Jay JohnstoneOctober 27, 2009
A few years after this card joined my childhood collection, Jay Johnstone posed on a 1983 card wearing a Budweiser umbrella hat. I don’t have that card, but I understand that if one card had to be chosen to represent Jay Johnstone, one of the game’s more renowned pranksters, it would be the one that shows him to be sympathetic to the practice of imbibing intoxicants and ridiculously safe against accruing moisture on any part of his head or neck. But this 1976 card actually provides a better representation of Jay Johnstone the player, who found a way to endure in the majors for 20 seasons, something that wouldn’t have occurred if all he could offer a team was the propensity to don giant sunglasses with windshield wipers on them. Here he kneels, gagless but still clearly relaxed and jovial, the bat he referred to as his “business partner” resting on his shoulder. Jay Johnstone: Have bat, will travel.
Philadelphia was the fourth of eight franchises for this roaming left-handed bat-for-hire, and he reached the peak of his career in that city, blooming into a .300 hitter with some power. Phillies fans campaigned for Johnstone, a career platoonist, to be put into the lineup all the time (the slogan for this movement was “Play Jay Everyday”), but Johnstone never became a full-fledged regular in Philadelphia or anywhere else (in his 20 big league seasons he logged 3,999 at bats against right-handers and just 704 against left-handers). Furthermore, the Phillies got rid of him as soon as he seemed to show signs of slowing down, shipping him to the Yankees in the middle of 1978 as he struggled with a .179 batting average.
It’s been a long time since I read The Bronx Zoo, Sparky Lyle’s hilarious account of the Yankees 1978 season, and I can’t remember if Jay Johnstone figures in the book. He didn’t make a big impact on the field as the Yankees stormed from far behind in the standings to win the division (he got just 73 at-bats), but I wonder if Lyle, the Yankees’ reigning practical joker (his go-to move being the ruination of birthday cakes by sitting on them with his bare buttocks), sized up Johnstone as a kindred spirit and deputized him in the service of clubhouse shenanigans.
The two left-handed goofballs, Lyle and Johnstone, are the only players who immediately come to mind as I try to think of guys who have logged time with both of the teams preparing to square off in the 2009 World Series. I may well be forgetting someone or something, but it seems that there’s not a whole lot of history between the two long-tenured franchises. They’ve met just once before in the World Series, in 1950. It went quickly: four Yankee wins in four days. The Yankees, then in the midst of a record five consecutive World Series titles, boasted five future Hall-of-Famers, a future Hall of Fame manager, and several other perennial All-Stars. The Phillies countered with Granny Hamner and Putsy Caballero. The undermanned NL champs battled admirably, each of the first three games a one-run affair, and the last game, a 5-2 loss, featured a never-say-die two-run rally by the Phillies in the ninth inning.
After that, the Phillies quickly receded back to their habitual absence from postseason play, while the Yankees went on to win several more World Series over the following decade and a half before sinking into their first franchise slump since before the purchase of Babe Ruth in 1920. In the mid-1970s, the Phillies and Yankees both got very good at the same time, and in retrospect it seems unlikely that they didn’t ever meet in the postseason during that era. But while the Yankees were able to get to the World Series three times in a row in the 1970s, the Phillies kept getting dumped in the NL playoffs, first by the Reds and then by the Dodgers two years in a row.
The Phillies have gained revenge against the Dodgers for those 1970s failures by jettisoning the Los Angeles team two years in a row. Now they finally get another chance, fifty-nine years after their first, to see if they can measure up against the Yankees, who seem to be playing with a looseness and ease that hasn’t been seen in the Bronx since the days when Sparky Lyle sat on cakes. The Yankees, whose most recent dynasty, in the late 1990s, was characterized by dour, kohl-eyed professionalism, have this year begun the practice of smashing a shaving cream pie into the face of the hero of the game. I don’t know if recently deceased comedian Soupy Sales, the king of the pie in the face, would approve (the author of a recent article in Newsday thinks not), but I suppose Jay Johnstone would understand the effort, if not its relative dearth of imagination. Johnstone knew that to stay loose, to survive, it helps to laugh.