I first saw the news around social media, though with no apparent formal verification. Even Wikipedia updated his page showing the date. Then, it updated swiftly by removing it. Did Jay Johnstone really pass away at 74 last Saturday?
The way things progressed as Monday went onward, I thought to myself, then said aloud to acquaintances, that if the rumour of Johnstone’s death was slightly exaggerated it could have been 93-year-old Tommy Lasorda’s revenge for myriad pranks the fun-loving utility outfielder pulled at Lasorda’s and others’ expense.
The bad news is that Johnstone’s family affirmed the sad news later Monday. The concurrent news turned out to have been Dodger Stadium’s power failing at around the time of Johnstone’s death. You couldn’t resist wondering if Johnstone hadn’t delivered one more practical joke en route the Elysian Fields. And you knew it would have figured if he had.
“He may have had a hand in it,” said his former Dodger teammate Rick Monday, now one of the Dodger broadcast team. “Or a victory lap of remembrance.”
Baseball’s allegedly dying breeds include its merry pranksters, and few owned it as unapologetically as Johnstone, who called his memoirs Temporary Insanity, Over the Edge, and Some of My Best Friends are Crazy. He played for eight major league teams, was a member of two World Series winners (the 1978 Yankees, the 1981 Dodgers), and any timely hits or plays he delivered played second fiddle to his unapologetic sense of humour.
Johnstone may have been the last of baseball’s permanent kids, though rumours today include that Yankee outfielder/nuclear bomber Aaron Judge is a pretty good practical joker. I hope it’s true. Baseball needs its comedians now more than ever. Let the kids play? How about let the kids prank?
Johnstone never stopped looking the part, either, right down to the big smile that suggested six parts pure joy and half a dozen parts look out below because that hotfoot was about to explode up your heel to your calf. Nobody deserves to endure dementia and, as things turned out, COVID-19. But Johnstone, especially not.
Boyish looking enough that his first baseball card suggested the California Angels might have been cradle-robbing when they brought him up to the Show in 1966, Johnstone then was 20 and looked thirteen. When he retired after a final go-round with the Dodgers in 1985, he was 39—and still looked thirteen.
There may have been those who’d swear under oath that, when his Australian-born mother went into labour with him, the medical staff anesthetised her with a cocktail of St. Vitus Dance and laughing gas. Johnstone earned his place in baseball’s Hall of Insane.
His plaque would be as likely to feature a whoopee cushion as a glove. (He was actually a fine defensive outfielder.) It would hang gloriously along with such diamond jokers as Arlie Latham, Casey Stengel, Lefty Gomez, Mickey Mantle, Jimmy Piersall, Bo Belinsky, Moe Drabowsky, Doug Rader (as a player; as a manager, he apparently got religion and became a Fun Police lieutenant), Pete Richert and Eddie Watt (Richert and Watt liked to prank opposing bullpens by slipping live goldfish into their water coolers while hosting wienie roasts in their own), and Roger McDowell (once voted the Met most likely to be committed).
“Sadly, there are fewer creative thinkers these days in baseball,” lamented Baseball Digest writer Dave Joseph in 2003. “There are fewer flakes, if you will, who break up the monotony of an endless season played, for the most part, by robotic athletes afraid to express opinion or originality.”
We’re not talking about malcontents, clubhouse lawyers, or smugger-than-thou Fun Policemen here. We’re talking about the guys who’d light candles atop the dugout to force the issue of calling a game for darkness in prehistoric times. (Latham with the St. Louis Browns—the ones who eventually became the Cardinals, not the eventual sad sacks of the American League—thought of that one in 1887.)
Or, guys who could mimic opposing managers so well they’d call the opposition bullpen to order relievers warming up—rattling and unraveling the incumbent pitcher who’d been working on an easy shutout. (Drabowsky, Orioles relief pitcher, pranking the Kansas City Athletics with his dead-on impression of their manager Alvin Dark. The ultimate victim: A’s starter Jim Nash.)
Or, guys who’d have lawyer friends draw up realistic-looking paternity suits against teammates (Seattle Pilots catcher Merritt Ranew once scared his pitching roommate Fred Talbot out of ten years’ life with a gag like that) or run the bases in reverse after hitting a milestone home run. (Piersall thought of that as a very brief 1963 Met.)
The guys who’d tweak their manager’s penchant for celebrity hanging by swapping out all the photos of the skipper with his glitterati pals and gals for photos of themselves all around the office. Johnstone enlisted Dodger pitchers Jerry Reuss and Don (Stan the Man Unusual) Stanhouse to treat Lasorda to that one often enough.
Johnstone also thought nothing of seizing an occasional Lasorda off day by donning Lasorda’s uniform, stuffing it appropriately, and walking out to the mound to talk to a pitcher—extending a can of Slim-Fast diet drink, which Lasorda endorsed at the time. Or, convincing Reuss to join him dressing as groundskeepers and joining the crew to drag the infield.
Lasorda was so amused he fined the pair on the spot. Then, he inserted Johnstone into the game as a pinch hitter—and Johnstone hit one into the bleachers. “Jay came back,” Monday remembered, “and wanted to know if he could get a discount on the fine.”
“What makes Jay Johnstone unusual,” said his manager during a tour with the Phillies, Danny Ozark, “is that he thinks he’s normal and everyone else is nuts.”
Teammates weren’t immune to Johnstone’s deviltry. When not cutting the crotch out of pitcher Rick Sutcliffe’s underwear, or leaving a particularly soft and gooey chocolate brownie in first baseman Steve Garvey’s glove (and nonchalantly brushing a spot of chocolate on Reuss’s pant leg to trick Garvey into blaming the wrong culprit), he shortened the locker of third baseman Ron Cey—to penguin size, in honour of Cey’s nickname, complete with placing a tiny stool in front of it.
He even took it to the broadcast booth, where he once worked as a Yankees and Phillies radio commentator. On one occasion, he interviewed Yankees Deion Sanders and Mel Hall. He presented them with a covered bread basket to help relax them. When they removed the cover, they were greeted by a living snake and relieved promptly of their skins.
Johnstone knew where to draw the line between player and prankster, though. When his Angels teammate Clyde Wright threw a no-hitter against Oakland in 1970, Johnstone saved it for him with a spectacular at-the-wall running catch to rob Reggie Jackson of a likely extra-base hit.
And, in Game Four of the 1981 World Series, Johnstone squared off as a pinch hitter against Yankee reliever Ron Davis in the sixth in Dodger Stadium, with Mike Scioscia aboard, hitting a 1-2 service the other way into the right field bleachers to close a Dodger deficit to a single run. Bill Russell’s RBI single later in the inning tied the game, and the Dodgers went on to win, 8-7, tying the Series at two each.
“When the game was on the line,” Monday said, “he was able to transform that little 7-year-old child that was always in a playful mood into serious. “Jay was always bigger than life. If the team was in a spot where you felt your backs were against the wall, he was one of the reliable guys.”
Johnstone stopped writing books when his collaborator, the Chicago Tribune‘s Rick Talley, suffered the brain aneurysm that ended his writing career and, too soon from there, his life in 1995. “Johnstone had felt Talley . . . was the only writer who could truly capture his voice,” wrote the Pasadena Weekly in 2011. “He recalls telling Talley he never wanted to have his stories embellished because they were already wildly entertaining, and he never wanted to deal with ballplayers angry at what he wrote.”
He also had a side serious enough to visit American military personnel around the world, raise money for children in need, and help form Hope4Heroes, a non-profit that aids military veterans. (The son of a World War II Army combat veteran who met his mother while in the South Pacific, Johnstone himself was a Marine reservist during his early baseball career.)
“He spoke at Little League banquets, gave impromptu batting tips to kids, made other appearances when no one else was available and was there when a friend needed a helping hand,” Reuss told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s also Jay Johnstone.”
Johnstone’s lunacy didn’t stay at the ballpark or in the broadcast booth. His daughter, Mary Jayne Sarah, has said her father thought nothing of filling their pool with rubberised creepy creatures and getting laughs from her and her friends. “He wanted to find the humor in life no matter how serious things got,” she told a reporter. “That was his motto to everything, bring a smile to people’s faces. Everyone loved him.”
Especially his wife, former actress Mary Jayne Saunders. Her television credits included comedies such as The Danny Thomas Show, The Donna Reed Show, and Petticoat Junction. She ended her career when she married Johnstone in 1967. She settled happily for playing straight woman to baseball’s version of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Life as such a wife must have been many things with dull not being one of them. We can only imagine her bereavement until they meet again in the Elysian Fields, though if he greets her there with anything short of a gag accompanying a kiss, surely the lady will feel something very amiss. May her husband rest in peace with all the Lord’s angels in pieces from laughter until that happy reunion.