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.
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…)