Alex Johnson: The Detroit Tigers’ Forgotten Batting Champion

Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera is now closing in on his first batting title with the Rangers’ Michael Young and Boston’s Adrian Gonzalez nipping at his heels within striking distance.

It may very well come down to the last game of the season as it did for Detroiter and former Tiger Alex Johnson in 1970.

As a member of the California Angels, on the last game of the season Johnson captured two hits to pass Red Sox star Carl Yastrzemski .3289 to .3286 to win the batting crown. However the closest batting race in major league history occurred in 1945 when George “Stuffy” Stirnweiss defeated Chicago’s Tony Cuccinello by a margin of .000087.

Although born in Montana, Johnson moved to Detroit as a small boy and grew up with Willie Horton as the two were teammates on the Northwestern High baseball team.

Johnson, whose brother Ron became a star football player for U of M and the New York Giants, turned down a football scholarship at MSU and instead signed a baseball contract with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1961, the same year Horton signed with the Tigers.

Johnson first arrived in the majors with the Phillies in July of 1964 where he hit .303 in 43 games as Philadelphia experienced one of the greatest collapses in baseball history when they lost the pennant in the last week of the season.

Alex Johnson was ripped at 6 feet 205 pounds and earned the nickname “Bull” due to his powerful physique. He was always a very solid hitter and had a strong arm but his play in the outfield left little to be desired. He was often known to be surly and uncommunicative with his teammates which probably explains why the fine hitter played for eight different teams in 13 big league seasons. (Philadelphia, St. Louis, Cincinnati, California, Cleveland, Texas, New York Yankees, and the Tigers.)

Let’s just say Alex marched to the beat of a different drummer.

Dick Allen, a teammate of Johnson’s in Philly wrote of Johnson in his 1989 autobiography Crash: “Why don’t you hear his name today? I’ll tell you why. Because he called everybody ‘dickhead.’ To Alex Johnson, baseball was a whole world of dickheads. Teammates, managers, general managers, owners. Alex would say, ‘How ya doin’ dickhead? Just like that. The front office types would take it personally.”

Johnson, who was a member of the World Champion Cardinals in 1967, was suspended and fined several times while playing for the Angels during his batting title season mainly for failing to run out ground balls. During one spring training game he spent a hot day in left field by moving with the shadow of the light tower rather than playing in his proper defensive position.

Following the 1975 season with the Yankees Johnson was given his unconditional release. In the off season Tiger GM Jim Campbell decided to take a chance on the 33 year old veteran and signed him to a one year contract for the Bicentennial season that would feature the heroics of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.

Campbell said: “We’re banking on the fact that Alex is playing in his hometown. That was always something I noticed about him anytime he came here to play-he’d always bear down.”

(Willie Horton once told me that during that season he once walked into the Tiger Stadium clubhouse and found Johnson setting up an intricate train set that wove its way through the locker room)

Johnson ended up playing 125 games for the Tigers and hit .268 but was let go at the end of the season which would be his last in the major leagues. He then played briefly in Mexico before returning to Detroit to run and eventually take over his father’s truck repair and leasing company.

Johnson still lives in Detroit in relative obscurity, an almost forgotten batting champion.

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About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.