with him, he always did what I asked. I really liked Alex Johnson. Still do.

If only it had been quite so simple as a decent man nobody’d bothered to figure out yet. (Johnson was the Ranger’s first-ever full-time DH when Herzog managed the team.) Nothing was really simple with Johnson otherwise. And that may have been the core of the problem. Johnson came to professional baseball in love with the game and left it believing there was no such thing as a game. What happened in between?

Major league baseball players who bristle under the internal lash of furies difficult to explain, more difficult to comprehend, capable of blowing up a clubhouse in faster than a flash, have always been in and out of the game. Often they suffer quietly, other times they explode fatefully and loudly. Baseball hasn’t always come to terms with the prospect of mental illness. Perhaps as it has done with racism, drugs, other maladies, baseball is coming to terms with mental illness the hard way, sometimes kicking and screaming in the bargain.

It hasn’t really known how to deal with it from just about the moment late 19th century Boston Beaneaters infielder Marty Bergen graduated from over-stressed, anxious, and combustible, to flat-out crackup after the death of his young son. Not even when Bergen finally snapped to the point of killing his wife and remaining children before killing himself in 1900. Johnson never got anywhere near Bergen’s kind of explosion, but the 1970-71 Angels clubhouse, not exactly a model of stability, became a war zone while he was there.

Whacking his way to his batting championship, still the only Angel to do it.

Whacking his way to his batting championship, still the only Angel to do it.

A product of the early-to-mid 1960s Phillies organisation, which wasn’t exactly the most enlightened about dealing with racial issues as it was, Johnson would say later that such issues helped embitter him away from the game he’d loved. Described almost universally as one of the most delightful of men away from the ballpark, and with a jaw-dropping ability to hit at will at the plate inside it, Johnson became a time bomb at the park, by the time he became an Angel, even as he spent 1970 winning the American League batting championship in a squeaker against Red Sox Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski.

“Johnson at times in 1970 had angered his manager and his teammates with an inexplicable lack of hustle, and had strained nerves with his taunting of teammates and writers,” wrote Ross Newhan in The Anaheim Angels: A Complete History in 2000. “In other words, displaying again the temperament that had made him a liability in Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Philadelphia.

“Alex Johnson had it all—strength, speed, instincts—but it was impossible to quell the fires that raged within him,” continued Newhan, the Frick Award-winning Los Angeles Times writer. “A Prince Charming away from the park, his behaviour when he put on the uniform once prompted his wife to apologise to the wives of other Angel players.”

Ironically, this muscular, darkly handsome man, accused so often of non hustle, accused the 1970-71 Angels of “indifference on the whole team working together. I felt the game of baseball wasn’t being played properly–so my taste wasn’t there.” Yet Johnson so often frustrated manager Lefty Phillips by 1971 that Phillips would bench him frequently enough, often vowing Johnson would “never again” play for the Angels, vows general manager Dick Walsh would break by reinstating the troubled outfielder.

Jim Fregosi, the longtime Angels shortstop and eventual pennant-winning manager with the Phillies, would say those were the days Phillips lost the team: “Lefty gained one player and lost the other 24.” Maybe the only Angel who saw Johnson as a man in dire need of professional help was Tony Conigliaro, the ill-fated former Red Sox trying to continue a comeback with the Angels until eye issues and nagging injuries prompted his first retirement.

Johnson on the SI cover, somewhere between rage and sorrow.

Johnson on the SI cover, somewhere between rage and sorrow in the ballpark but known as a delight away from it.

“He’s got a problem deep inside him that he won’t talk about,” Conigliaro told Sports Illustrated‘s Ron Fimrite for a cover story called “The Fallen Angel.” “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.”

Johnson also had an unlikely ally in New York Daily News writer Dick Young. In a column remarkable for its empathy, Young described Johnson as “the most jovial, pleasant man you would care to meet” one day, before erupting into “plain nastiness. These are not moods, not in the accepted sense of normality. He is two people.”

That was after Johnson was finally suspended after a clubhouse incident that still lingers in Angel lore. The trigger was veteran utility infielder Chico Ruiz, who’d come to the Angels from the Reds with Johnson in a trade, and who was once so close to Johnson the latter named him godfather to his daughter. As an Angel, Ruiz was a too-frequent target of Johnson’s verbal abuse, it was said, though Johnson—who’d won the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year Award with the Reds in 1968—would remember others turning Ruiz against him, and the infielder finally wielded a gun toward him.

The Angels suspended Johnson for lack of hustle and “improper mental attitude” in 1971. Johnson filed a grievance through players’ union chief Marvin Miller, at which hearing it came forth that Walsh had lied when first denying Ruiz or any Angel had a gun in the clubhouse. (Newhan would remember “guns” in the clubhouse, plural; Johnson said he’d tipped a stadium security guard to Ruiz’s gun.) It also came forth that Walsh called Johnson’s wife after the Ruiz incident to tell her her husband was delusional.

(Bitter postscripts: 1) When Ruiz was killed in a boating accident in 1972, a month after becoming an American citizen, Johnson attended his funeral. 2) Walsh and Phillips would both be fired after the 1971 season, and after Johnson was moved along to the Indians in a trade. Phillips would take a scouting job with the Angels but die in 1972 as well, thanks to an attack of the asthma that plagued him most of his life. Walsh never held a job in baseball again, becoming executive director of the Los Angeles Convention Center and eventually doing a similar job in Hawaii, Alaska, and Ontario, California, before his death in 2011.)

Johnson won a landmark ruling. Arbitrator Lewis Gill held that Johnson should have been put on the disabled list, not suspended, on the grounds that “emotional issues” (mental illness?) should be treated as other injuries. Miller himself spoke to Johnson long and firm preparing for the hearing; in his memoir, Miller would remember Johnson as clearly emotionally disabled as well as unable to deal with racism effectively.

I’m only a layman in psychiatric terms, but it didn’t require a genius to see Alex was a disturbed person. 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. 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.

The Johnson case probably did as much as anything else to show non-white players baseball could handle their issues the way it would white players’ issues. By that time, though, Johnson was almost a lost baseball cause. He’d have a few more seasons with periodic effectiveness, with a few more clubs, but by the time he landed with his hometown Tigers he was just about through. He retired after playing a year in the Mexican League, to work in and eventually take over his father’s trucking rental business in his hometown Detroit.

Johnson (center, confronting rowdy fan) was among the Rangers trying to protect each other and ward off wild fans during the Indians' infamous Ten Cent Beer Night eruption in 1974. Left to right: Jim Merritt (p), Jim Bibby (p), Johnson, Mike Hargrove (if), Tom Grieve (of).

Johnson (center, confronting rowdy fan) was among the Rangers trying to protect each other and ward off wild fans during the Indians’ infamous Ten Cent Beer Night eruption in 1974. Left to right: Jim Merritt (p), Jim Bibby (p), Johnson, Mike Hargrove (if), Tom Grieve (of).

Ross Newhan has since come to admit the southern California sporting press was anything but enlightened on the thought of genuine emotional issues involving such players. “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,” he has said. “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.”

Several clubs tried with now-retired Milton Bradley, maybe the closest Johnson has had to a contemporary incarnation. Likewise black, talented, and deeply troubled, Bradley also blew up a clubhouse or two, often at points where it seemed he’d put his own harness around his furies, and even admitted to vulnerabilities often enough. (Once, famously, he told Rangers teammates, “I love you guys. I’m strong, but I’m not that strong.”)

Johnson’s marriage ended in divorce following his baseball career. So did Bradley’s. Except that Bradley eventually found himself going to the can for three years over abuse issues involving his former wife—who died two months after he was first sentenced. The very few press accounts of Johnson after he left baseball described a man at peace with himself and his world at last.

Johnson in 1999, visiting Tiger Stadium, the will with a bat still evident but a kind of peace in his eyes.

Johnson in 1999, visiting Tiger Stadium, the will with a bat still evident but a kind of peace in his eyes.

“Do I enjoy my life?” he told Sports Illustrated in 1998. “I enjoy not being on an airplane. I enjoy not having to face everything I did. I just want to help people with their vehicles. It’s a nice normal life–the thing I’ve always wanted.”

In time he would become a friendly presence at autograph shows, the essence of grandfatherly accommodation (he’d become a grandfather himself by then), lamenting only that he hadn’t given more to remember when fans thanked him for the memories.

Which suited his former Angel teammate, pitcher Clyde Wright, just fine, when Rob Goldman caught up with him for Once They Were Angels. Once fed up and threatened enough by Johnson that he wielded a wooden stool against the tormented outfielder, Wright shared a memory of Johnson no one else seemed to have. “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,” Wright said. “And to me that shows you something right there.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>