2020: Once more for the others safe at home

Dick Allen’s Hall of Fame election by this year’s Modern Era Committee would make eight Hall of Famers dying in 2020.

Last year—doesn’t that sound like sweet relief already—the passages of seven Hall of Famers added particular extra grief to an already pandemically miserable year. The further bad news is that the Magnificent Seven (Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro) were not the only ones Grantland Rice’s Great Umpire called safe at home, unfortunately.

Assuming Dick Allen will be elected to the Hall by the Modern Era Committee later this year, that election will turn the Magnificent Seven into another kind of Eight Men Out. Allen played surrealistically through battling unconscionable racism in Philadelphia before he was dealt out of town at long enough last—for Curt Flood, who refused to report and elected to make his groundbreaking reserve clause challenge.

How sadly ironic. To Flood, the trade meant he was still a piece of property, even earning $90,000 in a year. (What he began, Andy Messersmith eventually finished.) To Allen, the trade was surely his Emancipation Proclamation. He posted a few more seasons of surrealistic hitting (and the 1972 American League Most Valuable Player Award) before injuries finally ground him away, and overcame a few more personal tragedies (especially the murder of his daughter) to become a respected and loved Phillies elder statesman and community outreacher. Life and baseball couldn’t beat him but cancer finally did at 78.

“The imperfect man pitched the perfect game,” is what sportswriting legend Dick Young offered when his New York Daily News colleague Joe Trimble was stuck for an opening to write up Don Larsen’s perfecto in the 1956 World Series. “The million to one shot came in,” wrote Washington Post legend Shirley Povich of Larsen’s perfecto. When 2020 was the new year, it wasn’t a day old before Larsen expired of esophegeal cancer at 90.

Lucky him. Larsen lived a life that went from randy to responsible and his reward, above and beyond the pleasure (and excuse for friendly needling) he took when fans and writers asked him to revisit his million-to-one game (“You want to talk about my year with the Browns,” he loved to tease), was to miss the pandemic ruination the year to come would yet wreak.

Tony Fernandez was a smart shortstop in the field and at the plate for the 1980s/1990s Blue Jays and a few others. Complications of kidney disease claimed him at 57 with far less style than he played the left half of the keystone. Yet he held a strange distinction during his brief spell in New York: in 1995, he was the first Yankee to hit for the cycle since Bobby Murcer . . . two and a half decades previous.

Before Johnny Antonelli became a 1954 World Series hero pitching for the New York Giants, he inadvertently provoked Boston Braves pitcher Johnny Sain into a contract demand. Antonelli’s $65,000 signing bonus in 1948 was more than the combined salaries of the Braves’ two best pitchers, Johnny Sain and Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. Sain leveraged Antonelli’s bonus into a $30,000 salary of his own.

Antonelli proved himself as a pitcher after leaving the Braves and the Army and being dealt to the Giants, but when the Giants moved out of New York Antonelli found San Francisco less to his liking. A couple of trades and an expansion draft later, Antonelli retired to his tire business and his family. With his second wife, he also took up extensive travel, reveling in what he couldn’t see while he traveled as a pitcher, until his death at 89.

Jimmy Wynn—compact man, cannon bat.

Jimmy Wynn (78) was nicknamed the Toy Cannon for the compact body that hit screaming, prodigious home runs, even in the indoor death chamber known as the Astrodome. A few too many Astro coaches and managers monkeying around with his hitting style probably did him few favours. Same thing elsewhere, at least until he became a Dodger. Ultimately, Wynn proved you could live and learn tenfold; he became a valuable Astro asset after his playing years especially among impressionable youth who thrived at his Astro-created youth training center.

Glenn Beckert (79) shared the keystone with Don Kessinger for several Cubs teams that looked pennant competitive until their insouciantly ancient manager burned them down the stretch. “Beckert was the Billy Herman of the 1960s,” Bill James once wrote, “a pretty good second baseman, and the best hit-and-run man in baseball.” Matt Keough (64) was one of the Five Aces burned almost as swiftly as he rose when Billy Martin got hold of the early 1980s Athletics. Mike McCormick (81) pitched himself into the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year Award and the Cy Young Award in 1967, but he was also Mr. 500—for hitting the 500th home run to be hit by any major league pitcher.

Claudell Washington (65) was a likeable, long-serving journeyman whose 1980 free agency deal (five years, $3.5 million) jolted the game enough to provoke Phillies owner Bob Carpenter—who’d extended Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt big rather than lose him to free agency and chased down Pete Rose to sign big—selling out, because he feared fellow owners’ brains had gone to bed. John McNamara (88) barely lived down Game Six of the 1986 World Series (he left ankle-dissipated Bill Buckner in to play first for the bottom of the tenth), but his wife remembered a good, kind, loving man whose life shouldn’t be judged by one egregious mistake. Appropriately.

The Yankees’ 1965-75 term in purgatory was once nicknamed the Horace Clarke Era, but it wasn’t the fault of the smooth-fielding second baseman from the Virgin Islands who wasn’t much of a hitter but handled the right side of the keystone with sure hands and feet. Clarke (81) was proud to be a Yankee to the end of his life. He was also the poor soul who didn’t get to hit against Washington Senators pitcher Joe Grzenda with two out in the top of the ninth—when heartsick Senators fans rioted on the field and forced a forfeit in the Senators’ last game before leaving for Texas.

Bob Watson (74) was a sharp hitting first baseman and, in due course, the first black man in baseball to be the general manager of a World Series winner. Lindy McDaniel (84) was a long-serving relief pitcher of above-average excellence for lots of below-average teams and a devout Christian who became a minister after throwing his final pitch. (He’s also the last American League pitcher to homer before the league introduced the designated hitter.) Fellow reliever Ron Perranoski (84) held down the back end of the Dodger fort in the early-to-mid 60s and for two World Series championships before becoming a long-serving pitching coach.

Jay Johnstone (74) was a solid outfielder with a flair for periodic big hits (especially Game Four of the 1981 World Series) and a bigger flair for mayhem—one of the greatest flakes in the game. Over three engaging books, the fun-loving Johnstone wrote his own eulogy:

Tommy Lasorda once fixed up Ernie Broglio on a date with a female impersonator.

Mark Fidrych talked to baseballs.

Don Stanhouse shared his post-game beer with monkeys and frogs.

Mickey Hatcher left a pig in Lasorda’s office.

Bert Blyleven gave his Little League team chewing tobacco.

John Lowenstein likes to attack cakes with a baseball bat.

Richie Zisk filled Rene Lachemann’s hotel bed with Jell-O.

Ross Grimsley once snapped a losing streak by consulting a witch.

Billy Loes once refused to pitch unless Buzzie Bavasi bought him a new dog.

Joaquin Andujar was known to shower wearing his uniform.

Rick Reichardt stole razor blades, forgot he had them, and sliced his own hand when he reached into his pocket.

Dizzy Dean placed a cake of ice over home plate to “cool off my fastball.”

And I’m over the edge?

Steve Dalkowski—what might have been, if he could have controlled his thunderbolt fastball and his off-field life.

Steve Dalkowski (80) once joined Bo Belinsky in the minors in a plot to help their teammates get good looks at a comely South American Miss World contestant when he mother proved bent on keeping her away from those rapacious ballplayers: drilling holes in the wall separating his and Belinsky’s room from hers. The plot succeeded until one bozo brought a flashlight so his viewing wouldn’t stop after dark. Oops.

Unfortunately, Dalkowski fought demons from his own surrealistic but uncontrollable fastball (Hearing him warm up was like hearing a gun go off, Red Sox infielder Dalton Jones once said of him) to alcohol and all the way to COVID-19 when he died last April. After decades in the post-baseball wilderness, his sister brought him home to Connecticut where he lived with some dignity and a lot of his memory from the almost three decades between baseball and his homecoming wiped out.

“Dave McNally, Cal Ripken Sr., Bo Belinsky and others from his generation in Orioles history have died,” wrote the Baltimore Sun‘s John Eisenberg in 2003, “but Dalkowski, the one everyone thought would go first, is safe at home.” That’s all his loving sister wanted for him, and it proved enough for himself, as well. When invited to throw out a ceremonial first pitch in Camden Yards, Dalkowski tossed the ball, then threw his arms up in triumph from his wheelchair. Only his body and face showed the net result of a lost life. The arms up showed the spirit resurrected.

Now Dalko and all who played the game and passed last year—including such other once-familiar souls as Frank Bolling, Ted Cox, Ray Daviault, Ed Farmer, Damaso Garcia, Lou Johnson, Eddie Kasko, Phil Linz (baseball’s unquestioned master of the harmonica), Denis Menke (he was once Hall of Famer Joe Morgan’s slick double play partner with the Astros), Bob Oliver, Les Rohr, Tony Taylor—truly are safe at home, in the Elysian Fields, suffering no more, and may they bask in the light, love, and game of the eternal sunshine.

Monty Johnstone’s flying circus

Jay Johnstone (left) with fellow prankster Don (Stan the Man Unusual) Stanhouse (center) and frequent victim Tommy Lasorda, in spring training.

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.