Special Disappointing Season Supplement – The 1971 California Angels
The 1970 California Angels were one of the better teams they put together since their founding in 1961. General Manager Dick Walsh and Manager Lefty Phillips molded promising young players they drafted and signed, and mixed them with some canny veterans acquired in deals, such as Chico Ruiz, Ken McMullen and Alex Johnson.
The Angels finished 86-76 on the year, in third place behind Minnesota, but as those Twins seemed to be aging, 1971 looked like a contending year.
Moving towards that goal, Walsh pulled the trigger on a huge deal, acquiring Tony Conigliaro from the Red Sox. Tony C seemed to be back on track after missing a season-and-a-half thanks to a severe beaning he took in 1967, ironically against the Angels.
In 1970, he hit 36 home runs in what probably was one of his best seasons of his career. Still only 26, there was a bright future ahead for him, and for the Angels.
Johnson and Jim Fregosi were the leading hitters of the 1970 Angels squad. Fregosi was the teams stalwart, breaking in with them as a 19-year old in 1961. He smacked 22 home runs and was one of the best shortstops in the American League defensively.
Johnson hit .329, stole 17 bases, and was named to the All-Star team. The Angels thought they won the deal with Cincinnati when they acquired him and Ruiz for Pedro Borbon and Jim McGlothin.
Walsh also traded for veteran centerfielder Ken Berry, who won the Gold Glove in 1970 while playing for the White Sox. Berry would provide solid defense for a team whose outfield needed an upgrade.
The infield was all under 30, and all with promise. Jim Spencer won a Gold Glove at first at age 22. Sandy Alomar was an All-Star and stole 35 bases, and McMullin provided power and steadiness at third.
Pitching was also a strength. Clyde Wright was the ace of the rotation, with 25-year old Andy Messersmith coming on strong, and young starters Tom Murphy and Rudy May showing a lot of promise. Veteran knuckler Eddie Fisher, Mel Queen, and early 20-somethings Dave LaRoche and Lloyd Allen were counted on to spell any starter that ran into trouble.
Manager Lefty Phillips seemed to have the pulse of his team as well, but he had a situation to handle in the clubhouse. Johnson, while talented, was a problem in the room. To the press and his teammates in the locker room he was mean, nasty, surly and obscene.
He also had big problems with the players’ “kangaroo courts”, and they fueled even more division between himself and his teammates.
On the field itself, he had a tendency to not run out grounders and loaf in the outfield. Bridges fined him many times in 1970, but when you hit .329 you’re forgiven for a lot of things.
It should be said that outside of the locker room, away from baseball, Johnson was one of the nicest, most considerate players in baseball. When he got to the stadium, though, mercurial isn’t a strong enough word for it.
As the Angels got ready for the season, there were signs that Johnson was going to be more of a problem. In one famous incident, he kept moving out of position in left field because he wanted to stay in the shadow of a light pole. “It was a hot day” was his excuse.
He still exhibited lackadaisical play and whatever the opposite of hustle is, especially on routine grounders. It seemed that all he wanted to do in baseball was hit, and then run, and if he wasn’t going to get a hit, he didn’t extend the effort.
When the bell rang for 1971, Oakland jetted out to a fast start, as the young players there were maturing into a dynasty. The Angels were in second on April 30, at 12-11. Johnson, hitting .277, was named player of the month by the press.
May…well, May was a problem, for the Angels and Johnson.
For the Angels, their offense went into the doldrums, only averaging a little more than three runs a game while giving up four. That led to an 11-16 record for the month, and a dip down to fourth place. Not what was expected of this team, at all.
For Johnson, though, it was rough, and his bad month affected the entire organization.
Johnson began to really loaf in the field, on offense and defense. He also was aloof in the clubhouse and in the dugout, to the point of just sitting there silently when not batting or playing the field, no matter what happened. He was in his own zone, disconnected from reality.
Phillips fined him repeatedly and benched him. In a loss against the White Sox, the alleged last straw was him not running out a grounder (normal for him) compounded with a total lack of effort on a fly ball to left that fell in for a hit. He was benched, again, but this time Phillips called the team together without Johnson and said that he would no longer play Johnson as long as he was manager.
Walsh, meanwhile, spoke to Johnson directly and defended him to the media, and instructed Phillips to put him back in the lineup. Phillips did as he was told, and the rest of the players lost all respect from him and Walsh.
Friction increased. Berry and Wright almost came to blows with Johnson. The outfielder also gave very curious statements to the press, blaming the team and defending his actions in a very nonchalant way.
Doomsday for this whole mess was June 13. Ruiz, a popular player, and one of the players that liked Johnson, was now being tormented by his friend to the point of verbal abuse. During a game, when both had pinch hit, Ruiz allegedly waved and pointed a gun at Johnson.
Walsh went into damage control and claimed there was no gun.
Johnson then went on the defensive, and blamed racial issues and his teammates for being against him. He was a very angry man when it came to race in baseball, and he definitely played in a still racially charged time. He played minor league ball in the south in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma, not known to be welcoming to players of color.
The system at the time was that blacks were either stars or in the minors, or so it seemed – there were no African-American subs or bench players as a rule. (At least that was the perception).
Still, Johnson was active with the team until June 24th, when he was benched again and then suspended without pay, indefinitely. Players knew he was hurt and angry but none even mentioned that he may need psychological help.
No one except the MLBPA, led by Marvin Miller. He filed a grievance regarding the suspension, and ultimately won the grievance, though the ruling placed Johnson on the disabled list for the rest of the year due to emotional issues.
During these hearings, Walsh admitted that Ruiz DID wave a gun, and thought it would be in the best interest of the team to lie about it to protect Ruiz. He also told lies to Johnson’s wife and to other players, and allowed the press to ridicule Johnson during this time. This all came out in the grievance hearing.
All of this obfuscated other issues the team had. First, catcher Jose “The Immortal” Azcue was holding out, and spent the year working construction instead of accepting what he thought was a lowball offer from Walsh. This led to an unstable catching situation where none of the three catchers tried by the team were adequate.
Spencer and McMullen, the power sources, slugged under .400, as did Johnson’s replacement in left, Tony Gonzalez. Berry slumped all year and lost his job for a while to rookie Mickey Rivers. Fregosi, Mr. Angel, was injured and slumping all year. Alomar barely had an OBP over .300 and only scored 77 runs in 739 plate appearances as a lead-off hitter. In fact, no player slugged over .400, and the team OBP was .290.
The worst was what happened to Conigliaro. Instead of being fully recovered from his beaning, he started to get headaches and double vision, again. He played in just 74 games and hit only four home runs with a .222 average before quitting. He later said he had symptoms in Boston in 1969 and 1970 but somehow played through them, but it got much worse in California.
The Angels finished last in runs scored in the AL, overshadowing the good work done by the rotation and the bullpen. Messersmith was a 20-game winner, and Allen, Fisher, LaRoche and Queen all had ERAs under 2.75 working out of the pen. Murphy was the hard-luck pitcher, compiling a 6-17 record even though his ERA was 3.77.
The whole mess led to a 76-86 final record. The aftermath wasn’t too pretty, either.
Right after the season, Walsh traded Johnson and a catcher to Cleveland for three players. Soon after, Walsh was fired, as was Phillips. Walsh never worked in baseball again. Phillips became an Angels scout, but passed away due to an asthma attack in June of 1972.
Fregosi was traded as well, though that worked out as one of the four players California got from him was some pitcher named Nolan Ryan.
Ruiz was killed in a car accident early in 1972, as the Angels franchise curse kept lingering.
Johnson moved from Cleveland, where he infuriated teammates again, to Texas. In Texas, he got new life as a DH and played reasonably well, but he then was traded to the Yankees when he clashed a bit with Billy Martin. When Martin went over to manage the Yankees in 1975, Johnson was waived soon after.
He played one more major league season for his hometown Detroit Tigers in 1976, then after retirement ran an auto repair shop and was seemingly much happier doing that than playing baseball.
The Angels didn’t have a winning record again until 1978.
California’s 1971 season was sad, tragic, and possibly avoidable in some ways. Baseball isn’t known for its friendly attitudes toward mental illness, but at least know they recognize it and try to help players (such as Zack Greinke) who come forward needing help. Had Johnson been diagnosed, and perhaps medicated (as much as they had medication in 1971 for these symptoms) the 1971 season may have had a happier ending.