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Card Corner: Reggie Jackson

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.

Categories:  Bronx Banter  Bruce Markusen

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1 Sliced Bread   ~  May 14, 2010 10:32 am

I find it kind of hard to believe Weiss didn't draft Reggie because he dated white women.

a - Weiss' Mets, and the game itself, were well-integrated by the time Reggie came around.

b - as perhaps the game's most legendary talent scout, Weiss surely must have known Reggie was raised in a predominantly white neighborhood.

c - how many GMs (regardless of race) wouldn't pick a lefty-slugging catcher prospect over an outfielder? It's not a stretch to think it was purely a baseball decision.

Understandably, Weiss' reputation as a bigot followed him to the Mets, but unless I'm missing something the Reggie rumor doesn't add up.

2 bp1   ~  May 14, 2010 11:03 am

I wonder how much better Reggie would have been if he had access to Lasik surgery. True for a lot of guys in that era, no doubt. Reggie pushing glasses up on his nose is as recognizable as the indian burns he'd give a bat handle.

3 NoamSane   ~  May 14, 2010 11:36 am

[1] Couldn't disagree more.

a - Baseball was integrated. Baseball players' marriages: not integrated/interracial. You can't name one baseball player that had interracial relationship in 1966 or before. It's easy to imagine Weiss not wanting his African-American top pick to be seen around NYC with a white woman on his arm. Let's not forget that in 1966 interracial marriage wasn't even legal in every state in the US.

b - To paraphrase ARod, I had never heard that one before. Branch Rickey? yes. Paul Krichell? yes. George Weiss, *most legendary scout*? hadn't heard that.

c - I think here you're attributing today's sensibilities to a time almost 50 years past. In the 50s and 60s the biggest stars were outfielders and pitchers (esp. OFs: Mantle, Mays, Williams, Musial, Snider, Aaron, Clemente)

I think it's easy now to forget how our culture has treated interracial relationships through the years. When Spike Lee made "Jungle Fever" in 1992 or so it created a lot of controversy. I don't think that movie would even be made now, less than 20 years on.

Sorry if my reply was too forceful, but as the product of an interracial marriage, it's a topic I given a lot of thought to.

4 Sliced Bread   ~  May 14, 2010 11:55 am

[3] no problem with the forceful tone. I have several friends who are in interracial marraiges who might disagree with me as well, and you may be right.

as far as Weiss' reputation as a scout, look at the Yankees from the decades he ran the team. There's no question he was one of the most respected scouts in the game.

5 NoamSane   ~  May 14, 2010 1:01 pm

Clearly Weiss knew a few things about how to run a team.

In the context of this conversation we should recall that Weiss was the one deciding in 1950 that he didn't even want to take a look at a teenaged Negro Leaguer named Willie Mays. Then when he realized the rest of the majors was actually going to sign black players, pretty quickly signed Elston Howard (a slugging catcher, no less) But then Weiss let Howard languish in the minors for six years before calling him up to the big club.

6 Sliced Bread   ~  May 14, 2010 1:21 pm

[5] it's a given that he was bigoted, and that he made mistakes with respect to judging talent... I just doubt that young Reggie's choice of dates was a dealbreaker for Weiss, but as I conceded, I could be wrong.

My thinking is: by the time Reggie came up, Weiss had accepted that Black players were in the league to stay, and he was signing Black players, so why would a player's love-life figure into his assessment? If he thought Reggie was the best option would his choice of dates really sway his opinion? You say absolutely. I don't know.

Is it not also possible that he really liked what he saw in the catcher he chose over Reggie? Is it not possible that it was purely a baseball decision (albeit a bad one)?

7 NoamSane   ~  May 14, 2010 1:41 pm

[6] Well put. It is definitely possible that he liked what he saw in Chilcott and chose to go with him over everybody else for that reason alone. Definitely possible. I just doubt it. But I will grant you the possibility for sure.

8 Bruce Markusen   ~  May 14, 2010 6:53 pm

I'm sure that Weiss looked at a lot of factors in deciding to take Chilcott over Jackson. But the white/black issue might have been the tiebreaker in his mind. Knowing what I do about Weiss and about general social attitudes in the 1960s, I'm inclined to believe the rumors.

Noam is right on here. Today it is generally and widely acceptable to have inter-racial relationships. It still gets commented on in some circles, but it is taken matter-of-factly in others. I remember growing up in the mid-1970s and hearing about it being a BIG issue back then. If it was big in 1976, it must have been big in 1966.

9 Sliced Bread   ~  May 14, 2010 9:26 pm

I'm inclined not to believe rumors. Knowing what I do about Weiss and how he was building the Mets, and what I know about Reggie (and how he evokes conflicting opinions), I believe Mr. Jackson's taste for women had little if anything to do with Weiss' first round draft choice.

I was born in Manhattan in 1966, on Reggie's birthday actually - so I won't pretend to understand what it was like for inter-racial couples here in NY in the 60s. I remember it was a big issue in the 70s, (lived in Flushing) and what a big deal shows like All In The Family, and The Jeffersons were. I remember my parents telling me the times were changing for the better.

I believe by the mid-60s even Weiss had seen and felt the changes coming, and knew there was nothing he, as an old man, could do about it. He might have taken his bigotry to the grave, but I like to think he wised up in his last years in the game - even if he wasn't smart enough to draft Jackson.

10 Link   ~  May 28, 2010 10:47 am

I have never really understood why people are so inclined to give the benefit of the doubt when there really is no basis to think about it otherwise. Race is still an issue that is pervasive in this country as we speak but we are to presume that in 1966 attitudes were remarkably different.

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