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Former Cub Jay Johnstone has died

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There are a lot of great stories about Johnstone. This one, you almost certainly have not heard.

Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images

With the coverage of the Cubs’ run to the NL Central title and their brief appearance in the 2020 postseason, this news item got skipped by me last week, and I wanted to give this popular player some recognition:

Jay 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, has died. He was 74.

He died Saturday of complications from COVID-19 and had suffered from dementia in recent years, according to his daughter, Mary Jayne Sarah Johnstone. He died at a nursing home in Granada Hills, she said Monday.

(NOTE: The “Saturday” referred to in the quoted article was a week ago, September 26.)

Johnstone played for the Cubs from 1982-84. By the time Dallas Green acquired him after he’d been released by the Dodgers, his better days were behind him. But in 237 games over the three seasons with the Cubs he hit .257/.350/.415 (124-for-482) with 16 home runs, not bad for a spare-part outfielder who was already 36 when he put on a Cubs uniform for the first time.

It was not long after Johnstone joined the Cubs, already with that prankster reputation, that the TV station where I worked at the time, WLS-Ch. 7, needed some fill-in sportscasters for a week on their 4 p.m. news broadcast. I can’t recall the reason the station did this, but they scheduled a number of popular local figures to read sports on that show, including another popular local figure, Arlington Park racetrack announcer Phil Georgeff.

And Johnstone. The date was Wednesday, June 16, 1982. The Cubs were playing the Phillies at Wrigley Field. That was the last year weekday games started at 1:35 p.m. The following year, Tribune ownership moved the games back to the now-iconic 1:20 p.m. starts.

The average length of a nine-inning game in 1982 was 2:35. The sports segment was supposed to air at about 4:45 p.m. If the game ran an average length it would have ended about 30 minutes or so before the sports segment, plenty of time to set Johnstone up on the field for the broadcast. You have to remember that this was nearly 40 years ago and those kinds of live feeds on local television were fairly rare, not the routine type of live shot you see today.

What could possibly go wrong?

Of course, the game went into extra innings after the Cubs blew a four-run lead in the top of the ninth, and the game was still in progress as the hour passed 4, then 4:15. I was the assistant director on this broadcast and had to coordinate with Johnstone and the remote crew. Naturally, we couldn’t put Johnstone on the field while the game was still going. He’d started the game but left for a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning, so he was available by broadcast time. (No, I don’t think Lee Elia did that just for the TV appearance. Everyone figured the game would be over in time.)

What we decided to do was to send Johnstone and the crew to the upper deck, which was largely empty that afternoon — attendance was just 9,377. But the other issue was that while the game was going on, we had to make sure we didn’t show any live game action — that was WGN’s exclusive.

So we sat Johnstone in a seat in the upper deck where you couldn’t see any of the field in the background, he did his live sports report, but the visuals were obviously not what was planned. My recollection is that Johnstone was a pro, understood what was needed and did his report flawlessly. After his playing career he became a broadcaster for ESPN and did some Yankees and Phillies broadcasts from 1989-93.

Oh, and the Cubs finally won that game when Ryne Sandberg hit a walkoff single in the 13th inning at just before 5:30 p.m. The game was notable for something else: It was one of six starts Lee Smith made in his Hall of Fame career.

Here are a couple of photos I was sent by BCB reader Richard Johnson, who told me that his mom bid on and won a wristband and batting glove used by Johnstone during the 1984 season:

As you can see, Johnstone wore that batting glove for his 100th career homer, hit off Ed Lynch of the Mets June 9, 1983 at Wrigley Field. (As was often the case for the Cubs of that year, they blew a 3-0 lead and lost 6-4 in extras.)

Lastly, here’s Johnstone’s most famous baseball card:

Condolences to Johnstone’s family, friends and many fans. Rest in peace, he was a true original.