SWEET REDEMPTION 1965 DODGERS HERO JOHNSON OVERCOMES INNER DEMONS.
When the 1965 World Series ring found its way back to Lou Johnson, three decades after he handed it over in a botched cocaine deal, time had robbed it of its brilliant luster. The gold had become tarnished, but it still reflected all the major moments of Johnson's life.
The images, the memories of those moments, aren't all happy. Many are depressing, even nightmarish. Johnson is 70 years old, and it seems as if he has lived several lifetimes. A poor boy in Kentucky. A gypsy minor-league outfielder for the better part of a decade. A black man in the middle of the Watts Riots. A World Series hero, at the pinnacle of his life. A drug addict, on the verge of death.
Johnson's story includes plenty of tragedy, but when the Dodgers honor their 1965 championship team before tonight's game against that long-ago World Series opponent, the Minnesota Twins, Johnson will stand proudly with his infectious smile, knowing that he triumphed - not only in that magical season, but in the way he turned around his life.
His best lifetime has been this one, the one in which he got clean, got back his ring - after the Dodgers found it in a 2001 auction - and became a community-relations representative for the team, a beloved figure who greets even the most casual of acquaintances with a wave and a kind word.
``I know I'm lucky to be here,'' Johnson said. ``Things could have turned out very different for me.''
It all looked good in 1965. That was Johnson's year, the season in which he hit the decisive home run in Game 7 of the World Series and scored the only run in Sandy Koufax's perfect game, two moments that earned him a place in the hearts of Dodgers fans who still, 40 years later, fondly remember ``Sweet Lou.''
``He was a breath of fresh air,'' Koufax, who played with Johnson in 1965-66, said this week. ``He lightened the ballclub and made sure that times were fun on the field.''
It all started simply enough for Johnson that year. Starting outfielder Tommy Davis suffered an ankle injury in May, and the Dodgers called Johnson, then 30 years old and playing for Triple-A Spokane of the Pacific Coast League.
Johnson had been through seven major-league organizations in his first 12 seasons as a professional and hadn't been in the majors since 1962. He was held back by average talent and, he admits, an attitude problem.
``He just needed a chance,'' said former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley, who at the time ran the Spokane team. ``Lou had it rough early in life, and he had a reputation, but he just needed some encouragement.''
Said first baseman Wes Parker: ``When Tommy broke his ankle, I thought we were finished. We couldn't trade for anybody, because every team wanted Koufax or (Don) Drysdale. After a four-day search, they gave up and said they were bringing up a guy from Spokane. We all went, 'Oh, no.' We had seen Spokane in spring training, and we didn't think there was anyone there who could help us.''
How wrong they were. Johnson hit only .259 that year, with 12 home runs and 58 RBI in 131 games, but he quickly endeared himself to teammates.
``Lou wasn't the best player, but he did so many things well,'' shortstop Maury Wills said. ``He was a spark plug. We would play a Sunday day game after a Saturday night game, and we would be dragging, but Lou would come in smiling and laughing. We would say, 'Lou, you can't possibly feel that good,' but he did. He was truly happy to be there, and a lot of us took that for granted.''
Koufax never took Johnson for granted. On Sept. 9, 1965, Johnson walked in the fifth inning against Chicago Cubs pitcher Bob Hendley and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt. Johnson stole third and scored when the throw from catcher Chris Krug sailed into left field. That was the only run in Koufax's perfect game, and Johnson's seventh-inning double prevented a possible double no-hitter.
Then came Oct. 14, Game 7 of the World Series against the Twins, with Koufax pitching on two days' rest. Johnson led off the fourth inning of a scoreless game with a home run, his second of the series, against Jim Kaat, the first run in the Dodgers' 2-0 victory. Koufax pitched a three-hitter and was the series MVP.
``It was the seventh game in Minnesota, so I didn't have much to start with,'' Koufax said. ``By the time he hit the home run, I finally had some left.''
Koufax got the glory, but the moment also belonged to Johnson, the most unlikely of heroes.
``It felt so good,'' Johnson said. ``Look, I just wanted to play. When I grew up, black people didn't have the opportunity to go to college and be a doctor. We could be a social worker or a postal worker. That was the motivating factor for me. I played baseball. I told myself, 'I'm going to make it.'''
There was something deeper going through Johnson's mind that year, something he didn't dare verbalize. A routine traffic stop Aug. 11 in Watts led to six days of rioting that scarred the city and left 34 people dead. Johnson lived very near the center of the violence, in Athens Park.
While much of the city was shut down, Johnson had work to do and reason for concern. Thirty-one of those killed were black. Johnson, risking his life to play baseball, wore his uniform as something of a shield while driving to and from the stadium that week.
``I was right there, and I had to drive through that area to get to the ballpark,'' Johnson said. ``People were shooting. There were snipers on the freeway. I was scared. I wore my uniform because that was my identification. I thought if people saw that I was a Dodger, I wouldn't get killed.''
Johnson said he never considered not playing during the riots, but the impact on him was clear. He came up through the minors during a tough time, not just because of segregated hotels and restaurants. He recalls the days when a team would sign a fourth black player just to have two sets of roommates on the road.
His most meaningful season, other than 1965, had been 10 years earlier, when he spent a year with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. There, Johnson said, he ``learned about respect and became a man,'' lessons that carried over to that troubled week a decade later.
White players expressed concern about the violence, but Parker said he ``didn't grasp that there was anything going on, in a social sense.'' Johnson knew exactly what was going on.
``In the '60s, I saw a lot of hostility and anger, but I couldn't be a part of that,'' Johnson said. ``I couldn't be an activist, because I was a ballplayer. My job was to be the best I could out there on the field.
``If I played well, maybe people wouldn't look at us like animals. Every time I stole a base, every time I got a hit, that was for the cause. That made me be a hard player, a tough player.''
That intensity on the field also made it difficult for Johnson to let go of baseball. He played three more seasons but never equaled the magic of 1965 and retired at age 35 after the 1969 season.
``You lose that credibility of being a celebrity,'' Johnson said.
Johnson turned alcohol, then cocaine. Like most addicts, he didn't realize he was destroying his life, even as he lost touch with friends and family and abandoned all his baseball memorabilia while moving from house to house. He even exchanged his cherished Rolex watch for cocaine.
Police in Los Angeles would stop him, Johnson said, but let him go because they remembered 1965.
Johnson finally got caught. Living in Seattle one night in 1971, Johnson handed over his World Series ring as collateral for a bag of cocaine, intending to drive across town, get some money and give it to the dealer to get his ring back. On his way home, Johnson was pulled over because his car had no license plates, and the officer found the cocaine. Johnson never again saw the dealer, and the ring was gone.
``That was my low point,'' Johnson said. ``That ring was all I had. That year, 1965, was so meaningful to me, and I had nothing left to show for it. But at the time, I needed the fix. All I wanted was drugs.''
After bouncing around for a few more years, Johnson returned to Los Angeles.
``I was gone,'' Johnson said. ``Truthfully, I came back here to die where somebody knew me. In Seattle, they knew of me, but here they knew me, and that makes a difference.''
The downward spiral continued for years. He has been married three times and had nine children. Among his many jobs was a position with the intramural department at the University of Seattle. He also worked for a dry cleaner.
One day in 1980, Johnson had two phone numbers written on a piece of paper. One belonged to former Dodger Don Newcombe. Johnson's brother George had asked him to call Newcombe to ask him to appear at an event.
Johnson intended to dial the other number but, under the influence, mistakenly called Newcombe, who had kicked his own alcohol problems and was working for the Dodgers as a counselor.
``He answered and I said, 'Who's this?' That's how bad of a shape I was in,'' Johnson said. ``I tried to play it off, but he figured me out. He asked me if I was having some problems, and I said yes.''
Newcombe arranged for Johnson to attend, at the Dodgers' expense, a treatment center in Arizona for two months. Johnson became clean on Nov. 9, 1980, and after he completed the program, Newcombe arranged for him a job in the organization.
For the past 25 years, Johnson has worked in community relations, speaking to schoolchildren about his experiences and acting as a goodwill ambassador for the team. He and his wife, Sarah, have been married 10 years.
And he hasn't slipped once.
``Don Newcombe told me, 'If you ever take another drink, I'll break your legs,' and they ain't broke yet,'' Johnson said with a laugh. ``What the Dodgers did was they put some pride back in my life.''
They also got his ring back. It was discovered in an unclaimed safety deposit box and was being auctioned on the Internet. Johnson didn't have the $3,500 to buy it, so the Dodgers bought it for him.
The ring made Johnson complete again when it was returned in 2001, 30 years after he lost it, an act that further indebted Johnson to a Dodgers organization he credits for saving his life.
``I always remembered Lou for the good, not the bad,'' O'Malley said. ``He just needed a little help.''
Johnson got that help, and he has spent the past 25 years repaying the debt and repairing his life.
``Lou and I have always been friends, and I consider us close,'' Koufax said. ``I like to think I was a good friend, whether times were good or bad for him.''
When that comment is relayed to Johnson, he stares out onto the Dodger Stadium field, the same field on which he scored the run in Koufax's perfect game 40 years ago, when his life was simpler.
Johnson breaks into a smile, pats a guest on the leg and says, ``Isn't that something? I'm a lucky man.''
Rich Hammond, (818) 713-3611
2 photos, box
(1 -- color) With help from Don Newcombe, Lou Johnson, above, overcame alcohol and drug abuse.
Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer
(2) Lou Johnson was called up from the minors after Tommy Davis, right, was injured in May 1965.
Los Angeles Dodgers
DODGERS vs. MINNESOTA
- Rich Hammond
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Jun 10, 2005|
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