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Alex : Johnson's Bitterness Toward Baseball Still Evident 19 Years After the Angels Suspended Their Only Batting Champion for Lacking Effort

June 24, 1990|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — In a back room of his mother's house, Alex Johnson picked up the silver bat. He gripped it as though he were hitting, checked a swing, then slowly ran his hand over the surface, which was tarnished with age.

Johnson was awarded the bat for winning the 1970 American League batting championship--the only Angel to have been a batting champion. It was one of the closest races in history, Johnson edging Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox by .0003.

He won the title on his last at-bat of the season, beating out a high chopper to Chicago White Sox third baseman Bill Melton. The infield hit raised Johnson's average to .3289. Yastrzemski finished at .3286.

"I distinctly remember (Angel teammate) Jay Johnstone running out to first base and I was wondering, 'What the heck is he doing?' " Johnson said. "He told me I was out of the game. I ran into the dugout and saw everyone standing and clapping. I looked out at the scoreboard and it showed that I was the batting champion."

It was Oct. 1, 1970, and Alex Johnson had experienced his last joyful moment in baseball. After that, things went to bad to worse to unbearable for Johnson, the Angels and their management.

Nearly 20 years later, Johnson held the bat in a room filled with photographs, trophies and and other reminders of a major league baseball career that spanned 13 seasons and eight teams.

There was a picture of Johnson, swinging from the heels for the Cincinnati Reds, and another of him in an Angel uniform, again taking a cut. Others showed him posing with Willie Horton, Ferguson Jenkins and other friends. On the wall was a plaque, reading, "Alex Johnson, Pacific Coast League's Most Dangerous Hitter, 1966."

Johnson, however, concentrated on the bat, which brought back more memories--some as tarnished as the silver.

The year after winning the batting title, Johnson was fined, benched and, eventually suspended indefinitely by the Angels for what they said was lack of hustle and an improper attitude. Although he filed a grievance and was reinstated later in the 1971 season, Johnson never again played for the Angels.

He spent his last five seasons bouncing from Cleveland to Texas to the New York Yankees, and, finally, to his hometown Detroit Tigers. But Johnson never fully recovered from his roller-coaster ride with the Angels.

"I lost all my enthusiasm for the game," said Johnson, 47. "I saw so much negativism with the Angels, that I couldn't help but lose it. I never got the enthusiasm back."

Alex Johnson loved baseball. In fact, he loved it so much that he passed up a football scholarship to Michigan State to play sandlot ball in Detroit in 1960.

He was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies later that summer. Johnson hit no worse than .313 during his three years in the minor leagues and was called up by the Phillies in 1964.

He spent two seasons with them as a part-time player. Before the 1966 season, he was traded to St. Louis but spent most of that season in the minors. And in 1967, he hit only .223 for the Cardinals. He was traded to Cincinnati before the 1968 season, and there, for the first time, became a full-time player.

Johnson hit .312 for the Reds and was selected as the 1968 comeback player of the year by the Sporting News. The next season, he hit .315 and clearly established himself as a consistent offensive threat.

His confidence as a hitter was characterized by his motto: "You hit when you can; I hit when I want."

"He used to drive Jim Fregosi crazy with that," said Dave LaRoche, who was a relief pitcher for the Angels and now is a coach with the Chicago White Sox.

"I used to feed the pitching machine for Alex sometimes. Johnson would move up about 20 feet and would still be hitting line drives. He really could hit when he wanted to."

But Johnson's critics said he didn't always want to. He developed a reputation as a loafer by not running out ground balls and by his casual play in the outfield.

Johnson made 14 errors in 1968 and 18 in 1969, the most among outfielders in the major leagues.

Was there an attitude problem?

"A lot of that came from when I was in St. Louis," Johnson said. "They wanted to change my batting stance, but I understood my abilities better than they did."

Neither the attitude nor the defensive shortcomings seemed to matter to Angel General Manager Dick Walsh, who wanted to beef up the team's pitiful offense. After the 1969 season, Walsh traded pitchers Jim McGlothlin, Pedro Borbon and Vern Geishert to the Reds for Johnson, infielder Chico Ruiz and pitcher Mel Queen.

"We figured we had the pitching, but we needed a guy who could pick up the offense," said Walsh, now general manager of the Los Angeles Convention Center. "We needed someone who could hit for average and drive in some runs. Alex Johnson was the best that was available."

And in that 1970 season, Johnson lived up to Walsh's expectations.

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