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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #62 Reggie Jackson

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"Mr. October" packed a plethora of unforgettable memories in just five seasons as a Yankee.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Name: Reginald Jackson
Position: Right field
Born: May 18, 1946 (Abington, PA)
Yankee Years: 1977-81
Primary number: 44
Yankee statistics: 653 G, .281/.371/.526, 115 2B, 14 3B, 144 HR, 149 wRC+, 17.1 rWAR, 18.2 fWAR

Biography

Whenever people recall the Yankees' championship teams of the 1970s, one name stands out above the rest. Thurman Munson, Willie Randolph, and Catfish Hunter were all superb players, but the superstar of the group was Reggie Jackson. He had the power and the swagger to become a sports icon, becoming the biggest name on baseball's biggest stage.

Although Jackson's tenure in New York was relatively short, he left a remarkable impression. There were many clutch players who came before Jackson and many who arrived afterward, but there is only one "Mr. October."

Making it big

"Just as nature fills a vacuum, Reggie Jackson fills a spotlight." - Bob Marshall

Some future major leaguers had the luxury of growing up with a tight-knit family, but that was sadly not afforded to Reginald Martinez Jackson. Born just outside Philadelphia on May 18, 1946, Jackson was one of seven children in the household of Martinez and Clara Jackson. When he was just four years old, Martinez had to tell his son that his mother was leaving. She had grown weary of the infidelity that sometimes accompanied the corn liquor bootlegging business that he did in addition to his work as a tailor, so she was moving to Baltimore. She took three of the children with her. Reggie was not among the chosen, and he carried this slight with him for the rest of his life.

The one saving grace to Jackson's childhood was that he rarely had to deal with segregation. Martinez Jackson's home in Wyncote, PA was in a progressive neighborhood, and while African-Americans like Reggie were uncommon, they did not face discrimination. So Jackson grew up playing alongside white boys on sports teams, and at Cheltenham High School, he was one of the most celebrated and popular students on campus.

With Jackson's father mentoring him, Reggie played baseball, football, basketball, and even ran track. He also displayed an early propensity for health, as he made incredibly quick recoveries from brutal football injuries to his knee and vertabrae, as well as a broken jaw sustained on a pitch to the face. Throughout his entire 21-year career, Jackson would only play in under 110 games twice: once when he was a rookie and the second time when the '81 season was shortened by a players' strike.

Playing high school ball in the years before the MLB Draft, Jackson was tempted to sign with a team right away. He idolized Willie Mays and when the Giants were one of four teams interested in him, he very nearly accepted their offer. However, his father strongly encouraged him to go to college; his bootlegging ways had caught up to him by Jackson's senior year and he had just begun a six-month prison sentence. Martinez Jackson wanted a better future for his son, telling him to get an education through one of the football scholarships offered to him "so you don't end up like me."

Jackson moved across the country to Arizona State University, where coach Frank Kush told him that he would be permitted to play baseball in addition to football. Jackson was a halfback and later a defensive back for Kush, but it wasn't a certainty that he would continue playing baseball. Then in the spring of his freshman year, he took a bet from two of his friends, ASU baseball players Joe Paulsen and Jeff Pentland (who later became a big league hitting coach). He wagered $5 that it would be easy for him to make the team given his skill and high school accolades. After football practice one day, he walked over to the baseball practice and asked coach Bobby Winkles if he could do some batting practice for him. It didn't matter that Jackson was wearing his football uniform and spikes; he crushed several balls over the wall and made the cut.

After sitting out his freshman year of baseball due to NCAA rules at the time, Jackson played summer ball with an amateur team in Baltimore. He set records and so thoroughly impressed the Orioles that they offered him $50,000 to quit school and sign with them. Jackson turned them down, went back to Arizona State for the 1966 season (where he enjoyed playing for Winkles much more than Kush), and dominated Pac-12 pitching instead. He was an All-American, led the Sun Devils in numerous offensive categories, and set ASU's single-season record for homers.

1966 was the second year of the MLB Draft and now that Jackson was draft-eligible, he was sure to be taken. In fact, most experts thought that after ASU star Rick Monday was taken first overall in the '65 draft, Jackson would almost certainly be the Sun Devils' second straight number one pick. After all, he was the 1966 Sporting News Player of the Year. The New York Mets had the top pick that year, and they chose... high school catcher Steve Chilcott.

It remains a mystery to this day why the Mets were so infatuated with Chilcott. Jackson said that Winkles informed him that the Mets did not like that he was dating a white-skinned Latina student named Jennie Campos. Their GM was former Yankees head honcho George Weiss, whose racist tendencies kept the Yankees from being integrated until a decade after Jackie Robinson's 1947 debut, so it's certainly possible. However, both Winkles and the Mets said that conversation never occurred, and instead it was a result of former manager Casey Stengel falling for Chilcott after watching him go 11-for-12 on one scouting trip.

Nevertheless, the Mets' oversight of Jackson remains one of the worst draft decisions in major league history. Following the Mets' selection, Kansas City Athletics owner Charles Finley immediately yelled that with the second overall pick, he would be drafting Jackson. Negotiating with Jackson and his dad, Finley eventually offered $85,000 and a new Pontiac. The 20-year-old Reggie agreed, and a star would soon be born.

All eyes on Reggie

Since Jackson was so talented already, he breezed through the minor leagues with short stops on the Lewiston Broncs in Idaho, the Modesto Reds in California, and the Birmingham A's in Alabama. The '67 season was mostly spent in Alabama, and it was tough for Jackson to overcome the racism he felt there on a near-everyday basis. Thankfully, he had a great relationship with manager John McNamara, who helped him in the transition, and he ended up hitting .293/.372/.562 there with 60 extra base hits (17 homers) in 114 games..

Although the majority of '67 was spent in the minors, Jackson did get his first taste of big league ball. He filled in during June, and though he struggled, he would return in September. On September 17, 1967, he crushed his first career homer, a solo blast in Anaheim off southpaw Jim Weaver. There would be over 550 more in Jackson's storied career.

One year later, Finley moved his club from Kansas City to Oakland, and Jackson became a regular in the A's lineup. While his free-swinging ways were quite apparent with his league-high 171 strikeouts, he still slugged .452 with 29 homers in his rookie year. In 1969, he became a sensation in the first half when he smashed 37 homers before the All-Star break, a pace that was ahead of the single-season record set by Roger Maris in '61. While Jackson slowed down in the second half and finished with his career-high of 47, his .608 slugging percentage and 189 OPS+ led the American League. He made his first of 14 career All-Star teams and finished fifth in MVP voting. Two years later at the All-Star Game in Detroit, Jackson stamped his name on the national stage with a jaw-dropping colossal home run that hit a transformer on the roof of Tiger Stadium:

A fantastic core developed around Jackson, and players like Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, Gene Tenace, and more soon transformed the Oakland A's into a powerhouse. They won five consecutive AL West titles from 1971-75, and Jackson was a sensation. During that run, he hit .275/.361/.508 with 146 doubles, 154 homers, and a 151 OPS+. He led the league in homers in both '73 and '75, and he finished in the top five of AL MVP voting three times, winning the award in '73.

Most importantly, the 1972-74 A's became the only team other than the Yankees to win three World Series titles in a row. Jackson's swagger was on full display; in 32 playoff games in Oakland, he slugged .475 with five homers, highlighted by the 1973 World Series. Jackson made the pennant-winning Mets pay for passing on him in '66 by crushing their vaunted pitching staff to a .310/.355/.586 batting line, taking home World Series MVP honors in the seven-game set.

Following the '75 season though, Finley's stars were getting too expensive, and having lost Hunter to the Yankees via the new free agency system, he was determined to get budding talent for his best players. So just before the start of the '76 season, Jackson was dealt to the Orioles in a six-player trade. In his one season in Baltimore, Jackson led the AL again with a .502 slugging percentage and a 155 OPS+, but the O's finished 10 1/2 games behind Hunter's Yankees for the division title.

During one trip to New York that year, Jackson openly flirted with the idea of becoming a Yankee after the season. He told reporters "If I ever come to New York, they'll name a candy bar after me." He was right.

"Mr. October"

Reggie NYDN

Credit: New York Daily News, 11/30/1976

Jackson was easily the splashiest name on the free agent market, and from the get-go, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner wanted him aboard. Manager Billy Martin preferred signing grittier players like Jackson's old A's teammate Joe Rudi and infielder Bobby Grich, but Steinbrenner had his eyes set on Jackson. It would not be easy to sign him though. Montreal Expos owner and Seagram's heir Charles Bronfman made the biggest offer, a $5 million contract, and the San Diego Padres' Ray Kroc (of McDonald's fame) encouraged Jackson to return to the West Coast with a $3 million offer.

Both Jackson and Steinbrenner wanted the other though. The money was tempting in Montreal, but Jackson couldn't envision himself living outside the United States. Besides, the temptation of New York stardom was too much for Jackson to turn down. Steinbrenner initially only offered $2 million, but in later negotiations, he bumped it up to $2.9 million with an extra $60,000 for Jackson to buy a Rolls-Royce. He had waited for hours in the O'Hare Airport Hyatt to make sure that he was the last person to speak to Jackson before he made his Thanksgiving decision, and with the contract details scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin, Jackson signed "I will not let you down. -Reginald M. Jackson."

Jackson officially agreed to his five-year, $2.96 million deal on November 1, 1976. Those five years featured about as many highs and lows as possible, and both extremes are easily remembered by many Yankees fans from that era. He instantly irritated his new teammates in an interview with Sport magazine, when he called himself "the straw that stirs the drink," and lashed out at captain Thurman Munson, the '76 AL MVP, by saying "he can only stir it bad."

It was a tense situation in the clubhouse, particularly since Steinbrenner reneged on a promise to Munson that regardless of any new additions, he would be the second-highest paid player on the team behind Hunter. Instead, that was Jackson, and Munson fumed. Then there were the clashes with Martin, who had an adversarial relationship with Jackson at almost all times. In a tight June game at Fenway Park, he pulled Jackson for not hustling to catch a pop fly by the slow-footed Red Sox slugger Jim Rice, who not only reached base but turned it into a double. The two men screamed at each other in the dugout, and both coaches and players had to keep the two from brawling right there.

Yet through the crazy "Bronx Zoo" atmosphere, Jackson excelled. He mashed 32 homers and finished eighth in AL MVP voting as the Yankees first won the AL East, and then the pennant over the Kansas City Royals in a tense five-game ALCS. Jackson actually slumped during that series and Martin benched him in the winner-take-all Game 5 against the crafty Paul Splittorff, but he came up with a big pinch-hit single late in the game that helped give the Yankees the victory.

It was the 1977 World Series though that cemented Jackson's Yankees lore. He hit .450/.542/1.250 in the six-game contest, saving his best for the finale. He had homered in his last at-bat in Game 5 at Dodgers Stadium. In his first at-bat of the potential clincher in Game 6, he walked on four pitches. On the first pitch of the next at-bat against Burt Hooton, he homered. Then on the second pitch he saw that night, this time from Elias Sosa, he homered. On the third pitch, a Charlie Hough knuckleball, he homered. The last one was a monster blast deep into the center field black seats. Four swings had led to four homers, and the three-homer finale tied him with Babe Ruth as the only players to go deep thrice in a World Series game, earning him the famous nickname "Mr. October."

The Yankees won their first championship in 15 years and Jackson was easily voted the World Series MVP. Even Martin and Munson could only help but smile.

On Opening Day 1978, Jackson's prophecy came true--"Reggie" bars were handed out to the Yankee Stadium crowd. (Catfish Hunter quipped "When you open a Reggie bar up, it tells you how good it is.") When he commemorated the occasion by blasting a homer, the fans celebrated by throwing them onto the field.

The joy did not last long early on in '78. Plagued by injuries and locker room turmoil, the team fell 14 games behind the Red Sox. The always tenuous relationship between Jackson and Martin came to a boil in a July game against the Royals, when Jackson ignored Martin's bunt signal, then chose to bunt with two strikes after Martin took the sign off. He struck out, and an enraged Martin suspended him.

By the time Jackson returned to the lineup 10 days later though, Martin was gone. Feuding with Steinbrenner as well, Martin told reporters "one's a liar and the other's convicted." (This was a reference to Steinbrenner's previous suspension for illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign.) He resigned the next day, and Steinbrenner replaced him with the more level-headed Bob Lemon. With more calm in the clubhouse and healthier players, the team roared back and forced a one-game playoff with Boston for the AL East crown at Fenway Park. Bucky Dent's stunning three-run homer grabbed headlines, but it was Jackson's eighth inning clout to center field that turned out to be the decisive blow.

Jackson continued his hot streak into the playoffs, when he hit .417/.511/.806 with four homers in the two rounds against the Royals and Dodgers. In typical Reggie fashion, he also found himself amid controversy again when an obstruction call was not made on him, enraging Dodgers skipper Tommy Lasorda. The Yankees won their second straight World Series crown, roaring back from an 0-2 deficit to win it in six games. Jackson also felt the elation of personal revenge, as after striking out in a thrilling at-bat against the hard-throwing Bob Welch to end Game 2, he launched a tape-measure shot off Welch in the Game 6 clincher. There was no denying Mr. October his title.

There would be more success for Jackson in pinstripes, but no more championships. The '79 season brought disappointment and tragedy. Lemon was fired midseason only to bring back Martin, who was quickly gone following the end of the year, too. It was the only year of Jackson's Yankees tenure that they missed the playoffs, and Jackson was devastated to learn that Munson perished in an airplane crash that August. The two had reached a relative peace after the championship years, and Jackson now had a far greater sense of respect for the captain. When the team held a ceremony in Munson's honor after his funeral, Jackson was unable to hold back the tears in right field.

Under the quiet genius of manager Dick Howser in 1980, the Yankees won a league-high 103 games to win the AL East, and Jackson had his best season in pinstripes. He paced the AL with 41 homers, the most by a Yankee since Maris in '61, and he finished runner-up to George Brett for AL MVP honors. Brett's Royals got their vengeance in the ALCS, as they swept the Yankees in three straight.

Steinbrenner added another superstar to the mix with the signing of Dave Winfield and made another managerial switch to bring Gene Michael in from the front office. Despite questions about how they would mesh, Winfield and Jackson complemented each other well, and at the end of action on June 11, 1981, the Yankees led the AL East with a 34-22 record. Then, the players went on strike, and action was halted until August 10th. The Yankees were declared first-half winners of the AL East and earned the right to play against the second-half winner in the first ever Division Series come October. They would do so with Lemon instead of Michael, as "Stick" could no longer tolerate Steinbrenner's meddling.

The Yankees won the Division Series over the Milwaukee Brewers as Jackson belted a pair of homer in the five-game victory. Then against Martin's upstart A's team, the Yankees rolled over Oakland in a three-game sweep, though they lost Jackson to an injury on the bases in Game 2, forcing him to miss both the Game 3 clincher and the first three games of the World Series. The Yankees once had a 2-0 lead in that Fall Classic against the Dodgers, but this time, it was their turn for vengeance, as they won four in a row to win the title. In his final three games in pinstripes, Jackson hit .333 and crushed one last homer. Both he and the team knew that a separation was imminent.

Mr. October goes to Cooperstown

Steinbrenner was furious that the Yankees blew the '81 World Series, and he issued a public apology to the fans afterward. The apology did not go over well with the players, who felt that it was an unnecessary jab at both Lemon's management and the team, which had fought very hard to win the pennant in a tumultuous season. Jackson shot back:

"You play hard and you lose sometimes. I'm not apologizing to anyone. I've given my best since I've been here. Why not just be a pro and say the Dodgers beat us? Why make excuses? Be a man: Stand up and say, 'Hey, I did my best but someone else was better.'"

Jackson and Steinbrenner's relationship had been crumbling, and the public apology was the final blow. The Yankees did not make much of an effort to re-sign him in free agency, and Jackson inked a five-year deal with Gene Autry's California Angels on January 22, 1982. In his first game back at Yankee Stadium, he launched a long homer off former teammate Ron Guidry, prompting the fans to cheer wildly for him and chant "Steinbrenner sucks."

While Steinbrenner later called letting Jackson go "the worst decision of my career," it was for the best. Jackson was an All-Star and led the AL in homers again with 39 in '82 as the Angels won the AL West, but it was all downhill from there in Anaheim. Needing just one more win for their first pennant in franchise history, the Angels choked away a 2-0 lead in the ALCS to the Brewers, and Jackson badly regressed in '83 and '84. He would make two more All-Star appearances, but they were hardly deserved. He did join an elite club on September 17, 1984 though, as he celebrated the 17th anniversary of his first home run by blasting a Bud Black pitch into the stands at Angel Stadium for his 500th career blast:

At the time, Jackson was one of just 13 players in baseball history to hit 500 homers. Jackson bounced back with better seasons in '85 and '86, and he had one last trip to the postseason when the Angels won the 86 AL West division title. Like in '82, Jackson didn't hit much at all, and also like in '82, they blew a huge lead. They were one out away from winning the AL pennant when closer Donne Wall surrendered a stunning game-tying homer to Boston's Dave Henderson in Game 5. They lost both that game and the next two at Fenway Park to close out Jackson's storied playoff career.

After one more reunion year with the A's in '87, Jackson called it a career with 563 home runs, sixth in baseball history at the time. His swing-and-miss potential also led to an amusing record--2,597 strikeouts, still the most all-time. In his last career game, he singled at Comiskey Park in Chicago and received a standing ovation. Six years later, "Mr. October" was an easy first-ballot inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame, receiving votes on 93.6% of the ballots (naturally, 27 oddball voters chose to leave Jackson off).

Although he spent the majority of his career in Oakland and even played more games with the Angels, Jackson felt that his legacy was with Yankee pinstripes and entered Cooperstown with a Yankees hat. Steinbrenner was so grateful that the team retired Jackson's number 44 on August 14, 1993. He was also given a plaque in Monument Park on "Reggie Jackson Day," July 6, 2002. Two years later, he became one of only eight players in baseball history to have his number retired by two teams, as the A's retired his number 9 on May 22, 2004.

Forever a fan favorite, Jackson's legacy lives on as one of the last links to those glorious but tumultuous teams of the 1970s. Martin was killed in a Christmas day crash in 1989, and Steinbrenner passed away in 2010. Jackson deeply felt Steinbrenner's loss, and shortly thereafter, he paid tribute to the man who made him a Yankee. Jackson is a regular at Old-Timers' Days and spring training, so he remains a highly regarded member of the Yankees family.

Here's to you, Mr. October.

Andrew's rank: 51
Tanya's rank: 74
Community rank: 42.2
WAR rank: 74.5

Season Stats

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ TB rWAR fWAR
1977 31 NYY 146 606 525 93 150 39 2 32 110 17 3 74 129 .286 .375 .550 .925 150 289 4.5 4.9
1978 32 NYY 139 581 511 82 140 13 5 27 97 14 11 58 133 .274 .356 .477 .834 136 244 3.5 3.3
1979 33 NYY 131 537 465 78 138 24 2 29 89 9 8 65 107 .297 .382 .544 .926 150 253 3.4 3.9
1980 34 NYY 143 601 514 94 154 22 4 41 111 1 2 83 122 .300 .398 .597 .995 172 307 4.7 5.0
1981 35 NYY 94 382 334 33 79 17 1 15 54 0 3 46 82 .237 .330 .428 .758 120 143 0.9 1.2
NYY (5 yrs) 653 2707 2349 380 661 115 14 144 461 41 27 326 573 .281 .371 .526 .897 148 1236 17.1 18.2

Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

References

Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

BR Bullpen

Madden, Bill. Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

National Baseball Hall of Fame

Perry, Dayn. Reggie Jackson: The Life and Thunderous Career of Baseball's Mr. October. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Yankeeography: "Reggie Jackson"

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