"Perfect speed, my son, is being there."
—Jonathan Livingston Seagull
The nearly empty clubhouse of the world champion Oakland A's looks like the men's room of an old, disreputable movie theater, except that Reginald Martinez Jackson, a superstar advancing toward superduperstar status, is naked in it, taking his naturally beautiful left-handed stance and swinging a 35-inch, 37-ounce flame-treated bat, intensely, reflectively. Whupp. Whupp. Even though he is cutting through thin air he seems to be making good contact. Last year, after seven big-league seasons of ups, downs, moping and controversy, he was the American League's home-run leader, RBI leader and Most Valuable Player. This year he might win the Triple Crown, and he has already—nobody else could have—one-upped Henry Aaron's 715th and subsequent home runs.
Whupp. "My strongest point is my strength," he says. "Shoulders to fingertips." Indeed, he has 17-inch biceps, as Sonny Liston had, and he is one of the top raw-power men in the league, along with Chicago's Dick Allen and Detroit's Willie Horton (who once broke a bat in two by abruptly checking his swing). But mighty isn't all he is.
By birth Afro-Latin-American, by faith an Arizona Methodist, Jackson is a man who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood outside Philadelphia, roomed in the majors with a WASP named Chuck, currently pals around with two Portuguese motor sportsmen—one weighing 250 pounds, the other 305—wears around his neck a string of wampum beads and a gold crucifix he bought from a Cuban pitcher and is built like a Greek god. On paper he is a millionaire in land development.
June 16, 1974
Whupp. Facially, thanks in part to his mustache, beard and fullish Afro, he resembles the charismatic civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson, with overtones of sprightly pop-off Pirate Pitcher Dock Ellis. He has the eagerly concerned, unsettled, open-eyed look of a man who will never be cynical, boring or fully aware (or unaware) of how he affects people. He is a half inch over six feet tall and weighs 207 pounds, and aside from an arthritic spine, near-sightedness and astigmatism, there is only one thing wrong with him.
"Feel that," Jackson says, indicating the back of his right thigh, which is as big around as a good-sized woman's waist. Though unflexed, it feels like an only slightly deflated football. "Hard, isn't it?" he says. His thighs are overdeveloped. That is why he is prone to pull a hamstring when he turns on his 9.6-in-the-100 speed. This day in Oakland he is out of the lineup and nearly alone in the dressing room because of such a pull, rashly incurred. But he is keeping in touch with his stroke. Whupp. Whupp.
"Richie Allen told me once, 'Don't speak with this [he points to his mouth], speak with this.' " With a flowing gesture he indicates his body, and the bat. " 'Through this [he holds the bat up like a torch] you can speak to the world.' "
But even though Jackson may be on his way to one of the best years anybody ever had with a bat—after two months of the season he is hitting close to .400 with 42 RBIs and a league-leading 15 home runs—it was orally that he faded the man who recently passed Babe Ruth. A reporter asked Jackson, who is 28, what he thought of his chances of breaking Aaron's lifetime home-run record. Jackson replied, "No way. They couldn't afford to pay me to play that long."
Now that was a partly humorous remark. Please do not consider it over-proud, because Reggie is loath to come on as a braggart. He even feels dubious about all the bare-chested pictures of himself that have been appearing lately. "My peers may not like it," he says. "And I am one of my peers."
To be sure, White Sox Pitcher Stan Bahnsen says of Jackson, "He's a helluva ballplayer, but I'm not one of his fans. I don't like him. I think he's a prima donna. That whole team seems to think they're spokesmen for the game." And the aforementioned Allen, whose own thighs are lean and flowing, the way he likes a racehorse's to be, says, "I look in the record book and I see Reggie has never hit .300. And I wonder how he can do all that talking." But other players commend him roundly. He is established. Whatever his flaws and rough edges, Jackson has put together a package of power, speed, science, flash, funk, outspoken quotability, popularity, fun-lovingness, social and economic independence, responsibility, diversification and winningness that is unique among ballplayers. And Reggie knows and loves it. Whupp.
Now, as the rest of the team grapples on the field with the Kansas City Royals, Jackson is in the whirlpool, discussing his assets. "I've got seven people I can call my friends. That makes me an awful rich man. People who would hurt themselves to help me." One of these is Gary Walker, an intense white 35-year-old who tried to sell Jackson a $10,000 life-insurance policy nine years ago when Reggie was at Arizona State College. "I turned him down, I stood him up," Jackson says. "But he kept after me. And now my life's insured for one million eight!" When Jackson signed on with the A's for an $85,000 bonus and began making contacts among professional athletes, he and Walker formed the Tempe, Arizona-based United Development, Inc., which puts together syndicates of investors to speculate in land.
"He was making $5,000, $6,000 a year then," says Jackson, "and our office was in his extra bedroom. Now he's making over $100,000 a year, and we've got an office that costs $2,500 a month. He's my best friend in the world." Reggie lends his fame to the business and also rounds up investors—some 300 athletes so far, including a number of the pitchers he faces.
Not only has United Development achieved its goal of "proving that black and white could equal green," it is trying to hasten the greening of America, or at least of Arizona. The company's 61-employee office features a piano for impromptu community sings, an art gallery complete with resident artist, a crafts room and encounter-group sessions in which Jackson takes an active part during the off-season. There will be company plays, too, in which Reggie will probably act, and United is setting up two homes for delinquent boys and even plans to found a college—' 'an alternative to the four-year rip-off most of us went to without learning anything," in Walker's words. When UCLA's Bill Walton was looking for a relevant pro basketball team, United Development went to him with a proposal that would have built around him a new ABA franchise with, among other things, subsidized seating for poor fans, freedom for all players to sign with other teams after a year and a woman psychological coordinator who would have set up programs on the road so that players could, says Walker, "go to the ghettos and work with kids instead of trying to see how many broads they could chase and how much trash they could smoke." For signing, Walton would have received such bonuses as a 10-speed bicycle, a mountain house (provided he designed and built it himself with the help of experts and boys from the homes for delinquents) and a $1 million loan (on condition that he spend 20 hours a month working with the delinquent boys). "I think it freaked Walton out," Walker says.
Jackson has not been freaked out by anything in the last couple of years. Other friends he cites are the bulky Portuguese brothers, Wayne and Tony Del Rio, at whose garage in San Leandro he works on the four show and racing cars he owns. After Jackson received a death threat involving a "voodoo curse" during last year's World Series, Tony Del Rio served as his bodyguard.
"How did the death threat make you feel?"
"Like a star," Jackson says with a sort of radiance from the whirlpool, but quickly his expression becomes more discreet. "Naw," he says. "It scared me." But not enough to deter him from driving in six runs, making superb catches in right field and being named MVP.
"A lousy MVP," said A's Owner Charles Finley, speaking of Jackson's regular-season honor, when contract arbitration time came around. "They had to give it to somebody." Finley is an innovative businessman himself, but not in the spirit of United Development. The people of Oakland come out in very small numbers to see the A's, and accordingly Finley has made economies: getting rid of the ballgirls (one of whom Jackson was dating), ceasing to furnish stamps for the players' answers to fan mail, keeping the clubhouse seedy and fighting as hard as ever to hold down salaries. He is the only owner in baseball whose leading players—with Jackson in the forefront—regularly denounce him for quotation. The A's don't mind faulting their manager, either. Last year, when it was Dick Williams, Jackson criticized him for being too critical of players. This year it is Alvin Dark, and the A's criticize him for not being critical enough. Dark takes stoically the kind of interference and abuse Finley has always handed out to his managers. One night recently after a loss, Finley went into Dark's office and chewed him out loudly enough for everyone in the dressing room to hear. "If you'd lose 25 pounds off that fat [expletive] of yours, you could think better" was one of the things Finley yelled at Dark.
This is the way Jackson is currently managed: Dark crosses his path in the dressing room, wordlessly pats him on the behind and goes on by. Jackson shrugs. After being lifted from a game when he was still going strong, lefthander Ken Holtzman told Ron Bergman of the Oakland Tribune, the only reporter who travels with the team, "Dark is [expletive] and so is Finley, and print that."
"Finley is so cold-blooded," Jackson says, "he ought to "make antifreeze commercials. But actually he's very sensitive. When the players voice their opinions about him he is really hurt. If he would just quit thinking that people are trying to take advantage of him. He wants to be the dominating party."
So does Jackson. The newly instituted arbitration procedure this past off-season gave him real financial leverage against Finley for the first time, and with such documentation as a telegram from California's Frank Robinson calling him the best player in the league he won a $60,000 raise to his current $135,000. That and his half interest in United Development add up to an annual haul of $250,000.
So what was he doing in the whirlpool? Well, the score was 4-0 in the bottom of the 4th against the Twins the Saturday before Mother's Day, and Jackson was on second with none out. In that situation, according to all baseball wisdom and a consensus of his teammates, a power hitter has no business risking injury by trying to steal. But Jackson was interested in doing what Bobby Bonds of the Giants had won acclaim for doing: hitting 30 home runs and stealing 30 bases in the same year. "I know one way to play," he says. "That's hard-ball. If I don't steal a base when I can, I'm shortchanging myself, my family, my peers, the owner and the fans—and the man upstairs, God." So he lit out for third and about halfway there his right hamstring went sproing. "You know how a pulled hamstring feels?" He reaches out and digs deep into the back of the interviewer's leg with hard fingers, producing a sensation of grave fundamental insult, like a poker up the nose. The injury will cause Jackson to miss six games and consign him to designated hitting for 12 games after that. "I guess I'm going to have to cut down on running," he concedes.
His primary job, after all, is getting the big hit, and that is what thrills him most. When asked to explain what hitting feels like, he grimaces fiercely, clenches his fists and causes the whirlpool water to slosh dramatically as he searches for words. He finds plenty of them:
"Being in complete control. You have been the dominant force—not the ball, not the pitcher. You have taken over and lined it somewhere. Right on the sweet part of the bat. And you can look back and smile, 'cause you have done it. You have dominated. You have won for that particular moment."
And when you jump on a heater, or fastball, and hit a long dinger, or home run, it is an overwhelming sensation. Jackson's two most famous drives are the ball he hit off the beer-bottle cap on a sign in right center field 517 feet from the plate in Minnesota and the one he hit off a light tower atop the right center field stands in the 1971 All-Star Game in Detroit. "I have never seen a ball jump off the bat like that one," says Royals veteran Cookie Rojas. "The guys in the dugout and everybody in the stands—it just brought us all to our feet. The ball hit that thing way up there and bounced back to the ground before he had time to leave the plate." When you hit a terrific shot, says Jackson, "all the baseball players come to rest at that moment and watch you. Everyone is helpless and in awe. You charge people up. And when you're a good hitter, you do that every day. You're the center of confidence. The man can hit, they say that. And you know it. You're a master. Dealing. The man who can do it is a dominating force when he walks out of the dugout. There's no feeling like that."
But Jackson wants to be more than an astounding hitter. "I started thinking about playing ball when I found out who Willie Mays was," he says. "Guy who could beat you the most ways. He could go 0 for 4 and beat you."
Jackson acknowledges that the A's call him Buck, which is what the Giants called Mays. "Yeah, Chuck Dobson gave me that name because he knew how much I admired Mays," he says. "I wouldn't...it wouldn't sound right coming from anybody but them." "Buck" from his teammates means a lot to him, but there are other, fancier tags he aims to earn.
"Star is a tarnished word. And superstar.... I want to maintain some consistency of greatness. Win five world championships in a row. There are guys better than superstars."
"Yeah. Tom Seaver. Pete Rose. Frank Robinson. Henry Aaron. Jim Palmer. Pete Rose is a living morale. A living philosophy. These guys are living human definitions of the word determination. They walk on the field and you sense it. They buy an ice-cream cone and you sense it. They can go to a movie and stand out in the crowd with the lights out." Jackson wants to be such a complete ballplayer, so "you can feel guys looking at you when you pass their dugout."
He subsides into the vortical bath to read a collection of quotes about him from ballplayers around the league. Most of the comments are glowing, for example, "I'd pay to see him play"—Ralph Houk. There are what might be taken as criticisms, too.
"Jesus. Nolan Ryan says I could be better! 'If he ever plays up to his potential he's going to be something else.' That's a compliment. Nolan Ryan throws harder than anybody since 1 B.C. And he could be better." A little potential right back at you, Ryan! Jackson sloshes happily, thinking of being better.
The next evening he is still sidelined but that doesn't mean he is inactive. He has plenty to do in his capacity as the league's foremost fraternizer. Players caught talking to opponents on the field before a game are subject to a $50 fine. Jackson disapproves of this rule and flouts it expansively.
"What's $50 to a man like you?" he says to Kansas City slugger John May-berry as the A's and Royals warm up.
"See where Texas pitched to you with first open," Mayberry says. This is a dig because dominating forces are supposed to be walked in such a situation. But then again it is not a dig, because there were two outs in the eighth, and the A's were behind 2-1, and what Jackson did, feeling challenged by such a lack of deference, was foul off seven of Steve Hargan's pitches until he got the one he wanted and then hit that one out of the park—"left the yard with it" is the current expression—for a game-winning three-run job. That is what you call bat control.
"Understand you're not hitting the deep ones anymore," says Mayberry, chortling. "Getting consistent and losing that good depth."
"Yeah," Jackson says. "I'm staying down around 400 feet. Here...." He hands Mayberry one of his own bats, a 288 RJ. "No, you better not swing that timber," he adds. "Might sprain your wrist."
Then he exchanges a few words with the fans. There are so few of them, he says, he' almost feels he knows them all personally. "You enjoying that hot dog?" he asks one. "Where'd you get that watch?" he asks another. A boy in the stands wants a ball. "No, son, I don't give anything away, except a hard time. Especially if you're 60 feet away with a ball in your hand." But the boy is six feet away without a ball in his hand, and he persists. "You're here every day," Jackson objects. "How many balls you got at home?"
"I ain't got no balls at home. I swear to God, Reggie, I sell every one of 'em before I leave the park." Unable to resist such candor, Jackson tosses the boy one of Finley's strictly rationed spheroids. "I was going to steal that one for myself," he grumbles.
Then he goes back to the dressing room, hits the whirlpool again and returns to watch the game in civilian clothes from a vantage along the walkway to the dugout, between the stands and the screen behind home plate. He yells at everybody—A's, Royals, umpires, fans who yell at him.
The A's are having trouble with Lindy McDaniel's forkball, and Jackson keeps admonishing them to look for it: "He got to come in with that pitch. And it's always the same speed. You got to wait for it." Jackson used to have trouble with off-speed pitching, but now he looks forward to facing junk-throwers like Wilbur Wood and Mike Cuellar. He is a guess hitter—"I call it calculated anticipation"—which means he goes up to the plate looking for a certain pitch (not a ball inside or outside, which is what Allen and other area guessers lay for, but a curve, say, or a fastball, anywhere) and waits until he gets it. If a two-strike pitch is not the one he is set up to rip he will just try to get his bat on it, either fouling it off, as against Hargan, or perhaps slapping it for a hit. He can generate such last-instant momentum that he may power a ball out by just flicking at it this way. "I've hit balls that I wonder how I hit them. Balls past me. It's strength."
"Hey, Nietzsche!" he yells to teammate Jesus Alou, or so it sounds. "Let's see something! Look for the forkball!"
What is this! Can Jesus Alou's nickname possibly be Nietzsche?
"No. I called him Niché. It's Spanish for soul brother." Jackson has a half-Latin father and a full Chicano ex-wife, he holds the modern Puerto Rican home-run record and, what with one thing and another, he is the rare mainland U.S.-born player who can converse in down-home terms with peers who are Latin. He is also fluent in unvarnished soul talk ("With all the niggers on this team, how come this dressing room got no pick?" he will cry, demanding an Afro-comb) and most of his best friends are white. But his pan-racialism, like most of his other characteristics, tends to make him more of an anomaly than one of the boys. When he started rooming with Chuck Dobson both of them got heat from teammates black and white.
One of the black A's Jackson wishes he communicated better with, he says, is Vida Blue, who is so disenchanted with the A's organization this year that he has announced his desire to change sports and play in the World Football League. In high school Blue was an ambidextrous quarterback. "I see a lot of me in Vida," Jackson says. "Finley hurt him. He took the little boy out of him. He did that to me, too, but I got it back. I love to play. I love to hit bullets. I mean I love to hit peas."
As player rep, big bat, the loudest voice in the clubhouse, Jackson stays in the thick of his team's turbulent affairs. But in speaking of his life he often comes to estrangement, to being alone.
There was the time early in 1970, his third full year with the A's, when after a big 47-homer season he held out for $50,000, incurred Finley's wrath, started slow, was benched by Finley and even was threatened with being sent to the minors. One night, after 13 games on the bench, he pinch-hit and delivered a grand-slam homer. As he crossed the plate he raised his fist in defiance toward Finley in his box.
Finley called a meeting in his office: Jackson surrounded by the owner, the coaches, the manager and the team captain, Sal Bando, who looks like Alan Arkin and is now noted for keeping things loose around the A's, for bringing Jackson down to earth with deft, good-natured kidding. But there was no kidding in that meeting.
"Finley had a public apology drawn up for me to sign," Jackson recalls. "I told him ain't no way. It was right what I did; I'd do it again. He said we were going to sit there till I signed it. Or I'd suffer the consequences. The commissioner was involved, he said. Nobody spoke up for me. I'd never been so alone, so alienated from people who I thought were my friends. I was so lost from companionship I cried. I was supposed to eat dinner with some people at nine o'clock, and I couldn't get out of there to meet them until two a.m. I never actually signed the apology, but I said I would. I'll never forget that. I'll never forgive."
And then there was the time in the '72 division-championship playoff with Detroit, when in the process of stealing home successfully, he felt something give in his left thigh. "I pulled a hamstring. Ran further and tore it. Little further and ruptured it. Little further and it was like someone went in there and ripped some muscle off the bone.
"Finley was the first one inside to see me. He was emotionally hurt. I think he gained a lot of respect for me that day as a ballplayer. But here I was in a World Series—the World Series. Everybody's watching. Every pitch is money. And I couldn't play. I couldn't put my underwear on. Had to lay 'em down on the floor and stand in 'em and pull 'em on."
Catcher Dave Duncan, who was traded after that Series for telling off Finley on the plane home, was a close friend of Jackson's. "After I was hurt, he cried. He said, 'You got to play, for me!' And I started crying. That night he put me to bed. And the next day he and Joe Rudi came over and fed me.
"But then when they won the last Series game, it was the worst feeling I ever had. When they jumped and tumbled over each other I couldn't run onto the field. They all ran past me into the clubhouse. I hobbled. My leg hurt. I felt so dejected, so disgusted. I remember the next spring, last spring, L said to everybody, 'I'm going to the World Series this year. You going with me?' "
A lot goes on in Reggie Jackson's life. At home there is night life—the A's, like the Yankee teams of the '50s, have no curfew—with Playboy Club bunnies and steadier girl friends. There is a tastefully decorated penthouse apartment in Oakland, which he gets rent-free, with closets full of good clothes, including a couple of dozen leather jackets, which he also gets free. Over Jackson's bed there is a painting of a lone seagull flying in darkness. He sees himself in Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the fictional gull that breaks away from the crowd to transcend itself and then returns to help others toward limitlessness in flying.
Twice a year he trades in his free Pontiac Grand Prix on a new one. He has thriving houseplants that he waters vigorously and urges on. "Look at that boy," he exclaims, regarding a split-leaf philodendron. "He's dealing, isn't he?" He shares his big-league clothes and apartment (from which he will soon move to an $85,000 condominium in Oakland Hills) with John Summers, a white rookie. In the morning he may drive by to see his friend Ed Dohnt, the distinguished-looking white businessman who provides him his cars, and his friend Everett Moss, who is black and a handyman, and then drive on and have breakfast at Lois the Pie Queen, a pork chops-biscuits-grits-and-eggs place, where he calls Lois "Mom" and kids around with a black man wearing two gold dollar-sign pinkie rings and an Evil-Eye Fleegle hat.
And on the road he cuts a wide swath, as in downtown Minneapolis one fine afternoon, checking out high-heel shoes and leather coats, grading every girl he sees on a scale from one to 10 and rapping with all the eights and above. He even offers conversation to a girl who turns out to be plain and uninterested in talking to him, which offends him greatly. "She was a one and didn't want to talk! A one and she's got no time!" To a blonde eight in a department store he walks right up and says, "You're the best-looking lady we've seen so far. You're a superstar," and gets a date. To another blonde eight, a receptionist in a health club who remains businesslike, he says no, he doesn't need to sign up for some exercise: "I was born this way." And he runs into Bando in a department store and is delighted when Bando greets him by checking out his white shirt and red-and-white jacket and saying, "White on white went out with Sh-Boom."
In Chicago he dislikes the ribs served to him in the Playboy Club and describes them as follows to the bunny: "They were 0 for 4. With a couple of strikeouts thrown in. And a weak pop-up to the pitcher."
He gets his interviewer lodging in the booked-up hotel where the A's are staying by telling the desk clerk he needs a room for his parents. The interviewer points out all the reasons why it will be difficult for him to pose as Reggie's mom and dad: he is one person, white, not named Jackson and only four years older than Reggie. "I could've been adopted, couldn't I?" Jackson replies.
At breakfast in Chicago, Jackson talks about being a fan, a devourer of box scores: "Stargell hasn't started to pump yet. Ralph Garr started out 0 for 13, he's hitting .350 now. Willie McCovey just got his first home run after 79 at bats. Scotty was 3 for 4 yesterday." And he does his imitation of his friend the slugger, George Scott of the Brewers, saying on the phone, "I-i-i is y' got good weatha theyah?" Reggie loves George Scott, likes to call him up to discuss slugging, does his imitation of him over and over, savoring it.
Then he talks about his father, Martinez Jackson, the Philadelphia tailor who played semipro ball and raised Reggie in the suburb of Wyncote. "He was a hustler. Sold anything—from numbers to baloney. I know two things I can do: play ball and make money. That's what my old man could do.
"Everybody in my family is high-strung. My father told me, go about things hard. If he sent me to the store for some ice cream, he expected me to get it. He didn't want to know if it was raining or I had to hitch a ride or walk or wire Western Union—he wanted that ice cream. He had a phrase—he didn't want to hear any 'ar ray boo.' Any bull, in other words. I believe that now, in baseball. If the man's got to be moved to third base, you do it. Don't care how you do it, do it. Dick Williams felt the same way about it.
"My father was divorced from my mother when I was six. He was father to us three boys by day and mother by night. I didn't get close to my mother until I was 17, 18. My father didn't do things by the law every day, but he had food on the table, and we had shoes and socks and hats on. He was a good old dude.
"I had trouble adjusting socially in high school. I was suspended three times. In part of my junior and part of my senior year my father was away for six months. He never hurt anybody, but he sold numbers and bootleg whiskey. I'd go to school for a week without saying a word. I was mean and bitter. 'Cause I was alone. Nobody took any care of me. I was a hell of a football player 'cause I was mean and nasty. I ran through the center of the line and a guy hit me in the mouth and busted my front tooth. I said, 'Run that play again.' They blocked him down, and I ran over his chest and face. Right over his face mask with my feet.
"Being mad helped me in football, but not in anything else. When I was in high school I needed a psychiatrist. One day I'd bought me a box of pretzels for lunch. I came into class about 10 minutes late and set my pretzels down on my desk and turned away to give the teacher my pass. When I turned back, one of the boys had busted open my pretzels and taken them.
" 'Now you know I live in a bad mood,' I said. 'Who took my pretzels?' Nobody said anything. 'Whoever took my pretzels, give me a nickel.' Nothing. I turned to the teacher: 'Tell these guys to do something, 'cause they done messed up my food.' Somebody threw a nickel and it rolled around on the floor. I turned around and caught one guy smiling and I grabbed him and set him up against the window and said, 'Boy, don't you know I'll kill you?' He got nervous. Said, 'Man, don't do that.'
" 'You know you're not supposed to do that to me,' I said. 'You know I'm crazy.' And my girl friend was all crying in the back. She was a Jewish girl. And they used to tease her. In her home-ec class the teacher said, 'I heard Reggie went on another tantrum today.' I went over to the home-ec class and cussed her out.
"Me and my buddies all had '55 Chevys. We'd sit up in the church lot, four of us, drink six quarts of beer and eat potato chips. Then go crash parties. Beat up on rich kids. Take their coats. 'Cause it was cold and we didn't have no coats. And we'd wear 'em to school the next day. And these rich kids better not say nothing. We'd whip 'em."
Through the window of the Chicago coffee shop Jackson waves at John Summers, walking by on the sidewalk wearing one of Reggie's coats.
"Me and my friend Irwin would take our bicycles and go stealing on Saturdays. Magazines, candy, yo-yos. One time I went into a store with my father and I stole a candy bar. He made me go back in and tell the cashier I stole it. I never stole anything again in my life. I was so ashamed."
Was he ashamed when his father was away?
"I missed him. It was sad 'cause I couldn't get near him."
Ever since that painful separation Mr. Jackson has kept in close touch with his son, writing him to hang in there against lefthanders, to be quick with the bat, to have respect for his coaches and managers. Reggie also now enjoys warm relations with his mother, who lives in Baltimore—he bought her a new house—and with a lot of other relatives. "I play ball for my family." He was divorced two years ago—"I was too wrapped up in being a good ballplayer, I had no conception of being a husband"—and says he misses the steady companionship of one woman, as opposed to several. He has no children, but he lavishes gifts on his young nieces and also on a poor Indian-Mexican-black community in Arizona.
Finley likes to call his ballplayers "Son." Jackson, of course, doesn't go for that, but he can deal with his owner coolly now, and thanks to psychotherapy and the avuncular or big-brotherly counseling of Dick Williams and Frank Robinson, who managed him in Puerto Rico in the winter of '70, he says he is over his rage and stubborn "meanness." He says, "I had to learn that R-E-G-G-I-E didn't spell J-E-S-U-S. I've got good linear thinking now."
But in the Chicago airport, after having some beers with teammates, discussing how to hit and how to deal with Finley and accommodating yet another kid pestering for an autograph ("I'd like to slap him in the head," he says, but he signs), he strides down the concourse restlessly and says, "I hate airports. I hate airplanes. I'm callused. I'm in a cage now. I like to be left alone by people snatching at me, grabbing at me. I don't go out all that much with that many people on the team. I just float until the game. When I get that bat in my hands people are paying attention. I'm alone then. I'm out of my cage. I'm free to move, to run, to go. I'm like an animal running through the woods."
He seems to be fascinated with the calluses on his hands, from hitting. "Feel those," he says, and indeed they are formidable. "Jesus Alou shook my hand the other day and said it was like shaking the damn road, it was so hard." Women are often amazed to touch those calluses, he says. "He's hard all over," Summers says. "He's one big callus. Skin's tight."
He comes into the dressing room in Minnesota after the rest of the team one evening and sees his interviewer talking to Centerfeilder Bill North. North has refused to speak to Jackson ever since Reggie chewed him out in front of everybody for not running out a ground ball hard. (And last week the two traded punches in the Detroit locker room.) Dark will not upbraid people, so Jackson takes it upon himself. "Who does he think he is?" teammates complained after Reggie criticized North.
It bothers Jackson that North, who is black, formerly his friend, a fine base runner, a very cool and intelligent talker, won't make up with him. "I see a lot of me in him," he says of North. He feels eager to help teammates (and opponents, too, for that matter). Before he has a chance to ask the interviewer what North said, Jackson is pleased that an occasion arises for him to show how he can deal as player rep. Finley has called up minor-leaguer Phil Garner, but now threatens to send Garner back down right away if he won't sign a big-league contract on Finley's terms. Jackson takes over. He gets Finley on the phone and reasons with him, tells him that sending Garner back down will only reflect badly on the club. Finley listens—everyone is amazed. Garner gets the contract he wants.
"Is it true you have to have a law degree to be player rep on this team?" Reporter Bergman kids Jackson.
"That, or be indispensable," says Reggie. But he is worried about something. "What did North say?" he asks the interviewer.
"That you were a great player, but off the field he didn't have any use for you."
Jackson suppresses agitation. "But nobody else on the team said that, did they?"
On the field he watches his teammates hit, has good words for the ones like Ban-do and Rudi who use their top hands effectively, who have a theory of hitting, grumbles about the ones whose bats are lazy, who could be good hitters but won't work at it. He hits with the regulars and also with the reserves, tries to coach Summers, who is appreciative but says he just can't apply those fine points yet, he has to get his own feel for his stroke first. Jackson is impatient. He takes several cuts with the 50-ounce leaded bat, eliciting admiration, but also a hoot from Bando: "Reggie! If the lead flies out of that and hits me, I'm suing."
"You saw me," Jackson tells the interviewer. "I tried to talk to North again. He wouldn't talk to me." He turns on Garner, whose big-league career he may have saved half an hour before, and snaps, "Why don't you take batting practice with your helmet on? You have to wear it when you hit in a game don't you?" Garner gulps. First Baseman Pat Bourque, who knows the big man better, reaches over and touches Jackson's cheek, as if to remove a speck of dirt.
Jackson holds out his freshly bat-chafed hand to the interviewer. "Feel those calluses. They're rough. They're red. They're ready." But is he feeling too much of that old meanness maybe, to think linearly tonight and hit peas?
No. What Jackson does tonight is hit a 400-foot double, a 400-foot home run and a single to drive in five runs in a 7-4 last-inning victory. The A's are leading the league, leading it, as usual, by no more games than necessary, winning the ones that count, showing the class—conceivably the overconfidence—of the best team in baseball.
Teammates are coming up to their big gun in the dressing room after the game, calling him Buck in admiration.
"One thing you haven't asked me," Jackson says to the interviewer. "About my teammates." He goes on for 10 minutes, naked, skin tight, bursting, about how pitchers like Catfish Hunter and fielders and runners like Campy Campaneris and hitters like Gene Tenace keep games close for him, enable him to be great. He mentions nearly every man on the squad, North prominently. His portable tape recorder is playing the Jazz Crusaders' Scratch, easy post-game music to relax him. It is a great team he is on, he says. He feels it at the park. He feels it in the hotel. He is playing for a champion. And yes, as for himself, he thinks he could bat .400 for a season if he tried to go for average, and if everything went right some season he could hit 65, 70 home runs. Earlier he had carried a Baby Ruth bar and an Oh Henry! bar, representing the Babe and Aaron, around the clubhouse soliciting opinions as to what the candy bar that will doubtless be named after him ought to be called. The responses tended to be unprintable and he loved them.
And Bando spoke of what a highly developed hot dog Reggie was, how he'd gotten his antics refined now to the point that they were a part of him, no longer obnoxious, and maybe therefore he ought to pose for the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED next to a huge hot dog dressed in a full Oakland uniform. The interviewer noted that players polled around the league tended to say of his antics, "That's just Reggie."
Hearing that, Jackson allowed a flash of non-linear bemusement to cross his face. "Yeah," he said, looking proud still, but somewhat troubled. "I wonder what they meant by that?"