I read this morning that ex-Red Alex Johnson had passed away of prostate cancer at the age of 72.

Unless you’re of a certain age, you probably don’t remember Alex Johnson as a Cincinnati Red. He only played with the Reds for two seasons, 1968 and 1969. He came over to the Reds from the Cards for Outfielder Dick Simpson in January of 1968. Simpson had had two close to average seasons with the Reds (OPS+ of 97 and 94), but would forever be known as one of the players the Reds received in the trade for Frank Robinson. That’s a tough thing to live down and a lot of pressure to play under.

The Reds were Johnson’s 3rd major league team already, by the age of 25. After putting up promising numbers in Philadelphia in part-time play in ’64 and ’65, he was traded to the Cards. He struggled in ’66 and was sent back to the minors and in ’67, he was mostly a PH and backup for Roger Maris before being traded to the Reds shortly before spring training in 1968.

Johnson came to the Reds with a bad reputation in the clubhouse, but soon after coming over, won the Reds LF job, shifting Pete Rose to RF. In ’68, he put up a .312/.342/.395 slash line with a 116 OPS+. His average was 4th in the NL behind Pete, and two of the Alou brothers. He played even better for the Reds in that wild NL West pennant race in ’69, putting up a .315/.350/.463 slash line and an OPS+ of 122, matching his career total in homers (17) in one season. His defense was never stellar, leading the league in errors by an OF both of his years with the Reds.

With the Reds badly needing pitching and prospects, Hal McRae and Bernie Carbo waiting in the wings, the Reds traded Johnson (and Chico “Bench me or Trade me” Ruiz”) to the California Angels in November ’69 for future Reds HOFer, Pedro Borbon, Jim McGlothlin, and Vern Geishert.

Borbon’s long Reds legacy doesn’t need to be recapped here for any real Reds fan. McGlothlin won 14 games for the Reds in ’70 and started a World Series game in the ’70 and ’72 World Series (McGlothlin was diagnosed with leukemia in ’74 and died in ’75 at the age of 32). Geishert had pitched 11 games for the Angels in ’69, but never pitched in the bigs again. Nevertheless, he was one of the two players (along with Frank Duffy) that brought George Foster to the Reds in 1971.

Johnson won the AL Batting Title while playing for the Angels in 1970, putting up a line of .329/.370/.459, being named to the All Star Team and finishing 8th in the MVP balloting.

Through the rest career he played in Cleveland, Texas, for the Yankees, before finishing with the Tigers in 1976 at the age of 33.

I remember Johnson as a guy that could really hit, but that made Kevin Mitchell or Adam Dunn look good as an OFer. But a bigger part of his legacy as a Reds is that moving him allowed the Reds to play McRae and Carbo. Carbo won the ROY in ’70. But most important is that his trade brought HUGE future pieces of the BRM to Cincinnati (Borbon and Foster).

Redleg Nation sends its condolences to Mr. Johnson’s family.

I’ve been a Reds fan since the late ’60’s, with my luck of being able to attend plenty of games at Riverfront during the BRM era. I was sitting in the Green Seats in the OF when Pete came home in ’84 and was in the Red seats when Glenn Braggs reached over the fence in ’90 to beat the Pirates. I have had many favorites from Jim Maloney to Johnny Bench, Barry Larkin, Adam Dunn, and Jay Bruce.

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  1. My memory of Johnson was catching a screaming line-drive by Darren Johnson during the 151st game of the 154 game ’64 season. In game 150 Maloney had extended the Phillies losing streak to 8. O’Toole was literally pitching his arm off and the Reds were hitting on all, four cylinders. Pinson singled leading off the fith and Robinson walked to bring up Darren. Alex, playing leftfield, was off at the crack of the bat, running, diagonally, up the terrace toward the scoreboard where he simply out-ran the ball. Pinson and Robinson were also off at the crack of the bat resulting in a triple play. Alex, in one play, perhaps because he was a rookie, had made the catch of his lifetime.
    However, the catch was not the main tragedy. The Reds were leading 3 to 1 in the bottom of the 6th, Leo Cardenas leading off. He had not been hit by a pitch in over 500 at bats and Chris Short had not hit anyone in over 300 innings of pitching, but as fate would have it, Leo got hit. He rushed the mound with bat in hand and woke the Phillies up. He cowardly slid into right field on a double play, The Phillies immediately tied the game, eventually winning it, on a two-run single to right-center by Ritchie Allen.
    The Reds were playing their hearts out for their dying manager, Fred Hutchinson, and would have won the pennant had one, temperamental, Latin shortstop not lost his cool. After all, he was leading off the inning in a close game. Be happy to take one for the team, perhaps leading to another run or runs. As I understand, there was a confrontation in the clubhouse between Leo and O’Toole with Leo again playing the villain by grabbing an ice pick. O’Toole’s arm was never the same and Fred Hutchinson died shortly afterwards. The pennant race went to the final day of the season with the Cards winning. The Reds could have tied the Cards but the interim manager, Sisler, chose a journeyman pitcher instead of Maloney(a Dusty Baker move). The Phillies won 10 to 1 and a season that will go down in infamy because of a hothead shortstop and an inexperienced manager.

    • Art,

      1964 was my first full season as a Reds fan. It was full of hope and excitement (the Reds taking over 1st place late in the season), disappointment (the Reds losing 4 of the last 5 games to end up in 2nd) and the tragedy of Hutchinson’s death. What a season to be introduced to baseball! Thanks for the recollections.

    • Tsitouris (I think) was Reds SP that day. He came over from KC for Joe Nuxhall in 1960 or 1961. Decent 4th or 5th SP in rotation and good long reliever.

      • Over 10 years ago at the National in Cleveland I had paid to get Pete Rose’s autograph. I asked him as he was signing, his thoughts on that last game of the 64 season. He said Tsitouris came to the game with his car all packed ready to head home to North Carolina. He thought Sisler should have started Maloney. A few years after that at the Moeller card show I asked Bill McCool on his thoughts. He said Maloney didn’t want to start so Sisler went with Tsitouris. They both said Cardenas should have just taken it for the team. The next inning there was a pop fly behind Leo, still sulking he made a half hearted attempt to catch it. It fell for a hit and lead to the Phils comeback. O’Toole let Leo know what he thought of his effort which led to Leo getting the ice pick.

    • In the summer of ’69, I went to St. Louis for a three game series between the Reds and Cardinals with my friends (and classmates of the Class of ’70) Dave and Steve–Cardinals and Mets fans, respectively. We stayed at the semi-swanky (but fading) Chase-Park Plaza Hotel, which was where the Redlegs stayed when visiting that sleazy burg of sad-sack hillbillies.

      I bought a major league baseball and a quality ball-point pen, and set about systematically collecting every Reds-related signature I could get. We went into the cookie-cutter plastic version of Busch Stadium (a la PIttsburgh, Philly and the open-the-following-year Riverfront) as early as we could, and likewise stayed till they shooed us out.

      It quickly became an historic baseball. I remember Darrel Chaney was so eager he saw me with the ball, signed it, took it to a few other guys, and offered to sign it again both of the next two days. Almost all of the Reds and staff were more than accommodating. We hung out for a couple hours with Bench in the lobby (we were very close in age), and followed Joe Nuxhaul into the hotel bar, where he not only signed the ball, but offered to buy us a beer. That didn’t work out, sadly.

      But Alex Johnson steadfastly would not sign it. He would turn his back to me, whether it was at the ballpark or in the lobby. No freakin’ dice. Meanwhile, I had virtually everybody–Rose, Perez, Lee May, Helms, Tolan (who bought us breakfast), Woody Woodward, manager Dave Bristol, pitching coach/legend Harvey Haddix, etc. But three or maybe four times, AJ refused to sign.

      On the Sunday morning, as the Reds were vacating the Chase-Park and filing out to the team bus, I awaited the line and when I saw Alex, I said, “PLEASE, Alex, just sign this ball” bur he shouldered me aside (not violent, but then not NOT…). The majestic Tony Perez (who was right behind him) quickly clapped a hand on Johnson’s shoulder, and with a pinch that looked like a Vulcan squeeze, held him and said, quite forcefully, “Sign the baseball, Alex”.

      AJ grabbed the ball and my pen, and etched his name INTO the baseball with such force that the horsehide was torn and the pen (when handed back to me) was broken at the joint where the two halves met. But I got his signature.

      I’ll never know if there was something we did to tick him off, but I’m guessing it was not personal–at least from our side. H

      BTW, his brother Ron was a star running back at MIchigan and then again for the New York Giants. To our scrawny Midwest selves, he looked like a heavyweight boxer, and his attitude was menacing to say the least.

      He was a solid hitter with surprisingly medium power for such a big guy, but his short, quick stroke surely effected high-contact ratio over distance hitting. In short, very disciplined for a raging bottle of wacko fury. As a fielder, he consistently was one of the very worst I’ve ever seen.

      EPILOGUE: The above-described baseball is a true and real thing. In the mid-70s, I coached a LIttle League team in West Liberty, Iowa that included my nephew Andy as catcher. Of course, his hero was John Bench, so the Christmas when he was 11, I gave him the ball.

      FAST FORWARD: In the early-2000s, my nephew confessed that he had played with the baseball (with over 29 1969 Reds-related signatures), then had had second thoughts, and finally attempted to re-trace the signatures himself. He gave it back to me. It was a mess, with wobbly, smeary attempts to recreate the precious names. I still have it, and if the ball is not worth as much as it might have been, the story is one of the best true ones I have.

      And Alex Johnson’s furiously-applied John Hancock–with it’s deep ‘engraving’–is the closest to its original of all of those signings.

      PLEASE, Rest in Peace, Alex–ya poor, tormented crackpot nutjob…

  2. that is an awesome tribute and recap Bill

    Thanks

  3. RIP Alex Johnson.

    My memories are twofold. Johnson for Simpson was one of Howsam’s best Reds trades.

    And Johnson/Ruiz for McGlothlin, Borbon, and Gesihert was another one of them. Borbon was a superb RP for the next decade. McGlothlin was a good SP for several years. And Geishert was part of the trade to SF that brought George Foster to the Reds.

    1968-69-70 were probably Johnson’s best years in MLB.

  4. I was pretty young at the time, but my recollections of Alex Johnson were positive. He sure could hit.

    His trade brought one of my favorite players in Pedro Borbon to the Reds.

  5. Carl Morton was 1970 ROY, Carbo was 2nd that year. Also, Wayne Simpson was tied for 4rth.

    Some really great Borbon memories, Mr Rubber Arm. And not afraid to mix it up in any bean-brawls.

    • Carbo was selected ROY by the Sporting News, which was the Baseball Bible at the time, but you’re right, officially, it was Carl Morton.

    • This is all done as silly fun, because if Robinson hadn’t been traded, things would have been different. So, don’t take this as a serious analysis. But the Reds also got useful players from trading Milt Pappas to Atlanta – Clay Carroll, Woody Woodward, and Tony Cloninger. So, about 10 years after the trade, the 1975 World Champions still had 3 major players whose coming to the Reds could be traced to the Robinson trade – Carroll, Borbon, and Foster. Others have mentioned a number of players who also were contributors to success in the late 60s/early 70s. This doesn’t mean I’d advocate trading Robby, but it fun to look out and think about.

      • Howsam was one heckuva trader.

        His Best 6 Trades may have been:

        68 Pappas/Davidson/Johnson for Carroll/Woodward/Cloninger
        69 Johnson & Ruiz for McGlothlin/Borbon/Geishert
        71 Duffy & Geishert for Foster
        (BEST) 71 May/Helms/Stewart for Morgan/Geronimo/Billingham/Menke/Armbrister
        73 Locklear for Norman
        77 Zachry/Flynn/Henderson/Norman for Seaver

        His Worst 3 Trades may have been:

        72 McRae & Simpson for Nelson & Scheinblum
        73 Grimsley for Rettenmund
        (WORST) 76 Perez & McEnaney for Fryman & Murray

  6. I have been a Reds fan since 1955, and remember when Frank Robinson’s rookie year
    he hit 38 HR’s and 90 some RBI’s and a .290 BA in 1956. I was crushed when the Reds lost the pennant to the Cards in 1964, and then when Robbie was traded after the 1965 season
    to the Baltimore Orioles, where he went on to win the AL MVP. But I never knew that Alex Johnson and the other players you mentioned in the above comments had so much do with bringing key players to the Reds Big Red Machine of the 1970’s.

  7. I also was a Reds fan starting in 1955. The trade that broke my heart was Big Klu heading for the White Sox. Klu was everything a little boy adored. Anyone know who they got for him? ( I was only 7)

  8. according to baseball reference.com here is the trade details

    December 28, 1957: Traded by the Cincinnati Redlegs to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Dee Fondy.
    August 25, 1959: Traded by the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Chicago White Sox for Robert Sagers (minors) and Harry Simpson.

  9. I was sitting in right field in Atlanta at the age of 10 (I think) when Orlando Cepeda hit a towering fly ball to deep left. Alex Johnson went back to the wall and jumped. The ball went off his glove and Pete Rose caught it a foot off the ground. The fans had never seen anything like it. Pete talked about it in his book. AJ – not known for his defense- would always ask Pete where he was anytime a ball went off his glove- as if Pete was supposed to be there to bail him out. Pete also made a diving catch and had a home run along with 4 other hits in a double-header that day. I was hooked. Became a huge Reds fan.

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About Bill Lack

I've been a Reds fan since the late '60's, with my luck of being able to attend plenty of games at Riverfront during the BRM era. I was sitting in the Green Seats in the OF when Pete came home in '84 and was in the Red seats when Glenn Braggs reached over the fence in '90 to beat the Pirates. I have had many favorites from Jim Maloney to Johnny Bench, Barry Larkin, Adam Dunn, and Jay Bruce.

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Big Red Machine