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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

After one game, there was a story that Ruiz pulled a gun on Johnson in the clubhouse. The story was at first denied by Walsh, who later admitted during Johnson's grievance hearing that the incident indeed happened.

"Chico had a gun and I was worried about him, so I went and told the security guard," Johnson said. "Let's leave it at that."

Some Angels said that Johnson was being made the scapegoat for the team's poor showing. The club won seven consecutive games in April and was tied for first place, but by late May they were sliding toward the cellar.

Conigliaro didn't pan out as a power hitter and retired at mid-season because of injuries. Fregosi and Clyde Wright, two of the cornerstones in 1970, were hurt and missed part of the '71 season.

"I think Alex took the heat for everybody," LaRoche said.

At one point in the season, several of the pitchers went to Phillips to complain about Johnson's fielding.

"I never had a problem with Alex," Wright said. "He always played hard when I pitched. But he didn't for some of the other guys. If a ball was hit to left field, they better go get it because Alex wasn't (going to)."

Walsh tried to trade Johnson in June, but found no takers. Finally, on June 27, Johnson was suspended.

"There was really no last straw, it just had been building throughout the season," Walsh said. "He just didn't put out. I would bring him into my office and Alex would promise to do better. Then he would go to the locker room and continue to do the same things."

Marvin Miller, the head of the players' union at the time, saw it differently.

"Dick Walsh was one of the main villains in that case," said Miller, who filed and won the grievance for Johnson. "In the middle of everything that was going on--the fines, the benching, all of that--Walsh called Johnson's wife and, in essence, complained to her about Alex. That really set Alex off."

Miller said that Johnson talked for 11 hours during their first meeting, using notes he had written about incidents.

"He had written them on old airline tickets and things like that," Miller said. "He had been through so much that season. I became convinced there was an emotional illness because of it."

Miller said that a psychiatrist confirmed his suspicions, although Johnson claims he didn't have an emotional illness.

"The situation was more or less a show," Johnson said.

Walsh requested that Johnson see a second psychiatrist, one selected by the Angels.

"That was a really terrible thing to do," Miller said. "How can you make a guy go through a second ordeal like that? But when their psychiatrist came back with the same findings, that Johnson could continue playing provided he underwent treatment, the Angels had lost their case."

After the September hearing, the Angels were ordered to reinstate Johnson and give him back pay.

A month later, Johnson was traded to Cleveland, along with Gerry Moses, for Vada Pinson, Frank Baker and Alan Foster. Shortly thereafter, Phillips was fired.

Those were the final two moves of Walsh's tenure as general manager. He was fired two weeks after trading Johnson.

Said Johnson: "I was young back then and didn't know about human beings. What I saw on that team was evil. You get too many negative things and you get your mind off the main objective, which was winning baseball games. A lot of guys on that team were more concerned about watching me then doing their own jobs."

Johnson works these days at the Johnson Trucking Service in Detroit, which rents dump trucks to construction companies. Arthur Johnson, Alex's father, founded it nearly 50 years ago and Johnson took it over in 1985, after his father's death.

It has been 14 years since Alex Johnson was released by the Detroit Tigers. In all that time, he hasn't been to a baseball game.

"The game has no meaning for me anymore," he said. "I loved it. But I found out that the game is a fantasy."

He picked up the silver bat once more.

"How much is silver worth these days?" he asked.

CLOSEST BATTING RACES

Year League Player Team Average 1910 American Ty Cobb Detroit .3851 Nap Lajoie Cleveland .3841 1911 National Honus Wagner Pittsburgh .3340 Doc Miller Boston .3328 1928 American Goose Goslin Washington .3794 Heinie Manush St. Louis .3777 1931 National Chick Haffey St. Louis .3489 Bill Terry New York .3486 Jim Bottomley St. Louis .3482 1935 American Buddy Myer Washington .3490 Joe Vosmik Cleveland .3484 1945 American Snuffy Stirnweiss New York .3085 Tony Cuccinello Chicago .3084 1949 American George Kell Detroit .3429 Ted Williams Boston .3427 1953 American Mickey Vernon Washington .3372 Al Rosen Cleveland .3356 1970 American Alex Johnson Angels .3289 Carl Yastrzemski Boston .3286 1976 American George Brett Kansas City .3333 Hal McRae Kansas City .3320 Rod Carew Minnesota .3305 1982 American Willie Wilson Kansas City .3316 Robin Yount Milwaukee .3307

Source: The Baseball Encyclopedia.

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