The Cardinals thought so highly of Alex Johnson that they traded two all-star infielders, first baseman Bill White and shortstop Dick Groat, to acquire him and then told Lou Brock to shift outfield positions to accommodate the heralded newcomer.
Johnson never fulfilled his potential with St. Louis. Instead of joining Brock and Curt Flood as an outfield regular, Johnson got demoted to the minors in his first Cardinals season and then backed up Roger Maris in his second and last year with St. Louis.
This is the story of the star-crossed Cardinals career of Alex Johnson, who died Feb. 28, 2015, at age 72 in Detroit.
At 21, Johnson debuted in the big leagues with the 1964 Phillies. He hit .296 in two seasons with Philadelphia.
Bob Howsam, the Cardinals’ general manager, envisioned Johnson as an ideal fit to join Brock and Flood in forming a fleet, productive St. Louis outfield.
On Oct. 27, 1965, the Cardinals dealt White, Groat and catcher Bob Uecker to the Phillies for Johnson, catcher Pat Corrales and pitcher Art Mahaffey.
Howsam paid a hefty price. In eight years with the Cardinals, White was a five-time all-star who hit .298 and won the Gold Glove Award six times. In three years with St. Louis, Groat was a two-time all-star who batted .289. Both were key contributors to the Cardinals’ World Series championship season in 1964.
“We expect Johnson to hit the long ball for us,” Howsam told The Sporting News. “Playing everyday instead of just against left-handed pitchers, he may even surpass White in long-ball hitting over the full season.”
Said Cardinals vice president Stan Musial, who was consulted by Howsam before the deal was made: “Over the long haul is what we’re thinking about. We’re trying to analyze our team better and it’s a switch to the youth system.”
The Cardinals believed Johnson would hit for a higher average and had more speed than Mike Shannon, who had been their right fielder in 1964 and 1965.
Johnson had hit .307 against left-handed pitching for the 1965 Phillies. He also hit .424 (14-for-33) in 11 games versus the Cardinals that season.
Move over, Lou
Soon after joining the Cardinals, Johnson reported to their Florida Instructional League camp at St. Petersburg and worked with manager Red Schoendienst and coach Dick Sisler.
“He has a better arm than I thought he did,” Schoendienst said. “His arm is adequate.”
The Cardinals decided to shift Brock from left to right and start Johnson in left, with Flood in center. Shannon was relegated to a reserve role.
“I know the Cardinals made a big deal to get Johnson, but all I want is a chance,” Shannon said. “… I think I can hit .300. I’m strong. I can run and I’ve got good power.”
Johnson hit .286 in spring training and opened the 1966 regular season as the everyday left fielder.
Johnson started each of the Cardinals’ first 20 games and hit .195. The Cardinals’ record was 8-12 and Johnson received part of the blame.
“It’s not the pitchers getting me out,” Johnson said. “I’ve been getting myself out. I’ve been going for the long taters.”
On May 8, 1966, the Cardinals played their final game at Busch Stadium, formerly Sportsman’s Park. Johnson had the last at-bat in the venerable ballpark, bouncing into a game-ending double play. Boxscore
Four days later, the Cardinals played their first game at the new Busch Stadium. Johnson started in left field and was 1-for-4 with a run scored. Boxscore
The Cardinals, though, had seen enough. On May 18, 1966, they sent Johnson to Class AAA Tulsa and called up outfielder Bobby Tolan. Brock returned to left field and Shannon took over in right.
In 25 games with the Cardinals, Johnson batted .186 with two home runs.
Wrote The Sporting News: “Something had to be done to divert attention from that White-Johnson deal … Johnson appeared overmatched in his first opportunity at a regular job. He has plenty of raw talent and good speed. There is considerable hope for him, especially if he can develop the ability to learn from coaches both in the minors and in the majors. He has not adapted well to instruction and he has been easy to pitch to.”
At Tulsa, Johnson prospered under manager Charlie Metro, batting .355 with 104 hits in 80 games.
Carlton to Cubs?
After the 1966 season, Howsam agreed to a proposed deal to send Johnson, Tolan and pitchers Steve Carlton and Nelson Briles to the Cubs for outfielder Billy Williams, The Sporting News reported. The trade was vetoed by Cardinals “super brass,” who presumably included Musial.
“We needed a lefthanded-hitting outfielder and we went after (Billy) Williams,” Musial confirmed.
After the proposed trade was nixed, Howsam dealt third baseman Charlie Smith to the Yankees for outfielder Roger Maris. Soon after, Howsam resigned to become general manager of the Reds and was replaced by Musial.
In spring training, the 1967 Cardinals assigned hitting instructor Joe Medwick to work with Johnson. “I told him, ‘The only guy who is keeping you down is yourself. You’ve got all the equipment,’ ” Medwick said. “Alex was pulling too many pitches.”
Some thought Johnson and Maris would platoon in right field for the 1967 Cardinals. Maris, though, won the job outright, with Shannon replacing Smith at third base and Johnson taking a reserve outfield role.
In May 1967, The Sporting News reported that Johnson was “swinging at too many bad balls and fouling off too many good ones.”
According to the magazine, Musial “had tried hard to deal Johnson to an American League club, but there were no takers.”
Johnson hit .223 with one home run in 81 games for the 1967 Cardinals, who won the National League pennant. He didn’t appear in the World Series against the Red Sox.
After the Cardinals won the championship, Musial resigned in triumph and was replaced by Bing Devine, in his second stint as St. Louis general manager. Devine’s first trade was to send Johnson to the Reds for outfielder Dick Simpson.
In two seasons with the Cardinals, Johnson hit .211 in 106 games with three home runs, 18 RBI and a dismal .258 on-base percentage.
“Alex just might put everything together one of these days and become quite a ballplayer,” Schoendienst said after the trade.
Red was right
Reunited with Howsam and Metro (who had become a Reds scout), Johnson blossomed. He hit .313 with 146 RBI in two seasons with Cincinnati.
Traded to the Angels, Johnson was the 1970 American League batting champion, hitting .329.
Still, his career continued to be marred by controversy and accusations of an indifferent attitude.
Said Cardinals coach Dick Sisler: “The tag on Johnson is that he will not accept advice from a manager or a competent coach. He easily could have become a great Cardinal player, but he showed no interest.”
In 13 years with the Phillies, Cardinals, Reds, Angels, Indians, Rangers, Yankees and Tigers, Johnson batted .288 with 1,331 hits.
Previously: Bill White: We thought Lou Brock deal was nuts
Previously: How Charlie Metro miffed Stan Musial