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.

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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.”

As the season wound on and the calendar found its way to September 3rd, the Angels were still hot on the heels — i.e. three games back — of the Twins in the race for first place in the AL West.  The Halos were in such great shape due to the terrific play of Fregosi (who would finish the season with 22 home runs, 82 RBI, and 95 runs), Jim Spencer (who would win a Gold Glove for his work at first base for the Angels that year), second baseman Sandy Alomar (who would have 35 stolen bases and 82 runs), starting pitcher Clyde Wright (who would garner 22 wins and a 2.83 ERA), starting pitcher Andy Messersmith (who would have a 3.01 ERA and 1.14 WHIP), reliever Ken Tatum (who would end up with a 2.94 ERA and 17 saves), and, of course, Alex Johnson.  At this point in the season, Johnson was hitting .320, which was good for second best in the American League– behind Boston Red Sox outfielder Reggie Smith, who was batting .322.

But then, as Chinua Achebe would say, things fell apart.  The Angels lost nine games in a row and found themselves eleven games behind the first-place Twins by the time they won again.  Alex kept hitting though, batting .306 during this horrible stretch of games, which meant that for the last couple of weeks in the 1970 season, there would still be one race that would prove exciting for Angel fans — the one for the batting title.

In his last six games of the season, Red Sox left fielder Carl Yastrzemski went on a tear, going 12-for-20 which raised his average to .329 and moved him into the lead.  Yaz would have had the crown locked up if it weren’t for one thing: the Red Sox’s season ended on September 30th while the Angels’ final game was not until October 1st.  That meant that if Alex Johnson, who was hitting .327 for the season, had a good hitting performance on his last day, he could walk away with the batting title.

The Angels were slated to play the Chicago White Sox at home in Anaheim for the last, crucial game of the season.  The starting pitcher for the White Sox was the rookie Gerry Janeski, who was making his 35th start of the year and had a 4.87 ERA to show for it.  Manager Lefty Phillips penciled in Alex as the Angels’ lead-off hitter for this game, meaning there’d be tension right off the bat. Alex just missed hitting the ball on the sweet spot in his first at-bat, instead hitting a 4-3 ground out and shaving his average down to .326797.

In his next at bat, Alex hit a single into right field for his 201st hit of the season.  He then scored the first run of the game when Mickey Rivers hit a single three batters later.  Alex was now hitting .327895.

In his third and final time facing Janeski, the Angel outfielder hit a ball over to Bill Melton at third base, but Alex beat it out for a single.  When he walked back to first base, he was now .0004 points ahead of Yastrzemski for the batting title.  Jay Johnston came running out of the Angels’ dugout to relieve Alex and pinch run for him.  When the champ made it back to the bench, he said to his manager, who was shaking his hand in congratulations, “The people in Boston are going to be mad at both of us.”

At any rate, he had done it.  Alex Johnson had won the American League batting title, becoming the first, and so far only, Angel to have done so.

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