Obituary: Lou Johnson (1934-2020)

RIP to “Sweet” Lou Johnson, an outfielder for five different teams in his 8-season career and the man behind some 1965 Dodger heroics. He died days after his 86th birthday, on October 1 — other reports list the date of his death as September 30 or September 23. A cause of death was not listed, but it was reported that Johnson had been in poor health. He played for the Chicago Cubs (1960, 1968), Los Angeles/California Angels (1961, 1969), Milwaukee Braves (1963), Los Angeles Dodgers (1965-67) and Cleveland Indians (1968).

Johnson spent more than 40 years working for the Dodgers, both as a player and as part of the team’s community relations department. he picked up the nickname of “Sweet Lou” when he joined Los Angeles, thanks to his infectious and upbeat personality.

“Dodger fans will always remember his important home run in Game 7 of the 1965 World Series, when he was clapping his hands running around the bases,” said team president and CEO Stan Kasten. “Lou Johnson was such a positive inspiration at Dodger Stadium with our employees and our fans as well as throughout the community in the appearances he made on behalf of the organization.”

Louis Brown Johnson was born in Lexington, Ky., on September 22, 1934. Per the Lexington Herald-Leader, Johnson grew up in the South Lexington neighborhood of Pralltown and attended Dunbar High School. He played basketball there, because there was no baseball team. Johnson played baseball for the semi-pro Lexington Colts, but he really wanted to play basketball for Adolph Rupp at the University of Kentucky. Kentucky didn’t allow black players on the basketball team back then, so he went to Kentucky State instead. Johnson entered professional baseball when the Yankees signed him in 1953 and assigned him to the Olean Yankees of the Pony League.

Johnson spent seven full seasons in the minor leagues before he broke into the majors. As an 18-year-old, he batted under .200 with Olean and hit 3 home runs, but one of them was a grand slam. He was hit in the head with a pitch, ending his first season on an abrupt note. Johnson performed much better the following year, when he spent part of the season back home, playing for the Lexington Colts of the Mountain States League. As he moved around the minor leagues, he became a part of the Pirates organization. The Bucs released him in 1955, and he played briefly with the Kansas City Monarchs until the Chicago Cubs worked out a deal, acquiring both Johnson and George Altman in a single transaction.

Johnson didn’t have an easy road in the minors — literally. While playing for the Ponca City (Okla.) Cubs in 1956, a station wagon that also served as a team bus overturned on the way to a game in Muskogee. Johnson missed some time but suffered no major injuries, save for losing a piece of his ear. Johnson continued to develop into his 20s, and the flashes of power became more regular occurrences; he hit 18 homers in 1958 while splitting time with the Burlington Bees and Paris (Ill.) Lakers. He also stole a total of 39 bases for the two teams and won the Midwest League batting title, hitting .365 for Paris.

If you want to read more about Lou Johnson’s ear, I have a whole article about it.

Two 1965 World Series heroes: Sandy Koufax and Lou Johnson. Source: The Louisville Courier-Journal, July 6, 1980.

After Johnson spent 1959 batting well over .300 for San Antonio and Lancaster, the Cubs added him to the team’s roster, along with prospects Ken Hubbs and Sammy Drake. After a long stay in the low minors, Johnson was invited to the Cubs’ 1960 training camp and made the best of it. He batted over .300 and smashed a 350-foot homer off the Giants’ Stu Miller in an exhibition game.

Johnson noted that the Cubs started the 1960 season with 42 prospects at the rookie camp. At the end, he and Drake were the ones left standing. “I looked in the papers and saw all the outfielders the Cubs had… so many in front of me… and I was worried,” he said. “But I decided I’d try to show them all I had.”

His strategy worked. Cubs manager Charlie Grimm called him one of the big surprises of the camp. “He’s fought his way up with energy and competitive spirit,” Grimm said. “He never walks on a ball field. He’s always running.”

Johnson made the Cubs 1960 Opening Day roster, but he was injured early and relegated to a reserve/pinch-hitting role when he returned. Grimm was replaced by Lou Boudreau, and he seemed to favor veterans over rookies. Johnson batted .206 in two separate stints in Chicago. The Cubs traded Johnson to the Los Angeles Angels on April 1, 1961, for outfielder Jim McAnany. A couple of weeks later, the Angels shipped him to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League in exchange for Leon Wagner. Johnson had played all of 2 innings in left field for the Angels at the time of the deal.

Johnson hit .286 with 13 homers and 64 RBIs with Toronto and was acquired by the Milwaukee Braves after the ’61 season. He went back to Toronto and won the IL’s Player of the Month in June of 1962, hitting .326 for the month. The Braves brought him to the majors for his first significant playing time while demoting rookie Mack Jones, and Johnson hit .282 in 61 games, with a couple of homers, 13 RBIs and 6 stolen bases. He drilled 4 hits against the Giants on August 29, including a 2-run homer.

Despite the strong performance, the Braves traded him to Detroit, who traded him to Los Angeles, and the end result was that Johnson spent the next two seasons playing in the minors. He finished second in the Pacific Coast League in hitting in 1964, batting .328 with Spokane. He clearly had nothing to prove in the minors, but he never made the move up.

Lou Johnson grimaces in pain after breaking his ankle while sliding into home plate. Source: The Indianapolis News, April 28, 1967.

In the end, it took misfortune to give Johnson his big shot in baseball. Early in the 1965 season, Dodgers outfielder Tommy Davis broke his ankle, and Johnson was given the chance to replace him. In one of his first games, he was drilled in the head with a fastball and sent to the hospital for X-rays. “Well, it’s better than getting hit on the head in Olean,” he joked.

Eventually, the Dodgers gave him some starts, and Johnson started getting some hits. He had three singles and a double against Houston on May 19 and homered twice against the Braves on May 29. The second one broke a 2-2 tie, and Johnson celebrated by leaping into the air at every base and clapping his hands. “Why shouldn’t I?” he asked. “I’m my own best fan.”

By that point, he had firmly entrenched himself as the Dodgers’ starting left fielder. At the age of 31, Johnson was finally getting regular playing time. Johnson played in 131 games and batted .259 with 12 home runs and 58 RBIs. He also stole a career-high 15 bases. He was seemingly a part of every big Dodger moment that year. When Sandy Koufax threw a 1-0 perfect game against the Chicago Cubs on September 9, the Cubs’ Bob Hendley threw a 1-hitter. That hit was Johnson’s. He also walked in the bottom of the fifth inning, advanced to second on a Ron Fairly sacrifice, stole third and scored on a throwing error. The Dodgers moved past the Giants and into sole possession of first place on September 28 with a 2-1 win over Cincinnati. That win was made possible by a 12th-inning walkoff homer that Johnson hit off of Joey Jay.

Johnson saved his biggest heroics for the World Series against the Minnesota Twins. He batted .296 in the seven-game series and hit 2 of the team’s 5 home runs. The first was a solo shot in Game Four that padded a 7-2 win. The second came in the deciding Game Seven, which was a pitching duel between Koufax and Jim Kaat. Johnson led off the top of the fourth inning with a home run to break a 0-0 tie. The Dodgers scored another run that inning on a Fairly double and a Wes Parker single, and Koufax held the Twins to 3 hits in a 2-0 shutout.

“I’m here to stay,” he said after the Series. “I know [Tommy} Davis will be back next year, nut I’m going to play. You can be sure of that.”

Johnson had a career year in 1966, spending time in both right and left field as Dodgers manager Walt Alston tried to give his talented outfield corps playing time. Johnson slashed .272/.316/.414 with career highs in home runs (17) and RBIs (73). He also led all of baseball by getting hit with 14 pitches. The Dodgers won the NL pennant again but ran into a buzzsaw called the Baltimore Orioles pitching staff. They were eliminated in four games, but Johnson had 4 hits for a .267 batting average. That was the best batting average among all the Dodger starters.

Johnson became a key part of the Dodgers’ lineup because of someone else’s ankle injury. Ironically, it was his own leg injuries that put him out of the lineup. Johnson broke his left ankle sliding into home during a 6-0 win over Atlanta on April 27. His spikes got tangled in catcher Joe Torre’s shinguards. The injury kept him out of the lineup until June, and just when he started getting comfortable, he suffered an Achilles tendon injury in his left heel that limited his usage. He was good when he played, as he hit .270 with 11 homers. However, he was limited to 104 games and 371 plate appearances.

At the end of the 1967 season, the Dodgers traded Johnson back to the Chicago Cubs for second baseman Paul Popovich and outfielder Jim Williams. The Cubs had hoped that Johnson could shore up right field. It was a bad mix, however. Johnson hit .244 in 62 games before being traded to Cleveland at the end of June. He then blasted the Cubs for their treatment of him — specifically manager Leo Durocher and some of the team’s white Southern players.

“Those Southern players still don’t understand about the blacks and what this black athlete revolt’s all about,” he said after he was traded. “And you can’t tell me these very same guys aren’t the ones who stand on street corners in small towns in Georgia and Alabama and those places and call people like me ‘dirty ******.'”

Johnson recalled an incident on the day that Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated. He and Billy Williams were at the team hotel in San Antonio, waiting for the elevator. When the door opened up, Johnson saw catcher Randy Hundley and a couple other white teammates. Johnson and Hundley had some cordial verbal sparring matches in the past.

“I knew if I got on, Hundley would make some crack that I wouldn’t like and I’d have to drag him off and beat [the] hell out of him right there. So I told Billy we’d wait for another elevator. Wouldn’t you know, Hundley went and told Leo that I wouldn’t ride on the elevator with them.

“Black players now can do things that Jackie [Robinson] couldn’t do and say things Jackie couldn’t say. And I got things to say and I’m saying them,” he concluded.

Source: The LaCrosse Tribune, August 1, 1968.

Johnson played better in Cleveland than he had with the Cubs. However, his manager in Cleveland was Al Dark, who had been accused of racism in the past. The two got into a fight over Johnson being left out of a lineup and not in the dugout when he was needed to pinch hit. Johnson was fined and suspended, though he came back in time to deliver a game-winning pinch hit in the 12th inning on September 11, 1968. He lined a single off his old Dodger teammate, Ron Perranoski, for a 1-0 win. “I can’t think of a tougher hitter to stand up in that situation than Johnson,” Dark said afterward. “He’s hard to strike out, and he knows that strike zone.”

Between Chicago and Cleveland, Johnson batted a combined .251. He was traded to the California Angels on April 4, 1969 for outfielder Chuck Hinton. It was his second stint with the Angels, and he actually got an at-bat this time. He appeared in 67 games and ended up with a .203 average and 9 RBIs. He failed to provide the spark that the Angels were hoping, and he retired at the end of the season.

In 8 seasons, Johnson had a slash line of .258/.311/.389, with 529 hits. He hit 97 doubles, 14 triples and 48 home runs and drove in 232 runs. He was worth 8.1 Wins Above Replacement in his career and had a lifetime OPS+ of 103.

Right out of baseball, Johnson held a number of different jobs, including an assistant baseball coach and a PE teacher in Washington. He had used drugs like cocaine and greenies during his career, and the problem only got worse in retirement. He lost his World Series ring when he gave it to a Seattle drug dealer for collateral, and the man disappeared. Johnson got clean with the help of Dodgers legend Don Newcombe and an extended stay in a treatment center in Arizona. When he got out, he joined the Dodgers’ community relations team. He wasn’t one to tell other people what to do, but he was more than willing to tell his story — the highs and the lows — and let people make their best decisions based from there.

The Dodgers found out in 2001 that Johnson’s World Series ring was being auctioned on the Internet. Team president Bob Graziano paid $3,457 for it and gave it back to Johnson.

Though his work with the Dodgers, as well as an ambassador for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, kept him busy, Johnson returned home to Lexington frequently, and the town loved their hero. The city named a ballpark and a T-Ball league after him, and they dedicated a portion of a street near his childhood home as Lou Johnson Way in 2004. His family, including his 101-year-old mother, attended.

I found this story in a letter written to the Charlotte Observer by Pastor Charles Wilson in 1997, and I think it says a lot about the man. Pastor Wilson went to the Dodgers training camp with a friend’s family. That friend had a 9-year-old boy named Will, who was microcephalic and could barely speak. Will watched the bigger boys getting autographs from the players and wanted one too, but he couldn’t get anyone’s attention. Finally, Sweet Lou Johnson saw him and signed Will’s ball. Will rushed to his parents to show them the ball, and Johnson called the boy back. He took his hat off his head, signed it, and presented it to Will. Will again ran back to his parents to show them the hat, then ran back to Johnson and gave the man his hat — a beat-up old cap that didn’t fit Johnson at all. Then he said, “Hat, hat, hat.” Johnson took off the hat, assuming Will wanted it back. Instead, Will got his brother’s marker, autographed it, and gave it back to Johnson. Johnson wore it proudly the rest of the day.

Pastor Wilson wrote the letter as a part of a celebration of Jackie Robinson’s life. “Thank you, Jackie Robinson,” he wrote. “Without you there never would have been a Sweet Lou Johnson, and without Sweet Lou Johnson, I would have never seen the miracle at Dodgertown.”

(Note: Sweet Lou Johnson was actually the second Lou Johnson to ever play professional baseball. For information about the Lou Johnson who played for the 1894 Philadelphia Phillies, go here.)

For more information: Lexington Herald-World

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