Some ballplayers are remembered for their prowess on the field.
We remember others for their antics off it.
Like Jay Johnstone.
It’s not that Johnstone was a bad player. You have to produce to last 20 seasons in the big leagues. And Johnstone had his moments.
He hit .300 three times. In the 1976 NLCS he set a record, hitting .778 for the Phillies. His two-run, pinch-hit home run in Game 4 turned the 1981 World Series in the Dodgers’ favor.
Those are the highlights, my friends. A bit sparse for a 20-year career. This is a guy who played in 148 games for the Angels in 1969. In no other season did he appear in more than 129 games. He averaged 235 at bats per season, meaning he watched more than he played. His season highs were 16 home runs, 64 runs, 59 runs batted in and 10 stolen bases.
But here’s the amazing part. He hit .188 for the ‘72 White Sox, and followed that with a lusty .107 mark for the Swingin’ A’s in ‘73. Yet, somehow, he managed to play 12 more seasons.
You’ve got to have a sense of humor to be able to bounce back from a .107 season. Fortunately, that was Johnstone’s greatest asset. For proof, you need look no further than the titles of his three books: Temporary Insanity, Over the Edge and Some of my Best Friends are Crazy: Baseball’s Favorite Lunatic Goes In Search Of His Peers.
Temporary Insanity contains a chapter entitled “Managers I Have Terrorized” and includes a great line about Angels manager Lefty Phillips: “It’s difficult to gain the respect of a player when you’re spraying him with Red Man.”
Johnstone also took time to give us the origin of baseball’s usage of the word flake: “Have you ever heard of Jackie Brandt? He gets credit for the term. When he was a rookie outfielder for the Cardinals in 1956, a teammate noticed that things seemed to flake off his mind and disappear. Jackie once played 27 holes of golf in 101 degree heat. Before a doubleheader.”
Not that Johnstone considered himself a flake. His manager with the Phillies, Danny Ozark, once observed in a famous comment, “What makes him unusual is that he thinks he’s normal, and everyone else is nuts.”
Normal or nuts? You be the judge:
Johnstone was quite a high school football player. So good, in fact, that he was highly recruited. So oblivious that he signed letters of intent with nine different schools. Even in the early ‘60’s, that was a violation of NCAA rules.
Plucked from that morass by the Angels, Johnstone soon fell in with noted free spirits Dean Chance and Bo Belinsky. His roommate was Jimmy Piersall, who was in a class by himself. This is the guy who ran around the bases backwards after hitting his 100th career home run. Asked to explain putting Piersall and Johnstone together, manager Bill Rigney explained, “I didn’t want to screw up two rooms.”
In time, Johnstone would leave the dugout during games, amble up to the concession stand, buy a hot dog — all in full uniform, mind you — and then stroll back down to the dugout.
He’d don a groundskeepers’ uniform and help smooth the infield between innings. He’d take the field wearing Halloween masks, huge sunglasses with wipers, or a Darth Vader helmet. According to teammate Brian Clevenger, he once removed umpire Ken Kaiser’s glasses, and gave them a good cleaning.
Two of his most noteworthy pranks occurred lat in his career with the Dodgers. He once slipped into manager Tommy Lasorda’s office, removed all the framed photographs of Lasorda with numerous Hollywood celebrities, and replaced them with pictures of himself, Jerry Reuss and Don Stanhouse.
Stanhouse, by the way, fit right in. His nickname was Stan the Man Unusual.
Johnstone also stuffed towels into his uniform jersey, grabbed a copy of one of Lasorda’s books, and with a can of Slim Fast in the other hand, took off for the pitcher’s mound.
No wonder Johnstone loved baseball. “I want to play until I’m 40,” he told Gary Stein in 1983. “I drink a lot. I smoke a lot. I do all the right things.”
So, what was the best gag he ever pulled? Easy: the time he placed a melting brownie in the glove of Steve Garvey.
This was brilliant on several counts. Garvey was the most intense member of the team, so he was bound to react. Knowing this, Johnstone also had the foresight to deflect the blame.
“I sidled up to Reuss, and started wiping the chocolate off on his pants,” he told Kalani Simpson of the Star Bulletin. “So, naturally, Garvey started jumping on him and beating him on the chest.
“You know, I’m not stupid.”
No, you have to be pretty smart to remain in the big leagues for 20 years with Johnstone’s talent.
But give him credit. He had it all figured out. As he told Simpson, “My job was to have fun. And win.”