History

THE SAD CASE OF THE ANGELS’ ONLY BATTING CHAMPION, PART 2

THE SAD CASE OF THE ANGELS’ ONLY BATTING CHAMPION-Read Part I

“Last year, when I won the batting championship on the last day,” Alex Johnson explained to a reporter, “the guys shook my hand, but some guys didn’t want me to win, and they gave me the weakest handshakes I have ever felt.”

A feeling of stinging discontent had lingered with Johnson that winter, and although the Angels made two exciting acquisitions during the off-season — the excellent defensive center fielder Ken Berry from the White Sox and right fielder Tony Conigliaro, who had 36 home runs and 116 RBI for the Red Sox in 1970 — Alex was just not enthusiastic about the coming season.

Baseball_batter-1

During a spring training game in 1971, Johnson frustrated his coaches by refusing to position himself where they instructed him to be.  Alex didn’t want to be exposed to the full brunt of the March sunlight and instead disregarded his coaches and stood in the shade provided by one of the outfield light poles that fell onto the field.

When the season began, Johnson frequently became angry with the reporters and would scream profanities at them in the clubhouse and even in the hotels they shared.  It grated on his teammates’ nerves, but there was nothing they could do to stop him.  The writers finally got so fed up with it that they petitioned the president of the American League to intervene on their behalf.

While behind the scenes Johnson was spending a lot of animated, angry energy, his play on the field was lackluster, to say the least.  Singles hit to him in left field would frequently turn into doubles as the league’s batters soon discovered how easy it was to run on him.  It got so bad that runners already on first base were easily making it to third on singles hit to Alex in left.

Angel pitcher Clyde Wright admitted that Alex “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.”

Alex’s despondency was even apparent in the batter’s box, a place that had been something of a sanctuary for him over the years, a place where he used to delight others with his magnificent displays in the art of hitting.  But now, with his average hovering around the .250 mark, when Alex hit a ball to a fielder, as Jim Fregosi explained to a reporter, “he wouldn’t even run to first base.  He would take two steps out of the box and that was it.”

Johnson’s frustrated manager, Lefty Phillips, started slapping him with fines in order to get him out of his funk, and when that failed to work, he began benching him.  Alex was now perceived by his teammates as having committed over and again one of the cardinal sins of baseball — purposefully not trying his best.  “He did things differently last year,” Phillips complained.  “He gave about 65 percent.  Now it’s down to about 40 percent.” (more…)

THE SAD CASE OF THE ANGELS’ ONLY BATTING CHAMPION, PART I

After finalizing a deal in November of 1969 for Cincinnati Reds left fielder Alex Johnson, Angels general manager Dick Walsh announced he was “elated to get a hitter of Johnson’s caliber.”  The Halos had a good young pitching staff to work with, but the team had settled for a disappointing third place finish in 1969 thanks to a dead-last-in-American-League .230 batting average.  Meanwhile, Johnson hit .315 with 17 home runs and 88 RBI for the Reds in 1969, so the hope was that he would come to the Angels and get their offensive engine revved up enough to make a serious run at the AL West title.

baseball_batter

When the 1970 season began, the Angels’ offense jumped off of the starting line and blazed its way down the drag strip.  With speedster Sandy Alomar leading off, Jim Fregosi hitting third, Alex Johnson batting fourth, and slugging first baseman Jim Spencer providing Johnson some protection in the five hole,  the club outscored their opponents in the month of April 91 runs to 67.  On the last day of April, the Angels were 13-7 and found themselves tied with the Minnesota Twins for the division lead.

Alex had proven to be a shot of nitrous oxide for the offense, raking .338 that April as the team’s clean-up hitter.  His showcase game that month came on April 11th against the Kansas City Royals when he hit two home runs and tallied six RBI.

All through the month of May, Alex kept on hitting and the Angels kept on winning.  By the end of the month, Johnson had increased his batting average to a prodigious .366, and the Angels were around the top of the division, just two and a half games behind the Twins.  With roughly one-third of the season over, the red-hot Johnson found himself behind only Rod Carew, who was hitting .394 for the Twins, in the race for the league’s batting title.

Besides Alex Johnson’s blistering speed from the batter’s box to first base (his Reds manager Dave Bristol said Johnson was one of the fastest runners he’d ever seen), his batting practice routine was one of the keys to his hitting success.   Alex favored practicing off of a machine that consistently hurled strikes at game-speed much more than live batting practice, so at any point in the season, he could be found working with a pitching machine, firing off ferocious line drives, one after another.  But once he was satisfied with his performance, he would then do something peculiarly impressive — he would creep up a few feet and fire off more blazing line drives, and then creep up a few feet more, all the while displaying the amazing bat speed that made him such a prolific hitter.

While things were going exceedingly well for Alex during the games, around the edges, things were a little off.  In a Sports Illustrated article that year, shortstop Jim Fregosi explained, “He does have some peculiar traits. Like he won’t let anybody shake hands with him when he hits a home run. He says nobody wants to shake his hand when he strikes out so why the hell should he shake hands with them when he hits? And he calls everybody ‘bleephead’ or ‘bleep-bleeper.’ Just about everybody is a bleephead. But if you’re decent with him he’ll be decent with you.” (more…)