O.K., Charles O. Finley, wherever you are. O.K., Oakland and San Leandro and Alameda and Berkeley and all the other places across the Bay from San Francisco. You insisted that when the Oakland Athletics produced a young superstar there would be a community love-in at every game in the new Coliseum. There was, in fact, going to be slobbering devotion if the object of your affections also happened to have short hair, neat clothes, polite manners and spoke respectfully and intelligently.
Well, what's so wrong with Reggie Jackson (see cover)? He is 23 years old, stands 6 feet and weighs 197 pounds. He wears No. 9—just like Ted Williams—and so far this season he has hit 29 home runs, three more than any other player in the majors, putting him nine and five games ahead of the home-run-record paces of Babe Ruth and Roger Asterisk, and propelling the A's into first place in the American League West.
This same Reggie Jackson has hair almost as short as his manager's, and Hank Bauer's bristles are the shortest in baseball. He dresses like Ken Harrelson and Steve Carlton only on the baseball field. His manners are impeccable. The words he uses are carefully selected and almost always polysyllabic. Jackson never will be called a "dumb jock."
So where are Jackson's Oakland fans? Already the people around the White House, the one in Washington, think Jackson is the only man who plays the game. Julie and David Eisenhower twice have gone out to see him play, and each time he happened to hit home runs. One night they dragged Julie's father along. Afterward the President dashed off a letter to Jackson and suggested that he subsidize Julie and David with tickets for all Oakland games. Jackson would be pleased to do just that.
July 6, 1969
Members of the First Family are not Jackson's only Washington admirers. An even more impressive accolade has been bestowed by old No. 9 himself. Ted Williams said of Jackson: "I wasn't sure the first time I saw him. The second time I was amazed. He is the most natural hitter I have ever seen."
Jackson also has enlisted thousands of fans in such towns as Detroit, Kansas City, New York and Boston. Particularly Boston. For three games one weekend last month Jackson did more to ruin the Red Sox than Bob Gibson ever dreamed of. He started slowly with only a home run in a 4-1 victory on Friday night. Then, on Saturday, he hit two home runs and drove in 10 runs (a good season for some players). Finally, on Sunday, he hit a home run, a triple and a double to drive in four more runs. More than 81,000 Red Sox fans cheered wildly the times Jackson came to bat to wreck a Boston pitcher.
Sadly, there were no such wild emotional displays for Jackson or his team when the Athletics returned to Oakland. The A's, in fact, seemed less popular than ever at home. Neither Finley, who has seen only two home games (the first two in April) this year, nor the residents themselves have responded to Jackson's inspired assault on the records of Ruth and Maris, and no one really cares that the A's are the only Bay Area team in first place.
Last week, for instance, Oakland averaged fewer than 8,000 paid for six dates against Kansas City and Chicago. The club is already running more than 50,000 behind last year, when it drew only 850,000. The community is not totally to blame for the small attendance, however. Despite the on-field successes of the Athletics, the Charles O. Finley organization has done nothing to promote them among prospective fans.
The absentee owner sits in his Chicago insurance office or his La Porte, Ind. farmhouse, listens to telephone recreations of games and then decides what moves he must make. Two weeks ago he decided the Athletics needed a special pinch runner. Presto—Allan Lewis appeared in Oakland. Then Finley decided the Athletics did not need a special pinch runner. Presto—Lewis disappeared. The dictatorial policy of Finley, who makes most personnel changes, annually prompts almost a total turnover in. Oakland's executive personnel. Two weeks ago Carl Finley, Charlie's cousin, quit as business manager.
In this world of suspicion and disruption, the A's play mostly in front of empty seats, a fact that bothers all of the players, but Reggie Jackson in particular. "Crowds do something for me," he said. "Like in Boston that weekend. Even when the people booed before the first game, I knew they were booing in appreciation. I was excited. It's the same when we are playing Washington and there are not many people in the stands. That's all right. Playing in front of Ted Williams in Washington can get me excited, too. The people who do come to see us play in Oakland are good fans, but there are not enough of them. I hope I am in Oakland when they fill the park day after day. We are going to be a dynasty. We are going to roll over teams like the Orioles are rolling over teams now."
Although Jackson sometimes seems capable of becoming a dynasty all by himself, he has a lot of help. Danny Cater is flirting with .300, as usual, and Rick Monday, Sal Bando and Dick Green are all hitting the ball hard. Star of the pitching staff is John (Blue Moon) Odom, high among the league leaders in victories and ERA. Overall, the Athletics are young, aggressive and colorful, far more deserving of support than the town has so far bestowed.
There was never any real doubt while Jackson was growing up in Wyncote, Pa., a bedroom of Philadelphia, that he was going to be a professional athlete. The question was, in which sport? "We were one of the poor families in town," Jackson says. "My father ran a cleaning and tailoring shop called the Wyncote Valet, and every day my two brothers and I and almost everybody in the neighborhood were behind there playing softball or throwing around a football."
Jackson also collected baseball cards and football cards and chewed the bubble gum that came with them. He got in the habit of memorizing names and numbers and statistics, and even today he can tell you the uniform numbers of almost every player in the major leagues, both football leagues and the National Basketball Association. "You must come up with a Gerry Nyman—he's No. 49—or a Bob Humphreys—he's No. 23—before you can even think of stumping me," Jackson says.
Jackson did not confine his mnemonic talents to the athletic department. He also was a B student in the classroom and when he graduated from high school in 1964 he had his choice of college scholarships. He chose Arizona State because he could play football and baseball there without outraging the coach of either sport. As a sophomore footballer, Jackson backed up Ben Hawkins, who now catches passes for the Philadelphia Eagles. He was the regular baseball centerfielder and hit so well (15 home runs .327 batting average) that he made first-team All-America. Choosing second in the major league draft, the A's signed Jackson for a reported $100,000 contract. He made the majors after only a 14-month apprenticeship in the minors.
From the beginning Jackson had a definite home-run swing, something he had learned from Richie Allen, a friend from Philadelphia days. "Richie and I had long, involved conversations about hitting," Jackson says. "He holds his hands low and relaxed and drops the head of the bat on the ball. I don't have his power so I have to hold the bat higher to get some force. But, like him, I drop the head on the ball, swinging down."
Like Allen and most home-run hitters, Jackson strikes out too frequently. Last year he hit 29 home runs as a rookie but struck out 171 times—almost a record. "Richie told me not to let strike-outs bother me," Jackson says. "Carl Yaz told me the same thing. He said that he struck out 96 times his first season in the majors but never changed anything because he did not want to lose his aggressiveness."
When he did strike out, Jackson invariably became enraged. "If I didn't break the bat or break the helmet, I would take the bat with me to the outfield and forget about the game for the rest of the day." He is much more relaxed at the plate this year, and his strike-outs are down more than 25%.
"There are a couple of reasons. Joe D. [DiMaggio, the A's vice-president in uniform] convinced me to use a heavier bat so that I would know exactly what I had in my hands. Last year I had a 33-ounce bat and it felt like nothing. This year I have a 37-ounce bat and it feels like something.
"Then this spring I watched Ernie Banks. He is never abrupt or short. He came out of the clubhouse this day when it was about 100° in Scottsdale and said, 'Hey, let's play two today,' and everyone around him suddenly looked invigorated. I learned that I must roll with the punch like Ernie Banks."
This sudden relaxation has helped Jackson survive the usual retaliatory process all pitchers employ on young home-run hitters, although what happened in Minnesota the day he hit two homers might have had some effect, too. After the home runs he had to duck two inside pitches. He charged the pitcher, a Twins rookie named Dick Woodson, and tackled him the way his coaches at Arizona State taught him. He was ejected from the game but he had made his point. He is now treated like any other home-run hitter. That is, pitchers throw him change-of-pace pitches, knuckle-balls, curveballs, sliders and screwballs—anything but a fastball—and the defenses give him the Williams treatment, moving three infielders to right field and stationing them on the outfield grass.
After the Kansas City Royals effectively employed both tactics against Jackson one night last week, Hank Bauer handed him a copy of the Athletics' organizational book and pointed to his own statistics with the old Kansas City Blues in 1947. The figures were impressive, almost strong enough to win a major league Triple Crown today. As Jackson admired them, Bauer pointed out that the Yankees did not even invite him to spring training the next year. "They told me to do it again, that I wasn't ready," he said. "So look at 1948." Bauer's figures were even more impressive but, he said, "They brought me up in 1949 and platooned me for five years. I averaged almost .300 for five years and I couldn't start every day."
Bauer was making his point. Baseball had changed. In the old days a player waited in the minor leagues for his predecessor to retire. Then Bauer introduced the real point: curves and changeups that Jackson had struck out on in the day's game and how Jackson had to be more aware of what the strike zone was.
Switching to the infield shift, Bauer said: "You know, Reg, Mantle added 12 or 15 points to his batting average each year because he beat out eight or 10 drag bunts when they played back on him." End lesson.
Jackson, as usual, reported early for the afternoon game the next day. "Are you going to change?" he was asked.
"They shifted on Ted Williams and he defied it," Jackson said. "He hit between the fielders—or over them. They shift on Willie McCovey, too. But I feel like them. If I hit the ball on the nose, the fielders will not catch it, even if they are stacked on top of each other."
Drag bunting for Jackson is out of character, and if there is anything he dislikes it is what he calls a "pseudo-character," a man without strong beliefs. He believes, for instance, in integration and he rooms with Chuck Dobson. "We make no big deal about it," he says. "Publicity would be derogatory to the cause—and the result. We do it because we believe in what we are doing."
And so, believing in his ability to power the ball, Reggie Jackson will do no serious drag bunting. Maybe he is wrong—but maybe not. If he keeps up his present home run pace—and brings the A's along with him—at season's end nobody is likely to ask him about his bunt average. Not even Hank Bauer. And if he actually threatens Roger Maris' record, a few Oaklanders might even come out to see him try to break it.