A number of spectators at the Ail-Star Game in Baltimore on July 8 may be surprised—when they get the mustard off their sleeves and look up to see who is stationed where—to discover that right field for the American League is occupied by a bull-necked young man in the white flannel uniform of the Red Sox.
This is an article from the June 23, 1958 issue
"My goodness," they will say. "Jackie Jensen. What in the world is he doing out there?"
The truth of the matter is that Jackie Jensen will be there because he belongs there. Everything considered, he is the best right fielder in the American League, and he has probably been the best right fielder for quite some time. The trouble with Jackie Jensen is that along about six years ago he quit making headlines and began to make himself into a ballplayer. The results, while amply appreciated in New England, have managed to escape the notice of the rest of the world. Playing on a team which includes a super star like Ted Williams and in the same league with Mickey Mantle, a ballplayer who does not hit .350 or bash home runs in enormous quantities—nor even engage in running fights with sports-writers or kick holes in water coolers—does not find himself in the headlines very often.
There was a time, however, when the situation was quite something else. When Jensen arrived on the big league scene eight years ago, as property of the New York Yankees, he was an All-America fullback, a $75,000 bonus baby and heir apparent to Joe DiMaggio's job in center field. He came equipped with a convertible Cadillac, curly blond hair and a somewhat puckish face, a dazzling collection of California sports clothes and a glamorous Olympic star for a wife. They said he was a cocky kid, which he perhaps had every reason to be, and a pop-off, which he never really was. Today both teammates and opponents, umpires and sportswriters and the fans who watch him from the stands in Fenway Park know him only as a friendly, pleasant, gentlemanly sort of guy, a devoted family man and a real hard-working, steady ballplayer who does just about as good a job as anyone could ask, whether it be to run or field or hit or throw. If the phrase hadn't been a bit overworked in describing others who merited it less, Jackie Jensen might even be called an old pro. Anyway, that's exactly what he is.
In the last four years, for example, he has driven in far more runs than Detroit's Al Kaline, the tremendously gifted but erratic youngster who is generally considered the league's No. 1 right fielder. As far as that is concerned, in the same period of time Jensen has driven in more runs than Mantle, too. In fact, he has batted in more runs than anyone else in the entire American League.
RBI totals, which can sometimes make dull reading, are nevertheless the lifeblood of baseball. Jensen's are like Jensen: sensational in a quiet way. He drove in 117 runs in 1954, 116 in '55 (tie for the championship with Ray Boone), 97 in '56 (which Jackie considers his best year since he also hit .315) and 103 last year. It is true that the incomparable Williams is often on base ahead of him, but there have also been long periods of time when Williams wasn't even around—yet Jackie still drove in runs.
He also has excellent speed and one year stole 22 bases to lead the league. A Yankee scout once compared Jensen's arm to that of famed Bob Meusel. And although his pursuit of fly balls sometimes borders upon the erratic, at other times Jensen makes catches that bring a nod of approval even from Jim Piersall, that acknowledged master of the trade who works in the adjoining field.
This year Jensen has been slamming home runs and batting in runs—and winning games—at a terrific clip. He has closed in fast on Bob Cerv's commanding early lead to rank a close second in both home runs and runs batted in. With the help of Dick Gernert and Frank Malzone, he has taken up a great deal of the slack caused by a subpar Ted Williams. Although no one has been able to detect anything resembling a pennant race in the American League, the favorable position of the Red Sox among the seven also-rans is largely a credit to the account of Jackie Jensen.
If there is any secret involved in his performance this year, Jackie doesn't know what it is. "I think it's just experience," he says. "A hitter should continue to improve up into his middle 30s, just as long as he stays in good physical condition." Then he unbuttons a size 44 uniform shirt from around a size 17 neck, and as he walks to the shower the muscles ripple across the broad back and shoulders and in the powerful legs. There is marked unconcern in the Red Sox dressing room over Jackie Jensen's physical condition.
Since Jensen, like any other professional, wants to do his best and help his ball club, the good start and the nice words and the attention have helped to make this a pleasant season. Quite naturally, he would like to play in the All-Star Game, his previous efforts in that direction having been limited to one inning in the field in 1952 and a couple of swings as a pinch hitter in 1955 (he popped out). And though he is paid one of baseball's good salaries, in the vicinity of $30,000, he is in no wise immune to the charm of more money. But Jensen has learned that glory is an overrated commodity and frankly he would rather be home with his family up in the beautiful country bordering Lake Tahoe than playing for the Red Sox. And that is exactly where he is going as soon as he can.
"In baseball," he sometimes muses, "you get to the point where you don't think you have a family. It just looks like I'm not built for this life like some ballplayers. You are always away from home and you're lonesome, and as soon as I can, I intend to get out."
A LONGING FOR THE QUIET LIFE
If the fact that a talented big league ballplayer should be yearning, at the age of 31, for slippers and pipe seems to smack of heresy and disloyalty to the national pastime, one needs only to examine the things which Jensen has already accomplished in his 31 years—and also the things which he has missed.
He was born in San Francisco on March 9, 1927 and grew up around the Bay area. His mother and father were divorced when he was 3 or 4 and his mother had to work 11 hours a day to support Jackie and his two older brothers. While in high school, Jackie had to work, too, in restaurants and manufacturing plants and loading freight cars.
"I didn't consider it a tough childhood," he says. "Maybe we didn't have much money but we were kids and didn't know the difference. And I really don't hold it against my father. I know now that my mother wasn't entirely without blame; she was married a couple of other times and those marriages didn't work out, either. I thought my father was dead for a long time, but then one day when I was playing football at Cal he showed up. He seems to be a nice old guy and I see him once in a while. He's real proud of what I have done. But, of course, my mother had to work so hard to raise us that I'll never feel as close to him as I might."
A superb athlete in high school, Jensen became a varsity regular in two sports his freshman year at the University of California and, before his college career was over, a two-sport All-America as well. In football, Jensen was a powerful fullback with good speed, a fine kicker and an outstanding defensive man. He gained 1,000 yards rushing and led Cal to the Rose Bowl in his junior year. But it was in baseball, where he helped pitch Cal to the 1947 NCAA championship, that Jackie wanted to earn his living. He passed up major league offers to sign with the Oakland Oaks for $75,000, the amount to be spread over a period of three years.
In the fall of 1949, after a mediocre but promising year in the Pacific Coast League, Jackie married another All-American named Zoe Ann Olsen and his contract was purchased by the Yankees. The Olsen and Jensen team, which Jackie never did consider a very funny gag, had discovered each other when Jackie was a lifeguard at the Athens Athletic Club and Zoe Ann was a 12-year-old still two years away from the first of 13 national diving championships.
He spent most of his rookie year on the bench, playing in only 45 games and hitting just one home run along with a miserable .171 average.
"I wasn't ready for the big leagues and I knew it. I had so much to learn. I should have been back out on the Coast playing every day."
The next spring Jensen was asked by a newspaperman down at Phoenix if he thought he could beat out the new Yankee sensation, Mickey Mantle, for the center field job. Jensen honestly answered yes.
"The story was all right," says Jackie, "but you should have seen the headline: JENSEN SAYS HE IS BETTER THAN MANTLE. Boy, did I hear about that."
As a matter of fact, he did beat out Mantle for the center field job and played there while DiMaggio was recovering from early-season injuries. Later, however, the Yankees sent both Jensen and Mantle to Kansas City.
"I guess I popped off then," he admits. "They sent me and Mickey down and called up Cerv, and he didn't do as good a job as we had. I was on the third year of that bonus contract and I figured they weren't getting much for their $25,000 as long as I was down in Kansas City." Eventually, the Yankees must have come to the same conclusion, for they recalled Jensen along with Mantle. Jackie hit .298 for the year with eight home runs.
"Mickey and I never had any trouble," Jensen says. "In fact, we used to run around a lot together. He was a nice kid, just a kid from the country, and he was a little awed by all the attention. Now, when we see each other, he just says, 'Hi, Jackie,' and that's about it. He's got the world by the tail. But he's all right."
In the spring of 1952, with DiMaggio gone, Stengel gave Jensen a real good shot at the job. But Jackie failed to hit and it is not the Yankee way to string along with someone who does not deliver. At the end of the first week of the season, he was traded to the Senators in a six-player deal which brought Irv Noren—and quite likely another pennant—to Yankee Stadium.
"No," says Jensen. "I was never bitter about the trade. I realized how the Yankees feel about winning and they have to have the ballplayers who can win for them. I wasn't doing the job."
In particular, Jensen has never felt animosity toward Stengel. "Casey is a wonderful, sweet old guy. I think he is the smartest manager in baseball. I know he taught me more in two years than anybody before or since."
After two good seasons with the Senators, Jensen was traded to the Red Sox. Apparently Fenway Park was just what he needed. The high left field wall is only 315 feet down the line and Jensen is a pull hitter who gets the ball up in the air—which, of course, is what the Red Sox had in mind. There was a time when such an inviting target might have hypnotized him into trying to hit every pitch over the fence, but experience and the advice of men like Higgins and Williams have kept him from falling into such a trap.
If you ask Jensen how it feels to be playing second fiddle to Williams, when he might be a top star on some other club, he just shakes his head.
"The idea," he says, "never occurs to me. Why, that guy is an institution up here. If he would just tip his cap once in a while, they would elect him mayor.
"Ted," he says, "is an amazing hitter. He has that intense desire to get a hit every time he goes up to the plate. Most batters get a hit or two and then ease up. Ted never eases up. When he has two hits, the most important thing in the world to him is getting that third one. If he has three, he wants four. When I have three, I figure I've had a real good day and I'm ready to quit. Of course, that isn't true if we're behind and need some runs. But otherwise, you find your concentration slipping and you lose the desire. At least I do."
Jensen worries more about his fielding. One of the best in the business at going back for a fly ball, he sometimes has trouble with those hit in front of him. "I think about it a lot," he says, "and then I start to go in too far, afraid that a ball will drop in front of me. First thing you know, they're going over my head."
"One thing he will not do," says Joe McKenney, the Red Sox publicity director, "is alibi. If he boots one, he admits it. A couple of weeks ago the Yankees beat us when Jackie misjudged a long fly ball that Berra hit almost to the stands. He was under it and ready to make the catch and suddenly he had to lurch back to get it and the ball went off his glove.
"After the game, when the writers were asking him what happened, I could think of half a dozen excuses—the sun, the wind, the way the ball took off—but he wouldn't use a one. 'I just misjudged it,' he said. 'I should have gone back another step or two. I made a bad play.' "
Jackie's only disabling injury in a long athletic career was a shoulder separation back in his early football days. As a baseball player he has continued to stick in the lineup although banged and bruised. "I don't know," said Sox Trainer Jack Fadden when someone once asked him what shape Jensen was in. "I never see the guy."
There is, however, one thing in baseball that is guaranteed to turn him pale. He hates to fly. "No," he says, "I don't get sick. I get scared." On a barnstorming trip to Japan in 1953, with a team of big leaguers under Eddie Lopat, the long flight from Okinawa to Honshu ran into some rough weather. Jackie was groggily asleep under the effects of tranquilizers when he felt someone roughly shake him by the shoulder. He awoke to see Billy Martin standing over him wearing a life jacket. "There's nothing to worry about," Martin said. "I just thought you might want to know. We're going to crash."
"I had a tremendous urge," says Jensen, "to kill him."
Jackie frankly admits that when he signed his first baseball contract he wasn't looking for thrills. "I'd had all the glory I wanted," he says, "and I knew that I was never going to be a great star. I think those who are know it even when they first break in. I'm sure Ted did." But he has to admit that there have been thrills, nevertheless. "The biggest," he says simply, "is having played in the same outfield with both DiMaggio and Williams."
In the winter, the Jensens—including Jan, who will be 9 in September and looks like Zoe Ann, and Jon, who was 5 in May and looks like Jackie—live at Crystal Bay, Nev. and spend most of the time skiing and hunting and fishing. "This is all new to me," says Jackie. "I never did anything like this when I was a kid."
In his Thunderbird, he makes frequent trips down to the restaurant he owns, the Bow and Bell, in Jack London Square in Oakland. His partner, an old grade school friend and Cal teammate named Boots Erb, has built a fine business and Jensen gives him almost complete credit for its success. In 1953, when they took over, the restaurant served 40 lunches a day. Today the average is 300.
To both Jackie and Zoe Ann, who had to do a lot of traveling herself in the steady years of diving competition leading up to and surrounding two Olympics, these winter months are the best times of the year. And to both of them the day that Jackie can come home to stay will be the best day either has ever had.
"Baseball," says Zoe, "has involved so much separation. The first few years we were married we were like newlyweds whenever he came home. You know. Shy. A little embarrassed.
"I used to try to cope with all this by moving right along with him. Twice, when we were traded, I drove to the new place, complete with the kids. I used to sit for 36 hours behind the wheel, just because it's easier than stopping when you have children. I gave that up. Now I fly.
"I haven't gone to spring training in three years now. I don't like to take the children out of school. Another reason," she adds, "is that I'm not a real baseball fan.
"Even now we move twice a year—from home to Boston in June when school is out, and back home to begin school in late August. But Jackie goes to spring training in February and he doesn't get home until October. It isn't," she admits, "very much fun.
"However," she says, "if you have a man you want to respect, you have to compromise some place. And we can look forward to the future. The restaurant, the insurance, the money we're making now. We're building security and I'm grateful for that.
"Jackie feels the same way—but at the same time he really does love baseball. He works 20 hours a day during the season, under pressure, and gets four to relax. He's out in all kinds of weather—freezing one day, soaking wet the next, then playing in 110°. He has no home, really—always living in hotels. And then he has a slump and at 4 a.m. I wake up and he's mumbling: 'Now, this should have been done this way.' I guess a man has to love this game to play it.
"I suppose his gratification comes in playing it right. He gets two for four or makes a good assist or wins a game with a home run. When he does that, he knows he's a good ballplayer. Then it's worth all the trouble and everything is all right."