Very recently here at Pinstripe Alley, we discussed a night game in June of 1976 between the Yankees and White Sox. That 3-2 win was supposed to be the debut of Vida Blue in a Yanee uniform, but instead, it marked the first appearance by a couple of left-handers acquired in a massive deal with the Baltimore Orioles.
Ken Holtzman made the start, and after Sparky Lyle did his usual masterful work over multiple frames, Billy Martin turned to Grant Jackson. The 33-year-old left-hander was in the middle of a rather poor season, allowing 11 runs in 19 innings as a member of the Orioles before coming to the Bronx.
Jackson had transitioned to relief work, after coming up as a starter with the Philadelphia Phillies, going as far as making the All-Star Game in 1969 as a starting pitcher with Philly. With the Orioles, Jackson put up two effective years, with a 2.96 ERA in 118.2 innings between 1971-72, but in ‘73, the southpaw really put it all together — he became a weapon covering multiple innings (80.1 in 45 games), with a sub-1.00 WHIP, and 1.90 ERA.
In the following years, the left-hander regressed a bit, but remained well above average, before the wheels fell off during the first half of ‘76. The trade came with high expectations on the Yankees’ side, but as far as Jackson’s production was concerned, uncertainty loomed.
In those three innings against the White Sox in his debut, Jackson gave a small glimpse of what was to come. The former Oriole became a multi-inning weapon for Martin, adding to an already strong bullpen, and contributing a 206 ERA+ over nearly 60 frames with a 1.69 ERA, 2.87 FIP, and .485 OPS against. It took until September 22nd for him to give up a homer in pinstripes, and Kiko Garcia’s solo shot remained the only long ball on his Yankees regular-season ledger.
Additionally, only twice in his 21 games did Jackson ever give up more than one run, and both outings — July 10th against Chicago and August 15th against Minnesota — lasted longer than three innings. Martin enjoyed using him in a variety of spots; sometimes, it was a setup role behind superb closer Sparky Lyle; sometimes, it was late in an ultimately victorious extra-inning marathon*; sometimes, it was even a starting role, like when he fired a shutout in Detroit on September 24th as the season wound down.
*The ‘76 Yankees improbably followed a 19-inning game on August 25th at Yankee Stadium with a 15-inning slog just two days later in Anaheim. Jackson got the win in both with a pair of shutout frames to give the New York offense a chance to pull it out.
As most fans know though, the Yankees’ season came to a rather demoralizing end, getting swept at the Fall Classic at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds. Jackson had already struggled in the ALCS, blowing the save in Game 5 on George Brett’s game-tying homer that at least set up Chris Chambliss’ own dramatic moment. Jackson’s pristine regular-season form continued to avoid him during his lone World Series outing, when the “Big Red Machine” tagged him for four runs on two hits.
Unfortunately for Jackson, he would not get a chance to redeem himself with the Yankees, as the Seattle Mariners selected him in the expansion Draft during that following off-season, and almost immediately dealt him to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
One’s memory should not be defined by a such small sample size, especially in a sport like baseball, but it’s part of the cruelty and romance of the whole thing. Many fans at the time, and still today, may remember Jackson’s 1976 campaign as masterful, but one that faltered at the most crucial moment.
In subsequent years, Jackson went on to show his worth in the biggest stage, not only remaining one of the more effective relievers, now in the National League, but also playing a pivotal role in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ World Series title in 1979. Pitching in four out of the seven games in that Fall Classic, Jackson shut down the Baltimore Orioles’ offense, allowing no runs, and only a single hit in 4.2 innings of work. The veteran southpaw was even the pitcher of record for the Pirates’ Game 7 win.
During the ‘70s, Grant Jackson was one of the best relievers in the sport, accumulating 72 saves in 713.1 IP, with a sub-3.00 ERA, between 1971 and 1980. It’s just a shame the Yankees didn’t manage to keep him around for longer than half a season.