Alex Johnson, 1942-2015

alex-johnson-cover-si.jpgThe first Major League Baseball game I can remember attending in person was on April 30, 1971. I wrote about it in detail on an old blog of mine, the Griddle. But I only mention briefly that the game I attended was Alex Johnson Bat Night at Anaheim Stadium.

As a five-year old, I asked my parents and older brothers just who Alex Johnson was. (I did not think it was strange that I was handed a lethal weapon as I entered the stadium.) I was told that he was a player on the Angels. The fans greeted each of his at bats with some mixed emotions. I asked why he wasn't cheered all the time since we got all got bats with his name on them. But I was five years old. I wasn't going to find out what was going on.

Alex Johnson had won the American League batting title in 1970 (still the only time an Angels player has won a batting title), beating out Carl Yastrzemski on the last day of the season by a margin of .3289 to .3286. The 1970 Angels had finished a surprising 86-76 and were aiming at a division title in 1971.

But things fell apart. Johnson, who had upset Angels manager Lefty Phillips with seemingly indifferent play and hustle in 1970, got worse in 1971, and was suspended by the team. At the time, I didn't know what was going on. I just knew the Angels team had problems. I was too young to find out what was going on. My family probably didn't want to tell me. And we were Dodgers fans, not Angels fans.

The 1971 Angels finished 10 games below their record of the previous season, ending up 76-86. I didn't care much. I was more upset that the Dodgers lost out to the Giants on the last day of the season. The Angels fired Phillips after the 1971 season. And then Phillips died of an asthma attack not too long after.

What were all these problems? What were the causes? As I got older, I tried to piece it together. But it was the late 1970s and early 1980s. I couldn't pull up an article online to find out what had happened.

I began to get some answers when I took some summer school classes offered at Cal State Northridge in the summer of 1981. One of the classes gave us time to read in the Oviatt Library. Since I was ahead on all my assignments, I just wandered over to the part of the library where there were bound volumes of Sports Illustrated.

The old magazines were an easy way to get a grasp of some parts of sports history that I didn't quite fully understand because I was too young or not even born at the time. I relived the 1967 AL pennant race. I read about old Rose Bowls and Olympic games. And eventually I started reading issues about the 1971 baseball season.

I found an issue with Johnson on the cover. It was dated July 5, 1971. It read "The Fallen Angel / Alex Johnson." The accompanying article by Ron Fimrite was eye-opening.

There was a story about Johnson getting fined during spring training by constantly positioning himself in left field by standing in the shadow of a light tower instead of where the coaching staff wanted him to stand. There were stories of Johnson failing to run out ground balls. And there was a claim by Johnson that Angel utility infielder Chico Ruiz pulled a gun on him in the clubhouse in June.

The Angels finally decided to suspend Johnson for 10 days (the maximum allowed at the time.) He had already been fined 29 separate times by the Angels. Eventually, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn put Johnson on the restricted list. I couldn't find the issues that would explain how the situation turned out. Or maybe I lost interest.

In 1991, I finally got some answers as to what happened. I picked up a copy of MLB Players Association head Marvin Miller's memoir, "A Whole Different Ball Game: The Sport and Business of Baseball."

In 1971, Miller and the MLBPA had negotiated the right for players to have grievances decided by an independent arbitrator. One of the first opportunities for Miller to use this new power was with Alex Johnson. Miller knew that Johnson's behavior problems were not just because he was a bad person, but rather that he had a mental illness. Johnson didn't need to be suspended. He needed to be put on the disabled list and receive psychiatric treatment.

Miller's stance was revolutionary for the time. Baseball players went on the disabled list with knee injuries and elbow injuries. They didn't get disabled from depression or anxiety.

Except they did. Jimmy Piersall, who played in the 1950s, famously struggled with mental illness. His struggles got turned into a movie, Fear Strikes Out, in 1957 with Anthony Perkins as Piersall.

Playing at the same time as Johnson was Tony Horton, a first baseman for Cleveland. Horton would try to kill himself in 1971. Fortunately, he was unsuccessful. He retired from baseball at age 25, and, apparently has lived a much happier and less stressful life.

But people were not willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Johnson. He was always angry. He was unpleasant, calling everyone by a derogatory name. He looked like he didn't care when he played. And he was black.

Miller finally got the Angels management to sit down for a grievance hearing with an arbitrator. Angels general manager Dick Walsh turned out to be the key witness. Under oath, Walsh admitted that Ruiz did pull a gun (reportedly unloaded) on Johnson and then Walsh conspired to cover it up. Johnson appeared to be in bad shape psychologically when he testified. His anger toward everyone stemmed toward his belief that everyone was out to get him. He could not cope with the demands of playing baseball.

The arbitrator ruled in favor of Johnson, who had his salary restored. The Angels traded him to Cleveland in 1972 and he knocked around the majors until 1976, although he was never as good as he was in 1970. His emotional problems didn't appreciably get better or worse.

Johnson moved back to his native Detroit and worked on cars at his father's business. He was out of the spotlight. He seemed to find some peace.

But even in death, which came to Johnson on February 28 in Detroit, his life seemed defined by his emotional problems with the Angels in 1970 and 1971, although most obituaries of Johnson are rather short. The obituary for Johnson however doesn't mention any problems during Johnson's career.

Alex Johnson was a gifted athlete, who was also given the far less desirable gift of mental illness. His illness didn't make him "colorful" or "unusual." It made him unpleasant. Alex Johnson could never fit into the world of baseball quite right. It wasn't his fault. The people who ran baseball at the time were ill-equipped to help someone like Johnson back in 1971. He had a disease that you couldn't just shake off and get back in the game. Ultimately, he needed to leave the game.

The Angels of today are waiting to find out what has happened with outfielder Josh Hamilton, who has admitted to a drug relapse. People feel some sympathy for Hamilton for the most part. Alex Johnson got sympathy from very few people in 1971. And his death goes mostly unmourned by people in baseball today.

Alex Johnson was more than just a name on a souvenir bat I got in 1971. He was a complex man. I took a long time for me to figure out what was going on with him. You definitely needed to grow up to understand the situation. If only the Angels players and management back in 1971 had grown up too, things might have turned out better for Alex Johnson.

Note: most of my memories about Alex Johnson were confirmed by this excellent biography of him written by Mark Armour on the SABR Bioproject site.

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