Cooperstown Confidential: The Enigmatic Life of Alex Johnson

Alex Johnson played for eight different major league teams.

Alex Johnson played for eight major league teams.

The recent death of Alex Johnson brings to an end one of the most controversial and enigmatic chapters in baseball history. Even as we try to put the many conflicts of Johnson into proper perspective, I’m not sure whether to characterize him as a sympathetic victim of circumstances or as an antisocial figure who unnecessarily made life miserable for those around him. Or maybe, it’s a matter of both.

Johnson’s career began quietly in 1961, when the Phillies signed him as an amateur free agent. The organization gleefully watched him hit .313 or better at every minor league level, as he soared through the Phillies’ farm system. He arrived in the major leagues in the middle of the 1964 season, joining the Phillies the same year as another heralded young prospect named Richie Allen.

Johnson wasn’t a five-tool player—he was a very poor defensive outfielder and didn’t throw well—but he had remarkable hitting and running skills. Possessing an incredible degree of bat speed, he regularly took batting practice at 40 feet away, instead of the standard 60 feet, six inches. He could also run, as evidenced by the times he displayed in running from home plate to first base. Johnson regularly completed the route in 3.8 seconds, a remarkable time for a right-handed hitter.  Phillies manager Gene Mauch said he had never seen a player run from second base to home plate faster than Johnson.

Even Johnson’s physical appearance turned heads. In an era when players didn’t lift weights or consume steroids, Johnson had the physique of an Adonis. He was muscular and toned, to such an extent that he earned the nickname “Bull.” At six feet and 205 pounds, Johnson gave off the appearance of a sculpted piece of granite. That kind of physique translated into real power; Johnson clubbed 35 home runs at Single-A Magic Valley and 21 home runs for Triple-A Arkansas.

Once the Phillies saw Johnson dominate Triple-A pitching, they called him up in July of 1964. As a rookie, Johnson platooned with veteran Wes Covington in left field over the second half of the summer. He hit .303 and posted an OPS of .840, good numbers that were overshadowed by Allen, who played the entire season in Philadelphia and would win Rookie of the Year.

In 1965, Johnson’s playing time doubled. In 280 plate appearances, he hit .294 with eight home runs, prompting some within the organization to predict future stardom. But there were also problems. A free swinger, Johnson didn’t take many walks, which reduced the impact of his speed. Furthermore, when running the bases, Johnson didn’t always hustle. He also had a bad habit of jogging after fly balls. These traits irritated his manager, Mauch, an old schooler with no tolerance for a lack of effort.

By the end of the ’65 season, Mauch and the Phillies had tired of Johnson’s bad habits. That winter, the Phillies included him in a blockbuster trade, sending him and two lesser players to the Cardinals for first baseman Bill White, shortstop Dick Groat, and a backup catcher named Bob Uecker.

The Cardinals thought so much of Johnson that they moved Lou Brock to right field, making room for Johnson in left. The change turned into a near disaster, as Johnson fell into a terrible batting slump and earned a ticket back to Triple-A. The Cardinals recalled him later in the season, but cringed when he fought with fellow outfielder Bobby Tolan. The incident with Tolan soured the Cardinals on Johnson. After two seasons, they traded him to the Reds for journeyman outfielder Dick Simpson, a far less talented player than Johnson.

Johnson found a good home in Cincinnati, where he meshed well with manager Dave Bristol and his teammates. Bristol, who described Johnson as “cooperative,” basically left his talented young outfielder alone. Johnson didn’t say much in the clubhouse or on the field, but he hit well for the Reds as their everyday left fielder. He also showed some of the power that he had once flashed in the minor leagues, but had been virtually nonexistent in Philadelphia and St. Louis.

With two good seasons in the books, Johnson should have been looking at a long tenure in Cincinnati. It didn’t happen. After the 1969 season, Reds general manager Bob Howsam, who was determined to improve his pitching staff, decided to do so at the cost of Johnson. Howsam sent Johnson, utility infielder Chico Ruiz, and pitcher Mel Queen to the Angels for right-handers Jim McGlothlin and Pedro Borbon. Johnson had done nothing wrong; he had simply become appealing trade bait after two productive seasons at Crosley Field.

Although the trade surprised Johnson, he played well in his first season in Southern California. His offensive talents caught the eye of a veteran Angels coach. “I’ve never been scared pitching batting practice before,” coach Rocky Bridges told Newsweek, “but throwing to Alex is like being on an artillery range.”

Johnson was just as good once batting practice ended and the game started. He batted over .300 throughout the summer, allowing him to grapple with Carl Yastrzemski for the American League batting title. On the final day of the season, Johnson picked up two hits to overtake Yaz, .3289 to .3286, but was then removed immediately for a pinch-runner after the second hit. That decision created some controversy, particularly in Boston, where fans felt that Johnson had taken the cowardly way out in picking up the batting title.

Another source of controversy had involved Johnson’s attitude that season. On several occasions, he failed to run out ground balls, and jogged after fly balls in the outfield. The Angels disciplined him as most teams would have, imposing fines after each incident of laziness.

Johnson also fostered an antagonistic relationship with the Southern California media, which was somewhat ironic given their reputation for being laid back and even “soft” on players. Simple questions to Johnson resulted in him yelling, loud enough to be heard throughout the clubhouse. On one occasion, he tried to physically remove veteran writer Dick Miller from the clubhouse. On another, he dumped a can of coffee grounds into a reporter’s typewriter. At times, Johnson even screamed at teammates who tried to talk to him or dared talk to the media themselves.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Johnson’s demeanor, which earned him the nickname “Angry Alex,” ran in contrast to his personality away from the ballpark. Friends and associates said that he could be warm and charming. He was especially good with children, whom he tried to help though charitable means. The Sporting News described Johnson as “a devout family man” who “lived according to a strict moral code.”

While the situation surrounding Johnson was tolerable in 1970, it reached a boiling point in 1971. A bizarre set of developments during a spring training game indicated that something was very wrong. Playing an afternoon game in the Arizona sun, Johnson positioned himself in the shade created by a stadium light tower. As the shade moved, so did Johnson, so that he would not have to expose himself to the hot sun. Angels manager Lefty Phillips noticed Johnson’s strange movements. The manager also took notice when Johnson chose not to run out a batted ball that day. At that point, Phillips pulled him out of the game.

Johnson learned nothing from the incident. The next day, in his first at-bat, he again failed to run out a ball. So Phillips pulled him from the game for the second straight day.

When the regular season began in April, he remained on his best behavior throughout the first month of the season. But in May, Johnson fell back into his old ways, repeatedly failing to run out ground balls and pop-ups.

Angels general manager Dick Walsh remained supportive of Johnson, but Phillips had lost all patience. On May 23, Phillips held a team meeting—but with only 24 of the players in attendance. Johnson was not invited. Phillips discussed Johnson’s behavior and then delivered a pronouncement. “Alex Johnson,” Phillips said, “will never play for this team again.” Several of the Angels openly cheered Phillips’ announcement.

Shortly thereafter, Johnson approached Phillips to plead his case for another chance. Johnson promised that he would hustle at all times. So Phillips put him back in the lineup. But in a June 4  game against the Red Sox, Johnson again failed to run out a batted ball. Once again, Phillips took him out of the game.

By June 25, Phillips had seen enough. Having already fined Johnson 29 times and benched him on four occasions, Phillips benched him again, essentially suspending him from the team. The Players Association did not agree with the decision and filed a grievance on Johnson’s behalf. Union director Marvin Miller argued that Johnson was suffering from “emotional stress” and should be placed on the disabled list, with full pay.

Much to the surprise of the Angels, the arbitrators ruled in favor of Johnson. Based on the observations of two psychiatrists who had determined that Johnson was “emotionally incapacitated,” the arbitrators argued that Johnson was suffering from mental illness and should be treated the same as any player with a physical injury. In what amounted to a landmark decision, the arbitrators ordered that Johnson’s suspension be lifted and that he be placed on the disabled list. In the meantime, Johnson continued to receive psychiatric counseling that he had begun after being suspended by the Angels

In later years, Miller presented an argument that not only had the Angels failed to realize that Johnson was mentally ill, but had also treated him in a racist fashion. While Miller’s argument about mental illness seems justified, the cries of racism are questionable. Most of the Angels players, black and white, had tired of Johnson’s antagonistic behavior. One African American player, left-hander Rudy May, was particularly critical of Johnson. He publicly defended the Angels’ handling of the matter and offered Johnson some advice in an interview with reporters. “You owe it to the fans and most of all to yourself to hustle at all times.”

Furthermore, of all the players on the Angels, the one who had suffered most at the hands of Johnson was a dark-skinned Latino, Chico Ruiz, his onetime teammate with the Reds.

At one point, Ruiz and Johnson had been the best of friends. In fact, Ruiz was the godfather of Johnson’s daughter. But over time, the relationship changed. Johnson began to curse at Ruiz, frequently calling him insulting names. On two different occasions, Ruiz and Johnson scuffled in the clubhouse.

By the first half of the 1971 season, Ruiz had become fed up with Johnson’s treatment of him. Ruiz yelled angrily at his former friend. According to witnesses, Ruiz said: “The white guys on this club may dislike you, but I’m as black as you are, and I hate you! I hate you so much I could kill you.”

On June 13, both Johnson and Ruiz entered a game as pinch-hitters. After they both retreated to the clubhouse, Ruiz took a gun from his locker and began to wave it at Johnson. Johnson said that Ruiz threatened him with the gun.

At first, Ruiz claimed that he didn’t even own a gun. GM Dick Walsh supported that. Later, during the Johnson arbitration hearing, Walsh admitted to having lied. He said that Ruiz did own a gun, and had indeed brandished it in Johnson’s presence in the clubhouse. And then, in defense of Ruiz, Walsh claimed that the gun was not loaded and did not actually pose a physical threat to Johnson.

Given the state of Johnson’s relationship with his teammates, not to mention the fragile state of his mind, it was quite clear that he would never again play for the Angels. Johnson remained on the disabled list for the balance of the season. That October, the Angels explored trade possibilities for Johnson.

Rather remarkably, Walsh found a taker for Johnson very quickly. On Oct. 5, Walsh dealt Johnson and backup catcher Jerry Moses to the Indians for outfielders Vada Pinson and Frank Baker and right-hander Alan Foster.

Even away from the circus atmosphere of the Angels, Johnson did not fare well. He didn’t hit at all for the Indians, needing a late-season surge just to finish at .239. He also seemed to lose interest as the season progressed. During one bizarre juncture, Johnson kept trying to bunt his way on, one at-bat after the other, as if he had lost confidence in his ability to swing away. Several of his Indians teammates shook their heads in disbelief.

Remaining with the Indians through the spring of 1973, Johnson found himself on the move again. This time, the Indians traded him to the Rangers for two obscure pitchers, Vince Colbert and Rich Hinton. As a DH and left fielder, Johnson hit reasonably well for the better part of two seasons in Texas, first for Whitey Herzog and then for Billy Martin. Some observers anticipated an eventual blowup between Martin and Johnson, but it never happened. Still, Martin grew frustrated when he saw that Johnson didn’t run every ball out. Rather than confront Johnson, Martin benched him. And then in early September, the Rangers sold Johnson on waivers to the Yankees.

By now, Johnson had little of the talent he once possessed. Never one to draw a lot of walks or hit many home runs, Johnson saw his batting average sink. If there was a silver lining, it was his behavior. He didn’t engage in angry confrontations nearly as often as he had done in California. In fact, Yankees public relations director Marty Appel and team trainer Gene Monahan both found Johnson to be quite likable. Johnson still had some strange habits, such as an insistence on carrying his wallet in his uniform pocket during games (as if he was afraid someone would steal his money). He still didn’t talk much to the media, often rushing out of the clubhouse after games, but much of his anger seemed to dissipate.

After the Yankees waived him late in 1975, Johnson signed on with the hometown Tigers. He played one final major league season, hitting a punchless .268, but otherwise stayed away from trouble or controversy. He then played one year in the Mexican League before calling it quits for good.

When his playing days ended, Johnson left the game completely. He publicly expressed bitterness over the unfair way that baseball had treated him in particular, and black players in general. At one point, he said that he had not attended a single major league game since his career had ended. Instead, he was content to succeed his father as the owner of a truck repair shop in Detroit, pursuing a vocation that he had shown interest in during his playing career.

Other than a feature that appeared in Sports Illustrated in 1998, Johnson remained completely out of the public spotlight. But then, last summer, he reappeared, although ever so subtly. Unannounced, he attended the Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference. It was held in Detroit, his hometown. He attended a panel discussion about Walt Owens, his former coach at Northwestern High School. As Johnson stood by the door, he introduced himself and made a few remarks about the importance of the Negro Leagues research being done by the attendees. According to those in attendance, Johnson showed great respect for the black players that had come before him.

That was quite likely Johnson’s last public appearance, before he succumbed to prostate cancer earlier this month at the age of 72. That day at the conference, he certainly showed a different side to himself, in stark contrast to the man who had seemed so angry and ill at ease for much of his playing days.

Even now, I’m still not sure of what to make of Alex Johnson. There’s little doubt that he suffered from mental illness during his playing career, and that was something that the baseball establishment had little experience in treating or helping. In particular, the management of the Angels didn’t help the situation, no matter what their intentions might have been.

There’s also little question that Johnson made life difficult for those around him, including his teammates and managers. In a professional setting, that’s the kind of behavior that is unpleasant and counterproductive to the cause of trying to win games, no matter the reasons behind it.

It’s also quite clear that Johnson was a thoughtful and intelligent man, one who could be charismatic and funny, especially outside of a baseball setting. He was certainly not a bad man, but one who made his share of friends along the way.

I’m guessing that Alex Johnson will never be completely understood.

References & Resources

  • The Sporting News
  • Sports Illustrated
  • The New York Times

Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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Jim S.
8 years ago

Very nice article, but batting practice is not at 60 feet, six inches. You should fix this, because it makes you seem as though you’ve never actually watched batting practice.

8 years ago
Reply to  Jim S.

Once upon a time, batting practice pitchers used to throw from just in front of the rubber.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago

It’s very odd to me that Johnson’s behavioral issues seemed to dissipate even before he left baseball. Whatever his mental condition was, it seemed to improve, whether it was because of his therapy or something else. Apparently, he didn’t have trouble after he left the game. Despite his bitterness at baseball, this seems to have been a relatively happy ending; at least, better than it might have been. Hopefully, he had a good life overall.

It’s not clear to me, though, how baseball mistreated him. As Bruce notes, they may well have missed the boat on his mental illness, but that would not have been unusual for baseball or society in general at that time.

Dave Kingman
8 years ago

What an interesting article. Please keep these up. It’s why I come to Hardball Times.

Just one suggestion, though….is it possible to have sources for some of the statements in the articles? For example, the obscure references to moving with the shade of the light tower, or the 24 teammates applauding, etc. Are there contemporaneous sources for those? That seems like some serious research. I would like to fully appreciate it.

8 years ago
Bruce Markusen
8 years ago

Dave, the information about Johnson following the shade from the light tower and the applauding of the Angels players came from the 1972 Official Baseball Guide, which was based on weekly reports compiled in The Sporting News. I believe the Angels beat writer at the time was Dick Miller, who corresponded for The Sporting News.

8 years ago

This is such a nice and interesting article and thanks for sharing.

Phil Swift
8 years ago

If I remember right, Yaz actually DID win the 1970 batting championship, but the reason wasn’t revealed until several years after the fact. During a game at Fenway earlier that season (against the Yankees?), Yaz hit a ball to deep right that the right fielder caught while leaping at the wall, but dropped after tumbling over the wall into his own bullpen. Before the ump could get out there to rule catch or no catch, the fielder’s teammates had put the ball in the webbing of his glove and lifted him to a standing position. When he waved the glove with the ball in it, the umpire ruled it a catch, robbing Yaz of a home run. That one hit Yaz got cheated out of would have given him the batting title.

Bob B.
8 years ago

Great write up. Alex Johnson is more a name I’m aware of and only was vaguely aware of his history prior to reading the article… Good job on it.

8 years ago

Thanks, great article.