This day in baseball history: Cardinals give up on Alex Johnson

On January 11, 1968, the world champion St. Louis Cardinals traded Alex Johnson to Cincinnati for Dick Simpson. The Cardinals had high hopes for Johnson when they obtained him, in effect, for aging stars Dick Groat and Bill White two years earlier. I discussed that trade here.

At that time, the Cardinals compared the deal to the one that had brought them Lou Brock. General manager Bob Howsam said that Johnson “has all the pluses to be an outstanding hitter. He can run, throw, and hit for both power and average. He is also powerfully built. He has a bright future ahead of him.”

The numbers backed up this praise. In 1962, playing for Miami in the Class D Florida State League, he hit .313 to win the batting title and led the league in outfield assists. In 1963, he was MVP of the Class A Pioneer League, hitting 35 home runs with 128 RBIs and a .329 batting average. In 1964, at age 21, he was hitting .316 with 21 home runs for Triple-A Little Rock when Philadelphia recalled him in late July.

For the Phillies that infamous year of the “phold,” Johnson batted .303 with four home runs in 109 at-bats. Then, in 1965, he batted .294 with eight homers in 262 at-bats.

Why did the Phillies trade one of the best young hitters in baseball for two players nearing the end of the line? For one thing, the two players — Groat and White — filled major holes for Philadelphia who hoped to make a run at the pennant that had eluded in 1964. In addition, though, manager Gene Mauch had become concerned about what he saw as Johnson’s lack of effort and poor attitude.

Johnson proved to be a total bust in St. Louis. He was the Cards’ starting left-fielder on opening day — Lou Brock having moved to right-field to accommodate him. A month into the season, with his batting average at .186 and with only two home runs, St. Louis demoted him to Triple A. And though he batted .355 with 14 home runs in 80 games there, the Cardinals did not recall him to the majors that season.

In 1967, the Cardinals obtained Roger Maris. The plan was to platoon Maris and Johnson. Management hoped that, facing mostly left-handers, Johnson would have a strong year and, by 1968 or 1969, become an everyday player and star.

But again, Johnson didn’t hit. He batted only .223 with one home run in 175 at-bats.

Johnson also proved to be a head-case. According to his SABR biography, he would ignore teammates who motioned to him to shift his position in the outfield. He did not run out ground balls. Late in the season, he had a brief tussle with Bobby Tolan, a young teammate who had supplanted him as the Cards’ fourth outfielder.

Things came to a head during the World Series. As Tim McCarver tells it, late in Game 6, with the Cardinals trailing, 8-3, Red Schoendienst asked Alex Johnson to pinch-hit. “Alex had never pinch-hit before, and Red sees Alex isn’t there,” McCarver recalled. “So he sends the batboy into the clubhouse to get Johnson, who has a bologna sandwich with mayonnaise going down both sides of his mouth, and he had some words for Red, profanity.”

Johnson’s message was that if he did not bat in the first inning, he did not bat in the eighth inning. “So the 16-year-old batboy runs back and says, ‘Mr. Schoendienst, Mr. Johnson is having a sandwich.”‘ Johnson never hit in the Series.

It’s likely that during the off-season, the Cards would have traded Johnson for a bologna sandwich, with or without the mayo. Instead, they traded him for Dick Simpson.

Simpson, born the year after Johnson, had once been a hot prospect too. In 1963, at age 18, he walloped 42 home runs for San Jose in the California League (Class C). Three years later, he hit 24 homers and batted .301 for Seattle in the Pacific Coast League (Triple A).

Simpson’s potential was such that, in December 1965, Cincinnati insisted he be included in the deal that sent Frank Robinson to Baltimore for Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun. Baltimore had just obtained Simpson in exchange for Norm Siebern, still a decent first baseman and pinch hitter.

Simpson struggled in Cincinnati. In 1966-67, he rarely started, getting only 138 at-bats total. His batting average for the two years combined was a hair under .250.

Simpson did flash a little of his trademark power in 1966, belting four home runs in 84 at-bats. However, the following year, he hit only one in 54.

Thus, there was a symmetry to the Johnson for Simpson swap. Both had flopped for two years after showing great promise earlier. The differences were (1) Johnson had previously been a productive major league hitter, Simpson had not, and (2) Johnson, unlike Simpson, had demonstrated a terrible attitude.

After the deal, Johnson was asked why things hadn’t worked out in St. Louis. He responded, “We disagreed on the way I should hit.” Asked how the team wanted him to hit, Johnson responded, “You’ll have to ask them; I didn’t pay any attention to what they told me.”

How did the trade work out? One-sidedly.

Simpson was batting .238 when the Cardinals traded him in mid-1968 to Houston for light-hitting Ron Davis. He ended the season at .194 and followed that with a .184 average in 1969, his last major league season.

Johnson, by contrast, batted over .300 in each of the first three years after the trade. Even so, I doubt the Cardinals regretted making the trade.

In the third of his successive plus-.300 years, 1970, Johnson led the league in batting average with a .321 mark. However, the league was the American, the Reds having traded him to the California Angels after the 1970 season.

Johnson’s batting average overstates his value as a hitter. He rarely walked and never developed into a big-time power hitter. The 17 home runs he hit for Cincinnati in 1969 represent his best total.

Johnson seemingly was able to stay on decent terms with management in Cincinnati. Reds manager Dave Bristol called him one of the most cooperative player on the team.

Even so, the Reds dealt him after two seasons. They had a strong replacement, Bernie Carbo, ready, and they received two quality pitchers, Jim McGlothlin and Pedro Borbon, in return. I don’t assume that Johnson’s attitude was a factor in the trade, but I don’t rule it out either.

Johnson’s attitude and behavior spiraled out of control with the Angels. You can learn the ugly details in his SABR bio.

The most famous incident occurred in 1971 when Chico Ruiz — Johnson’s teammate in Cincinnati and California and godfather to Johnson’s daughter — pulled a gun on him in the locker room. Johnson had taken to riding his one-time friend mercilessly.

A teammate was heard to comment, “If Chico did anything wrong, it was that he didn’t pull the trigger.”

Ruiz died in a car accident in February 1972. Johnson was one of the few ballplayers to attend the funeral.

There is little doubt that Johnson suffered from mental illness. That’s what Marvin Miller, who filed a grievance on Johnson’s behalf following the player’s suspension, believed.

The Angels traded Johnson after the 1971 season. Between 1972 and 1976, he played for Cleveland, Texas, the Yankees, and Detroit. He had some decent seasons at the plate but never hit .300 again.

Billy Martin managed Johnson in New York. His verdict:

I like him personally and I like him as a player. We never had a cross word. But I do make one demand of my players and that’s to run out all ground balls.

Alex Johnson didn’t run them out for Billy Martin any more than he did for Gene Mauch, Red Schoendiest, or a host of other managers during a bizarre 13-year career in which he played for eight teams, none for more than two years, and batted .288.

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