Editor: This is the third installment of a season-long series by our resident Reds historian, John Ring. The series will examine the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Cincinnati Reds, a team on the brink (of huge success) playing during a year that it seemed the world was on the brink. Enjoy!
Alex Johnson played for two short years in Cincinnati. They were good years for Alex. He batted over .300 both seasons, was a brief part of the beginning of the Big Red Machine and caused no problems for the Reds. Most people remember Alex Johnson — if they remember him at all — for the turmoil he created with the California Angels after he was traded there from Cincinnati. Few remember that at his peak, he was one of the best hitters in baseball.
On the field, Alex was intimidating and had great but unharnessed talent. Off the field, Alex didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t womanize. To tackle Alex Johnson– the kind of player he was, the kind of person he was, is virtually impossible. And it can’t be done quickly, or easily.
Before the 1968 season started, the Cincinnati Reds were in the market for an outfielder. They had lost Frank Robinson and Tommy Harper in trades the previous two years. And, as all Reds fans know, the Robinson trade to Baltimore for Milt Pappas, Dick Simpson, and Jack Baldschun after the 1965 season was an unmitigated disaster.
Cincinnati still had Vada Pinson in centerfield and Pete Rose moved from second base to left field but their depth was lacking. New general manager Bob Howsam landed Mack Jones, a veteran outfielder who had a decent lefthanded bat, but Howsam was still in the hunt for another outfielder.
Howsam looked back to St. Louis, where he came from before landing the Reds GM position. He looked hard at Alex Johnson, an athletic and talented player who had never gotten on track with the Cardinals. Howsam knew he was a below average fielder but thought he could bring some offensive punch to the team. It didn’t take much to trade for Alex; Howsam dispatched Simpson to St. Louis.
When the trade was announced, Jim Toomey, the Cardinals PR director phoned Cincinnati Post sportswriter Earl Lawson. “Earl,” said Toomey, “I just want you to know that when Alex Johnson says the word ‘mother’, he’s exhausted half of his vocabulary.”
Johnson was originally drafted by the Phillies and was destroying Triple-A pitching in Little Rock when Philadelphia called him up in 1964 at the age of 21. He platooned for two years with the Phillies in right field with Wes Covington and put up modest numbers but certainly showed potential. The Cardinals eagerly traded for him, giving up two starters (Dick Groat and Bill White) in the deal. St. Louis thought it was another Lou Brock kind of a steal, similar to when they traded sore-armed Ernie Broglio to the Cubs for Brock.
It never worked out by The Arch. Johnson got off to a horrible start at the plate and was sent packing back to Triple A in 1966. When he returned to St. Louis, he got into a scuffle with Bobby Tolan and displayed a bad attitude, walking out of team meetings and payed little or no attention to advice. Alex was aloof and distant. He never got off the bench in the 1967 World Series against Boston.
His stock with the Cardinals had bottomed out. Two years earlier, St. Louis traded two starters for him; to get him off their roster they took— Dick Simpson.
Johnson reported to the Reds in 1968 and proceeded to win the starting position in left field; Rose was on the move again, this time to right field. Despite a slow start at the plate –Johnson was a notoriously slow starter every season — Reds Manager Dave Bristol stuck with him and it paid off. Bristol put Johnson in left field and left him alone.
Alex came alive at the plate. In 149 games, he batted .312 with an OBP of .342 and 3.1 WAR. He didn’t show much power (just two home runs) but he knocked in 58 runs. Alex Johnson was a big man: 6’2”, 200 pounds, and muscular. He was an intimidating presence whose nickname was ‘Bull.’ Sometimes, Johnson would use a 43-ounce bat and routinely took batting practice just 40’ away from the pitching mound instead of 60’ 6”. His bat speed was incredible.
So was his foot speed—he was clocked at 3.8 seconds running from home plate to first base. “The fastest I’d ever seen,” said Phillies Manager Gene Mauch. Still, he was a poor base runner and Johnson committed 14 errors (his other nickname was “Iron Hands”) in the outfield during the ’68 season. He also wasn’t selective at the plate, walking just 16 times in over 500 plate appearances.
Lawson wrote that Alex Johnson was the only Reds player he was ever physically intimidated by. And this was from a World War II veteran who had a couple scrapes with Johnny Temple and Pinson over the years. When Johnson took off in 1968, Sport magazine asked Lawson to do a feature story on Johnson, two thousand words. Lawson knew that was going to be a challenge since Johnson seldom said anything to anybody and had an obvious dislike of sportswriters. He approached Johnson from the angle of Bristol just putting him in left field and leaving him alone, thinking that Alex would praise the Reds manager for sticking with him.
That approach didn’t work. “Basically,” replied Johnson, “all those mothers — are the same.”
Alex Johnson had another solid season in 1969 and his power increased, hitting 17 home runs. His batting average also went up (.315) and so did his RBI’s (88). Alex Johnson was now one of the best hitters in baseball. More than that, there was no controversy with Johnson while he played in a Reds uniform. The Alex Johnson trade engineered by Howsam was clearly one of the best ones he made. They got Alex Johnson for Dick Simpson?
By all accounts, his Reds teammates got along fine with Alex. Lawson wrote about one time at an airport, Tommy Helms had a huge garment bag he had packed that was extremely heavy. “Here,” Tommy said to Alex as he dropped the bag at Johnson’s feet. “You carry it. You’re stronger than me.”
Johnson grinned and carried it. Lawson was shocked and wondered if Johnson had any thoughts of creating mayhem in his mind. But Alex liked Tommy Helms. And the feeling was mutual. “Alex was just Alex,” said Helms, the Reds second baseman in 1968. “We got along fine. I met his whole family. Alex would give it to you but I gave it right back to him and he was fine.”
“You wouldn’t find a better teammate than Alex,” said Reds pitcher George Culver. “Oh, he’d jerk your chain. He would say some things. But it was all talk. He wouldn’t shake hands after hitting a home run. He’d just run his elbow into you. We all knew Alex would dish it out and we would give it back to him. He was fine with us.”
“I remember once at Crosley Field, Juan Marichal hit him on the batting helmet with a fastball and Alex went down,” said Helms. “We went out to check on him. And after a minute, Alex got up and said, ‘The lights here must be bad, I didn’t even see that ball.’”
Before the 1970 season, Howsam needed pitching desperately and Alex was expendable. Bernie Carbo and Hal McRae were a pair of outfielders that were on the verge of making it to the major leagues from the Reds farm system. Howsam traded Alex to the California Angels (along with Chico Ruiz) for starting pitcher Jim McGlothlin and relievers Pedro Borbon and Vern Geishert.
The trade immediately helped both teams. Johnson won the batting title in 1970 with the Angels with a .332 average. McGlothlin hit the ground running for the Reds but was slowed down by injuries. He still won 14 games in 1970 for the Big Red Machine despite taking a line drive off the knee and another off his forearm.
But it wasn’t long before Johnson and Angels Manager Lefty Phillips clashed. Phillips benched Johnson for not running out a ground ball during a game twice during spring training and in 1971 it got worse.
By the end of June, Johnson had been benched five times and fined 29 times, He berated sportswriters to the point where they wrote a letter to Angels GM Dick Walsh to stop Johnson from interfering when they interviewed Johnson’s teammates. Ruiz, who was Godfather to Johnson’s adopted daughter, bore the brunt of Johnson’s verbal abuse. “He kicked around Chico Ruiz a lot,” said Walsh, “but he left the other players alone.”
An exasperated Phillips finally called a team meeting and told his players Johnson would never play for him again. The team broke out in applause. But when Phillips reversed his decision days later, the Angels were furious.
Then in a bizarre incident, Johnson accused Ruiz of pulling a gun on him in the clubhouse. Ruiz denied the altercation. Walsh backed Ruiz. Later at an arbitration hearing, Walsh admitted he had lied but “the gun wasn’t loaded.”
Walsh traded Johnson to the Indians after the 1971 season. Alex drifted from team to team after that. Two things stand out about his final years in baseball; his skills had deteriorated and the controversial incidents stopped.
Alex Johnson died in Detroit on February 28, 2015 from complications with cancer. Sports Illustrated interviewed him in 1998 and Johnson expressed no regrets about his baseball career and was happy with his life in Detroit, running his father’s automotive service company. Some have speculated that Alex Johnson had a mental illness when he played baseball. Major League Baseball, like many businesses, was ill-equipped in 1970 to deal with something like that. The vocal outbursts, the refusal to listen to advice, the loafing on the field may be tied to that. I’m neither qualified nor smart enough to give an opinion on Alex Johnson’s mental state.
And it wasn’t until 1971 that Alex played the race card, stating that once he realized he was black, he was dealt with under different standards. Ruiz confronted him once on the issue of race saying, “The white guys on this team may not like you but I’m as black as you are and I can’t stand you.”
Would Alex Johnson’s career have blossomed if he hadn’t been traded to the Angels? Was Dave Bristol the reason Johnson had no controversy for two years in Cincinnati? Did Johnson relate to Bristol better because of the skipper’s young age (34) instead of dealing with old-time gamers like Gene Mauch, Red Schoendienst, and Lefty Phillips?
I think Earl Lawson sensed that but I have no way of proving it. That’s my theory too. And it wasn’t just Dave Bristol’s age. The Reds manager wasn’t afraid of a fight. His minor league track record in the Reds farm system certainly proved that. Bristol was a no-nonsense guy that didn’t back down.
I asked Dave Bristol about Alex Johnson. “Alex had a lot of ability,” said Bristol. “He could do anything on the field. He could run. He used a heavy bat and was strong. But I’ll say this: When the Reds traded for Alex, I didn’t anticipate any problems with him. None at all.
“If he didn’t do what I said, I took him out of the game. I’d change his defensive position in left field and if he wouldn’t do it, I’d send [reserve outfielder] Jimmy Stewart out there and replace him. I had no problems at all with Alex but if he didn’t listen to me, I’d pull him from the game.
“Alex played pepper with the bat boys, the 12- and 13-year-old kids we had. I don’t mean any disrespect to Alex, but that’s the way I treated him. I treated him like he was their age.”
“He was a hell of a car mechanic,” continued Bristol. “He’d work on the players’ cars. But as far as managing him, yes, I put him in left field and left him alone. Very much so. He was a good hitter. I’d see him get hit by pitches, he’d just shake it off.”
“Bristol would take you out of the game if you didn’t listen to him,” said Helms. “He did that with any player. I’d see him pull Alex from left field, put in Stewart, and tell Alex to get out of the ballpark.”
“Alex came to the ballpark to hit,” added Helms, the Reds Rookie of the Year in 1966. “He didn’t work on his fielding. He’d carry his glove like a newspaper, folded under his arm. I’ll tell you this, pound for pound, Alex was one of the strongest baseball players I ever played with. He said to me once, ‘Tucker [Helms’ nickname], you hit when you can. I hit when I want to.’ But that was just Alex.”
In closing, one more Alex Johnson story. You’re gonna love this one. Alex Johnson had one of the all-time best quotes by a baseball player to a sportswriter. In 1969, after he smacked his 7th home run of the season against the Phillies in May, he was asked after the game about his newfound power by a sportswriter.
“Alex,” asked the reporter, “Last year you only had two home runs. This year, you already have seven. What’s the difference?”
“Five,” said Johnson, while walking away. The Reds locker room exploded in laughter.
I only saw Alex Johnson play twice for the Reds, both times in St. Louis. He did look like a big guy who took his hacks at the plate. He was a pure hitter, a slasher, a tough out. And he was a part of The Big Red Machine when it began. The Machine evolved and grew for the next seven years before those Reds won a World Series.
But in 1968– when it started– Alex Johnson was a big part of it.
John lives in Galesburg, Illinois and has been a Reds fan all of his life. He is a retired firefighter and a Veteran who served for 32 years but stays active at the local Humane Society. His favorite Reds players include Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Tony Perez, Eric Davis, and Bronson Arroyo. While writing, he frequently listens to the music of Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan. He is flanked in the photo by ever-loyal “Reptar.”