“He’d give you the shirt off his back. Of course, he’d call a press conference to announce it.” – Catfish Hunter
“Off the record, he’s a piece of shit.”–Billy Martin
Out of the blue, the man who once seemingly made headlines all the time came out of the shadows recently to dominate baseball pages again. The Yankees were matched up against the Cardinals and the former straw that stirred the drink proclaimed that the trade the Redbirds executed for Paul Goldschmidt was “the best deal of the winter, by far. Steal of the century.”
It is well worth remembering what Reginald Martinez Jackson was in his time. He spent only five years as a Yankee in a 21- year Major League career. But what those five years were like . . .
Reggie Jackson in pinstripes seemed an appropriate match. In November 1976 he announced that he came to the Yankees because “George Steinbrenner outhustled everybody else. Certain things have a lot more meaning than money. It was easy to see I could become a rich man. Some clubs offered several thousand more; there was even the possibility of seven figures more.”
The Yankees won the 1976 AL East pennant in a romp, squeezed through to win the American League title and were swept by Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” in the World Series.
A ticked-off George Steinbrenner first signed free agent Don Gullet of Cincinnati for $2.09 million. Then he signed Reggie Jackson, the most prized free agent of all, to the highest salary contract in baseball then.
Steinbrenner’s first offer was $2 million, then raised to $2.9 million with an extra sweetener of $60,000 for Jackson to purchase a Rolls-Royce. Waiting for several hours in the Hyatt at O’Hare Airport, “the Boss” was determined. He got his man. Details of the contract were scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin as was the signature of Reggie Jackson who wrote on the napkin: “I will not let you down. –Reginald M. Jackson.”
Born on May 18, 1946, in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, Jackson was one of six children, He showed off his athletic talents from the start. In high school, he was a four-sport varsity athlete. He starred in football and baseball at Arizona State. After his sophomore season, he was scooped up by the Kansas City Athletics with the No. 2 pick of the 1966 draft. Incredibly, the New York Mets had the Number One pick and passed on Reggie Jackson.
By 1967, he was in the big leagues. Owner Charley Finley moved Jackson and other talented youngsters and the team to Oakland. There were five straight AL West titles 1971-1975 that Jackson was a big part of as well as three World Series and an MVP award. With free agency for Jackson on the horizon, Finley traded him to Baltimore. After one year with the Orioles, it was –enter George Steinbrenner!
The talent was always there for Reggie Jackson, so was the big mouth. A self-promoter and a deprecator of others, he bragged: “I didn’t come to New York to be a star. I brought my star with me.”
He came to the Yankees with lots of baggage, the verbal kind. Many on the Yankee roster and in the media thought he went too far with his running commentary that included lines like:
“God do I love to hit that little round sum-bitch out of the park and make ’em say ‘Wow! Hitting is better than sex.”
“In the building, I live in on Park Avenue there are ten people who could buy the Yankees, but none of them could hit the ball out of Yankee Stadium.”
“The only difference between me and the other great Yankees is my skin color.”
“You know this team . . . it all flows from me. I’ve got to keep it going. I’m the straw that stirs the drink. . .”
“After Jackie Robinson the most important black in baseball history is Jackson, I really mean that.”
He had the mouth. He also had the goods.
In Reggie Jackson’s first season as a Yankee, he led the team to its first world championship in 15 years.
“The writers were never late that year,” recalled Phil Rizzuto, “because something was always going on. A lot of egos were vying for the headlines.”
The headline of headlines belonged to October 18th, 1977 as Reggie Jackson became “Mr. October.” The Yankees were up three games to two against the Los Angeles Dodgers and Jackson literally took over game six. He hit a home run on the first pitch in the fourth, fifth and eighth innings.
The controversial slugger was on fire in that World Series, batting a blazing.450 with the record five homers. Jackson also recorded the highest slugging average in a six-game Series (1.250), most total bases in a six-game Series (25), most runs (tied with 10).
George Steinbrenner’s signing of Jackson paid off big time. There was joy in the Bronx for most. “Mr. October” was what Reggie Jackson was called for his post-season heroics. “Mr. Obnoxious” was what he was called for his over-the-top arrogance.
One can only wonder about the comments made by Jackson about Steinbrenner after the 1977 World Championship: “I was happy for George because George wanted it so bad. I said to myself, ‘Now he can really have fun at the 21 Club. He’ll go around and give rings to his friends and he’ll be able to talk about this one as long as he lives.”
Reggie maintained if he played in New York, a candy bar would be named for him. He called the shot. Opening Day 1978 at the Stadium was “Reggie Bar” giveaway day. Catfish Hunter described the orange wrapped candy this way: “Open it and it tells you how good it is.” The crowd received free samples. Reggie blasted a three-run homer. Thousands of the orange-wrapped candies were thrown out onto the field. It was a marketing and public relations disaster, an embarrassment. Chicago pitcher Wilbur Wood, who gave up the home run, was beside himself. There was annoyance among the press, some outrage among players.
“It’s not called for,” the generally calm White Sox manager Bob Lemon was agitated. “Let them throw them when he’s in right field,” Lemon said. “See how he feels. People starving all over the world and 30 billion calories are laying there.”
It was called “the Bronx Zoo” and other earthier phrases, that general environment around the Yankees. There was always something going wrong, some annoyance magnified big time.
A case in point took place on Saturday afternoon June 18, 1978, in a game against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Reggie was the centerpiece, some would day the catalyst for what happened.
The game was on national TV. The Yankees were being blown out by the Red Sox. In the sixth inning, Boston’s Jim Rice lifted a ball into short right field. Playing deep for the slugger, who had power to all fields, Jackson got to the ball after it landed. Poor judgment on his part, he later claimed.
An annoyed, an always annoyed Billy Martin, it seemed with Jackson, sent reserve outfielder Paul Blair running out to right field. Jackson went berserk – never had he been taken out of a game in his long career. Later he would tell writers that Martin’s negative handling of him had racial overtones.
A furious Jackson jogged in towards the dugout heading straight for his manager who was in the right corner. Two Yankee immortals, strong men, former catchers Yogi Berra and Elston Howard had taken up positions ready for Jackson
“You never wanted me on this team in the first place,” Jackson yelled.
“I ought to kick your ass,” Martin shot back.
The strong man Howard contained Jackson. Berra got into it, too. “Once that little guy gets his monkey claws on you, you ain’t goin’ nowhere,” Ron Guidry said.
All the histrionics ultimately ended. The Red Sox and their fans left Fenway happy. The home team won, 10-4, smashing five home runs.
Afterwards, Billy Martin said: “When they don’t hustle, I don’t accept that. When a player shows the club up, I show the player up.”
For the Yankees and Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson, it was just another wacky day at the ballpark.
Later that 1978 season a slumping Jackson was used as a designated hitter by Billy Martin. Reggie was not pleased. He shared his displeasure with anyone who would listen including owner George Steinbrenner. In one game, Martin gave Jackson the sign to swing away. He bunted. Martin suspended him for five games.
The hot-tempered trio of Steinbrenner-Jackson-Martin was big news in all the New York media. Especially publicized was Martin’s rant: “One’s a born liar [Jackson]; the other’s convicted,” a reference to the Boss’s conviction for illegal campaign contributions. That comment got Martin fired and it seemed Reggie was back in vogue.
Jackson belted 41 homers to tie for the league lead and hit .300 in 1980. But in the strike-shortened 1981 season, Jackson batted just .237 with 15 homers in 94 games.
On January 22, 1982, irritated and fed up with Steinbrenner putdowns, Reggie Jackson severed his ties with the Yankees and signed as a free agent with the California Angels. After five years of tumult in the Big Apple, the controversial and cocky outfielder was back out west. Steinbrenner later said that letting Jackson go was “the worst decision of my career.”
When Reggie Jackson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1993, he went in as a Yankee even though lots of bad blood passed between him and management and ownership and teammates.
The Yankees retired his uniform number 44 on August 14, 1993. Reggie Jackson is currently a member of the Yankees’ special advisory group.
ABOUT HARVEY FROMMER
One of the most prolific and respected sports journalists and oral historians in the United States, author of the autobiographies of legends Nolan Ryan, Tony Dorsett, and Red Holzman, Dr. Harvey Frommer is an expert on the New York Yankees and has arguably written more books, articles and reviews on the New York Yankees than anyone. He was honored by the City of New York to serve as historical consultant for the re-imagined old Yankee Stadium site, Heritage Field. A professor for more than two decades in the MALS program at Dartmouth College where he is known as “Dr. Baseball,” Frommer is the founder of www.HarveyFrommerSports.com.
Some of the material in this article is excerpted from his The Ultimate Yankee Book, available direct from the author or Amazon.