A fixture with the Dodgers in over four decades, Sweet Lou Johnson died on Thursday at age 86, the team announced on Friday.
Johnson had one of the most important on-field moments in franchise history, and a longstanding legacy for all of his work away from the stadium.
It’s impossible to tell the story of the 1965 Dodgers without Johnson. Los Angeles acquired the outfielder and cash from the Tigers in April 1964 for former World Series MVP Larry Sherry, the eighth time Johnson was traded, then stashed him in Triple-A Spokane.
He began 1965 in Spokane as well, but when Tommy Davis broke his ankle on a slide at second base on May 1, the Dodgers called up Johnson.
Keep in mind that Johnson was 30 years old at the time, and hadn’t played in the majors in three years. He was in his seventh organization in his 13th professional season, and the Dodgers yearbook the following year described Johnson as “having seen his contract bounced around seventeen times from 1953 through 1965.”
After about two weeks, Johnson was the everyday left fielder, and peppered the season with big moments:
- Two homers on May 29 against Milwaukee, including a tie-breaking shot in the eighth
- A 15th-inning home run to beat San Francisco on August 19
- A single to beat Milwaukee in the 11th on September 22
- Scored the go-ahead run in the pennant clincher on October 2
Johnson also had the only hit and scored the only run in Sandy Koufax’s perfect game on September 9. The hit was a relatively inconsequential bloop double late, but his walk in the fifth inning was followed by a bunt, then Johnson stole third base and scored when Chicago catcher Chris Krug’s throw sailed into left field.
Despite starting the season in the minors, Johnson tied for the Dodgers team lead with 12 home runs, hitting .259/.315/.391, a 104 OPS+.
“I felt so fortunate,” Johnson told the Spokane Chronicle in 1986 (1). “I was a throw-in player, the kind of guy that when they had a trade made and wanted to put the glue on it, they threw me in. Then all of a sudden I was playing in the World Series.”
Johnson started all seven games against the Twins, playing left field. He batted fifth against right-handers, and hit cleanup three times against lefty Jim Kaat. Johnson drove in a run in each of the four Dodgers wins, including two doubles in Game 3 and a home run in Game 4.
But he’s most known for Game 7, when in the fourth inning against Kaat, Johnson homered off the left field foul pole for the first run of the game. Johnson clapped as he ran around the bases.
“I clapped because I knew how damn long it had taken me to get there,” Johnson recalled to the Philadelphia Daily News in 1981 (2). “I didn’t need no 50,000 people to tell me what I’d done. I clapped for myself.”
The Dodgers won 2-0, behind Johnson and the pitching of Koufax, winning the club’s third championship in eight seasons in Los Angeles.
Johnson was an above-average regular for the Dodgers for two more years, hitting 28 home runs in 1966-67 combined, and scored one of the Dodgers’ two runs in the 1966 World Series.
“I had been drinking since I was 13,” Johnson said. “When I was in the minors — and I spent 13 years in the minors — I smoked weed and took uppers. I was always very insecure. When I got to the big leagues people would say, ‘Hey Sweet Lou, you’re a star, you’re the greatest.’ And to convince myself that was true I had to get high.
“People never said, ‘Let’s go out for dinner.’ They’d say, ‘C’mon, I’ll buy you a drink.’ Ball players are competitors. They have to be. Two or three beers, that’s all I could handle. I couldn’t admit that. I’d stay for six or seven. I had to be competitive.”
Johnson sold his 1965 World Series ring to buy cocaine (he got it back in 2001). He battled addiction before getting sober for good in late 1980. He spent the bulk of the last 40 years working in the Dodgers community relations department, and delivered countless speeches about drug and alcohol abuse.
“I was 46 years old before I openly shed tears. I’d stuff ‘em down, and pour alcohol down on top of it,” Johnson told a group of students at Sacramento State in 1985 (4). “I can cry now. I’m a better man today than I’ve ever been in my life.”
I had the pleasure of speaking with Johnson a few times over the last 10 years, mostly in passing. Just about everyone around him would light up with him in the room, and he always seemed to have a smile on his face.
It was the look of a man who found peace. We should all be so lucky.
- “Lou knows his life doesn’t go better with coke,” by John Blanchette. Spokane Chronicle, August 11, 1986.
- “At last, Lou Johnson discovers life is sweet,” by Stan Hochman. Philadelphia Daily News, October 23, 1981.
- “Just breathin’ is like a fantasy to ‘Sweet Lou’,” by Jerome Holtzman. Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1984.
- “Drugs and accidents go together, Dodger veteran warns,” by Joe Hamelin. The Lompoc Record, May 5, 1985.