Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Alex Johnson: A Complicated Baseball Player

Alex Johnson was one of the most enigmatic players in baseball history. He was a supremely gifted athlete when he showed up in major league camp of the Phillies in 1964. He was built like a fullback, at a time when NFL fullbacks carried the ball 250 times a season (his younger brother Ron later became one of Michigan’s greatest running backs and rushed for over 1,000 yards with the New York Giants in 1970 and 1972). Johnson had great speed to go with his size. His Reds manager Dave Bristol swore Johnson was the fastest from home to first of any righthanded batter he had ever seen. And with a bat in his hands, Johnson could absolutely rake.

Managers and GMs couldn’t help but feel that Johnson could do anything on a baseball field he wanted—but therein lay the problem. Sometimes, for some reason, he just didn’t seem to want to do anything. Despite his physical gifts, he was a horrible defensive player, very much earning the nickname “Iron hands.” Not that it bothered him enough to do anything about it. He often skipped or gave less than half-effort in fielding practice. He would end up leading his leagues’ outfielders in errors six times—including a horrific 18 in 1969.

Johnson quickly developed a reputation as moody, unapproachable and aloof. He was labeled as uncoachable. Suggestions from coaches or criticism of his lack of hustle only made matters worse. He would simply shut down.

Johnson also had trouble with teammates. Dick Allen, in his 1989 autobiography had this to say about his former teammate with the Phillies and why he had trouble getting along: he “called everybody ‘dickhead.’ To Alex Johnson, baseball was a whole world of dickheads. Teammates, managers, general managers, owners. Alex would say, ‘How ya doing dickhead?’ Just like that. The front office types would take it personally.” Imagine that.

Few things are more infuriating to coaches than an immensely talented player who appears to waste the talent. Dick Sisler, the Cardinals hitting coach (whose dad George knew a thing or two about hitting), said, “He easily could have become a great Cardinal player, but he showed no interest, even at clubhouse meetings. He doesn’t seem to want to improve. . . We tried everything to bring out his potential.” Both the Phillies and the Cardinals quickly gave up on him.

When Johnson was asked in early 1968, what the Cardinals had tried to change about his hitting, he replied, “You’ll have to ask them. I didn’t pay any attention to what they told me.” That was actually one of his longer quotes. Johnson usually showed an open disdain for reporters. He was not the least bit communicative and frequently gave them the impression that he might snap at any time and commit mayhem with his bare hands. When he was traded to the Reds, a St. Louis writer warned his Cincinnati colleague, “When Alex Johnson says, ‘Mother,’ he has exhausted half of his vocabulary.”

Reds long-time beat reporter Earl Lawson (who was punched out by Reds players Johnny Temple and Vada Pinson in two separate incidents in his early years) later said that Johnson was the only ballplayer he was ever actually scared of. Lawson, on assignment from Sport, asked Johnson in 1968 what Bristol was doing different that helped Johnson have a better year, hoping for at least some compliment for the manager. The reply (“Basically all those mother******s are the same") did not make the article.

As a player, Johnson lucked out when he arrived in Cincinnati before the 1968 season. The Reds’ manager, Dave Bristol, was a classic players’ manager. He figured out that the best way to manage Johnson was to just put him in the lineup and leave him alone. Under Bristol, Johnson flourished. He still led the league’s outfielders in errors in both 1968 and 1969, but he hit .312 in 1968 (one of only six major leaguers to hit .300 in the notorious pitcher's year) and .315 in 1969.

The improvement at the plate led to one of Johnson’s quotes which went down in history, although it may or may not have been as intended. A writer noted early in 1969 that he already had 7 home runs, whereas in 1968 he had hit only two. “What’s the difference?” he was asked.
“Five,” Johnson replied straightfaced and walked off.

Left alone, Alex enjoyed two very good years at the plate in Cincinnati and was accepted much better by his teammates. Lee May told reporters, "That Alex can hit anything, anyway, anytime." Johnny Bench predicted Johnson could lead the league in hitting, "if he wants to."

Teammates uniformly admired his batting skill. "If everyone will just leave Johnson alone, he'll hit," said backup catcher Pat Corrales, who had also been a teammate in Philadelphia. "He always has."

Reds players accepted the reticent Johnson's quirks with a phrase which was similar to the later "Manny being Manny" often spoken regarding Manny Ramerez: "That's just Alex," they would say. 

Although Johnson enjoyed good production at the plate and had few reported problems with Reds teammates, he was traded to the Angels after the 1969 season. The errors played a role, but also the Reds had outfielders Pete Rose and Bobby Tolan, with minor league hotshots Bernie Carbo and Hal McRae coming up, so Johnson was the obvious choice to use as bait for much-needed pitching help. He was traded to the Angels for pitchers Pedro Borbon and Jim McGlothlin.

Johnson proceeded to lead the American League in hitting in 1970 with a .329 average. Things went south in midseason, however, when he was fined by manager Lefty Phillips for loafing. He became worse, and was a serial offender for failing to even make a show of jogging out infield grounders (which, given his great speed, some could have been beaten out). His career rapidly unraveled. He became increasingly erratic, frequently screaming at teammates and media. It was reported that he was despised by virtually all his teammates. He stopped taking outfield practice all together, was benched five times and fined 29 more times before finally being suspended without pay June 26, 1971.

Union boss Marvin Miller had two psychiatrists testify that Johnson had emotional problems in a hearing before an arbitrator. The arbitrator bought Miller’s reasoning and ruled in Johnson’s favor, reinstating $29,000 in back pay and stating that a mental illness should have been treated like a physical illness.

It was never recorded whether or not the players association helped get Johnson psychiatric help after it helped him get back the money. But apparently they did not. He was bounced from the Indians to the Rangers to the Yankees to the Tigers over the next four years, always the same story—periods of great hitting intermingled with exasperating periods of disruption and lack of effort. He never again was the impact player he had been from 1968-70. His major league odyssey included 8 teams in 13 years.

After baseball, Alex Johnson returned to his hometown of Detroit and took over his father’s trucking business. He was apparently a good citizen—there were no reports of run-ins with the police and in the 1990s he gave a very thoughtful and cooperative interview looking back at his career.

By all accounts, Alex Johnson was a complicated man. Few teammates ever really knew him. Maybe it was his fault; his own behavior certainly contributed to his reputation. Maybe he had demons that no one could understand. He was an easy player for teammates, fans and the media to dislike.

Interestingly, in his final season of 1976, playing for his hometown Tigers, he was befriended by an enthusiastic rookie pitcher named Mark Fidrych. The Bird later credited his daily pregame sessions of pepper with Johnson for helping his fielding and helping him go through the entire 1976 season without an error. Johnson also loaned Fidrych some tools and helped him work on his car. Fidrych, who had a unique ability to find the good in everyone and a singular way of expressing his opinion, later said, "You goof around with each player differently. . . I look at him [Johnson] as a baseball player . . . he helped me out . . . I look at the reporters that used to go at him. I'd say, 'Why don't you just leave the guy alone, man?' I don't care what they think. I think he's a good guy. . . If you really sit down with Alex Johnson, Alex is an intelligent man. . . . But he ain't a bad ballplayer at all. That's what's weird, y'know. He hits, when he wants to."

The story of Alex Johnson raises questions. Is a mental health problem the same as a physical health problem for a player, and if so, is the league or team obligated to get the player help? Also is uncoachability or the failure to put forth an effort or get along with teammates (something in which there is unfortunately a long line of offenders) a sign of a mental health problem? Are personality disorders, such as antisocial disorder or oppositional-defiant disorder considered mental health diseases and are teams responsible? Many questions. One can only look at Alex Johnson's batting ability and wonder what might have been?

1 comment:

  1. Sorry. Very little is known of him off the field. That was part of my point. Few teammates and certainly no media members learned anything about him off the field.