Monday, February 19, 2007

Alex Johnson

Here is the third 1975 Yankee card in a row to be featured on Cardboard Gods, the fourth if you include the upper-left section of the Bobby Bonds Man of Constant Sorrow collage. Prior to this current streak, I’ve posted images of Yankee players just twice, once to hurl obscenities at Reggie Jackson and the other time to admit (not without some guilt and shame) that as a young child I reacted gleefully to the news of Thurman Munson’s death. It may then seem strange that I have been spending the last week or so meditating on Yankee players to such a level of autohypnosis that I eventually went so far as to imagine the infamous Yankee cap insignia as being a doomed couple’s last perfect dance. In general, the interlocking NY insignia has an effect on me akin to that of Beethoven on Alex DeLarge after he undergoes his "treatment" in A Clockwork Orange. But the truth is I wasn’t born with this revulsion. Not until 1976, when Graig Nettles and Mickey Rivers ganged up on Bill Lee and maimed his pitching arm during a Piniella-the-Gorilla-instigated bench-clearing war with my team, the Red Sox, did I begin to hate the New York Yankees. This hatred grew exponentially over the next couple years, and, on October 2, 1978, became just about as permanent a part of the much-doctored Josh Wilker baseball card as anything can be.

But I am rediscovering that there was a brief time when the Yankees were just another team to me. I was seven years old when I obtained this Alex Johnson card, just beginning to get into baseball, and had not even been alive the last time they’d won anything. I had begun perusing a baseball encyclopedia given to me and my brother by my uncle, but, too young even to know about the Fisk-Munson melee in 1973, I hadn’t yet been driven by any wounding or enraging current event to meticulously study the long history of Yankee domination over the Red Sox. I didn’t hate the Yankees. I didn’t hate anybody.

I certainly didn’t hate Alex Johnson. Why would I? He was just some guy on some team. Everything about Alex Johnson’s 1975 card, from his sloppily doctored uniform and cap to the background of blurry inconsequentiality to his expression of slightly bemused resignation, seems to sigh the words "just passin’ through." Like Rudy May and Cecil Upshaw, Alex Johnson had come to the Yankees in the middle of the previous season, and, like his two just passin’ through teammates, he’d move on to another team by the time the Yankees started winning pennants again. For the Yankees he’d make no impact, leave no mark.

I wonder who will remember Alex Johnson. Though he won a batting title, in 1970, he may have been the most anonymous player ever to have done so. The year-by-year statistics on the back of his card show that batting title year as well as a handful of other good and even very good years, but they also reveal constant movement—two seasons with the Phillies, two with the Cardinals, two with the Reds, two with the Angels, one with the Indians, one season and most of the second with the Rangers, then 28 at-bats with the Yankees. After this card came out, he lasted one more season with the Yankees then spent his final year in Detroit.

I envision baseball nostalgia as something like a baggage claim carousel. At the baggage claim carousel of baseball nostalgia for the years in which Alex Johnson was just passin’ through, Phillies fans grab Johnny Callison, Cardinals fans snag Dal Maxvill, Reds fans snap up Vada Pinson, Angels fans corral Jim Fregosi, Indians fans and Rangers fans fight over Buddy Bell and Toby Harrah, Yankee fans deposit Bobby Bonds in the lost-and-found while looking for Bobby Murcer, and Tigers fans gleefully snare The Bird.

Meanwhile, a sturdy, duct-taped, well-traveled Hefty bag keeps going round and round on the conveyer belt untouched. Who will claim Alex Johnson, right-handed line-drive-smasher-for-hire?


Anonymous pete said...

During my pre- and lower-school days, the Mets so owned New York that I was barely aware of the Yankees' existence, except from the occasional Jake Gibbs or Jim Lyttle who would show up in a pack of cards. My family and friends were all Mets fans.

Shortly thereafter, with the emergence of the fiendish Steinbrenner and signing of Catfish Hunter they began their next dastardly march toward world domination and it became clear that we would quickly learn what we know now.

The Yankees were EVIL.

Their fans were worse.

There was no Sanctuary.

'Twas ever thus...

4:22 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

Alex Johnson had a rep as a clubhouse cancer that rivaled his contempo,Dick Allen. I remember that Yankees Red Sox fight. It was on TV (which wasn't always the case for games inthat era.) For whatever reason, I never minded Piniella. But I couldn't stand any of the other Yankees.

4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the writing here, but this entry is just plain lazy.

As this link shows (a link easily found via Google),

Alex Johnson had anything but a forgettable career. After he retired, I think that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

6:05 PM  
Blogger Josh Wilker said...

Hey Anonymous,

Thanks for the feedback. I guess my thing is to come at this stuff from a pronounced subjective point of view, in this case the point-of-view of a kid who had not yet learned any of the back-story about Alex Johnson (which I've since learned, at least to some extent). It's more important to me for the most part in these essays to Google my own memory than Google the internet (although I generally do that with these posts, too, and perhaps I should have done that here, though I don't know if it would have changed anything). I still think he's got to be at least in the conversation about the least-known batting champions, and I also think his itinerant career is going to make him more obscure than a comparable player who stuck around long enough for hometown fans to build an attachment to him.

6:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alex Johnson's career wasn't as forgettable as, say Cecil Upshaw's, but he's more anonymous than most batting title winners, as Josh wrote.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Josh Wilker said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Josh Wilker said...

There's not really enough chatter here to actually call it a discussion, but I just have to say that even to have a fraction of a discussion develop regarding the relative anonymity of baseball players of the mid- to late-1970s (e.g., Cecil Upshaw vs. Alex Johnson) is very, very pleasing to me. Even the fact that there's not that much chatter, that it's not really a discussion, is pleasing. It suggests a near-empty stadium, a few lone figures scattered throughout the stands, a game of no import, players few if any will remember.

It feels like home to me.

I am inspired by this feeling, and am now considering the establishment of the negative image of the Hall of Fame (cue the heraldic kazoos)...

The Hall of Anonymity.

And just to bring this back in the meandering direction of the not-quite-discussion, I think "anonymous" is right (and who would know better than he?): Alex Johnson is not worthy of a Etch-a-Sketch plaque in The Hall of Anonymity. Maybe he could appear, blurrily, with Pete Runnels, Billy Goodman, and others that, fittingly, I cannot think of right now (and am too lazy to look up), in a special exhibit on little-known batting champs.

p.s. When I was younger, possibly even into high school, I thought "Anonymous" was the actual name of a prolific poet from antiquity.

2:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Josh. Put I would have been nowhere without the writings of Ibid. He spoke to me more than any of the others.

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My no-talent brother Alan Smithee has been riding on my coattails far too long.

11:07 AM  
Anonymous Mook said...

I remember Alex Johnson. He was a can't miss talent with the Phils who missed in Philly. His stint in California was maked by clubhouse fights and he made national news when he pulled a gun on the equally legendary and forgotten (except in Philadelphia-another story) Chico Ruiz. As Jon pointed out, he was viewed as a clubhouse cancer at the time. He also was the brother of Giants Running back Ron Johnson, who had a few good years.

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