Few of those problems surfaced publicly. One did, on a bleak Labor Day in 1974. The Sox were in the middle of their memorable collapse of that year, frittering away what had been a seven-game lead as late as August 23. Left-hander Ross Grimsley of the Baltimore Orioles had shut out the Sox in the opener of a vital doubleheader, 1-0. Righthanded hitter Tommy Harper, a black, had gotten a few hits in that game and was the logical choice to start against another lefty, Mike Cuellar, in the nightcap. Instead, Harper sat on the bench; his presence there may or may not have contributed to Boston’s 1-0 loss in the second game.
When asked by the Globe’s Peter Gammons why Harper hadn’t been used in the second game, Johnson said Harper had pulled a muscle. The next day, Harper denied that claim outright and trainer Buddy LeRoux backed him up.
The incident was closed, but there was a postscript. At the close of the ’74 season, Harper was dealt to California and LeRoux was eased out of the trainer’s job. Both refused recently to discuss the affair. The Phoenix could not reach Johnson at his home in California.
What was Johnson’s attitude toward his Latin players?
Juan Beniquez and Mario Guerrero, former members of the Sox, told the Phoenix in recent interviews that they both felt that Johnson was anti-Latin; a third, Diego Segui, contended he was not treated fairly when he was released by Johnson on the last day of spring training this year.
Johnson’s attitude touched off some animosity among the Latin players, animosity that may have contributed to the trade of Beniquez, who was dealt to Texas last winter. Said one player about Beniquez, “I’m sure he got traded because he was a critic of Johnson. Beniquez used to actually mimic Johnson in the dugout, and all the Latin players would crack up.”
Johnson’s handling of two well-established Latin stars – he released Luis Aparicio and Orlando Cepeda on the last day of spring training in 1974 – apparently soured many of the younger Latin players on him, and the fact that Johnson seldom spoke to any of his players didn’t help matters. (Even when the Sox defeated Oakland for the pennant last October 7, one sportswriter recalls, Johnson ignored his players, closeting himself with a bottle of champagne and Oakland star Joe Rudi, a longtime friend. That friendship apparently contributed to the near-acquisition of Rudi for $1 million this June – a purchase that, had it not been vetoed by Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, would likely have resulted in the benching of Cecil Cooper – a black – and the removal from left field of Jim Rice, also black.)
But Johnson is gone now, replaced by a man who broke into major league baseball with Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954. The sportswriters and players to whom we spoke agreed on one point: Don Zimmer is no racist. When we asked the new manager whether he thought his predecessor had any problems on race, we received a diplomatic – but intriguing – response.
“That,” said Zimmer, “is gone. That’s the past. He did it his way, and I do it mine.”
Zimmer, of course, cannot speak for general manager Dick O’Connell – who, in turn, would not speak to the Phoenix. A racially enlightened manager is one thing; whether his arrival foreshadows a racially enlightened management remains to be seen.