Where Have You Gone Jay Johnstone?
I don’t care where Joe DiMaggio has gone; I’m turning my lonely eyes to Jay Johnstone. Baseball has always had loads of talented center fielders, but where, oh where, have all the colorful characters gone? You know: the guys who say crazy things and give the Commissioner a hot foot?
Please don’t talk to me about Manny Ramirez; he wasn’t a character. I admit, making a catch and simultaneously high-fiving a fan is colorful, but acting as cutoff man on a throw from centerfield while playing left is merely mindless. Colorful characters don’t routinely dog it to first base on ground balls, either.
Baseball was full of colorful characters in its early days, from Rube Waddell to Rabbit Maranville to even Babe Ruth, though the public did not know quite how colorful Ruth really was until after his death. By the 1930s, entire teams were celebrated for their collective zaniness from the Gashouse Gang in St. Louis to the Daffy Dodgers of Brooklyn.
The 1930s was probably the golden age of colorful characters, and one of the league leading loonies of the time was Detroit and Brooklyn pitcher Cletus Elwood “Boots” Poffenberger. Boots once blamed Tigers’ management for his inability to lose weight during spring training. He reasoned that because they woke him up at 8:00 AM, he had to eat breakfast, lunch, AND dinner. If they’d let him sleep until 1:00 p.m. as he wanted, he would only need dinner.
Pitchers seem to be inordinately represented on the lists of the game’s most colorful characters, maybe because they have so much time on their hands between appearances and in the bullpen. Indeed, the widespread emergence of the relief specialist in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with a new age of diamond eccentrics.
The Orioles’ Moe Drabowsky is probably as famous for calling the Kansas City bullpen one night in 1966 and ordering pitcher Lew Krausse to start warming up, as he is for his record-setting 11 strikeouts as a reliever in Game One of the World Series that year. In 1970, he and fellow reliever Pete Richert got colorful quite literally when they painted the A’s bullpen roof black and orange. During the Birds’ World Series celebration that year, Drabowsky gave Commissioner Bowie Kuhn a hotfoot while Kuhn was presenting the Championship Trophy. He used a full pack of matches, too. Presumably, Moe didn’t treat his clients this way: He was a stock broker during the off-season.
1970 also happened to be Bill Lee’s first full year in the big leagues. Lee was not only one of the best southpaws to pitch for the Red Sox since Babe Ruth, he was also Boston’s most colorful player since, well, since Babe Ruth. Upon seeing Fenway Park’s Green Monster for the first time, the “Spaceman” asked if they “leave it there during games.” He once claimed that he sprinkled marijuana on his pancakes so the bus fumes wouldn’t bother him while he jogged to the ballpark.
By the early ’80s, Dan Quisenberry was not only leading the American League in saves, he was leading the majors in wit. When discussing his contract, he stated that it “has options through the year 2020 or until the last Rocky movie is made.” Explaining his mechanics, the sidearmer once remarked, “I found a delivery in my flaw.”
Meanwhile, the Moon Man, outfielder Jay Johnstone, was busy pulling pranks, out in Los Angeles with the Dodgers. He loved to imitate portly manager Tommy Lasorda by stuffing his uniform with pillows. However, his greatest triumph in Hijinxery may have come when he miniaturized teammate Ron Cey’s locker, so that it was proportioned more for a penguin than for a human. The diminutive Cey’s nickname, of course, was “Penguin.”
Somewhere around this time, however, when Johnstone was sawing and hammering in the middle of the night and Rick Dempsey was slip slidin’ on the tarp during a rain delay, the colorful characters of baseball slip-slud (to quote Dizzy Dean) their way right out of the game. It’s a pity. Watching Earl Weaver tear up the rule book in an umpire’s face is way more entertaining than watching two umps watch a third ump don a head set while waiting to find out if the fourth ump made the correct call.
Where have you gone, Jay Johnstone and Moe Drabowsky and Bill Lee and Boots Poffenberger? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you and the days when baseball was not only fun, but funny.
Feel free to remember your favorite colorful character in the comments section below!
Austin Gisriel is the author of Boots Poffenberger: Hurler, Hero, Hell-Raiser, the recently published biography of one of baseball’s most colorful characters, Summer Game Books, publisher.
You can win a first edition copy of Bill Lee’s The Wrong Stuff, a classic baseball book, by one of baseball’s all-time classic characters by leaving a comment or by simply sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org The winner will be chosen at random during the World Series.