Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Alex Johnsonby Bruce Markusen
September 07, 2012
Alex Johnson’s 1972 Topps card is the perfect example of the power of the upturned cap. By shooting Johnson from below, and making sure that only the green underside of the bill can be seen—in ‘72, the caps featured a green bill as opposed to the gray used today—we cannot see the color or the logo on the cap. So if Johnson happened to be traded during the winter, Topps found a creative way to cover the situation.
Sure enough, Johnson was traded between the 1971 and ‘72 seasons. In actuality, he was wearing a California Angels cap for this picture, and not an Indians cap. Johnson spent the entire ‘71 season with the Angels; it turned out to be one of the most hectic, controversial and traumatic seasons that any player has ever had with one team.
Johnson looks calm and reflective in the photo, but those words did not often describe him in the early 1970s. By the start of the 1972 season, when this card was issued by Topps, Johnson might have been the most controversial figure in the game. I suppose an argument could have been made for Curt Flood or Denny McLain, but Johnson, at the very least, belonged in the conversation.
Before delving into Johnson’s troubled situation, let’s recap his early career. The brother of football star Ron Johnson, Alex signed as an amateur free agent with the Phillies’ organization in the fall of 1961. He sailed through Philadelphia’s minor league system, hitting better than .300 at every level before his recall in 1964. Scouts salivated over his lightning-quick bat speed, which some described as legendary.
How good was Johnson’s bat speed? During batting practice, he would move 20 feet closer to the mound and still hit line drive after line drive.
On the down side, Johnson had a reputation as a poor outfielder, earning him the nickname “Iron Hands” from his teammates in spring training. Yet, he had the physique of an Adonis, earning him the more favorable nickname of “Bull.” More importantly, the Phillies had no doubts about his hitting. They platooned Johnson with Wes Covington in left field and watched him flirt with a .400 average before finishing at .303.
As a sophomore, Johnson continued to hit, earning himself some playing time against right-handed pitching. While the Phillies loved the progression of his hitting skills, they didn’t care for his attitude. He didn’t always hustle in running out of the box and sometimes jogged after fly balls. Those traits irritated manager Gene Mauch to no end.
With Mauch displeased, the front office decided to include Johnson in a blockbuster deal with the Cardinals. The Phillies sent Johnson, young catcher Pat Corrales and veteran right-hander Art Mahaffey to the Cardinals for a big name package of first baseman Bill White, shortstop Dick Groat and catcher Bob Uecker.
Thrilled to have acquired a talent like Johnson, the Cardinals switched Lou Brock to right field, making room for Johnson in left. The master plan soon blew up, as Johnson failed to hit and received a demotion to Triple-A. The following season, he had to settle for a platoon role with Roger Maris in right field. Johnson hit so poorly during the regular season that he didn’t receive a single at-bat in the 1967 World Series against the Red Sox.
Just like the Phillies, the Cardinals became fed up with Johnson’s attitude and his admitted unwillingness to listen to his coaches. The last straw occurred late in the season, when Johnson fought with fellow outfielder Bobby Tolan. Having seen enough, the Cardinals made a trade that winter, sending Johnson to the Reds for journeyman outfielder Dick Simpson.
Surprisingly, Johnson hit it off with Reds skipper Dave Bristol, who made him the Reds’ regular left fielder and watched him hit .312, the fourth best mark in the National League. Although Johnson showed little power and an alarming lack of patience at the plate, he was generally attentive and cooperative, and meshed well with Bristol and his coaches.
Johnson played even better in 1969, raising his average to .315 and lifting his home run total to 17. Though he remained quiet in the clubhouse, his teammates accepted him. All seemed well at Crosley Field.
Then came the shocker. At the winter meetings, the Reds traded him. General manager Bob Howsam didn’t really want to part with Johnson, but felt he had to improve the team’s pitching depth. So he sent Johnson, utility infielder Chico Ruiz and pitcher Mel Queen to the Angels for a package that included future relief standout Pedro Borbon and veteran right-hander Jim McGlothlin.
Put into place as the Angels’ everyday left fielder, Johnson hit a robust .329, becoming the first and only Angel to win the American League batting title. (He did become embroiled in mild controversy when the Angels pulled him from the final game to protect his percentage-points batting lead over Carl Yastrzemski, but the uproar died quickly.) Oh, there were times that Johnson clashed with the media. And there were a few times that Johnson didn’t hustle, prompting the Angels to issue small fines. But general manager Dick Walsh defended Johnson, saying that the outfielder’s actions really did not hurt the team or the game itself.
The following year, the situation changed drastically; the Angels became far less lenient, as Johnson’s batting average fell and his number of mental lapses rose dramatically.
The trouble began early in spring training. During a game on a hot afternoon in Mesa, Ariz., Johnson positioned himself in the shade of a light tower in left field. As the shade moved, Johnson moved with it, without regard to the batter at the plate. Johnson kept himself cool, but drew the ire of his manager, Lefty Phillips, who pulled him from the game after he failed to run out a batted ball.
The following day, Johnson came to bat in the first inning of an exhibition game in Yuma. He hit a ground ball, but failed to run it out properly. Phillips again yanked him from the game, adding a $100 fine for good measure.
Johnson’s spring training would foreshadow far greater problems during the regular season. He would hit well and play hard during the opening month of the season, before falling back into his bad habits. In May, Phillips benched Johnson several times for a bad attitude and a lack of hustle. One day after the second benching,
Johnson returned to the lineup, only to jog in the outfield after fly balls and run lazily on the basepaths. Then came benching No. 3.
On May 23, Phillips called a team meeting, but asked Johnson, who was sitting at his locker, to leave the room. When Johnson refused, Philips took the other 24 players into an adjoining room, where he conducted the emotional meeting. Phillips told the players in attendance that Johnson would “never play for this team again.” According to some reports, the players in the room openly cheered Phillips’ announcement.
From the front office, Walsh continued to defend Johnson, but the other Angels clearly had reached a boiling point with the man who was now known as “Angry Alex.” Veteran reliever Eddie Fisher summed up the opinion of the clubhouse. “I agree with Phillips and basically the other guys feel the same way,” Fisher told The Sporting News. “All of us have talked to Johnson, but he doesn’t talk [to us]. He is a hard guy to understand. We can’t break through to him. I won’t make excuses, or protect him any longer.”
Phillips did not follow the wishes of Fisher or the other players. Johnson visited the manager his hotel room to plead his case, promising that the lack of hustle would not continue. Phillips believed him. So Johnson returned to the lineup for a game against the A’s and responded by rapping three hits and scoring the game-winning run.
Then, in the first inning of a June 4 game against the Red Sox, Johnson again failed to run hard. Phillips pulled the cord again, pulling the enigmatic outfielder from the game.
The Angels tried to address the situation by dealing Johnson before the trading deadline of June 15. They thought they had a deal worked out that would have sent Johnson to the Brewers for Tommy Harper and another player. But Harper hit a home run and two doubles on the night of the deadline, and trade talks with Milwaukee general manager Frank “Trader” Lane fell apart 10 minutes before midnight.
Remaining with the Angels, Johnson endured an embarrassing series against the Royals in mid-June. He made three errors in the series and misplayed a single into a triple.
A few days later, on June 25, Phillips again benched Johnson. The manager said he was doing it to take some pressure off Johnson. It was essentially the fifth suspension, or benching, that the manager had leveled against his troubled batting champion, who was now hitting .260 with only one home run. This time the suspension would last; Johnson would not play again for the Angels in 1971.
In response to the suspension, the Players’ Association filed a grievance, claiming that the Angels were not justified in suspending Johnson without pay. Marvin Miller, the head of the player union, argued that Johnson was suffering from “emotional stress” and should have been placed on the disabled list—with full pay. In fact, Johnson had been undergoing psychiatric treatment in Detroit since his last suspension.
Johnson’s grievance was heard by an arbitration panel, which listened to testimony from all parties. The grievance procedure revealed some startling facts. For example, the Angels had fined Johnson 29 times for lack of effort during spring training and the first half of the 1971 season.
An even more startling revelation came down from the arbitrators, who delivered an unprecedented ruling in baseball history. The arbitrators informed Major League Baseball that any player suffering from mental illness must be treated in the same way—by being placed on the disabled list—as a player who had suffered a physical injury. In other words, Johnson, who was determined to be emotionally “incapacitated,” had won his case. His suspension lifted, Johnson would now have to be put on the disabled list and receive his full salary, including back pay.
The arbitration hearing also settled another matter involving Johnson. During his troubled first half of the 1971 season, he essentially lost his best friend on the team. Johnson and utility man Chico Ruiz, a likeable and easygoing teammate, had been good friends dating back to their days with the Reds. When Johnson asked Ruiz to be the godfather of his young daughter, Ruiz gladly accepted.
By 1971, Johnson and Ruiz had grown to dislike each other. In fact, some observers described their relationship as one of hate. Johnson often cursed Ruiz, calling him insulting names. More than once, Ruiz challenged Johnson to a fight, even though he was much smaller than the man known as The Bull.
Fed up with Johnson, Ruiz yelled angrily at his former friend. According to witnesses, this is what Ruiz said: “The white guys on this club may dislike you, but I’m as black as you are, and I hate you! I hate you so much I could kill you.” (Other black players on the Angels, especially Rudy May, also voiced some displeasure with Johnson.)
The situation erupted on June 13. That afternoon, Johnson and Ruiz appeared as pinch-hitters, but both went back to the clubhouse while the game was still in progress. “[Ruiz] was rattling something, making a noise, so I looked up,” Johnson explained to Ron Fimrite of Sports Illustrated. “What he was doing was tapping his gun on a chair. I looked up, and he pulled the gun out of its holster.” According to Johnson, Ruiz held the gun in a threatening manner.
Ruiz denied the charge, insisting that he didn’t even own a gun. Taking sides, Dick Walsh supported Ruiz’ claim, and explained that he found no evidence of a gun being present in the clubhouse.
The clubhouse confrontation was re-lived during the arbitration hearing. Under oath, Walsh testified in front of the arbitration panel. Admitting to having lied about Ruiz and the gun, Walsh now confessed that Ruiz did own a gun and had brandished it against Johnson in the clubhouse. Walsh tried to justify his actions by saying that he was protecting Ruiz. If Ruiz had been formally charged with carrying a gun, he would now have a formal police record, thereby jeopardizing the infielder’s plans to bring his mother and father to the U.S. from Cuba.
It would be nice to look back at the chaotic muddle that Johnson and the Angels endured that summer, thereby earning the team the nickname of “Hell’s Angels,” and find a happy ending, but none was forthcoming. Let’s consider what happened to the principals in the aftermath of one of the nastiest cases of clubhouse turmoil:
*On Oct. 6, Lefty Phillips was fired. Although the Angels gave him a job as special assignment scout, he would not live to see the job through to an appropriate finish. In June of 1972, he suffered a fatal attack of asthma. Phillips was only 53 years old.
*Chico Ruiz and Johnson would never reconcile. The following February, Ruiz was driving outside of San Diego when he crashed into a sign pole. The crash killed Ruiz, who was only 33. Johnson was one of the few ballplayers to attend the funeral of his onetime friend.
*On Oct. 20, the Angels fired Dick Walsh, even though he had four years to go on his contract. His lies about Ruiz and the gun didn’t help, nor did the Angels’ final record of 76-86, which placed them fourth in the AL West. Walsh would never work in baseball again.
*That same October, the Angels traded Johnson to the Indians. Becoming a journeyman, he would bounce from the Indians to the Rangers to the Yankees, continuing to clash with the media, before finishing out his career with the Tigers, his eighth team in 13 seasons. He never regained the stardom he had shown with the Reds in the late '60s or the Angels in 1970.
If there was anything good to come out of the situation, it was that baseball learned a hard lesson about the realities of players with mental illness. Johnson suffered from severe emotional problems and would have benefited from counseling much earlier in the season. Perhaps Angels management should have observed what the Indians did with Tony Horton in 1970, when they placed him on the disabled list after he suffered a nervous breakdown. But recognition of mental illness was not prevalent in professional sports at the time. So Johnson fell deeper into the cracks, unable to improve his behavior even as the Angels’ attempts at discipline mounted.
Since his playing days, Johnson has stayed away from controversy or trouble. His friends outside of baseball say he is warm, generous and considerate.
Johnson has remained reclusive, rarely granting interviews. In 1998, Sports Illustrated updated Johnson’s whereabouts, revealing that he now ran his family’s truck repair business in Detroit. He seemed to enjoy repairing trucks, while having lost all interest in following baseball.
Clearly, Johnson’s story was—and is—a complicated one. In this case, the Topps card didn’t begin to tell us the whole saga.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.