I have to admit that I was completely stumped as to what I should write about in this week’s edition of “Card Corner.” Having already exhausted the futility and frustration of the 1990 Yankees, I found myself searching for a new theme. Yet, nothing came to mind.
Then came a barrage of Reggie Jackson-related material in Tuesday’s editions of The Banter. Well, Reggie is always ripe for interesting discussion. I then remembered that I needed to correct an item from a “Card Corner” that appeared in this space back in December of 2007. I had written that Jackson, when he showed up to work for Oakland in the spring in 1972, had become the first major leaguer to sport a mustache since Wally Schang of the old Philadelphia Athletics in 1914.
Wrong. Dead wrong. It’s just not true that Jackson was the first man since Schang to go the mustachioed route. As friend and researcher Maxwell Kates has pointed out, Richie Allen (as he was called back then) actually wore a mustache with the St. Louis Cardinals during the 1970 season. (Felipe Alou might have also worn a mustache with the A’s in 1970, but that is less certain. Another possibility is Richie Scheinblum, who might have grown a mustache with the Cleveland Indians in 1969.) In fact, Allen’s 1971 Topps card, which was photographed after he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, shows a mustache in clear view. So Jackson did not set a new trend. He merely continued what Allen had done over the previous two seasons.
With that cleared up, Jackson is good fodder for conversation, especially when a new in-depth biography about his life has just hit the Internet bookshelves. I have not yet read Dayn Perry’s book, but I’m sure that he has touched upon the following subjects in far greater depth. In particular, the start of Jackson’s professional career, along with his overlooked years in Oakland, have always fascinated me. So let’s take a closer look.
By all rights, Jackson should have started his career in New York, but with the Mets, not the Yankees. In 1966, the Mets owned the No. 1 pick in the June amateur draft. They faced a choice of drafting Jackson, a young African-American outfielder out of Arizona State, or a left-handed, power-hitting catcher named Steve Chilcott. With Jackson destined to make the major leagues within two seasons, the Mets would have formulated one of the game’s best and most athletic outfields: smooth-swinging Cleon Jones, who would bat .340 during the miracle season of 1969; Gold Glover and power-hitting Tommie Agee in center; and the rifle-armed Jackson in right field. I can’t think of any outfield in that era that would have combined such speed, defensive range, and power, with the possible exception of the early 1970s Giants outfield that featured Willie Mays in center flanked by a young Ken Henderson (look up his early numbers) in left field and a budding Bobby Bonds in right field.
As we all know, the dream outfield of Jones-Agee-Jackson never materialized at Shea Stadium. Instead of taking Jackson, the Mets chose Chilcott, who would play seven minor league seasons but never play a single game in the major leagues. Rumors have always swirled that the Mets opted not to take Jackson because he liked to date white women. I tend to believe the rumors, especially given the presence of George Weiss as Mets general manager. Weiss was the same man who had decided to integrate the Yankees at a snail’s pace during the 1950s.
The perception of Jackson’s talent has also been a source of controversy, though for less incendiary reasons. I’ve long contended that the portrayal of Jackson as a one-dimensional slugger is overly simplistic–along with being just plain wrong. As a member of the A’s, Reggie was a well-rounded four-tool talent. In addition to the established power, Reggie could steal bases, range far in right field, and heave cannon shots toward the infield. With the A’s, Jackson had enough athleticism to make more than token appearances in center field. From 1967 to 1974, Jackson played 172 games in center field for the A‘s, including 92 appearances for the 1972 world champions. He wasn’t a particularly good center fielder–he was probably a bit below average, let‘s call it a ‘3‘ on a Strat-O-Matic card–but he was often the best available candidate for managers Dick Williams and Alvin Dark.
By the time that Reggie joined the Yankees in 1977, the idea of playing him in center field was unthinkable; I suspect that in addition to becoming too muscle bound, he had problems with his vision and depth perception that made outfielding a major chore. But for the first seven to eight seasons of his career, Jackson was a true triple threat as a power hitter, capable defender, and proficient base stealer.
And he was pretty good at growing a mustache, thought not exactly the trendsetter that I had originally portrayed him to be. Somehow, I think Reggie will get over it.
Bruce Markusen will present a program on baseball cards at the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture June 2-4.