Even with the details in dispute, rumors that Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton pulled guns on each other in the Washington Wizards’ locker room are disturbing. It’s easy (and incorrect) to dismiss the incident as indicative of NBA culture — partly because it’s happened in baseball, too.
The following is an excerpt from another chapter that didn’t make the final cut of The Baseball Codes, largely because there wasn’t too much more to say on the subject, but mostly because “don’t pull guns on people” is an unwritten rule of life, not just the major leagues.
It happened in 1971, and involved Alex Johnson and Chico Ruiz, teammates on the California Angels. Ruiz, claimed Johnson, threatened him in a gun within the confines of the clubhouse.
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For his part, Johnson was no stranger to clubhouse violence. He scrapped with a variety of teammates, among the most notable of which was a drawn-out brawl with Angels outfielder Ken Berry. Another time, teammate Clyde Wright had to be restrained after threatening to hit Johnson with a stool. Johnson and Ruiz, however, had been close friends for years, ever since their two-year stint together on the Cincinnati Reds in the late-1960s. They were tight enough for Johnson to ask Ruiz to act as godfather to his daughter, Jennifer.
But in 1971, for reasons his teammates could never discern, Ruiz became a target for Johnson’s barbs. It was a regular occurrence around the Angels locker room that year to hear Johnson berating Ruiz with profanity and insults.
The two had both served as pinch-hitters the night of June 13, and were alone in the clubhouse at the time of the alleged incident. And with nobody to corroborate his story and Ruiz denying everything, an already disgruntled media turned even further against Johnson. One fed-up teammate said that if Ruiz did have a gun, his only mistake was not pulling the trigger. Shortly thereafter, Los Angeles Times columnist John Hall wrote that at least three players were “carrying guns and several others are known to have hidden knives — to use as protection in case of fights among themselves.”
Three months later, Johnson was suspended from the team (owing less to his accusation against Ruiz and more to an additional string of belligerent encounters with teammates and a consistent failure to hustle). At a grievance hearing to challenge the suspension, Angels general manager Dick Walsh finally admitted that Ruiz had, indeed, waved a pistol at Johnson after both had been removed from the game in question, a revelation that served mostly to lend yet another level of dysfunction to the team’s clubhouse.
Ultimately, things didn’t go well for either man. Johnson was traded to the Indians after the season, and Ruiz, after being released during the winter, drove his car into a sign pole in the early morning hours of Feb. 9, 1972, and was killed immediately.
Few ballplayers turned up amid the mourners at his funeral. Johnson was one of them.