As a 14-time All-Star and Hall of Fame baseball player, Reggie Jackson's statistics are legendary. But the right fielder known as "Mr. October" was more than that; he was one of the most famous World Series MVPs ever, a key figure in the gradual acceptance of African-Americans in the sport, and the man behind both 563 home runs and pronouncements of his importance. Over time, the myths and legends surrounding Jackson have flirted with the actual history, so on the occasion of his 70th birthday, it seems a good time to lay out some truths about Reggie Jackson and his legacy.
1. HE ORIGINALLY WANTED TO BE A FOOTBALL PLAYER.
Reggie Jackson's dream during his junior year at Pennsylvania's Cheltenham High School was to be a professional football player. But on Thanksgiving 1963, the running back twisted his knee. At the hospital, doctors weren't sure he would ever play again. Instead, he came back later that season, only to snap his neck while tackling someone. After finishing the game, he went back to the hospital where he was told he had fractured five cervical vertebrae and warned that he might never walk again.
Jackson didn't have much luck on the baseball field during those same years either; he got hit in the face during batting practice and broke his jaw in five places. Though doctors told him he would miss the rest of the baseball season, he missed just three practices and one game before hitting .550 and throwing numerous no-hitters.
2. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE COLLEGE BASEBALL TEAM IN HIS FOOTBALL UNIFORM.
Jackson was heavily courted by colleges for his football abilities (he averaged 8.0 yards per carry and led the district in touchdowns). Both the University of Alabama and the University of Georgia were said to be willing to integrate their football programs for him. Instead, he opted to accept a football scholarship to Arizona State University, where he would also be allowed to play baseball.
Jackson still had to get on the baseball squad though. One day after football practice, he approached ASU coach Bobby Winkles asking for a tryout. The next day, still in his football pants and spikes—and not having swung a bat in almost a year—Jackson faced off against a varsity pitcher and swung at seven pitches. Four were for home runs.
3. HE DEALT WITH RACISM IN HIS PROFESSIONAL CAREER.
After his freshman season on the college baseball team, Jackson became the first African-American player for an Orioles-affiliated amateur team in Baltimore. He broke the color barrier because, according to Jackson, he "talked like a white boy" on the phone with the club before joining, and they didn't realize he was black until he showed up to play.
Jackson had it worse in 1967, when he joined the Kansas City Athletics' Double-A minor league team in Birmingham, Alabama. He wasn't allowed to eat in the same restaurants, sleep in the same hotels, or share an apartment with his teammates. But his manager, John McNamara, refused to eat at any restaurant or stay at any hotel that wouldn't have Jackson; then teammates Dave Duncan, Rollie Fingers, and Joe Rudi let Jackson stay with them for two weeks while he looked for a place of his own. Jackson told USA Today he'll forever be indebted to them. In 1988, Jackson also famously said: "After Jackie Robinson the most important black in baseball history is Reggie Jackson, I really mean that."
4. HE CELEBRATED HIS FIRST CAREER GRAND SLAM BY GIVING HIS TEAM'S OWNER THE FINGER.
After an exemplary 1969 season with the Oakland Athletics, Jackson demanded a raise from $20,000 to $75,000. But the A's owner Charlie O. Finley held steady at $40,000, right up until 10 days before opening day, when the two settled on $45,000, plus the rent to Jackson's Oakland apartment. Jackson wasn't thrilled; he was also out of shape from missing spring training and got off to a poor start, so Finley demanded that McNamara bench him. After McNamara acquiesced, Jackson demanded a trade, which Finley refused. When Finley threatened to demote Jackson to the minor leagues, Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn ruled that Jackson couldn't be sent down. Jackson gradually improved, but remained upset at Finley.
Late in the 1970 season, Jackson came up to pinch hit and hit the first grand slam of his career. When Jackson reached home plate, he looked up at Finley in his owner's box, extended his middle finger, and mouthed an expletive.
5. HE COULD HAVE HIT A BASEBALL 650 FEET.
In the third inning of the 1971 All-Star Game, Jackson hit a Dock Ellis slider over the upper deck at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. It hit the transformer that was 400 feet from home plate and 90 feet off the ground. Wayne State University physicists estimated the homer would have traveled 650 feet had the transformer not gotten in the way of the moonshot. In 2006, Ellis blamed catcher Johnny Bench for the incident. "He called a bad pitch," Ellis said. "I wasn't familiar with Reggie Jackson at the time. Reggie was a breaking-ball hitter, and that's what Bench called."
6. JACKSON JOINED HIS JEWISH TEAMMATES IN HONORING THE VICTIMS OF THE MUNICH MASSACRE.
After terrorists murdered several Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympics, three Oakland A's—Ken Holtzman, Mike Epstein, and Jackson—wore black armbands during their September 6, 1972 game against the Chicago White Sox. Epstein later said of the incident:
"We were in Chicago at the time to play the White Sox, and we walked around town for a few hours. We were just in a daze, like: How could something like this happen? Don’t people remember? Don’t they have any sense of history? So we decided: To memorialize the event, we’d wear the black armbands. Lo and behold, wouldn’t you know it, Reggie Jackson got a hold of some black material, and he put a black armband on, too, as a way of getting some attention."
7. IF IT WASN'T FOR REGGIE JACKSON, ROLLIE FINGERS WOULD HAVE NEVER HAD HIS MUSTACHE.
When Jackson showed up to spring training in 1972 with a mustache, everybody on the A's wanted him to get rid of it. After Jackson refused, four of his teammates—including Fingers—decided to grow mustaches, with the hope that manager Dick Williams would make all of them, including Jackson, shave them off. The plan backfired: Not only did Williams not say anything about the facial hair, but team owner Finley liked the mustaches so much that he decided to have a Mustache Day at the stadium, and gave $300 to every player who had one. Fingers became so synonymous with his 'stache that he opted to retire instead of play for the Cincinnati Reds in 1986, who refused to exempt him from their no facial hair policy.
8. BOTH JACKSON AND THE YANKEES REGRETTED SIGNING HIM AT FIRST.
After the Yankees won the American League title but got swept by the Reds in the 1976 World Series, they looked to make off-season moves to win a championship. The team, who already had five left-handed batters in the lineup, signed Jackson to a five-year contract worth just under $3 million. During spring training, Jackson's new teammate Sparky Lyle told a reporter, "I don't think we need him. Not to take anything away from his talents, but what we really needed was a good right-handed hitter. A right-handed superstar."
In a May 1977 Sports Illustrated article about the team, it was reported that Jackson told "non-baseball acquaintances" that he was regretting signing with the team, and when a photographer told him he had just left from shooting pictures of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Jackson said that maybe that's where he should have gone.
9. HE ONCE CLAIMED HE WAS MISQUOTED FOR FOUR PAGES.
Team captain Thurman Munson and Jackson initially needed to be tricked into having breakfast together by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to play together peacefully. Robert Ward's article in Sport magazine made the relationship a lot worse early in the 1977 season, when Jackson was infamously quoted as saying, "I'm the straw that stirs the drink. It all comes back to me" and "No team I am on will ever be humiliated the way the Yankees were by the Reds in the World Series! That's why Munson can't intimidate me. Nobody can." Almost as famously, after claims that Jackson was misquoted, Munson asked, "For four pages?"
10. THE "MR. OCTOBER" NICKNAME WAS ORIGINALLY SARCASTIC.
Jackson went an unimpressive 2-for-16 in the 1977 American League Championship Series. Although accounts vary as to what exactly was said, during the World Series that year Thurman Munson dismissed Jackson’s mediocre performance up to that point by calling him "Mr. October." Jackson responded by tearing the cover off the ball for most of the Fall Classic against the Dodgers, particularly in Game 6, when he hit three home runs off of three pitches to give the Yankees the title, earn his second World Series MVP award, and the moniker "Mr. October" for the rest of his days. "I must admit, when Reggie hit his third home run and I was sure nobody was looking, I applauded in my glove," Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey said.
11. HE HAD HIS OWN CANDY BAR.
Before he joined the Yankees, Jackson said, "If I was playing in New York, they'd name a candy bar after me." Somewhat inspired by the line, Standard Brands’s Curtiss Candy produced the Reggie! Bar, which was in fact a circular-shaped concoction of caramel, peanuts, and milk chocolate. They were handed out to fans at the 1978 Yankee Stadium opener. When Jackson hit a homer in the first inning, the crowd threw the candy onto the field, to the annoyance of the opposing team, the Chicago White Sox. Yankees pitcher Catfish Hunter quipped, "When you unwrap a Reggie! bar, it tells you how good it is." Dave Anderson of The New York Times wrote that it was the only candy bar that tasted like a hot dog.
Years later, Jackson admitted he was ambivalent about the candy shower. "I was concerned that people didn't like [the candy bar]," he told the Los Angeles Times. "Standard Brands and Curtiss Candy out of Chicago, they thought it was the greatest PR thing they ever could've dreamed of because they got like two and a half minutes of airtime on national television. They really thought that it was wonderful. I was nervous that people didn't like it."