Jay Johnstone

October 27, 2009

Jay Johnstone 76

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.


  1. I always thought “Jay Johnstone” would have been a great nickname on “The Flintstones”.

    I think “The Prankster” and funny “nicknames” were casualties of free agency and the billions of dollars in today’s game. You really don’t see players acting the way Johnstone used to act back in the 70’s-early 80’s. I guess when you start paying a guy $50,000,000 dollars, you stop condoning silly behavior.

    It’s hard to write a $50 million dollar check to a guy called; “Ducky”, “Dizzy”, “Penguin”, or “Puddin Head”.

  2. i used to confuse jay johnstone the outfielder with jay johnson the ventriloquist. but while the latter appeared on “soap,” the former appeared in “the naked gun,” “the drew carey show,” and other movies and tv programs. he also hosted the syndicated “baseball’s funniest moments.”

    here are some of his antics, courtesy http://dodgerprofiles.blogspot.com; be sure to check out the last player mentioned:

    He pulled off a number of infamous pranks during his playing days, including placing a soggy brownie inside Steve Garvey’s first base mitt, cutting out the crotch area of Rick Sutcliffe’s underwear, dressing up as a groundskeeper and sweeping the Dodger Stadium infield in between innings, and replacing the celebrity photos in Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda’s office with pictures of himself, Jerry Reuss, and Don Stanhouse.

  3. Jay Johnson and Jay Johnstone are neighbors in a litany of similarly named guys from the era, which also includes Ray Jay Johnson, Jai Johanny Johanson, J. Jonah Jameson, and, by extension, JJ “Dyn-o-mite” Walker.

  4. Johnstone!! I live in the town where he was born now. I bought his books when I was a kid. He struck me as a toned down version of Bill Lee; acceptable for prime time television and not rated R like the Spaceman was.

    How you doing, Josh? It’s been ages since I stopped by.

  5. Guys who played for both…. Without looking it up, I got…Charlie Hayes….Abreu…Cory Lidle….Sal Fasano….Tom Gordon….Paul Quantrill…and for some reason Barry Foote.

  6. It also looked like they would meet in the 1964 Series but something happened to the Phillies.

    Johnstone was also on the winning side in another Yankees-Dodgers Series, in 1981 with L.A. I think Tommy John was on the losing side in ’78 and ’81.

  7. Johnstone’s “Temporary Insanity” was one of my favorite baseball books when I was a kid. One of my favorite stories from it was when he locked Lasorda in his hotel room one morning during Spring Training by tying Tommy’s door to a Vero Beach palm tree. Another was a story about him placing signs in the first base stands that said “Warning: Sit Here at Your Own Risk. Steve Sax Playing Second Base Today.”

    There was also a story about painting the horse’s balls on the statue of General Grant in Chicago, which was (and still is, perhaps?) a longtime rookie hazing tradition in baseball. (Josh, have you written on that before or encountered any stories about it?)

  8. Add Rawly Eastwick, who was traded for Johnstone, and Jim Kaat to the list who played for both teams. Also, it’s true Johnstone didn’t do much for the Yankees in ’78, but his only home run as a Yankee in ’78 was a grand slam at Fenway.

  9. There’s a story in “The Bad Guys Won” (one of the most entertaining baseball books I have read in the past few years) about an extremely inebriated Kevin “World” Mitchell painting the balls on some statue (Mets Orange and Blue). I am not near my copy of the book or I would check to see if it was one and the same.

  10. Ennui Willie Keeler: Good to hear from you. Thanks for checking in.

    Eric: I’m not familar with that Grant statue hazing ritual. I’ll look into it.

    shealives: I must have blocked out any memory of the Johnstone slam in ’78. Must have been during one of the late-season lambastings that turned the dream season into a nightmare.

  11. and from surrounding eras,
    …masterful jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson, “Mr. Show”‘s Jay Johnston, California Golden Seals sniper Joey “The Jet” Johnston, Texas Ranger hurler John Henry Johnson, Chuck Berry’s piano player (and solo artist) Johnnie Johnson, former NY Jets rushing and receiving threat Johnny Johnson, the Atlanta Hawks’ underrated guard Joe Johnson, and probably several others that I’m confusing with one another.

  12. Here’s what “The Bad Guys Won” says:

    “During a trip to Chicago that month [August 1986], a group of veterans coerced Mitchell into drinking to the point of blindness, then heading downtown in the middle of the night and painting the (rather large) testicles of a prominent horse sculpture in Met orange and blue. ‘Painting nuts ain’t fun,’ says Mitchell. ‘Now, because of us, they have a fence around the stupid thing.'”

  13. Rich Westcott’s “Tales from the Phillies Dugout” has this to offer:

    “Along the route to the ballpark resides a statue of a general on a horse. It sits on a pedestal about eight feet high with the horse, rearing back on its hind legs, obviously reaching well above the pedestal.

    For many years, rookies from NL teams were required to sneak out during the night and paint the horse’s testicles in team colors. Ordinarily, one player had to stand on another’s shoulders to reach the designated target. Using spray paint, players often added their numbers or initials to the artwork. The veterans inspected the quality of the work the next day as their bis passed the statue.

    Once, in a prearranged scheme, two Chicago policemen entered the Phillies clubhouse…”

    Westcott goes on to say that the cops showing up was a prearranged practical joke which resulted in several of the rookies being hauled out to a police car before the joke was revealed. Wayne Gomes is identified as one of the victims.

  14. Photo evidence!

    (Though it turns out it’s a statue of Sheridan, not Grant.)

  15. “Also, it’s true Johnstone didn’t do much for the Yankees in ‘78, but his only home run as a Yankee in ‘78 was a grand slam at Fenway.”

    Almost. He had one HR in ’78, a solo shot at Fenway. He also had one HR in ’79, a grand slam at Comiskey.

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