Obituary: Jay Johnstone (1945-2020)

RIP to Jay Johnstone, who had a 20-year career as a outfielder and a well-earned reputation as one of the game’s all-time great characters and pranksters. He died on September 26 at the age of 74. He had been living with dementia and was living at a nursing home in Granada Hills, Calif. when he contracted COVID-19, according to ESPN. Johnstone played for the California Angels (1966-70), Chicago White Sox (1971-72), Oakland Athletics (1973), Philadelphia Phillies (1974-78), New York Yankees (1978-79), San Diego Padres (1979), Los Angeles Dodgers (1980-82, 1985) and Chicago Cubs (1982-84).

When I was a kid and was starting to show a love of baseball, my mom bought me a copy of Temporary Insanity, Johnstone’s first of three books. Considering the language that was in it, I was way, way too young to be reading it — Johnstone did print a transcript of Lee Elia’s infamous Cubs fans tirade. But it was a funny, honest memoir that showed that ballplayers were more than stats and baseball cards. Ballplayers were people, and somethings funny, stupid, larger-than-life people at that. If you want a smile, re-read your copies or pick them up wherever you get your used books. You won’t be disappointed.

John William Johnstone was born in Manchester, Conn., on November 20, 1945, but he grew up in California. He attended Edgewood High School in West Covina, where he made the 1963 CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) second team as an outfielder. He was also the starting quarterback on the football team, frequently rushing for more than 100 yards a game — when he wasn’t kicking, punting or playing as a safety on defense. More than 30 colleges approached him with scholarships to play football, but the California Angels came to him with a $12,000 bonus and a chance to play his preferred sport. Johnstone spent most of his first few years in the organization playing for the Class-A San Jose Bees. While he wasn’t a power threat, he mostly hit in the .290s or low .300s as a teenage prospect. He started his career as a switch-hitter, but by the time he established himself in the majors, he’d become a left-handed hitter.

Johnstone made his MLB debut on July 30, 1966, when he was 20 years old. He started the season with the Marine Corps reserves, and then he played briefly in AA El Paso before moving up to the AAA Seattle Angels. He was batting .340 when manager Bob Lemon told him to pack his bags and join the big-league club, replacing the injured Rick Reichardt. He singled off Cleveland’s Gary Bell in his first game and soon found himself getting regular playing time. In his third game, he delivered three hits against the Yankees and drove in the deciding run in a 4-3 win. In 61 games that year, Johnstone hit .264 with 3 homers and 17 RBIs while playing all three outfield positions.

Johnstone came to the 1967 training camp determined to take the center field job away from Jose Cardenal. However, he barely hit over .200 in 79 games after being hit in the ankle by a line drive and was sent back to the minors. The Angels gave him other short stints in the majors, but he didn’t get a chance to stick around the entire season until 1969. He appeared in 148 games, which would be a career high, and slashed .270/.321/.381, with 10 home runs and 59 RBIs. He had already developed a reputation as a “Moon Man” and a flake, but the talent was undeniable, even when he tripped over a base or dropped a fly ball.

Jay Johnstone knocks a double against the Boston Red Sox. Tom Satriano is the catcher and Larry Kopp is the umpire. Source: The Los Angeles Times, July 31, 1969.

“Johnstone is slowly, sometimes painfully, becoming a player,” said manager Bill Rigney. “The thing he has going for him is his aggressiveness. There is a spark to him.”

Players with odd personalities can turn into cult heroes now. In the late 1960s and ’70s, baseball was very different, and Johnstone’s insistence on being himself and having fun was a pretty rebellious act. “You have to be a bit of a flake to play this game,” he said in 1970. “You also have to believe that you can play this game a little bit better than anyone else around. If you don’t you are in trouble.”

After an off year in 1970 when he batted .238, the Angels traded Johnstone to the White Sox, along with Tom Bradley and Tom Egan, for Ken Berry, Syd O’Brien and Billy Wynne. His first season with the Sox in 1971 was one of his best seasons, as he hit .260, homered a career-best 16 times and broke the double-digit mark with 10 stolen bases for the only time in his career. Unfortunately, he followed it up with one of the worst seasons of his career, where he batted .188 in 113 games in 1972. He was released by the Sox and signed with Oakland, but the Athletics kept him in the minor leagues for most of 1973. He appeared in just 23 games with the A’s, with 3 hits in 28 at-bats. St. Louis purchased him from Oakland, but they dropped him in March of 1974 in favor of veteran Tim McCarver. Things looked bad for Johnstone’s career until he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies a week after his release.

Johnstone started 1974 in AAA Toledo,where he racked up plenty of hits. He also racked up plenty of fines from manager Jim Bunning, who never saw eye-to-eye with the Moon Man. “He fined me $50 one night for getting a base hit. I broke my bat on the hit and carried it half-way to first. He didn’t like the way I ran,” the outfielder said. Bunning fined him $100 and suspended him for leaving the dugout to relieve himself of bad gas pains in the middle of the game. Johnstone hadn’t even missed his next at-bat. He was fined an undisclosed amount when he took to the field in a wetsuit with the words USS Titanic scribbled on his chest and pretended to row around the infield with an oar. Bunning had said to the media that rookie Dane Iorg’s batting average was sinking faster than the Titanic, and Johnstone took exception to the harsh words.

Dealing with Bunning paid off when the Phillies recalled Johnstone in July. Initially used as a pinch-hitter, he hit so well that he forced the Phillies to give him more playing time. By the time he homered twice against the Cubs on August 6, he was batting .366. He cooled off late to end the year with a .295 batting average and 6 home runs in 64 games. For the next three seasons, he appeared in at least 112 games with the Phillies as a pinch-hitter/fourth outfielder, and he had some of his finest years with the team. He also found a kindred spirit in reliever Tug McGraw.

Johnstone, complete with a pillow stuffed under his jersey, does his Tom Lasorda impression. Source: The Tampa Tribune, August 15, 1982.

Along with keeping the team loose in the clubhouse with occasional hot foots and fireworks explosions, Johnstone batted .329 in 1975 and .318 in ’76. He finished tenth in the NL in hitting (after enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title were artificially added to his season totals) and second in the league with 38 doubles. The Phillies lost to the Cincinnati Reds in the 1976 NL Championship Series, but Johnstone had 7 hits in 9 at-bats, including a double and triple.

Johnstone had one more solid season with the Phillies, batting .284 with 15 homers and 59 RBIs in 1977. After that, he moved around the league with mid-season trades that saw him travel from Philadelphia to the Yankees to the Padres in short order. He won a World Series with the Yankees in 1978 but was hitless in 2 at-bats against the NL Champion Los Angeles Dodgers.

Johnstone signed with the Dodgers for the 1980 season. He was with the team for just over two seasons in that stint, but it seems like he’s most easily identified as wearing Dodger Blue. Some of his greatest pranks were pulled there — locking manager Tommy Lasorda in his hotel room in spring training; dressing up as a grounds crew with Jerry Reuss to drag the infield and then hitting a pinch-homer immediately afterwards; sticking a gooey brownie in Steve Garvey’s glove. Those early ’80s Dodgers teams had an incredible collection of personalities, and Johnstone’s zaniness blended with them perfectly.

He also played pretty well in Los Angeles when he wasn’t cutting the crotch out of people’s undershorts or replacing Ron Cey’s locker with a Cey-sized miniature version. He hit .307 in 1980 and became the team’s pinch-hitting specialist. He barely hit over .200 in the strike-shortened 1981 season, but he made up for it in the postseason. After going a combined 0-for-3 in the NL Division Series and Championship Series, he had 2 hits in 3 at-bats in the World Series, and potentially the biggest hit of his career came in Game Four. With the Dodgers trailing the Yankees 6-3, Johnstone smashed a 2-run pinch-hit homer off reliever Ron Davis that made it a one-run game. The Dodgers tied the game a couple batters later and won it 8-7. The victory evened the Series at 2 games apiece, and the Dodgers won the next two games to be crowned champions.

At left, Jay Johnstone dragging the infield, dressed as a part of the grounds crew. Moments later, irate manager Tommy Lasorda sent him to pinch hit, and he responded with a home run. Source: The Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1981.

“What you saw today was a good example of vintage Jay Johnstone,” said Garvey after Game Four. “He lives to hit.” Johnstone then tackled Garvey and knocked him off the post-game podium, just in case people had forgotten who Johnstone really was.

“He’ll be back in the home in a few hours,” said the unflappable Garvey after getting back on the podium. “We have to get him back by 7 at night.”

The Dodgers released Johnstone midway through the 1982 season, after he started the year with 1 hit and 5 walks in 19 plate appearances. Though he was 36 years old, he caught on with the Cubs and played very well for them over the next three seasons. He hit 10 homers for Chicago for the rest of 1982, and while his power tailed off by the end of his time, he remained a valuable pinch-hitter through 1984. His playful personality also suited a team that had been losing consistently and desperately needed a pick-me-up.

On June 10, 1983, Johnstone hit the 100th home run of his career in a 7-0 win over the New York Mets. The game was the last shutout of Fergie Jenkins’ storied career. But the next day, Johnstone was fined $100 by manager Lee Elia. Why? It was a 3-0 count, and he had missed the take sign.

Johnstone was released by the Cubs in September of 1984, just weeks before they would make their first postseason appearance since 1945. It certainly wasn’t anything Johnstone did — He’d batted .288 in his limited appearances. Unfortunately, he was caught in a roster crunch. The team had acquired infielder Davey Lopes for the stretch run, and Johnstone was the odd man out. Rather than look for another team, with weeks left in the season, he opted to stay in uniform with the Cubs as the head shower coach. He was the first shower coach in Cubs history.

Johnstone re-signed with the Dodgers for the 1985 season but appeared in just 17 games, thanks to long stretches on the disabled list for hip and back injuries. His last major-league at-bat came in the 1985 NLCS against the Cardinals. He grounded out to second base in Game Three against Danny Cox.

In his 20-year career for eight teams, Johnstone slashed .267/.329/.394. He had 1,254 hits that included 215 doubles, 38 triples and 102 home runs. He drove in 531 runs and scored 578 times. Per Baseball Reference, he had 92 pinch-hits in 408 at-bats, with 11 home runs.

Right at his career was ending, his literary career was taking off. Temporary Insanity was released in 1985, and it was popular enough to spawn two sequels, Over the Edge and Some of My Best Friends Are Crazy. He also took to the broadcast booth to work as a color commentator for the Yankees, Dodgers and Fox Sports for a few years. He was one of the people who filled in for Harry Caray in 1987 when the legendary Cubs broadcaster was recovering from a stroke. He was a frequent participant in charities, particularly those that aided veterans. If there was ever a TV special about baseball pranks or wacky plays, he was likely the host. He appeared at baseball card shows, old-timers’ games and fan conventions — generally enjoying life as Jay Johnstone.

While his 20-year career may not be Hall of Fame-worthy, it’s a sure bet that few people who have ever played baseball had as much fun as Johnstone did. As his Phillies manager Danny Ozark put it, “What makes him unusual is that he thinks he’s normal and everyone else is nuts.”

As a bonus, enjoy Johnstone, Jerry Reuss, Rick Monday and Steve Yeager performing “We Are the Champions” on an episode of Solid Gold.

For more information: New York Times

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