Wednesday, October 19, 2016

“Sweet” Lou Johnson’s 1965 Redemption

It is my hope that long time Dodger fans like James O’Berry will forgive me for failing to acknowledge Lou Johnson last month.  Johnson, a former Negro League player born September 22, 1934 in Lexington, Kentucky; after many years in the minor leagues surprisingly emerged to help the Los Angeles Dodgers win the 1965 World Series.     

The Dodgers began the 1965 National League baseball season with the hope of doing better than the tied for sixth showing of the previous year.  The team wanted to resurrect the caliber of play that netted them the 1963 World Series Championship.  However, when their two-time National League Batting Champion outfielder Tommy Davis broke his ankle that spring, the chances of achieving their goal seemed remote.  In response to Davis’ injury, the team brought up Lou Johnson from their Spokane AAA minor league team.   The Dodgers had traded pitcher Larry Sherry, its 1959 World Series Championship Most Valuable Player, to the Detroit Tigers at the end of the 1964 season for Johnson.  They were the fifth Major League team of his baseball career.

Although the all-white face of Major League baseball began adding color after Jackie Robinson erased the “invisible color line” in 1947, African American and dark-skinned Latino players were confronted with racially prejudiced and discriminatory attitudes.  Unless they were extremely more talented than their white counterparts, they lingered in the team’s minor league system.  There were limits (1 – 3) as to the number of them on a ball club as Major League team owners were afraid of alienating white fans.  This is what Louis Brown Johnson faced after being signed off the Kentucky State University campus by the New York Yankees in 1953.

Johnson responded to what he encountered in playing professional baseball with anger and got the reputation, fair or not, as a player with a “bad” attitude.  After short stints in the minor league systems of the Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates, he signed with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1955.  Negro League baseball by then had become only a remnant of its former self.  The best players had been stripped by Major League teams and young African American talented prospects bypassed it going directly to white organized baseball.   Observing Johnson's potential, Monarchs’ manager Buck O’Neil advised him to channel his anger in ways to become a better player.  Through the signing of Gene Baker and Ernie Banks a few years earlier, the Chicago Cubs had developed a pipeline with the Monarchs.  Before the next season Johnson along with fellow Monarchs George Altman and JC Hartman were signed by the Cubs.

On April 17, 1960, Johnson made his Major League debut in the Cubs’ 14 innings 4 – 3 loss to the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park.  He appeared in only 34 games and they traded him to the Los Angeles Angels after season.  With the Cubs having superstar Ernie Banks, George Altman, Billy Williams, and newly signed prospect Lou Brock, they saw Johnson as expendable.  The Angels sent him back to the minor leagues and then in a trade on to the Milwaukee Braves.  In 1962, Johnson hit .282 in 61 games for the Braves.  However, it appeared he became a victim of the numbers game again.  With superstar Henry Aaron, Mack Jones, Lee Maye, Tommie Aaron, and Amado Samuel on the team’s roster along with hot prospect Rico Carty in the minor league system, the Braves traded Johnson to the Detroit Tigers in 1963.

Why would the Dodgers turn to what appeared as nothing but a journeyman outfielder after Davis’ injury.  Despite his controversial attitude, Major League scouts still viewed Lou Johnson as a good hitting outfielder.  In each of the seven minor league years he played over 100 games, five seasons at the AAA level, he hit over .300 and averaged 14 home runs.  Also, Johnson still played the game with an enthusiasm and a flair that brought him the nickname, “Sweet Lou”.

The Dodgers gamble on Johnson paid off as he took advantage of what may have been his last opportunity to showcase his baseball talent.  Not a high octane power hitting team, the Dodgers built a winning formula around speed on the base paths, clutch hitting, and solid defense supporting the excellent pitching of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale; both now in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.  It became a perfect fit for Johnson.  In 131 games, he tied for the team lead in home runs (12), third in RBI (59), and fourth in batting average (.259).  For baseball sabermetric geeks, he led team in slugging percentage (.391) and tied for third in OPS (.706).  Also importantly for the Dodgers, Johnson stole 15 bases, placing third behind teammates Willie Davis (25) and Maury Wills (a league leading 94).  His enthusiasm inspired the club.  I remember seeing news footage of him broadly smiling and clapping his hands circling the bases after hitting a key home run as the Dodgers went 20 – 7 in September to win the National League pennant.

In the team’s four games to three World Series triumph over the Minnesota Twins, Johnson hit .296 with eight hits and four RBI.  His second home run of the fall classic came in the 4th inning of Game Seven giving Sandy Koufax all the runs he needed in beating the Twins 2 – 0 and making the Dodgers 1965 World Series champions.

Proving it not an aberration, Lou Johnson hit .272 the next season with 17 home runs and 73 RBI as the Dodgers again won the National League pennant.  However, they lost the World Series in four straight games to the Baltimore Orioles.  After he hit .270 with a team leading 11 home runs in 1967, the Dodgers traded Johnson to the Chicago Cubs.  After two more trades, to the Cleveland Indians in 1968 and then to the California Angels in 1969, Johnson’s baseball career ended.  In 17 years of professional baseball, the 35 year old had played with eight Major League teams.  In recent years, Lou Johnson has worked in the Dodgers’ Community Relations Department.
One definition of redemption is the state of being converted into something of value.  The baseball career of “Sweet” Lou Johnson was not only one of endurance and determination, but also redemption.  After 13 years of feature appearances in the baseball trade section of newspaper sport pages, Johnson got redemption in 1965.  No, he did not have superstar type hitting statistics.  But he proved to be something of great value for the Dodgers that helped them become World Series champions.

To learn more about the Negro League baseball era, read “Last Train to Cooperstown:  The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”.  To order go to (