In the late 1970’s, outspoken right fielder and designated hitter Reggie Jackson was one of the main cogs of the “Bronx Zoo” New York Yankees. Without a doubt, he was the most quotable member of that team, a squad known not only for its back-to-back World Series titles in 1977 and 1978 but also for its internal strife, clubhouse antics, and the managerial merry-go-round which featured Reggie-hater and alcoholic Billy Martin. Reggie burst onto the New York scene following a successful career in Oakland, signing (up until that point) for almost three million dollars, one of the biggest free agent contracts in baseball history.
Jackson caused controversy immediately upon his arrival in the Big Apple, being quoted in a Sport Magazine article that he would be the most important member and leader on the Yankees, a role that, in his mind, could not be properly filled by then Yankee-captain Thurman Munson.
"This team, it all flows from me. I'm the straw that stirs the drink. Maybe I should say me and Munson, but he can only stir it bad.”
The comment, of course, caused great acrimony between Jackson and Munson, the reigning American League Most Valuable Player and Yankee catcher. Ostracized by many in the Yankee clubhouse, Reggie publically spoke about the difficulties in being an articulate black man, and raised issues about what he perceived to be (correctly) manager Billy Martin’s racial bias.
Following a nationally televised battle between Martin and Jackson in the Fenway Park dugout, the team began to gel and reached the World Series in 1977 – and it was there that Jackson turned the Fall Classic into his own personal stage, belting three home runs in the final game of the series to clinch the championship for the Yankees and return the World Series trophy to the Bronx for the first time since the early 1960’s. It was then that he earned the nickname “Mr. October”, coined, likely not in a friendly way, by Munson.
“If I played in New York, they would name a candy bar after me.”
And they did. The “Reggie Bar” was introduced after Jackson began playing with the Yankees. On Opening Day 1978, the Yankees had a “Reggie Bar” giveaway. Jackson homered in that game, and bars rained from the stands onto the field in celebration. Jackson left New York as a free agent after the 1981 season, reportedly bitter that the Yankees had made no efforts at re-signing him. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner later said that allowing Jackson to leave was the biggest mistake that he had made during his ownership of the Yankees, and Jackson was brought back into the Yankee family, as a special advisor, in 1993.
“I didn't come to New York to be a star, I brought my star with me.”
The timing of this hiring was intriguing to many in light of the fact that Jackson was to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993. Jackson’s plaque shows him wearing the familiar interlocking N-Y Yankee cap, which many believed was bought by Steinbrenner through the hiring. It was said that he should have worn an Oakland hat, having begun his career and after his success with the A’s, but Jackson chose to wear the Yankee hat – it should be noted that players no longer determine which hat they wear on their plaque. It is determined by the Hall of Fame committee.
Flash forward to 2012, and outspoken Yankee employee Reggie Jackson is at it again, stirring the pot for the now-corporate and boring New York Yankees. Referring to current outspoken Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez, who has admitted to the use of performance-enhancing drug usage in the past, Jackson had this to say:
''… I think there are real questions about his numbers. As much as I like him, what he admitted about his usage does cloud some of his records.''
Jackson retired from major league baseball with 563 home runs, which at the time was sixth on the all-time homer list. He has since watched a parade of steroid-enhanced monsters power their way past him on the list, including Sammy Sosa, Rodriguez, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and the current (with an asterisk) home run king, Barry Bonds. So is Jackson bitter? Likely. But nothing with Reggie is that simple; from his early playing days until today, he has been a complex case study, a man with a claimed IQ of 160, a man who often had difficulty keeping his emotion in check and who became a lightning rod for racial politics and outspoken critic of many.
Former teammate Mickey Rivers once summed up Jackson, whose full name was Reginald Martinez Jackson:“No wonder you’re mixed up. You’ve got a white man’s first name, a Spanish man’s middle name, and a black man’s last name.”
Was Jackson wrong in his assessment of Rodriguez? Absolutely not. Due to this admission of steroid use, it is fair to state that Rodriguez’s numbers will be forever questioned. That is why the response was lukewarm when he recently slammed career grand slam homer number 23, tying all-time Yankee great Lou Gehrig for the major league record. Nobody from the steroid era, who has admitted to use or who has been suspected of such use, has yet been permitted to enter the Hall of Fame. McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, Bonds, et al thought that they had stamped their ticket to Cooperstown through their exploits on the field; to date, however, the voters have denied them such induction. Why should Rodriguez be any different?
Reports out of Yankee camp are that Reggie has now been asked to stay away from the team for a period of time, seemingly to avoid the distraction that his presence would cause Rodriguez and his teammates. For the now corporate-minded Yankees, it makes at least a modicum of sense; but when contrasted with the “Bronx Zoo” Yankees, and Jackson, who constantly stirred not only the drink, but also the pot, it seems ridiculous. Perhaps it was improper of Jackson to question Rodriguez, but only because he is currently employed by the Yankees. But the “punishment”, to the extent that it should have been handed down, should have been limited to an apology, not a de facto suspension.
Jackson deserves better. He can fill an entire hand with World Series rings, having won three titles with Oakland (1972 – 1974) and two with New York (1977 – 1978). Rodriguez boasts one such ring. Jackson clubbed 563 non-steroid assisted home runs. Rodriguez has over 600, but, as noted by Reggie, the amount is clouded by his steroid use. Reggie was the biggest star on his team, perhaps to the chagrin of the other late-70’s Yankees. Rodriguez has been forced, often much to his chagrin, to toil in the shadow of Derek Jeter. Simply put, Jackson is more important to the Yankees.
“The only difference between me and those other great Yankees is my skin color.”
Rodriguez could have been more important; and perhaps that is why the ownership took action against Jackson. Rodriguez is in the middle of a long-term deal with the club, one that still has five years remaining. There is no doubt that the Yankee brass is now kicking themselves over the time, and multi-millions of dollars, remaining on that deal. When the deal was signed, the expectation was that Rodriguez would eventually break baseball’s immortal slugging records. He would hit enough home runs to pass Bonds on the all-time list, and, more importantly, he would do so in pinstripes and bring the crown back to New York, where it has not resided since Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth in 1974.
The Yankees did not, however, foresee that Rodriguez would admit to use of steroids shortly thereafter. Nor did they foresee the erosion of his skills, to the point where he is now little more than an average third baseman. Any delusions of him becoming the Home Run King have vanished, and, instead, the Yankees are now saddled with his long, and expensive contract. So it is imperative, apparently, for them to keep their aging albatross content, to keep distraction away from him, and hope that he can, in some measure, justify the $30 million dollars per year that the team is paying him.
But keeping Jackson away is not the answer. He is a link to the team’s colorful past, a man who helped bring the championship trophy back to the Bronx, and a man who, as the ownership must be aware, is not afraid to speak his mind.
“After Jackie Robinson the most important black in baseball history is Reggie Jackson, I really mean that.”
No doubt he believes it. The Yankees would be well-served to continue to honor him for his accomplishments on the field. One comment , echoing public sentiment about a self-admitted steroid user, cannot serve to change that.