For 'Sweet Lou' Johnson, nothing came easy
Outfielder's home run helped Dodgers win 1965 World Series
LOS ANGELES -- When Lou Johnson walks into Dodger Stadium and sees the banner commemorating the Dodgers 1965 World Series title, it's the enduring payoff of a tough road traveled.
The lead-up to Jackie Robinson Day gives Johnson the chance to reflect upon not only what Robinson did for African American athletes, but what other trailblazers like Buck O'Neil and Don Newcombe did for "Sweet Lou."
Robinson started the momentum when he broke baseball's color barrier 65 years ago, but discrimination in society, as well as baseball, remained. Strangely, while discrimination might have slowed down Johnson's journey to the Major Leagues, it also made it possible.
"My dream was to play basketball at the University of Kentucky, where my mother and father worked, but they wouldn't take blacks," Johnson recalled, "so I never was involved with the university, and that haunted me a long time."
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You'd never know it watching those black-and-white tapes of Johnson applauding himself as he rounded the bases of a Game 7 home run that helped the Dodgers win the World Series against Minnesota. On the field, Johnson played with an outgoing exuberance that won over fans and became his trademark despite playing only three seasons for the Dodgers.
But as Johnson tells it, that effervescent personality wasn't welcomed in those early years that led to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
"When I got here, people thought I was crazy for clapping my hands when something good happened," said Johnson, now 77 and in his 31st year as a community relations liaison for the Dodgers. "I clapped my hands, because for so many years nobody clapped for me, so I clapped for myself.
"In the last few years I've been able to see and visualize why I spent so much time in the Minor Leagues. It wasn't because of how well I played. It was my way -- the way I talked and acted and sounded. Back then, you weren't supposed to say anything. I was always talking, always vocal, but it was never aimed at anybody. And I talked the way I talked, using the [slang] words I always used. And I guess my mouth got in the way. But I couldn't play any other way. African Americans back then, well, you just weren't allowed to be yourself, and I didn't go along with that and I think that's what held me back, because I do believe I was good enough to be a Major Leaguer long before I was."
And long before Johnson had the chance to play in the Major Leagues, he toiled in the Negro Leagues.
"[Former Major Leaguer] John Shelby's grandfather taught me how to play softball when I was in high school," Johnson said. "So I went to Kentucky State and played baseball and the scouts saw me and singed me and sent me to Olean, N.Y., where the Yankees had a Class D team. It's the same place where Maury Wills played.
"For three straight years, I got cut on the last cutdown day. But in 1954, the Kansas City Monarchs came through there for an exhibition. That club had Buck O'Neil as manager, Satchel Paige, Dave Whitney, George Altman. Buck O'Neil saw me and gave me a contract. He was manager and first baseman.
"That winter, the Negro Leagues were having trouble and the Cubs bought the contracts of O'Neil, Altman, J.C. Hartman and me. That's how I got into organized baseball, because of Buck O'Neil. He was the key for me. But I still spent five more years in the Minor Leagues with the Cubs before I got my first chance."
It took Johnson three years in the Negro Leagues and another six years in organized Minor League ball before his first Major League callup by the Chicago Cubs in 1960. He spent three of the next four years back in the Minor Leagues, and in 1964, he was traded by Detroit to the Dodgers, who sent him back to the Minor Leagues until two-time batting champ Tommy Davis broke his ankle and Johnson got the call.
It was an opportunity Johnson had waited a lifetime for, and he etched his name in Dodgers lore by providing the offense and emotional spark to overtake the Giants for the pennant and edge the Twins for a World Series ring.
That ring represents the obvious highs and not-so-obvious lows of Johnson's life, which include a recovery from substance abuse. At bottom, Johnson offered up that ring as collateral for cocaine. When the ring showed up at auction on the Internet, Dodgers historian Mark Langill alerted then-president Bob Graziano, who bought the ring and gave it back to Johnson.
It was Newcombe, who had survived substance abuse himself, who sent Johnson to a rehab center when he came looking for help. Newcombe, who preceded Johnson in the Negro Leagues by a decade, is a special advisor to the chairman of the Dodgers.
"If not for Don, I wouldn't be here, and I don't mean just sitting here, I mean I wouldn't be here, period," Johnson said. "What he accomplished, turning his life around, he helped me turn my life around. Newk did something I hadn't been willing to do. If Don hadn't been with the Dodgers, I wouldn't have accepted his help. It's only because the Dodgers gave me the opportunity to shine that I came back for help. Now I walk into Dodger Stadium and see that sign up there from '65. That makes me smile."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.