Influences play a major role in baseball. It’s no secret that veteran teammates often provide counsel to young players about the subtleties of the game. Perhaps lesser known is the influence that some older teammates have had in shaping unusual characters of the next generation. Few players know that better than Jay Johnstone, who carried the lessons from others into the late sixties, the seventies, and the eighties.
As a high school athlete, Johnstone found himself facing impending trouble from the NCAA. He had signed letters of intent to play football for nine different colleges. That was more than slightly against NCAA rules. Thankfully, the California Angels bailed Johnstone out by signing him to a baseball contract on the day of his high school graduation.
When Johnstone joined the Angels as a rookie in 1966, manager Bill Rigney gave him an intriguing place in the clubhouse. Rigney stationed Johnstone at the locker that stood in between those of veteran flakes Bo Belinsky and Dean Chance. Rigney then gave Johnstone his roommate assignment: the incomparable and sometimes indescribable Jimmy Piersall.
Johnstone had been a quiet, unassuming high school student. That all changed with the Angels. With Piersall becoming his guru, and Belinsky and Chance providing their own unique influence, Johnstone quickly developed into a combination of prankster, quipster, and clown. Within a short span of time, he became known as “Moon Man” to his Angels teammates.
Johnstone fit in well in the California clubhouse, but his lack of concentration and frequent defensive mishaps in the outfield frustrated Angels management. The Angels traded Johnstone to the White Sox, where he continued to show flashes of brilliance but also provided too many fits of frustration. A .188 batting average in 1972 didn’t help either. The White Sox released Johnstone, leaving him temporarily unemployed.
Fortunately, Johnstone had received an earlier promise from another major league owner, indicating that if he were ever to be released, he would have a standing offer of a job. That is how Johnstone came to be matched with an owner fitting of his comedic personality, Oakland A’s patriarch Charlie Finley. Living up to his promise, Finley signed Johnstone to a minor league contract.
In the midst of the 1973 season, the A’s recalled Johnstone from their Triple-A affiliate at Tucson, where he was attempting to begin his climb back toward the major leagues. The free-spirited Johnstone seemed like a perfect fit for the wild, swingin’ A’s, but he struggled to hit for the team that wore green and gold, and eventually became a victim of Oakland’s crowded outfield.
Released by the A’s, Johnstone again found employment in the minor leagues, this time with the Phillies’ organization. It was there that he experienced an amusing run-in with Jim Bunning, the former Phillies’ standout who was now managing their Triple-A Toledo affiliate in his decidedly old school fashion. During the 1974 season, Bunning ripped two of his slumping hitters, Dane Iorg and Jerry Martin, by comparing their diminishing batting averages to the sinking of the Titanic. The comparison appalled Johnstone, who couldn’t believe that his manager would publicly belittle his own players in such a way. The next day, Johnstone showed up at the ballpark wearing a full-body wet suit with the words “USS Titanic” scribbled across the front of his chest. As Johnstone made his way around the ballpark, he carried an oar with him, pretending to paddle it across the playing field. Not amused by the outfit or the “paddling,” the hardline Bunning fined Johnstone.
Johnstone would find a better fit with the parent Phillies. Once promoted to Philadelphia, Johnstone became paired with a more lenient manager, one who possessed a sense of humor. Regarded as a players’ manager, Danny Ozark seemed to understand and appreciate his journeyman outfielder, who would do or say almost anything. “What makes him unusual is that he thinks he’s normal,” Ozark explained to a reporter, “and everyone else is nuts.”
Although Ozark and the Phillies came to appreciate Johnstone as a valuable part-time player and pinch-hitter, he also tested their patience at times. He sometimes missed signs, didn’t always run hard to first base on ground balls and pop-ups, and developed a strange habit of throwing the bat at the ball when badly foooled on the pitch.
As a member of the Phillies, Johnstone began to solidify his reputation as a full-fledged flake. He diligently shined his shoes before the first pitch of every game, knowing full well that they would become dirty once he stepped onto the infield dirt. He wore unusual headgear before and after games, including a multicolored umbrella hat and an oddly shaped helmet that featured the words “Star Patrol.” He also shot off firecrackers with regularity from his locker. One time Johnstone waited until NBC “Game of the Week” broadcaster Joe Garagiola started to ask questions of Phillies first baseman Dick Allen, then set off a loud firecracker during the live interview that was airing on national television.
Another one of Johnstone’s most memorable stunts took place during the 1977 winter meetings in Los Angeles. After dining at a restautant called The Cove, Johnstone stood outside while waiting for the valet parking attendant to return his car. As he waited, Johnstone struck up a conversation with several other restaurant patrons, who asked him what he did to keep his batting stroke sharp during the winter. In the middle of his disertation on wintertime workouts, Johnstone’s car arrived. Not wanting to miss an opportunity at show-and-tell, Johnstone opened up the trunk and took out a batting tee, a tennis ball, and a bat. He placed the tennis ball on the tee and then took a whack, hitting a sound line drive down 7th Street in Los Angeles.
Johnstone eventually brought his zany act to New York. In the midst of a tumultuous 1978 season, the Yankees acquired him from the Phillies for spare relief pitcher Rawly Eastwick. On a team filled with colorful characters (like Thurman Munson, Mickey Rivers, Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles, and manager Billy Martin), Johnstone garnered few headlines but blended quite nicely into the bizarre Bronx landscape.
As a backup outfielder, Johnstone found intriguing ways to fill down time at the ballpark. While with the Dodgers, Johnstone once paid a visit to the concession stand—after the game had begun—and stood in line while wearing his full baseball uniform. When his turn came, Johnstone ordered a hot dog—and then returned to the dugout.
Johnstone’s sense of humor carried over to his dealings with the press. Always friendly and receptive, Johnstone became known for his dry sense of humor. “I want to play until I’m 40,” Johnstone told sportswriter Gary Stein during a 1983 interview. “I drink a lot. I smoke a lot. I do all the right things.” Nearly overcoming his own self-inflicted odds, Johnstone played for two more seasons, with his career coming to an end in 1985, a little more than a year short of his 40th birthday.
After his playing days, Johnstone parlayed his sense of humor and gregarious personality into a career as a broadcaster and author. He worked as a color commentator for the Yankees and the Phillies on their radio broadcasts and hosted his own television talk show. He made a cameo appearance in the memorable Leslie Nielsen vehicle, Naked Gun. Johnstone also wrote several books, including Temporary Insanity and Over The Edge, with his own unique brand of humor the centralized theme to the various tomes.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.