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Devil or Angel? The curious case of Alex Johnson

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Alex Johnson, circa 1970.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – So, to the world of Major League Baseball, in the early 1970’s, outfielder Alex Johnson was a bit of mix, really. Devil or angel? Depends on whom you ask and that includes fans of the 1970-71 California Angels.

Lately I’ve been getting a sync about the name “Alex” and the nation of “Mexico.” I’m not sure why but it’s been pretty powerful these past few days.

Overnight, while dreaming, the date July 1971 was making quite an impact as I was in the midst of my dream state. I knew when I woke up it was important that I remember “July 1971” and the name Alex. This date would be 13 months prior to my own birth in August 1972.

So, searching for answers, Google tells me that African-American baseball player Alex Johnson was featured in a Sports Illustrated cover story for the July 5, 1971 edition.

Headlined: “For Failure To Give His Best …” ( the SI cover called him the “FALLEN ANGEL” – sports writers love stuff like that) the moody ballplayer who was born in the Mississippi River town of Helena, Arkansas and raised in Detroit, Michigan, was beloved by fans for giving the Angels their American League batting title in 1970, by 0.004 over Boston Red Sox player Carl Yastrzemski. Yes, Johnson – a simple, common name for sure – was one on the lips of baseball fans way back in 1970. Johnson was an Angel when he became that year’s American League batting champion.

But while Johnson was an Angel, many thought of him as having a complex, wounded, confused and even "devilish" quality and negative attitude, not so much around fans and friends, but around teammates and management.

“Alex Johnson is the prime anti-hero in baseball’s strangest play,” wrote SI sports writer Ron Fimrite over 40 years ago. “He is at the core of a complex drama that has been only temporarily muted by his suspension last weekend “for failure to give his best efforts to the winning of games.”

Was it problems with racism? Johnson said as much – to a point.

He told the Los Angeles Sentinel, a newspaper serving L.A.’s black community, that “his squabbles” with the Angels were racially-motivated.

“Hell yes, I’m bitter,” Johnson told the Sentinel. “I’ve been bitter 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 is anti-black. My attitude is nothing more than a reaction (to) their attitude.”

An “emotional disturbance,” perhaps? This issue is suggested in the SI piece.

Or was it something else? From ’71 on, Johnson’s problems persisted. There was even an incident involving fellow player – and godfather to his adopted daughter – Chico Ruiz, who allegedly pointed a gun at Johnson in the clubhouse. Ruiz would die some months later in an automobile accident. And the gun? It was never quite clear if it happened. One gun, owned by a player, had reportedly belonged to one-time Angels owner, Texas/Oklahoma native and "singing cowboy" Gene Autry. 

In the article, management, baseball fans and those with an even passive interest in “America’s Pastime” were perplexed by his seemingly “calculated” behavior – behavior that had Johnson losing games for his team purposefully. The team and management felt he was undermining the games and no one knew quite why.

At the time, General Manager of the Angels, Dick Walsh, told Sports Illustrated that although Johnson was the fastest man on the Anaheim-based team, he would refuse to run ground balls, allowed singles hit to Johnson turn into doubles and an oddly low batting average did not help Johnson win any popularity contests with his teammates or Angels fans. The question was: Why did a man with such exceptional baseball-playing skills so willingly play beneath himself.

Johnson had played sandlot ball in Detroit. He came from an athletically-gifted family. His MLB debut was in the summer of 1964 when he was playing for the Philadelphia Phillies. Twelve years later, on October 1, 1976, Johnson would make his final appearance as a major-league ball player in his hometown of Detroit, playing for the Tigers.

Johnson reportedly said: “I’m in baseball because it is a healthy activity. It associates itself with creativeness and is a source of refinement … To put money above everything is wrong. You’ve got to put things in perspective. Baseball is not first. The individual is first. A lot of people forget that. A ballplayer is under contract for his ability on the field, not as a human being.”

At a time when racism against blacks was far more open and common and, on the flipside, African-Americans were gaining more power and visibility in the aftermath of the turbulent “Sixties,” Johnson was unafraid to be vocal and express his anger, with the full knowledge he was potentially jeopardizing his career.

The piece ends with Fimrite interviewing Angels pitcher Jim Maloney, while the club was in Chicago aboard the team bus: “Alex Johnson. Alex Johnson. Now that’s not a difficult name, not a name like Yastrzemski or something like that. You know, it’s really just a simple name.”

Back in '71 he told the Milwaukee Sentinel that "hell would be an improvement" over playing with the Angels.

Before joining the Tigers, Johnson had some ups and downs in clubs around the country – Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers and the New York Yankees. He would actually end his career in Mexico City playing for the Diablos Rojos del Mexico – the Mexico Red Devils. Johnson really would go from Angel to Devil in the span of a few short years before retiring and taking over his father’s trucking business in Detroit.

Johnson would tell the Los Angeles Times in 1990 that back during his time with the Angels that what he saw on the team was “evil” and that years later he would not go to baseball games. 

Said a seemingly-bitter Johnson: “The game has no meaning for me anymore. I love it. But I found out that the game is a fantasy.”

As he would tell Sports Illustrated in a follow-up interview in 1998: “Do I enjoy my life? I enjoy not being on an airplane all the time. I enjoy not having to face everything I did. I just want to help people with their vehicles. It’s a nice, normal life – the thing I’ve always wanted.”

In the 15 years since that Sports Illustrated interview little can be found on Alex Johnson. What happened to him - he would be 71 today - is not clear. Presumably he is still in the Detroit area.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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