July 5, 1971
Tell Alex Johnson you're a longtime fan and receive one of three replies:
"What do you want from me?"
Johnson is bitter, caustic and slightly funny Ask him what he's up to, and expect a quick snap: "Putting a clutch in a truck. That O.K.?"
Fine, Alex. Fine. If nothing else, Johnson more than lives up to the billing on his lone SI cover: THE FALLEN ANGEL. At the time, Johnson , a slugging leftfielder for the California Angels , was being ripped by teammates, coaches and fans for about a zillion reasons—from poor attitude to lazy fielding to flat-out lying. These days, as owner of Johnson Trucking Service in Detroit , Johnson says, "I can do whatever the hell I want."
When he was released by the Detroit Tigers in December 1976, Johnson , now 55, all but annulled his relationship with the game and plunged into his truck-repair and leasing business as if his rocky, 13-year major league career had never happened. "I used to think, f—-the game," he says.
That bitterness stemmed from his second season with the Angels . In 1971, the year after he had won the American League batting crown—his .3290 average was .0004 better than that of the Boston Red Sox ' Carl Yastrzemski—Johnson was fined, benched five times and suspended for 88 games for a lack of hustle and a lousy attitude. In a way, he was the original Rodman (without neon), a brooding, confounding sort who could go 4 for 4 one day and fail to run out grounders the next. Managers were enticed by his talent, but not his personality.
"There came a point when I was stereotyped wherever I went," says Johnson , a divorced father of two. "I remember showing up for the first day of spring training with a new club, and the manager called me into his office. He said, 'You've got no trouble with me, I've got none with you. Understood?' That shows how people thought of me."
So, at age 34, with a .288 career batting average, 1,331 hits and a scarred reputation, Johnson hung it up. The ensuing 21 years have been enough to change him from Alex Johnson , troublemaker, to Alex Johnson , truck guy, at least in the minds of most Detroiters. "Do I enjoy my life?" Johnson asks rhetorically. "I enjoy not being on an airplane all the time. 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."
uly 05, 1971
For Failure To Give His Best...
Alex Johnson, baseball's troubled and troublesome batting champion, is suspended for indifference by the California Angels
Fred Koenig, a large and friendly bald-headed man who has the bad luck to be employed as a coach for the California Angels , was sitting in a Chicago tavern last week, washing down another of his team's acrid defeats with a cold beer, when he was overtaken, as so many Angels are these days, by a compulsion to explain.
There is an endearing fragility to these explanations, all of which dangle helplessly from one of two prefaces: "I like Alex personally, but..." or, heard as often, "This thing has been blown out of all proportion...."
Koenig drew deeply from his glass, turned finally and, clearing his throat, began: "You know I like Alex personally, but...."
"Hey," interrupted the dapper sort on the next stool, "are you guys talking about Alex Johnson ?"
"I like Alex personally," Koenig said, brushing aside the interruption, "but I despise him professionally."
"That Johnson is really something, isn't he?" the intruder persisted. "Now there's a personality. I think he's good for the game.... Hey, where's your friend going? He's got my matches."
But Koenig had swiftly exited, escaping what obviously was shaping up as yet another Johnson imbroglio. It is unlikely that any Angel coach, player, front-office functionary or even casual fan would long sit still for such blasphemy, even from the mouth of an innocent. In fact, if any of them were carrying a gun....
Alex Johnson (see cover) is the prime anti-hero in baseball's strangest play. He is at the core of a complex drama that has been only temporarily muted by his suspension last weekend "for failure to give his best efforts to the winning of games." If the suspension should last longer than 10 days, Johnson can appeal his case to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn .
Despite his tremendous ability—he was the 1970 American League batting champion—Johnson's absence will not be lamented by his teammates, many of whom had been wondering why it took Angel General Manager Dick Walsh so long to get around to suspending him. Johnson 's slipshod play, which had torn his team apart and led to wild rumors and accusations, dates back to spring training in Arizona , where he was observed during one exhibition game positioning himself in the shadow of an outfield light standard. He followed the moving shadow throughout the long hot day, ignoring normal defensive alignments against the various hitters. Figuratively, he has been playing in the shade ever since.
It was not so much that Johnson was simply having an off year; it was that his non-efforts seemed so calculated. Singles hit to Johnson 's field became doubles; runners freely took extra bases on him and he refused to run out ground balls, although he was the fastest man on the team. These offenses, coupled with a consistently low batting average, did not sit well with his teammates.
"He showed management he was going to do things his way," said Outfielder Billy Cowan shortly before the suspension, "and he's still in the lineup. It looks like he has a point to prove, and he's proving it."
Now Alex Johnson is no longer in the lineup, and his point, whatever it was, may now be irrelevant. But the mystery of his behavior and the destructiveness of it persist.
"It's tragic," says Walsh , who had unsuccessfully tried to deal Johnson away before the June 15 trading deadline. "Here is a man with so much talent going to waste. And careers are so short in this field. Alex Johnson just isn't motivated by some of the things that motivate other people."
Motivation, let it be said, docs not seem of the least concern to this moody, unpredictable man.
"I'm in baseball," he said, "because it is a healthy activity. It associates itself with creativeness and is a source of refinement.... To put money above everything is wrong. You've got to put things in perspective. Baseball is not first. The individual is first. A lot of people forget that. A ballplayer is under contract for his ability on the field, not as a human being."
It is as if Johnson were groping for respect of a different kind, for an appreciation of the person, not the athlete. And in his groping he has developed a super-sensitivity to any slight, real or imagined.
"Last year when I won the batting championship on the last day, the guys shook my hand," he says. "But some guys didn't want me to win and they gave me the weakest handshakes I've ever felt."
Conspiracies spring up for Johnson like clover in an outfield. No area is immune. Take the batting cage.
"Batting practice is supposed to be for hitting. But on this club, guys don't pitch so you can hit. I'll stand up there and say, 'Ball one, ball two, man on first, call the bullpen.' Then in the shower you hear those pitchers say, 'Hear what that Johnson was saying? Hear what that Johnson was saying?' On a good major league team pitchers would accept what I said so they could help the hitters. On other clubs I say, 'Ball one,' and the pitcher says, 'O.K., O.K., I'll get the ball over for you.' "
What other clubs? In fewer than eight seasons in the major leagues, Johnson has played for Philadelphia , St. Louis , Cincinnati and the Angels . Walsh nearly shipped him off to Milwaukee for Tommy Harper last month, but Harper , dormant most of the season, suddenly sprang to life and the transaction was called off. One general manager, says Walsh , seemed hurt by the suggestion that Johnson might be a valuable acquisition for his team.
"Gee," Walsh quoted him as saying, "I thought you were my friend."
Walsh has not entirely abandoned his quest. "There are always problem players," he says, "and there is always someone who feels he can handle them."
In the past, however, Johnson 's problems seemed merely temperamental. He was uncommunicative and frequently sullen, although the "I-like-Alex-but" contingent has always said that he is amiable enough out of uniform. Neither Walsh nor Angel Manager Harold (Lefty) Phillips claim, for that matter, that Johnson is a problem anywhere but on the field. He is good with children, and his most recent notoriety seems even to have improved his disposition with outsiders. He was talking to newspapermen and radio and television broadcasters as never before, cheerfully granting interviews that, because of his elliptical rhetoric, invariably failed to reveal the source of his deep discontent. The trouble was locked within Alex Johnson , and there it remains.
"Ever get sick of a thing?" Johnson asked. "I mean sick, sick, sick? I mean really sick, sick, sick? That's the way it is with me and this club. I didn't consciously decide to do this [not hustle]. But things are just so disgusting, it drills on my mind, drills on my mind. It hurts to look back on a game like that, but I can't do it any other way. I'm not playing any part of the game up to par. I can't. I can't get my mind to want to play the game the way others do."
Black journalists have quoted Johnson as saying his troubles are racial, but Johnson , while not entirely disavowing the issue, is as vague in discussing it as he is with other topics. He is more inclined to blame the insensitivity of his teammates, the "dishonesty and hypocrisy" of Walsh and Phillips and, preeminently, Chico Ruiz , his teammate, former friend and the godfather of his adopted daughter.
"He is the cause of dissension," Johnson says of the utility infielder who seems generally popular with the other Angels . "He keeps trying things against me.... I never knew a man to be so determined in a negative way...."
Johnson touched off the biggest brouhaha on this truly star-crossed team when he accused Ruiz of menacing him with a pistol in the Angel clubhouse during a game with Washington on June 13.
"We had both been pinch hitters," Johnson said. "The game was still on, but I was done, so I showered. I had my street clothes on. Ruiz was in the clubhouse, too. He was rattling something, making a noise, so I looked up. What he was doing was tapping his gun on a chair. I looked up and he pulled the gun out of its holster. He did it one time last year and was more jovial about it. This time he was not jovial."
"It did not happen and I can swear to it on a Bible with both hands, with my whole body—even sit on it," says the embattled Ruiz .
There were no witnesses to the alleged incident, and a club investigation has failed to establish the facts. But it did lead to some murmurings about armed Angels and it excited believers among them as well as nonbelievers.
"This thing has been blown out of all proportion," said Jim Fregosi , shortstop, team leader and nonbeliever. "I've never seen a gun or anything you would consider a weapon in the clubhouse."
But there had been guns, as well there might be on a team owned by Gene Autry . The old movie cowboy himself had been known to tote a six-shooter or two into the locker room. Only last year he gave one of his pistols to Pitcher Eddie Fisher .
"It's one of my prized possessions," said Fisher , a gun collector. "He used it in one of his movies. I own about 65 guns and I've kept them in my lockers for the past five or six years. Most of them are antiques. I've even had Tony Conigliaro's shotgun in my locker. But all of this has nothing to do with violence. And I'll tell you one thing, I don't have any guns there now. Not after all this."
The gun stories have made the Angels the butt of some predictably bad jokes. A bellman carrying a player's suitcase felt obliged to quip, "I better not drop this, it might go off." A sign above a hotel cigar stand read, "Please check your guns here." Opposing ballplayers, enjoying a bench jockey's field day with the hapless team, inquire whether the Angels would prefer to take batting or target practice.
The Angels themselves have converted this potential serious situation into a running gag. They will stalk each other in the clubhouse in mock shootouts or leap upon unwary newsmen in make-believe death struggles. A full-blown pregame riot seemed well under way in the outfield among various Angels in Milwaukee last week. It was strictly for big laughs.
There was, however, nothing remotely funny about Johnson 's curious rebellion. His mockery of the game cut his fellow players doubly deep. In a world of performance, to refuse to perform seemed to make fools of those who did, seemed to make nonsense out of the pure patterns of the game they played. The most strenuous exercise Johnson permitted himself at the ball park was putting on his uniform. He did not take outfield practice before games, and his actions in games approached parody. Occasionally, as in last week's doubleheader at Milwaukee , he would give tantalizing flashes of his old brilliance, running at full speed or leaping against a fence for a fly ball. But these brief episodes were followed by long stretches of inertia.
At best, Johnson was barely adequate as an outfielder, and his defenders used this deficiency to excuse his shoddy showing in the field. But he was making plays that would shame a Little Leaguer.
Two days before his suspension, in a game against the Brewers , Johnson broke late on a line drive to left field that bounced by him for a double, igniting a five-run Milwaukee fourth inning. In the seventh, with Harper on first, Gus Gil hit a ground single to left which Johnson failed to charge. Harper raced all the way to third base, from where he eventually scored on an infield hit. Not even base runners of Harper 's acknowledged speed can expect to advance routinely from first to third on balls hit to left field.
Johnson also did himself no favors at bat. Leading off the ninth, he slapped a hard ground ball up the center of the diamond that Milwaukee Shortstop Ted Kubiak fielded off balance. Normally, an excellent throw would have been required to catch a runner as swift as Johnson moving at full speed. But excellence was hardly necessary since Johnson never reached the vicinity of first base, jogging barely two-thirds of the distance down the line before sauntering off into the dugout. Phillips benched him the next night in Chicago , and Walsh flew in from California .
Walsh , who acquired Johnson in a trade with Cincinnati , admitted he had tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to perform up to his capabilities. The suspension is testimony to the failure of those powers of persuasion.
Phillips , who had been the man in the middle throughout the long ordeal, is now at least temporarily relieved of his burden. But for how long? Five times during the season Phillips benched Johnson , only to be overruled, apparently from on high. And throughout his travail, Phillips found it hard to believe that anyone of Johnson 's exceptional skills would willingly play so far beneath himself.
Lefty Phillips is a near-perfect victim. He has the face for it—a long, sad-eyed countenance on which the skin hangs in loose folds like a hound's. He has the disconcerting habit of speaking with his mouth full of either tobacco or an unlit cigar, both of which he chews forcefully. These are the mannerisms that have made him vulnerable to all sorts of clubhouse mimics.
Phillips was never a major league player. He turned to scouting after a sore arm cut short his career while he was still in the low minors. But for all of his down-home personality, he is an apt student of baseball. He was an excellent pitching coach for the Dodgers, and three years ago he was made the Angels ' director of player personnel. In May of 1969 he succeeded Bill Rigney as the team's manager. The next year he piloted the Angels to an 86-76 won-loss record, equaling their best season. Now in 1971 he seems cruelly destined to lead them to one of their worst—just when they looked like pennant contenders.
The Angels have not been hitting. Some of their stars—notably Fregosi and Conigliaro—have been playing with injuries, and lesser lights have fallen prey to some unusual accidents. Pitcher Rudy May hurt his arm after he tripped over his dog, and Pitcher Andy Messersmith survived a 90-mile-an-hour auto collision. But Phillips is convinced that Johnson is the villain of the piece.
"I came up in this game the hard way," he said recently from behind his cigar. "I can understand if a man plays bad when he has no ability, but this fellow has great ability, super ability. There's always been players who couldn't get along with their teammates. Cobb was one, and Tinker and Evers almost never talked to each other. The difference was, they played good. This fellow won't even try. And that's not just bad for us, it's bad for baseball."
This last is a recurring theme: by refusing to play as well as he is capable, Johnson was not only hurting his team, but attacking the game's basic ethic.
"I wouldn't take a kid of mine to see Johnson play," said Fisher , echoing sentiment popular among the Angels . "A kid seeing him play might say, 'So that's how they do it in the major leagues.' Well, that's not how they do it in the major leagues. I've never been on a team where the players didn't give 100%. This thing just leaves you disgusted. Finally you end by compromising the things you really believe in. That's the hard part. This man is the most unusual ballplayer I've run into in 14 years in the game. Every man on the team has tried to reach him. None of it has worked."
"What do you see when you see a person walking down the street like this?" said Conigliaro , hunching his shoulders in a poor imitation of a Lon Chaney creation. "You know that person is sick, right? That's how I feel about Alex. 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."
Johnson seems convinced "there are those who want to see me break down. I'm not close to breaking down. Probably 99% of human beings would be. Not me. And that frustrates them even more."
He is playing his own game now, but it isn't baseball. Despite his protests to the contrary, there is a possibility that Johnson simply has lost his taste for the sport. He hinted as much the other day in what amounted to a parable. "When I was about 13 or 14," he said, "I kept hearing about pizza. I didn't know what it was. I thought they were saying, 'piece of,' like 'piece of pie.' One day I went into a place and ordered the biggest pizza there. I ate and ate and then left and got sick. It wasn't what I had expected. I had expected a sweet taste."
On the team bus carrying the Angels to yet another defeat, Pitcher Jim Maloney sat contemplating the humming Chicago traffic. " Alex Johnson ," he said, just trying the name out. " Alex Johnson . Now that's not a difficult name, not a name like Yastrzemski or something like that." Maloney seemed onto something. "You know, it's really just a simple name."
Just a simple name for a complex and troubled man whom no one, Alex Johnson least of all, can quite understand.
Maloney probably appreciated the irony of that.