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Speaking up for Reggie

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I have probably written more about Reggie Jackson than my contract allows, but there’s a point to today’s story beyond the usual history lessons.  What I hope to accomplish from this modest piece of writing is to reveal the Reggie you might not have met.  The softer, gentler, sensitive side.

Most of you know Reggie as the A’s star who snubbed Oakland by going into the Hall-of-Fame as a Yankee.  The one who dares to show up to the Coliseum wearing a hat sporting the letters "NY" (Well, he does work for the Yankees, you know).  Reggie is brash, Reggie is outspoken, Reggie is self-centered.  And it’s always been that way. These nuggets are from former teammates, first out of the mouth of the late Jim "Catfish" Hunter:


"Reggie would give you the shirt off his back. Of course, he’d call a press conference to do it."


And here’s Darold Knowles, with extra relish:


"There’s not enough mustard in the world to cover that hot dog." 


It’s not that Reggie didn’t bring such diatribe upon himself: 

"When you hit a terrific shot", says Jackson, "all the baseball players come to rest at that moment and watch you. Everyone is helpless and in awe. You charge people up. And when you're a good hitter, you do that every day. You're the center of confidence. The man can hit, they say that. And you know it. You're a master. Dealing. The man who can do it is a dominating force when he walks out of the dugout. There's no feeling like that."


"Richie Allen told me once, 'Don't speak with this [he points to his mouth], speak with this.'" With a flowing gesture he indicates his body, and the bat. "'Through this [he holds the bat up like a torch] you can speak to the world.'"...


Reggie, of course, did as much talking with his mouth as he did with the majestic bat he swung on many a summer evening.  And even Dick Allen, the opposing superstar who offered Reggie such sound advice in the previous paragraph, knew it:


"I look in the record book and I see Reggie has never hit .300. And I wonder how he can do all that talking."


But as was pointed out so eloquently in that Sports Illustrated cover story in 1974, Reggie was one of a kind: 

Whatever his flaws and rough edges, Jackson has put together a package of power, speed, science, flash, funk, outspoken quotability, popularity, fun-lovingness, social and economic independence, responsibility, diversification and winningness that is unique among ballplayers. And Reggie knows and loves it.


And he was all ours.


Reggie’s heir apparent, Rickey Henderson, said in his Hall-of-Fame speech that he would sneak into games as a youngster to watch the slugger at bat.



Were it not for Rickey, Reggie would surely stand as the face of the franchise, and it’s not even close.  He was Oakland’s first genuine baseball star, wowing the sport with his pursuit of the home run record at the age of 23 (falling well short as the media pressure mounted in the second half of that ’69 season).  His prodigious blast off a light tower in Detroit during the 1971 All-Star Game is still talked about whenever baseball’s best suit up in July.  His steal of home tied the fifth and final game of the '72 ALCS, helping to propel the A’s to a World Series they’d win without them.


But with hopes of a repeat performance hanging in the balance the following year, the league’s Most Valuable Player during the regular season (and a unanimous choice at that) stepped up to earn MVP honors in the World Series, too.  Reggie doubled home a run in each if his first two at-bats off fellow future Hall-of-Famer Tom Seaver (Jackson once said of Tom Terrific: "Blind people go to the games to hear him pitch."), and later singled and scored an insurance run as the A’s forced a Game 7 with a 3-1 victory.  With the A’s up 2-0 in the fourth inning courtesy of a Bert Campaneris home run, Reggie followed suit, dropping a souvenir on Jon Matlack.  The 2-run dinger doubled the A’s lead, and they went on to capture their second straight championship by a 5-2 score.


Until his scuffle with teammate Bill North prior to a game on June 5, 1974, Reggie was the talk of baseball that season, inspiring the aforementioned SI story, and also a TIME Magazine cover.  Three days before the fight, Reggie was batting .399 with 15 homeruns, a .470 on base-percentage, and a .759 slugging average.  But he was never the same after he tangled with North in the locker room at Tiger Stadium.


Reggie collected only two hits (to go with five walks) in the 1974 ALCS, but his second one drove home Sal Bando with the series-clinching run.  With the world wondering whether Reggie was fit to play in the opener of the World Series, Jackson silenced the doubters with an opposite-field homerun in his first at-bat, and the A’s went on to down the Dodgers in five games to claim baseball’s biggest prize for the third consecutive season.


In his final season with the A’s in 1975 (not counting his swan song in ’87), Reggie tied for the league lead with 36 homeruns.  Just a few days before the 1976 campaign got underway Charlie Finley traded Jackson to Baltimore.  Finley had seen what was becoming of baseball with the birth of free agency, and he wanted something in return for the players he was destined to lose.


Reggie was devastated.  He knew the Oakland A’s, and nothing else.  Jackson spent several days crying and moping, and he didn’t play in a game for the Orioles until May 2.



Reggie Jackson wore his emotions on his sleeve.  After the A’s were swept in the 1971 ALCS, he wept on the dugout steps in Oakland.  And even as jousted with Finley, he also sought acceptance and appreciation from the A’s owner.  After his magnificent 1969 season, Reggie went after the big bucks. But Finley, as was his wont, did not bend.  Back and forth they went, before they came to a reluctant agreement.  But Finley wasn’t about to let Reggie feel as if he had the upper hand.  When the slugger struggled out of the gate, Finley had him benched and even threatened to demote him to the minors.  Many of Reggie’s teammates would later lament that had Finley simply gave Jackson what he wanted (and deserved) rather than destroy the young player’s confidence, the A’s might have won the division that year. 


The affair came to a head late in the season, when Reggie came off the bench to belt one of his patented awe-inspiring moon shots.  As he completed his trip around the bases, Jackson stopped at home plate and sneered defiantly at Finley in the owner’s box, before offering a peace sign that was one finger short.  Having no one to back him in a meeting with Finley, Reggie broke down and apologized.  When the season mercifully ended, Jackson asked to be traded.  Finley replied, "Reggie, I love you.  And I am not going to trade you."


Of course, he would indeed trade Reggie, and when Jackson signed with New York one year later, he addressed the media with this warning label:


"I did not come to New York to become a star.  I am bringing my star with me."


And he was right.  So just so we are clear Yankee fans, Reggie’s star was born right here.



When I interviewed Reggie Jackson last year, he spoke fondly of the A’s organization, and his time with the team: 

"I've always loved the A's.  I enjoyed my time there.  I enjoyed playing there.  I enjoyed getting my start there.  I'm from Oakland.  I hope they keep their franchise there.  The fans are special, the place is special, and it's a place I enjoy calling home."


And in 2005, after an earlier failed attempt to purchase the Los Angeles Dodgers, Reggie set his sights on the organization where his trek to Cooperstown began.  But he was denied membership into a club he deemed all-too exclusive: 

Jackson said he fell victim to the friends-of-Selig syndrome. A popular view in baseball circles is that any friend of Selig's has the inside track to purchase a team. Exhibit A is the group of John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino, who bought the Boston Red Sox three years ago.


Lewis Wolff, a Los Angeles real estate entrepreneur, an A's executive and a college fraternity brother of Selig, held the option and will soon become the team's owner. The sale price is about $180 million. Jackson said his group was prepared to top any offer by $25 million. But he made his move too late.


''I was devastated emotionally,'' Jackson said. ''I didn't want to do anything."


(It should be noted that the story mentions that Reggie had planned on moving the A’s to Las Vegas, so having him as our owner my not have worked out so well.  That is, if there is a shred of truth to that tidbit.)


When asked in an interview two weeks ago if the A’s can remain in Oakland, Reggie expressed concern over lack of a new ballpark, but remained hopeful, while he echoed the sentiments he shared with me last year: 

"I have my fingers crossed that they do get one there, of course, because I still have a home in Oakland. I played there, I love the town and the people, and while I work for the Yankees, I’m still an A’s fan as well."


But have Oakland, and the A’s in particular, remained a fan of Reggie?  It’s no secret the organization does a poor job marketing its storied past, Rickey seemingly the lone exception.


After Reggie retired after the 1987 season he remained close to many of his former A’s teammates and was seen at the Coliseum on several occasions as the team made a run to the ’88 World Series.  He worked with the organization as a part-time coach in 1991, but was let go at the end of the year in a cost-cutting move.  The Yankees offered Reggie a job, and when the Hall called in 1993, Reggie was fit for Cooperstown in a New York cap.  It wasn’t his first choice:

I got left out in the cold," Jackson says. "I was deserted. I was living in Oakland and wanted to be a Hall of Famer in the community. A black hero. A person of color. But I had no roots. The Yankees, they all made me feel welcome. Joe DiMaggio treated me well. It was an honor."

It wasn’t until May of 2004- eleven seasons after he was inducted into the Hall-of-Fame- that the A’s retired his number 9: 

For years, dating back to the previous ownership, Jackson was an A's outsider. While Hunter and Fingers had Nos. 27 and 34 retired shortly after their Hall of Fame inductions, No. 9 has been worn and laundered like it was no different than a sanitary sock.


While the honor was long overdue, Reggie decided to let bygones be bygones: 

"It's nice," Jackson said. "I'm happy about, I would say, re-engaging with Oakland, where I got my start and had some of my greatest years.


But he again was left to defend his allegiance to George Steinbrenner and his Evil Empire: 

"This man here gave me a job," Jackson said. "He gave me an opportunity. I heard things like, 'Reggie didn't want to be around Oakland.' What am I supposed to do, point myself to a job there? It's amazing it came back on me."


Amazing? How about sad?  Here’s a guy- warts and all- that should be revered in Oakland, in very much the same way Rickey is, but instead he’s forgotten at best, and vilified at worse.  So when this post offering fans a chance to sit with Reggie Jackson for an entire ballgame appeared on AN’s sidebar, it was almost as if they were handing out root canals at 600 bucks a pop.


If this same offer was for Rickey, people here would have been breaking their piggy banks and turning over their couches for loose change.  But because it was Reggie, the commentary was pretty much: "I’ll pass."


I’m not suggesting that any of us have $600 lying around.  But considering that it is for a good cause- and Reggie has been involved with more than a fair share of charities over the years- and a chance to rub elbows with a true Oakland legend, I would have hoped the response would have been somewhat more on the positive side.


The reality though is that Reggie Jackson is still having to explain himself, and is still fighting to be loved in Oakland.  I imagine by now he’s gotten tired of fighting.  I know I’m tired of watching one of the greatest players in the history of the A's franchise get the short end of the stick.