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.”
Instead of improving his play on the field, the fines and benchings just resulted in Alex yelling and arguing with his teammates more than ever, except, of course, for when he chose to sit alone on the bench during games and wordlessly dress and leave immediately after them.
One particularly heated argument in Kansas City almost came to an exchange of blows when laid-back country boy Clyde Wright raised a stool at Johnson and had to be held back by his teammates. Alex then raised his own stool, broke it by hitting himself on the head with it, and declared, “That stool isn’t going to help you.”
And then there was the incident in Washington on June 13th when Johnson and Chico Ruiz were alone in the clubhouse while the game with the Senators was still in progress. The two men had been used as pinch hitters, and after their duties were completed, they left the game and hit the showers. Alex and Chico used to be good friends when they had been teammates on the Cincinnati Reds. Chico was even the godfather of Alex’s adopted daughter. Now, during the 1971 season with the Angels, they were constantly bickering with each other.
On this day, the bickering got especially nasty, to the point that Johnson claimed Ruiz took a gun out of his locker and started brandishing it about, threatening him with it.
“It did not happen,” Ruiz declared when the fight was over. “I can swear to it on a Bible with both hands.”
Then on June 24th, after failing to run out yet another ground ball, Lefty Phillips benched him one last time. The next day, after 29 fines and five benchings, the Angels finally suspended Alex Johnson from the team, putting him on the restricted list without pay, for “failure to give his best efforts to the winning of games.”
Many on the team felt the suspension was long overdue and felt relieved to have Alex removed from the team. Tony Conigliaro had a much different reaction, though, telling a reporter, “He’s got a problem deep inside him that he won’t talk about. He’s so hurt inside, it’s terrifying. He’s a great guy off the field. On the field, there’s something eating away at him.”
Feeling that he had been treated unfairly, Johnson went to the player’s union to see what could be done. After a lengthy meeting with Johnson, the head of the union, Marvin Miller, personally took up Alex’s cause and worked on his behalf. He had a psychiatrist meet with Alex, and the doctor diagnosed Alex with reactive depression. Miller then went to the commissioner of baseball and demanded Johnson be reinstated with full pay and be put on the disabled list so he could undergo treatment that would help him with the mental and emotional injuries he was suffering from. The commissioner rejected Miller’s demands, believing that Johnson was merely a troublemaker who deserved his suspension.
Since Johnson’s grievance was at an impasse, the case then went to an independent, impartial arbitrator to determine its outcome. The commissioner’s office requested it have the opportunity to have its own hand-picked psychiatrist examine Johnson. The arbitrator granted the request, but this psychiatrist agreed with the first one that Alex was indeed suffering from depression and was therefore not able to give the Angels his best effort.
Needless to say, the arbitrator, Lewis Gill, sided with Alex Johnson. He ruled that Alex be reinstated and put on the disabled list, and that he was owed all of the back pay that was withheld from him while he had been suspended. In an odd sort of compromise with MLB, Gill also decided that Alex would, however, have to pay all of his outstanding fines, a total of $3,750.
In the meantime, baseball games were still being played, and the Angels had called up Mickey Rivers from their farm team in Salt Lake City to replace