Alex Johnson, who in 1970 became the first player with the then California Angels to win the American League batting title, died early this month in Southfield, Mich., following a lengthy battle with prostate cancer. He was 72.
Johnson, older brother of former New York Giants All-Pro runningback Ron Johnson, was a prolific hitter who seemed to specialize in line drives. In his 13 major league seasons, Johnson would play for eight teams and was known for an especially quick bat. In fact, during batting practice one day Johnson decided to hit against the pitching machine set up only 20 feet from home plate. His contact with each pitch was reportedly unaffected.
“I’ve never been scared pitching batting practice before, but throwing to Alex is like being on an artillery range,” said former Angels coach Rocky Bridges in 1970.
Johnson, a native of Detroit, Mich., saw his career peak in 1970—his first season with the Angels where he finished that year with a .3289 batting average, just slightly ahead of Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski (.3286) to win the American League batting title. The manager made a controversial decision in the last game of the season to sit Johnson after his second hit so he would not risk lowering his average with another at-bat. Red Sox fans were reportedly angry with the decision to bench Johnson mid-game because Yastrzemski’s season had ended the day before. Johnson had 202 hits that year, which remained an Angels record until Darin Erstad topped it with 240 hits in 2000. Johnson finished his career with a batting average of .288 with 1,331 hits, 78 home runs and 525 runs batted in.
Johnson was a troubled athlete. He was fined by the club several times in 1970 for what was perceived as a lack of effort in the outfield, and for failing to run out ground balls.
“It’s as if he doesn’t consider it a hit unless the ball reaches the outfield,” said Angels Manager Lefty Phillips in 1970. Speaking again about Johnson in 1971, Phillips said: “Last year he gave us 65 percent. Now he’s down to about 40 percent.”
Johnson told the Los Angeles Sentinel at the time that he was frustrated with the Angels and had developed some bitterness regarding racism existing in Major League Baseball. Johnson was involved in several locker room altercations with teammates that sometimes came close to fist fights.
The Angels once suspended Johnson without pay and he filed a grievance with the Major League Baseball Players Association. It was revealed that Johnson had suffered from emotional problems (bipolar disorder) with the union declaring that the star hitter’s mental condition should have found him, instead, placed temporarily on the disabled list with pay. The arbitration board ruled in favor of Johnson and he received back pay of $29,970, but he still had to pay his fines. The decision established that emotional issues were to be treated by Major League Baseball the same way it would rule on a player’s physical injury.
Besides a son, Alex Jr., Johnson is survived by his brother, a daughter, Jenifer Johnson; a sister, Jean Johnson; five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.