A soul-baring, brutally candid, and highly colorful memoir of the two years--1977 and 1978--when Reggie Jackson went from being an outcast to a Yankee legend.
In the spring of 1977 Reggie Jackson should have been on top of the world. The best player on the Oakland A's dynasty teams, he was the first big-money free agent wooed by George Steinbrenner into coming to the New York Yankees. But, as Reggie writes in this vivid and surprising memoir, until his initial experience with the Yankees, "I didn't know what alone meant." Persevering against an alcoholic manager, ostracism from teammates, and negative stereotypes in the New York City press, Jackson fought against the odds to become "Mr. October." Filled with revealing anecdotes about the notorious "Bronx Zoo" Yankees of the late 1970s, bluntly honest portrayals of his teammates and competitors, and especially of manager Billy Martin, Becoming Mr. October is a revelatory self-portrait of a baseball icon at the height of his public fame and private anguish.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
KEVIN BAKER is the prize-winning author of the historical novels Dreamland, Paradise Alley, and Strivers Row; the baseball novel Sometimes You See It Coming; and, most recently, The Big Crowd. He served as chief historical researcher for the nonfiction bestseller The American Century. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and Harper’s Magazine, among other publications.
Read an Excerpt
Bull in the Ring
I never intended to play professional baseball.
After high school, I had gone down to Arizona State on a football scholarship, playing for Frank Kush, who was a great coach. He knew my high school football coach, John Kracsun, from the Pittsburgh area, and Kracsun told him I would be a good college player.
I was a much better football player than I was a baseball player at the time. I was maybe a better basketball player, too. I could do everything. I was a great shooter, played guard, but also jumped some center, even though we had a guy, Alan Tractenberg, who was six eight while I was five eleven. I was a great jumper, a high flier.
In football, I was a running back on offense and a safety on defense. There were several schools interested in recruiting me—Syracuse, Penn State. Oklahoma—but you had to be in at ten at night, for your own safety. Duke—but I was a little afraid to go to school in the South then; I didn’t know what to expect at the time. I didn’t want to be the first black player to go anywhere. Notre Dame and Michigan were interested in me, but I wanted to play baseball, too, and they were schools in cold-weather climates, where you couldn’t get enough time in to play much baseball.
John Kracsun was a father figure to me, so I listened to him. I saw Coach Kush much the same way. I was eighteen years old, but Frank Kush was going to make me a man. Football started at Camp Tontozona, up in the hills near a little town called Payson. We went there for two weeks in mid-August, and it got up to 105 degrees during the day, five thousand feet above sea level, but cooled at night.
We had two workouts a day. Lots of running, mostly sprints. If you couldn’t make it, or you were dragging, you had to run “Mount Kush” at the end of the workout, which was this rocky hill, this Prudential rock, where you’d be sliding, slipping, and falling. Lots of one-on-one drills, to see who’s tougher than the next guy.
We had this drill called “bull in the ring.” There would be a big circle of the entire team, anywhere from eighty to ninety guys, out there in full pads and helmets, with numbers on the jerseys. To test our mettle and see who was tough enough to play Frank Kush football, Coach Kush would call out a guy’s number. If you were the “bull” in the circle, another player would run at you full speed. You had to find out where he was coming from—if he was behind you or on one side—and defend yourself in a one-on-one, head-on crash.
I felt like I was in the middle more than anybody, and I wasn’t the best at it. The best at it was a guy named Curley Culp, who was the NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion when he was a freshman in college and who would go on to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a great, great defensive lineman with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Curley and I bunked together at camp. His number got called when I was in the circle, and he took it easy on me. Coach Kush said, “Oh, taking care of your buddy, huh? Okay, you become ‘bull in the ring’!” Curley broke the next guy’s face mask and helmet, and that ended the drill.
In those days, you couldn’t play varsity ball as a freshman. I played on the freshman team, played both ways as a safety and a running back and did well. I remember I gained a lot of yards running behind Curley Culp. But I wanted to play baseball, and my dad wanted me to play, too; he had been a professional player with some of the old Negro Leagues clubs.
I had been a center fielder, a first baseman, and a pitcher in high school. At the plate I hit about .500. I had one of the best arms on the team, so I pitched a lot, but I threw a lot of curveballs and ended up hurting my arm. I did pitch a couple no-hitters. I could pitch a no-hitter, strike out fifteen—and usually walk ten or twelve.
When he came to recruit me, I asked Coach Kush if I could play baseball as well. That would be almost unheard of today, a top recruit playing two sports, but he told me I could play baseball as well as football if I kept up a B average, and I had a 3.0. Freshman year at Arizona State, spring of 1965, we had spring football practice, but the baseball season was starting at the same time. A couple of guys in my dormitory, Joe Paulson and Jeff Pentland, who became a major-league hitting coach for many years, bet me that I couldn’t make the baseball team.
Much as I wanted to play, I was leery about going out for the team, because the baseball coach was Bobby Winkles. Winkles was a legend, but he was from Arkansas, and Arizona State had never had a black player on its baseball team. They’d had one guy, Sterling Slaughter, who was a mulatto and later pitched for the Cubs, but he really wasn’t recognized as a black player. But Joe and Jeff bet me $5 I couldn’t make the team, and $5 was a lot of money to us then. After football practice one day, I went over to the baseball field and told Coach Winkles, “Boy, I’d like to try out one day.”
Winkles had already heard from the major-league scouts who watched me in high school that I had really good tools, and he said in his southern drawl, “Well, come over here and take some batting practice.” I still had my football gear on at the time. I was wearing a pair of Riddell football shoes, had my football pants on still, my shoulder pads and shirt. I was still wearing my helmet. But he said, “Take some batting practice,” so I just took off my shoulder pads, set my football helmet down, put on a baseball helmet, and started swinging. After a couple pop-ups and grounders, I started hitting line drives and fly balls over the fence.
Bobby Winkles said, “Would you like to try out for the team?” And I said, “I would love to”—and thought of course of my $5 payday. It also meant I got to miss Frank Kush’s spring football practice, which was a big plus!
I played on the freshman team, and everything went fine. We had ten games, all of them at home or within a day-trip away. The next year, in the spring of 1966, I was on the varsity. We played a fifty-game schedule and traveled around the Western Athletic Conference to the states in that region. The team had decided to have a vote, to see who would room with me when they traveled. I had to wait outside. When I look back on that, it just made me feel so small, so insignificant. I don’t know how many people actually objected to me, but it was a different thing for the team, having a black player, even in 1966—nineteen years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in major-league baseball.
It never went to a vote, because the captain of the team, Jan Kleinman, said, “I’ll room with Reggie, no worries.”
Jan and I are friends to this day, and we got along very well. Later, after he went to play in the Phillies’ organization, I roomed with a country kid from Kansas named Glenn Smith, and we had a blast together. Glenn was just a real salt-of-the-earth person with a great midwestern twang who went on to play in the Minnesota Twins’ system for a few years. He used to call me a “yearling”—said I ran fast like a yearling deer—and we had some great times together.
We ended up having eight players from that squad who were drafted by major-league teams, and four of them made it to the show: Al Schmelz and Duffy Dyer, who played with the Mets, and Rick Monday, who was the top prospect in the country, and Sal Bando—both guys I would play a lot of games with as a professional with the Oakland Athletics.
I did well, I led the team in everything. I got along great with Bobby Winkles. He really treated me like a son. He helped break me of some bad habits, helped kick some of that chip off my shoulder I had then. He ran me to death, taught me to play up to my potential. He taught me discipline and sacrifice—on and off the field.
It was Bobby Winkles who taught me to hustle all the time. He taught me to control my emotions, learn the right way to play the game. Don’t throw your bat and helmet when you strike out. Keep learning and getting the best of your ability. Be more responsible. He helped start me on the road to becoming an adult.
It also helped that I was in great shape. They still used to tell baseball players in those days, don’t lift weights too much, you’ll get muscle-bound, you’ll get too tight. But I was already a football player, so I knew about working out, I went to weight-lifting classes, and I was pretty muscular and thick. I believe weight training in football helped me in baseball.
At Arizona State, because it was a great baseball school, the major-league scouts were all over the place. I was considered the number one draft pick in the country. Danny Murtaugh, who would manage the Pittsburgh Pirates to two world championships, was taking some time off for his health, scouting amateur players for the Pirates, and he came to see me play. He was asked, “What do you think about this year’s draft?” and he said, “It’s a pretty good crop of players. But there’s this kid at Arizona State who’s built like a blacksmith. And his name is Reggie Jackson. He’s head and shoulders above everyone else.”
You can imagine how excited I was when I read that in the Arizona Republic. Danny Murtaugh! At the time the Pirates had an amazing lineup: Willie Stargell, Donn Clendenon, Matty Alou, the great Roberto Clemente. “The Lumber Company.” I would’ve loved to have played with those guys, but Murtaugh didn’t think there was any way the Pirates would ever get to me in the draft, that I’d be taken first by some team with a higher draft pick.
The team that had the first pick in the draft that year? The New York Mets. They had never finished out of last place, so they had the first pick, and everyone figured they would pick me.
I think about that sometimes. If I had gone to the Mets then, my career would’ve been in New York from the very start. I would’ve been coming up just as that team was finally improving. They had all those great arms: Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, Nolan Ryan, Tug McGraw. Oh, boy! They had Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee in the outfield, Jerry Grote behind the plate. A little later they acquired Rusty Staub and Felix Millan, brought up John Milner. They brought back Willie Mays—I could’ve learned so much if I’d got to play with him, my boyhood idol.
As it was, they would win two pennants and a World Series. Add me, and who knows what the Mets would have done? I played against them with the A’s in the 1973 World Series, and I was the MVP. We won in seven, and I drove in half the runs in the last two games. Maybe they could’ve won that Series if they’d had a guy who could hit thirty home runs and drive in a hundred. Maybe they would’ve pushed across a couple more pennants if I were there with all those other great players. Oh, well . . . and, oh, that pitching.
It would’ve meant that I would have been in New York about a decade earlier than I was. But with the Mets, that would’ve meant playing with very different personalities. It would’ve meant playing for Gil Hodges, who nobody ever said a bad word about anyone and who played with all those great black players on the old Brooklyn Dodgers. It would’ve meant playing for Yogi Berra, who got along well with everyone. Unlike Billy Martin, Yogi didn’t need to be the star all the time. He already was the star; he didn’t need to prove it to anybody. Tom Seaver and I were always friendly; he introduced me to my agent Matt Merola in 1969.
It’s intriguing to think about. I think it would’ve gone very well.
But then, a day or two before the draft, Bobby Winkles sat me down and told me, “You’re probably not gonna be the number one pick.” He said, “You’re dating a Mexican girl, and the Mets think you will be a problem. They think you’ll be a social problem because you are dating out of your race.”
“Wow, really?” I said.
I didn’t know what he was talking about. I said, “Well, she’s Mexican, and I’m part Latino, so what’s that?” My father’s mother was from a little town outside San Juan, Puerto Rico. I mean, my middle name is Martinez. And he said, “No, you’re colored, and they don’t want that. It may hurt your draft.” I told him, “Everyone says that I’m the best.” And he said, “Yes, but the Mets think you’re gonna maybe cause a problem, socially.” I said, “But I think we’re gonna get married.” Her name was Juanita Campos.
But that didn’t matter. It turned out Bobby Winkles was right. I heard it was Bob Scheffing, who was the Mets’ director of player development then—the same guy who traded Nolan Ryan a few years later, after Scheffing became general manager. He saw to it they drafted a guy named Steve Chilcott, a high school catcher who would become one of only two first picks in history to retire without ever playing a single game in the majors.
Scheffing denied it later, said there was nothing racial about it. Then he tried to blame it on Casey Stengel, who was about seventy-five years old at the time and doing some scouting for the team. Can you believe that? I couldn’t. I know I never saw Casey Stengel when I was being scouted—and how could you be in a ballpark and not know if Casey Stengel was there?
Ten years later, when I was a free agent, the Mets still didn’t even try to sign me. After the free-agent draft, Bob Scheffing told a reporter from the St. Petersburg Evening Independent, “Jackson wasn’t the best ballplayer available, Joe Rudi was. Jackson was the best press-agent around.” He said I was “a pleasure to talk to” but that I was “not an outstanding offensive ballplayer.”
Table of Contents
1 Bull in the Ring 1
2 Birmingham 11
3 Gunslingers 21
4 Leaving Charlie O. 27
5 "Like a Guy Trying to Hustle a Girl in a Bar" 36
6 "Any Specific Player" 47
7 Billy 55
8 The Hole in the Doughnut 73
9 The Article 83
10 Boston 96
11 Eye Exam 108
12 Calling My Dad 116
13 Hiding in the Bathroom 127
14 Pinch Hitter 143
15 "Another Chapter in the Tumultuous Life of the 1977 Yankees" 160
16 "That's Three, Mom!" 171
17 Sitting in the Rocking Chair 184
18 Reggie! Bar 192
19 Here We Go Again 206
20 Forcing the Issue 216
21 "One's a Born Liar" 231
22 "A Very Simple Game for Children" 243
23 Catching Boston 254
24 "I Hit It to the Prudential Building" 263
25 "Finding a Prize in the Weeds" 276
Epilogue: "Nothing Gold Can Stay" 287