So, it was sad to read about Johnstone’s death, which was announced Monday. His daughter confirmed the outfielder’s death on Facebook. Johnstone, 74, who died Saturday, suffered from dementia and was in a California nursing home when he died of complications from the coronavirus.
Johnstone batted .267 during his 20-year career in the majors from 1966 to 1985, but I figure he batted at least .300 in pulling pranks on teammates, managers and members of the media.
He caught me during spring training in 1981. I was a young sportswriter at The Stuart News in Florida and went to Vero Beach to take pictures and do a feature story. I was walking from the Dodgers’ clubhouse toward the field at Holman Stadium and wandered onto a fenced-in practice field, where several players were stretching.
I took out a camera from my bulky bag and began snapping away when Johnstone, in the front row, chirped at me.
“Hey, you dropped some film,” he said. “Behind you.”
Naturally, I turned to my left to look.
“No, the other side,” he said, as I spun the other way.
“Nope, you’re still missing it,” he said.
By now, I was doing pirouettes and my bag was swinging around my waist. The players were snickering loudly, saying “rookie,” and “clown” and a few other choice words.
I must have turned red, because Johnstone finally said, “Don’t worry, kid, I do that to everyone.”
What he did to other major leaguers was much funnier and inventive. After all, this was a guy who wrote a book in 1985 called Temporary Insanity (with Rick Talley) and had a bit part in the 1988 comedy farce, “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” playing a member of the Seattle Mariners.
“If there was a tax on the amount of fun we had, we couldn’t afford to live,” Reuss, 71, told the Los Angeles Times. “There are so many different memories … but unfortunately, a lot of them you can’t print.”
Johnstone would randomly nail teammates’ cleats to the floor or set them on fire. Along with Dodgers teammate Jerry Reuss, he once replaced the celebrity photos Tommy Lasorda with pictures of himself, Reuss and Don Stanhouse, according to the Times. Johnstone and Reuss dressed as groundskeepers and dragged the infield during the fifth inning of a Sept. 2, 1981, game at Dodger Stadium.
Lasorda chewed them both out and sent Johnstone up to pinch hit for reliever Terry Forster to lead off the sixth inning. Johnstone hit a leadoff homer off Pittsburgh’s Mark Lee, the final run in the Dodgers’ 6-2 victory.
“Who in the history of baseball has dragged the infield in the fifth inning and hit a pinch-hit homer in the sixth?” Reuss asked the Times.
Some other notable pranks. Johnstone once gave the Phillie Phanatic one of Lasorda’s uniforms, and the mascot placed it on a blow-up doll. Another time, Dodgers executive Fred Claire was walking from the field to the press box before the first pitch when he noticed Johnstone ordering a hot dog at a concession stand near the team’s clubhouse.
“I screamed at him, ‘Jay, get your butt in the clubhouse!’” Claire told the Times. “I don’t know if that was Babe Ruth-like or Jay Johnstone-like, but it was great.”
Johnstone also once put a soggy brownie in Steve Garvey’s glove, according to The Orange County Register.
Johnstone’s first roommate on the road when he joined the California Angels in 1966 was outfielder Jimmy Piersall. That might explain a few things.
“(Piersall) went nuts twice and used to walk around saying, ‘I’ve got the papers to prove I’m sane,'” Johnstone told the Register in 2011. “He’d wake me up at night and ask me baseball questions … because he said he wanted to get to my deep inner id. I still have no idea what he meant by that.”
Johnson’s nickname, which I learned from his APBA baseball card when I owned the game in 1973, was “Moon Man.” He would imitate Lasorda by stuffing pillows in his uniform shirt and meet with a pitcher on the mound before the game.
Temporary insanity, indeed. Johnstone was one of a kind.
“I’ll be honest,” Reuss told the Times. “There was nothing temporary about it.”
We’ll miss ya, Jay.