There was a time way back in my younger days when the only thing I enjoyed more than reading comic books was collecting baseball cards.
The bulk of my collection, cobbled together over the course of the early 1980s through roughly the mid-1990s, remains intact inside the closet off my old bedroom at my parents’ house.
One card in particular returned from my memory this week.
It was produced by the baseball card company Fleer back in 1984 - when I was roughly 10 years old. It features a well-traveled outfielder named Jay Johnstone wearing an umbrella hat covered in beer-can labels.
Baseball card collectors from my era don’t need a description here. They already know just exactly what card I’m talking about and they no doubt kept it around somewhere because, well, it just had a certain something about it.
For those who are less familiar, this card featured a head shot of Johnstone wearing a band around his head with a small umbrella attached to it. The hat is covered in Budweiser beer labels.
Even better, the card shows Johnstone in one of those signature powder-blue Cubs uniforms from the 1980s, years before the Cubbies finally broke through and actually won a World Series.
It’s hard for me to imagine, in our modern times of political correctness and litigation related to non-sanctioned promotional materials, any modern-day ball player wearing anything endorsing any form of alcohol on a card that could be purchased by children and teens.
An ESPN article from last year titled “10 of the most hilarious and unforgettable baseball cards” highlighted the Johnstone card. Writer Dan Mullen explained that the umbrella was actually a form of a hat called a “Brockabrella,” which former St. Louis Cardinals great Lou Brock touted as a spokesman. It was designed to keep a person’s head dry and hands free while they swung a baseball bat or had a beer maybe.
Like many of my baseball collecting peers, the card has much more than monetary value because it is unique, irreverent and has a feel of intentional fun to it.
At a time when so many things, baseball included, feel so much more serious and so much less fun, it felt good for me to remember it and Johnstone again.
Funny was one of Johnstone’s trademarks.
While he played for roughly two decades between 1966 and 1985 and won the World Series twice, once with the New York Yankees in 1978 and again with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981, he is perhaps better known for his antics off the field than his play on it.
The Associated Press referred to Johnstone as “baseball’s merry prankster,” and for good reason. He reportedly enjoyed lighting his teammates’ cleats on fire or nailing them to the floor. He once cut the crotch out of a teammate’s underwear. Ha also famously locked his former manager, Dodgers great Tommy Lasorda, inside his office during spring training. Johnstone used to dress up as groundskeepers and drag the infield.
He successfully carried over his personality to a career in broadcasting after his retirement from the game. He was one of the voices of the New York Yankees in 1989 and 1999. Appropriately, he hosted ESPN’s “The Lighter Side of Sports” and contributed to syndicated programs like “Baseball’s Funniest Pranks” and “Super Sports Follies.”
Johnstone’s pranks were not confined to baseball.
His daughter, Mary Jayne Sarah Johnstone, said that her dad was fond of putting rubber snakes in the family pool and fake spiders near the bathtub. She said he was beloved by her friends because “he always made us laugh.”
I had no idea or I just don’t recall, but in doing my research, I learned that Johnstone appeared as a member of the Seattle Mariners in one of the funnier scenes in the “The Naked Gun,” the 1988 slapstick comedy that features Leslie Nielsen as bumbling detective Lt. Frank Drebin. It’s Johnstone who is at the plate when Nielsen, pretending to be a baseball umpire, realizes just how much the home crowd prefers it when the ump calls strikes instead of balls.
It’s comedic gold and a lasting part of baseball cinema history.
Years later, the baseball card company Upper Deck fittingly produced a card featuring Johnstone as a Seattle Mariner in honor of his appearance in the movie.
How cool. I should really get me one of those.
Over the course of his actual baseball career, Johnstone played for the Yankees, Dodgers, California Angels, Chicago White Sox, Oakland A’s, Philadelphia Phillies, San Diego Padres, and Chicago Cubs. He batted .267, hit 102 home runs, drove in 531 runs and stole 50 bases. His best year came in 1976 when he played for the Phillies, a team that won 101 games and the NL East title that year. Arguably, his biggest on-field moment came during the 1981 World Series when he hit a two-run, pinch-hit homer in the sixth inning of game four. The Dodgers and Johnstone went on to win the Series in six games.
Statistics were besides the point where Jay Johnstone was concerned.
As teammates said following Johnstone’s death from COVID-19 earlier this week, he was a “reliable” player who played hard, helped the team and often came up with some clutch hits when needed. He was also recalled as a great teammate, the kind who kept the locker room loose even when tensions were running high.
In a story reflecting on Johnstone’s life and career, The Los Angeles Times recalled one occasion where Dodgers general manager Fred Clair was heading from the field to the press box for the start of a game when he spied, in full uniform, Johnstone ordering a hot dog from a concession stand outside the team’s 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.”
Babe Ruth he was not, but Jay Johnstone was a memorable character in a game that has always been full of them.
Thank you for your contributions to our great game, Mr. Johnstone.
Nobody wore an umbrella hat covered in beer-ban labels quite like you.
Mark Scheer is a child of the 1980s and proud owner of hundreds of worthless baseball cards that have emotional and spiritual value to him. If you would like to talk with him about America’s pastime or any other matters, he can be reached by telephone at 282-2311, ext. 2250 or by email at email@example.com.