Los Angeles Angels: Lefty Phillips

Angels Moment No. 21: Alex Johnson

August, 16, 2011
8/16/11
3:21
PM PT
The Angels have been playing baseball for more than 50 years, but they've only had one batting champion.

Alex Johnson got two hits on the last day of the 1970 season to beat out Carl Yastrzemski by the slimmest of margins. Johnson batted .3289. Yaztremski hit .3286. If only that were the only thing Johnson was remembered for.

Even before he was traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Angels, Johnson had a reputation as an awful outfielder and a clubhouse cancer. Nothing he did while playing in Anaheim would dispel those notions.

After improving by 15 games during Johnson's batting-title year, the Angels made a concerted push going into spring training of 1971. They traded for slugger Tony Conigliaro, center fielder Ken Berry and pitcher Jim Maloney.

Things unraveled, with Johnson often in the middle of the tumult. By late June, Johnson had been fined 29 times and benched five times for a lack of effort. Manager Lefty Phillips told reporters he could have fined Johnson every day, but started to look the other way.

"He did things differently last year. He gave about 65 percent. Now it's down to about 40 percent," Phillips said.

Things couldn't have gotten much uglier than on June 13, the day Johnson accused teammate Chico Ruiz of pulling a .38-caliber handgun on him in the clubhouse after both players had been lifted for pinch hitters. Ruiz, who later died in a car accident in San Diego, claimed he didn't own a gun. One anonymous Angel was quoted as saying, "If Chico did anything wrong, it was that he didn't pull the trigger."

The irony of the incident is that Ruiz was one of Johnson's few friends in the game. The two men had been friends since before they were traded to the Angels from Cincinnati. Ruiz was the godfather of Johnson's daughter. According to reports, Johnson had turned on Ruiz in the previous year, often screaming profanities at him.

Johnson was raised in Arkansas and grew up on the streets of Detroit. In a rare interview that summer, he explained some of his anger.

"Hell, yes, I'm bitter. I've been bitter ever since I learned I was black. The society into which I was born and in which I grew up and in which I play ball today is anti-black," Johnson said. Conigliaro appeared to be one of Johnson's few teammates sensitive to his demons when he said, "He's so hurt inside, it's terrifying."

On June 26, in an echo of a later incident involving outfielder Jose Guillen, the Angels suspended Johnson for the remainder of the season without pay. The players' association, under Marvin Miller, sought to overturn the suspension and fines, claiming Johnson should have been placed on the disabled list with emotional distress. An arbitrator ruled that the Angels had to pay Johnson, but upheld the fines, which totaled $3,750.

That October, the Angels traded Johnson to the Cleveland Indians. Ruiz died the following February.

Johnson would be traded three more times in the next five seasons. He would never again hit .300, but his baggage came with him.

This story is part of an occasional series of Angels Moments which, when it's complete, will -- we hope -- add up to 50. The Angels are celebrating their 50th anniversary this season. These are not intended to be an exhaustive list, but simply an assembly of scenes and anecdotes that are part of the team's colorful past.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Mike Trout
BA HR RBI R
.303 20 64 60
OTHER LEADERS
HRM. Trout 20
RBIM. Trout 64
RM. Trout 60
OPSM. Trout .986
WG. Richards 10
ERAG. Richards 2.71
SOG. Richards 119