Jim Sundberg told me not too long ago that Reggie Jackson was the smartest hitter he ever matched wits with as a catcher. Now, it is true that Reggie Jackson was standing right next to us when Sundberg said it — Reggie nodded kind of knowingly — but Sundberg has said the same thing on other occasions. He explained how Jackson used to anticipate pitches, how he used to goad pitchers into challenging him, how he would do things with outside pitches than Sundberg has never seen anyone else do.
“He never got credit for that,” Sundberg said. “This guy was the smartest hitter I ever saw.”
Let me just say: I love that. Reggie Jackson was called just about everything in his tumultuous, brilliant, outspoken, difficult and often wonderful career. “Smart hitter,” I’m pretty sure, was never one of the descriptions.
There are obvious reasons why Reggie Jackson was not often (if ever) called a smart hitter during his career. He struck out more times than any batter in baseball history — even Jim Thome, as he stretched out his glorious three-outcome career could not quite get Reggie’s strikeout total. Jackson actually had more strikeouts (2,597) than hits (2,584) which was a rather astonishing achievement at the time. He remains the only player with more than 2,500 strikeouts and 2,500 hits.
These days, it should be added, it’s not an astonishing achievement at all to have more strikeouts than hits.
Here is just a partial list of active players with more strikeouts than hits (min. 1,000 strikeouts):
5. B.J. Upton, 982 hits, 1,171 Ks, minus-189.
4. Ryan Howard, 1,176 hits, 1,401 Ks, minus-225
3. Carlos Pena, 1,138 hits, 1,401 Ks, minus-428
2. Mark Reynolds, 797 hits, 1,276 Ks, minus-479
1. Adam Dunn, 1,537 hits, 2,220 Ks, minus-683
Such numbers would have been unheard of before this era of swing-for-the-fences. Then, you could argue that Reggie Jackson, more than anyone else, ushered in this era of swing for the fences.
Anyway, Jackson struck out a ton. And in a time when batting average was essentially how a player’s baseball skill and hitting acumen were judged, Jackson hit only hit .300 once (even then, in 1980, his average was actually .2996). And so while Reggie Jackson’s career certainly did not lack for lavish praise, “smart hitter” simply was simply not a description used. How smart could you be if you didn’t hit .300?
But I think Sundberg line is a new way to look at Reggie Jackson. And the more I think of it, yes, Reggie was an extraordinarily smart hitter. Reggie Jackson invented an entire persona. He took what he gifts and flaws he had — he was a strong and fast former football player with a gigantic hole in his swing — and he invented “Mr. October” and “The Straw That Stirs The Drink” and the “Reg-gie, Reg-gie” chant. He made himself one of the greatest baseball players of all time. But it was more than that. He, perhaps more than any player of his time, strived to become heroic and celebrated and larger than life … and in large part he did that too. There was a candy bar named for him.
Jackson always says he was a better football player than baseball player. It has been written on many occasions — it is also in Dayn Perry’s book on Reggie — that Reggie Jackson was such a good high school football player that he was heavily recruited by both Georgia and Alabama, even though neither school had ever had a black football player.* Jackson himself does not seem to claim this, and I must admit being skeptical that he was really recruited to integrate those schools.
On Martin Luther King Day, it’s worth remembering just where America stood in 1964, when Reggie Jackson graduated from a Pennsylvania High School. The University of Georgia had been desegregated as a university for just three years. Only one year earlier, Alabama governor George Wallace had stood at the door of an Alabama auditorium to symbolically block entry of two black students. King’s “I Have A Dream” seminal speech had only been uttered a few months before. The idea that they were heavily recruiting Reggie Jackson in 1964 to break the football color barrier at Georgia or Alabama — seven years before either school actually integrated — seems pretty wildly exaggerated. My guess is that he might have been contacted unofficially by parties at Georgia and Alabama but it never would have gone very far.
*You will actually read in many places that that Oklahoma also recruited him to break their color barrier, but this definitely isn’t true — Prentice Gautt played football at Oklahoma from 1956-1959, before Reggie Jackson was even in high school.
These Reggie Jackson football stories, though, do a good job of expressing just how good a football player he was. Perry says he averaged eight yards per carry as a runner in high school. Jackson says he was recruited by Syracuse and Penn State among many others. He eventually signed to play football at Arizona State with the hope of playing a little baseball on the side. He had supernatural power as a hitter. His baseball tryout at Arizona State became something of legend — three or four homers in seven or eight swings — and after quitting football* he became an All-American baseball player his sophomore year and set the school record for home runs.
*Reggie Jackson quitting Arizona State football was an inevitability, when you consider that Arizona’s football coach was legendarily strict Frank Kush. Jackson, though, still has nothing but kind words for Kush.
Something else happened at Arizona State, something Perry expresses well. Reggie heard the crowd. Reggie Jackson had heard the crowd before, of course, many times, in football and basketball and baseball, but it was in Tempe that he realized that the cheers are never quite as loud, never quite as focused, never quite as personal as when you hit a home run. “The same exposure,” Perry wrote, “also allowed one to be adored in uncommon ways.” Reggie Jackson, more than anything, wanted to be adored.
He was the second pick in the 1967 draft — the Mets famously took Steve Chilcott with the first pick. Jackson was told and still believes the Mets took Chilcott for racial reasons, specifically that they did not appreciate that Reggie Jackson dating a Mexican woman. The Mets denied this through the years, and their missed opportunities in the first couple of years in the draft does support their case. In 1965, they took a catcher named Randolph Kohn 14 picks before the Reds took a catcher named Johnny Bench. In 1966, they took Chilcott over Reggie. The Mets still won the 1969 World Series and 1973 pennant. But it could have been even more.
Anyway, the Kansas City Athletics took Reggie with the second pick, and he was in the big leagues the next year. In 1969, his second full season, he had a year for the ages. He hit 47 homers (and was briefly on pace to break Roger Maris’ single season home run record), walked 114 times, scored 123 runs, drove in 118. He did this in a league dominated by pitching and in a home ballpark that favored pitchers. It’s always instructive and fun to convert those numbers into, say, 1990s baseball. Let’s try 1996.
Reggie Jackson’s numbers converted to 1996 run-scoring context context:
1969: .320/.462/.703, 58 homers, 165 RBIs, 172 runs.
1970: .273/..403/.519, 27 homers, 88 RBIs, 76 runs
1971: .324/.405/.591, 40 homers, 116 RBIs, 125 runs.
1972: .329/.423/..588, 35 homers, 129 RBIs, 124 runs.
1973: .341/.437/.616, 40 homers, 166 RBIs, 141 runs.
1974: 345/.456/.615, 38 homers, 140 RBIs, 136 runs.
And so on. Adjusted to 1996, Reggie Jackson hits .304 for his career with 704 homers. This is obviously an extreme example, but sometimes it’s worthwhile to use extreme examples to get across the point. Jackson’s strong numbers are from his time. In another time, the numbers would have been bigger.
In any case, Reggie Jackson came to the ballpark to hit home runs. In this, he was utterly unapologetic. Before he came along, it was an embarrassment to strike out 120 times a season no matter how many home runs you hit. Before 1960, the only players to strike out 120 times more than once were Mickey Mantle (three times), Vince DiMaggio and Jim Lemon (twice each).
Reggie Jackson struck out 120 times in a season THIRTEEN TIMES between 1968 and 1985.
This was not done accidentally. Jackson had made the calculations. If he swung hard — and NOBODY swung harder than Reggie, he would sometimes swing so hard that his legs would collapse from under him — he would strike out many times. This was true. He also would hit titanic home runs that everyone would remember forever. This was true too. He hit the one off the transformer on the roof in Detroit at the All-Star Game. His third home run of Game 6 of the 1977 World Series was a majestic blast later estimated to go 475 feet. Well, he hit a lot of majestic blasts. If you went to the ballpark enough, you would eventually see one.
And to hit so many of those kinds of home runs, it’s not enough just to swing big and hope for the best. Sundberg says Reggie would set up pitchers, give them openings and take them away, flash for them weaknesses that weren’t weaknesses at all. “And he learned from pitch to pitch,” Sundberg said. In the 1978 World Series, the Dodgers led the Yankees by a run in the bottom of the ninth. The Yankees put two men on, and Jackson came up to face the Dodgers young star Bob Welch.
If you are old enough, you will remember how the scene played out on television — it was not unlike the final scene of The Natural. The brilliant young pitcher. The great slugger. The camera closed in tight on Welch’s face, then on Reggie in the box. The count went full. The runners took off which Reggie would always say jolted his attention. He swung. He missed. He slammed his bat, and it broke in his hands. Dodger Stadium erupted in sound.
In Game 4, Welch faced Reggie Jackson again, score tied, Roy White on first base. This time, Jackson ripped a single and the next batter, Lou Piniella, won the game with another single.
In Game 5, they faced one more time. This time the game was not on the line. The Yankees already had a 5-2 lead. But the matchup was so choice, so perfect, that one more time television built up the drama. The young pitcher. The great slugger. But this time there was no drama. Reggie Jackson had figured out Bob Welch. He had turned and twisted that Rubik’s Cube and had solved it. In his latest autobiography, he would compare Welch to a cup of coffee.
“He threw hard every time he came in, but the first time I saw him he was fresh as a daisy. The last time, you know, the coffee had been on the stove a little bit. And I had smelled the aroma enough to be able to understand the taste.”
Isn’t that great? Reggie always did have a way with words. Reggie Jackson went up to the plate to hit a home run against Bob Welch. He would often say he KNEW he was going to hit a home run. And he hit a home run. He did not point to the fence, but that was his called shot. He would say he often called those shots in his mind.
What did Reggie Jackson want? He had a great arm and, in his younger days, overwhelming athleticism, but he was not a great outfielder, often not even a good one. He was not a particularly helpful player the last five years of his career, while he gained some of the magic numbers. His lifetime on-base percentage of .356 is good, but not great. The highways are jammed with people who have called him overrated.
But that wasn’t the point with Reggie. What did he want? He wanted to be traded. He wanted to be cheered. He wanted to be respected. He wanted to be loved. He wanted to be left alone. He wanted Billy Martin to shut up. He wanted more money. He wanted and he wanted and he wanted … to be Mr. October. He wanted to be remembered.
Maybe this is how you say it. Reggie Jackson came to play 31 times in an All-Star Game. He hit just one All-Star Game home run — that one roof-blast in Detroit. But one was enough. No one who saw it will ever forget it.