By Harvey Hoffman
Jay Johnstone was an important player on the Phillies 1976 playoff team and later a radio commentator on the Phils broadcasts.
He also who won World Series championships as an outfielder with the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers while being baseball’s merry prankster
He died last Saturday at the age of 74 of complications from COVID-19 and also had suffered from dementia in recent years, according to his daughter Mary Jayne Sarah Johnstone.
”COVID was the one thing he couldn’t fight,” his daughter said by phone. ”It’s really kind of shocking.”
His family noted that Johnstone’s time of death last Saturday occurred around the same time Dodger Stadium was plunged into darkness because of a power outage.
”He may have had a hand in it or a victory lap of remembrance,” said Rick Monday, Johnstone’s former teammate and current Dodgers broadcaster.
Besides the Yankees and Dodgers, Johnstone played for the California Angels, Chicago White Sox, Oakland, Phils, San Diego, and Chicago Cubs during a 20-year major league career that began in 1966 and ended in 1985. He had a career batting average of .267, with 102 home runs and 531 RBIs.
In the 1981 World Series, Johnstone had a pinch-hit, two-run homer in Game 4 that rallied the Dodgers to an 8-7 win over the Yankees. That tied the series at two games apiece, and the Dodgers won the next two games to claim the title.
”When the game was on the line, he was able to transform that little 7-year-old child that was always in a playful mood into serious,” Monday said. ”Jay was always bigger than life. If the team was in a spot where you felt your backs were against the wall, he was one of the reliable guys.”
In his first postseason experience, Johnstone went 7 for 9 as the Phillies got swept by Cincinnati in the 1976 NL Championship Series. He played for the Yankees when they beat the Dodgers to win the 1978 crown.
With the Angels, Johnstone preserved Clyde Wright’s no-hitter against Oakland on July 3, 1970. He caught a flyball by Reggie Jackson to straightaway center field just in front of the wall in the seventh inning.
Johnstone possessed a sense of humor that he used to keep his teammates loose with pranks. He would nail their cleats to the floor or set them on fire. He cut out the crotch area of Rick Sutcliffe’s underwear. Johnstone once replaced the celebrity photos in the office of Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda with pictures of himself, Jerry Reuss and Don Stanhouse. He locked Lasorda in his office during spring training.
Another time, Johnstone and Reuss dressed up as groundskeepers to drag the infield during a game. Returning to the dugout, they were fined on the spot by Lasorda, who then asked Johnstone to pinch hit. He responded with a home run.
”Jay came back and wanted to know if he could get a discount on the fine,” Monday recalled.
His daughter said Johnstone’s pranks didn’t end at the ballpark. She recalled rubber snakes in their pool and spiders by the bathtub. She said her friends loved being around her father because ”he always made us laugh.”
”He wanted to find the humor in life no matter how serious things got,” she said. ”That was his motto to everything, bring a smile to people’s faces. Everyone loved him.”
Johnstone’s daughter said her favorite photo is one of her being held up by her father in the Dodgers clubhouse after winning the 1981 World Series. The Dodgers, who won their last World Series in 1988, begin the playoffs on Wednesday.
”I hope the Dodgers win it for him this year,” she said.
After retiring, Johnstone briefly worked as a radio color commentator for the Yankees and Phillies. During an interview with Yankee players Deion Sanders and Mel Hall, he got them to uncover a restaurant bread basket containing a snake, startling both players who jumped out of their seats.
Born John William Johnstone Jr. on Nov. 20, 1945, in Manchester, Connecticut, he moved to Southern California a few years later. He grew up in West Covina and attended Edgewood High, where he lettered in four sports. He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Angels in 1963 and made his major league debut at 20.