RIP

RIP Jay Johnstone

“There are a lot of people in asylums who are saner then Jay Johnstone.” — Tommy Lasorda

Photo by Rich Kee

Jay Johnstone passed away Saturday from COVID-19, contracted while living in a Granada Hills, CA, nursing home while suffering from dementia. He was 74 years old.

I covered Johnstone in all three of my books (he’s the only member of a Swingin’ A’s championship squad to have played for the 1981 Dodgers), and while reporting They Bled Blue I got to spend a glorious afternoon with him in Los Angeles, during which I learned precisely how committed the man was to his prankster persona.

My goal for the meeting had been to talk about Johnstone’s Dodgers, of course, and we did that, but the subject he returned to repeatedly was the pranks he was known for playing. Johnstone’s oddball reputation was hard earned, through 20 years of terrorizing teammates on eight clubs by doing things like building a mini locker inside of Ron Cey’s actual locker to emphasize the third baseman’s diminutive stature. So what if it took a trip to the lumber yard and two hours of construction before Cey arrived at the ballpark? To Johnstone, the payoff was worth it.

When it came to the 1981 Dodgers, Johnstone helped even the mood on a club with plenty of natural tension. His take-no-prisoners approach to clubhouse levity—doing things like shoving brownies into Steve Garvey’s glove and nailing teammates’ equipment to the clubhouse floor—involved neither politics nor malice, and was thus one of the unifying forces on a roster prone to division.

Johnstone’s most impactful moment came during the World Series against the Yankees. LA had lost the first two games, and found themselves in a 6-3 hole in Game 4, on the precipice of a 3-games-to-1 deficit. Johnstone helped turn the tables. I used the moment in They Bled Blue to illustrate not only Johnstone’s impact on that game, but on the club as a whole:

With one out in the sixth, Ron Davis walked Mike Scioscia, at which point Lasorda sent up Jay Johnstone to pinch-hit for Tom Niedenfuer. Johnstone was 35 years old and over the course of his career been sold once, released twice, and traded three times. He was a 16-year vet but had collected as many as 500 at-bats in a season only once. By the time he reached Los Angeles as a free agent in 1980—he accepted a $20,000 pay cut to move closer to his hometown of West Covina, about 20 miles from Chavez Ravine, the first free agent ever, it was said, to lose money on his new deal—he’d settled into something of a Svengali-like pinch-hitter role. (“Svengali” in this instance being defined as “crazy person put on the planet to drive Tommy Lasorda batty.”) The guy was an inveterate prankster, unable to stop himself when it came to stirring the Dodgers’ pot.

Johnstone once enlisted Jerry Reuss and Don Stanhouse to help him replace the desk in Lasorda’s office with a makeup table bearing a mirror ringed by white lightbulbs, to better suit the TV-friendly manager. In another prank, he removed every one of the dozens of photos from the wood-paneled walls of Lasorda’s office—even those of Frank Sinatra—and replaced them with publicity shots of himself, Reuss, and Stanhouse.* At Vero Beach one year, Johnstone broke into Lasorda’s room while the skipper was out and removed the mouthpiece receivers from the telephones. Later that night, when everyone was asleep, he and Yeager cinched a rope as tightly as possible between Lasorda’s doorknob and a nearby palm tree, preventing the manager from pulling his door open. Unable to escape or call for help, things truly hit home for Lasorda when he realized that he might have to miss breakfast. The manager knew exactly who to blame. During that day’s game in Orlando he stole Johnstone’s street clothes and forced him to ride home in his underwear.

The prank for which Johnstone is best known occurred in September 1981, a month before the World Series. Back in 1979, Reuss and then-Dodgers pitcher Ken Brett donned groundskeeper outfits and helped drag the infield during a game. Ever since, Johnstone had desperately wanted some of that action for himself. So before a game against the Pirates at Dodger Stadium—Los Angeles had long since clinched a playoff spot—he convinced Reuss to revisit the stunt. The players copped some coveralls and proceeded to serve as members of the four-man infield crew that went to work in the fifth inning. Because it was Reuss’s off-day and Johnstone rarely started, nobody missed them.

That’s not the same as going undetected, of course. Rick Monday made sure that scoreboard cameras were trained upon the duo so that everybody in the stadium could see what was happening. Upon finishing their dragging, the ballplayers received a full ovation. The only man in the building who didn’t seem to appreciate the gesture was Tommy Lasorda, who issued $250 fines before the players had even returned to the dugout. Johnstone was still in a side room, pulling on his uniform pants, when he heard the manager bellow, “Where the fuck is Johnstone?” As comeuppance for his childish behavior, Lasorda wanted him to pinch-hit for pitcher Terry Forster, posthaste. Johnstone was still buckling his belt as he made his way to the plate—and proceeded to bash a home run.

By the time Lasorda called upon him to bat for Niedenfuer in Game 4 of the World Series, Johnstone was in the throes of a deep tailspin, having hit .095 over the last three weeks of the regular season and .205 overall. He’d collected only three at-bats through LA’s first two playoff series and was still looking for his first postseason hit. That pinch homer against the Pirates had been his only longball since May.

Facing Davis with one out and one on and his team trailing by three, Johnstone—whose entire persona seemed to revolve around doing the unexpected—pulled his grandest trick to date: he homered. The Dodgers’ bench, which had to that point resembled the LA County morgue, came suddenly to life. “Here we are,” thought Johnstone as he rounded the bases. “That changes the whole game.” The two-run blast pulled the Dodgers to within one, at 6–5.

LA tied the game two batters later, and took the lead for good in the seventh, holding on to win, 8-7, and won the series in six. Wrote Jim Murray in the next day’s Los Angeles Times: “Jay Johnstone is not supposed to be winning World Series games, he’s supposed to be pouring cayenne pepper in the coffee.”

When I met with Johnstone at an LA diner, he brought with him all three of the books he’d authored, each centered around baseball pranks (primarily his own). He paged through them with me, one by one, to make sure he didn’t miss anything while recounting the havoc he’d wrought. I’d already read them, of course—the first, Temporary Insanity, was a staple of my teenage years—and had long appreciated the lengths Johnstone would go to to mix things up. When he told me those stories, I was like a kid again. Take this one, in Johnstone’s own words from that day:

“[Dodgers publicity man] Steve Brenner would let me, Jerry Reuss and Don Stanhouse know when Lasorda had a speech. So we’d call up and say, ‘Hi, I understand our skipper is coming out there. Would you like us to come out and say a few words?’ They’d say, ‘Yeah, we’d love to have you!’ So we’d show up and would be sitting in the audience. Well, Brenner gave us scripts of all Tommy’s jokes. So Jerry Reuss would get up to the dais and tell one of Tommy’s jokes. Tommy would look at him funny, and cross it off his list. Stanhouse would get up and tell another one of his jokes, and Tommy would cross that one off his list. Then I’d get up and tell one of his jokes. We told all his fuckin’ jokes. He was pissed. He was laughing, but he was pissed.”

The prank that stuck with me as a kid, and which made my own kids giggle when I recounted it for them yesterday, was recounted in that first book:

My favorite medical gag came one day at the Dodgertown dispensary during spring training. Instead of a urine sample, I had filled my vial with apple juice from the Dodgertown cafeteria. Then I walked into the dispensary and placed in front of the nurse.

“Gee, that’s awfully cloudy,” she said.

“Yeah, it sure is,” I answered.” Here, let me run it through again.”

With that, I chug-a-lugged the apple juice, and the nurse started screaming.

“Wait right here,” I said. “I’ll run out and bring another sample back. Should just take a second.”

By now, she had lost her glasses. I was afraid she might have a heart attack. The doctor got really mad at me because she was elderly. In fact, she retired soon after that.

Another moment for which Johnstone is remembered is being caught by Dodgers general manger Fred Claire in a concession line at Dodger Stadium in full uniform, waiting to buy a hot dog. I’d heard the story many times, including from Claire himself, but it wasn’t until I spoke with Johnstone that I was able to gain some context. From our discussion:  

“The reason behind that is that Lasorda brought a Little League team from where he lives out to Dodger Stadium at 10:30 a.m., and we had them on the field till 4 o’clock. We had them on that field for what seemed like eight hours, and there was no freaking food. None. And when the game started, I was hungry. So I walk upstairs, get right in the hot dog line, and who walks by but the general manager, Fred Claire. I didn’t expect that one. I said, ‘Hey, Fred! How you doing, buddy?’ So he calls Lasorda and says, ‘Dammit, your guy’s up in the hot dog line.’ ”

To make matters worse, Johnstone said, in the middle of the clinic somebody brought Lasorda a plate of pasta, which he ate in the dugout, in front of his starving players.

Jay Johnstone was 71 years old when I interviewed him for They Bled Blue, and was as vibrant as a teenager when it came to discussing his career. He’s gone far too early, and will be sorely missed.

* Bonus material, from my interview with Johnstone, regarding the purloined celebrity photos from Lasorda’s office walls: ‘We hid them in the locker room. Now he comes into his office, he has Frank Sinatra, he has Jilly [Rizzo, Sinatra’s body man], all these people—there may have been 15 or 16 people in the room, maybe more, and he’s screaming, ‘Get them fucking guys in here!’ He’s just ranting and raving. Don Rickles was there, and he said, ‘Now wait just one minute. How many games have those other guys ever won for you?’ ‘Shut up, Rickles!’ We just broke out laughing. It took us a while to get the pictures back up, but we got ‘em up.”

For what it’s worth, to this day Reuss denies any involvement in the scheme.

Stanhouse, Reuss and Johnstone. Photo by Rich Kee.

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