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Former Dodgers fan favorite Jay Johnstone dies at 74 after COVID-19 battle

Mike DiGiovanna
·4 mins read
FILE - In this July 29, 1977, file photo, Philadelphia Phillies manager Danny Ozark, center, gets between umpire Jerry Crawford, left, and his outfielder Jay Johnstone during an argument in the fifth inning of a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants in Philadelphia. Johnstone, who won World Series championships as a versatile outfielder with the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers while being baseball's merry prankster, died Saturday, Sept. 26, of complications from COVID-19 at a nursing home in Granada Hills, Calif., his daughter Mary Jayne Sarah Johnstone said Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. He was 74. He also from dementia in recent years, his daughter said. (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy, File)
Philadelphia Phillies manager Danny Ozark gets between umpire Jerry Crawford and outfielder Jay Johnstone during an argument on July 29, 1977. Johnstone, who won World Series championships as a versatile outfielder with the New York Yankees and Dodgers while being baseball's merry prankster, died Saturday of complications from COVID-19 at a nursing home in Granada Hills. He was 74. (Rusty Kennedy / Associated Press)

Jay Johnstone, the fun-loving outfielder who was best known for his clubhouse pranks and a dramatic pinch-hit home run that helped the Dodgers win the 1981 World Series, died Saturday, his daughter, Mary Jayne Sarah Johnstone, confirmed on Facebook. He was 74.

Johnstone, who hit .267 with 102 home runs and 531 RBIs in a 20-year major league career from 1966-85, suffered from dementia and was in a Granada Hills nursing home when he died of complications from COVID-19.

“COVID was the one thing he couldn’t fight,” Johnstone’s daughter told the Associated Press on Monday. “It’s really kind of shocking.”

Johnstone was born on Nov. 20, 1945, in Manchester, Conn., and his family moved to Southern California when he was a toddler. He attended West Covina Edgewood High and signed with the Angels in 1963.

Johnstone reached the big leagues in 1966, the start of a lengthy career spent with the Angels, Philadelphia Phillies, Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics and San Diego Padres.

In his first postseason appearance for the Phillies in 1976, Johnstone went seven for nine with three RBIs in a three-game National League Championship Series loss to Cincinnati. But his biggest October hit came for the Dodgers in Game 4 of the 1981 World Series. Trailing 6-3 in the sixth, Johnstone followed Mike Scioscia’s walk with a pinch-hit, two-run homer off Ron Davis to pull the Dodgers to within 6-5.

The Dodgers scored again in the sixth and twice in the seventh to win 8-7, evening the series at two games apiece. The Dodgers won Games 5 and 6 to win the championship.

“It was certainly memorable,” said Fred Claire, the former Dodgers general manager who was the team’s vice president of public relations and marketing in 1981. “But I think the biggest contribution of Jay was just in keeping all the guys around him loose.”

Dodgers outfielder Jay Johnstone wear a padded version of manager Tommy Lasorda's uniform.
Dodgers outfielder Jay Johnstone, wearing a padded version of manager Tommy Lasorda's uniform, checks the progress of the rain delay before a playoff game against the Montreal Expos on Oct. 18, 1981, in Montreal, Canada. (Associated Press)

Johnstone’s pranks were legendary. He set teammates’ cleats on fire and nailed them to the floor. He and former Dodgers pitcher Jerry Reuss once replaced the celebrity photos in manager Tommy Lasorda’s office with pictures of himself, Reuss and Don Stanhouse.

“If there was a tax on the amount of fun we had, we couldn’t afford to live,” Reuss, 71, said by phone from Las Vegas. “There are so many different memories … but unfortunately, a lot of them you can’t print.”

Johnstone and Reuss once dressed as groundskeepers and dragged the Dodger Stadium infield in the fifth inning of a game against Pittsburgh on Sept. 2, 1981. The players hustled into the clubhouse to change into their uniforms and returned to the dugout.

“Tommy met us at the bench, gave us an ass-chewing that was second to none and said, ‘Jay, you’re hitting for the pitcher,’ ” Reuss said. “Jay went up and hit a homer [in a 6-2 win]. Who in the history of baseball has dragged the infield in the fifth inning and hit a pinch-hit homer in the sixth?”

Johnstone once gave Lasorda’s uniform to the Phillie Phanatic, the mascot placing it on a blow-up doll “and having a blast with it,” Reuss said.

Claire was heading from the field to the press box as a game was about to start when he saw Johnstone — in full uniform — ordering a hotdog from a concession stand outside the Dodgers clubhouse.

“I screamed at him, ‘Jay, get your butt in the clubhouse!’" Claire said. “I don’t know if that was Babe Ruth-like or Jay Johnstone-like, but it was great.”

Johnson appeared in the hit movie “The Naked Gun” as a member of the Seattle Mariners in a game against the Angels and had a broadcasting career. He wrote a 1985 book called “Temporary Insanity,” with author Rick Talley.

“I’ll be honest,” Reuss said with a laugh, “there was nothing temporary about it.”

In addition to his daughter, Johnstone is survived by his wife of 52 years, Mary Jayne Johnstone, and a son-in-law, Ryan Dudasik.