Now that Reggie Jackson's amazing career has finally wound down, it's time to put him into some kind of historical perspective. And who better to do that, it occurred to me recently, than Reggie Jackson himself? Reggie, after all, is more than just a famous baseball player; he's a fan, a devoted follower of the game he has played with flair and distinction on the major league level for 21 seasons. And, like any true fan, he has a reverence for baseball's lore.
This sets him well apart from the overwhelming majority of contemporary players, most of whom think that Tris Speaker must be the business end of a boom box and that Honus Wagner probably wrote operas. By way of example, I give you Don Mattingly, who, earlier this season, after he had tied Dale Long's 31-year-old record of hitting home runs in eight consecutive games, remarked that because Long played before he was born, he naturally had never heard of him. Now, Mattingly may be a young man of sterling character, but someone should tell him that any number of important things occurred before he was born in 1961 and that he would be well-advised to learn something about them.
With all of this in mind, I sought out Reggie on a lazy September afternoon to speak with him about baseball history and the way he sees his place in it. He was sitting on the stool before his locker in the Oakland Athletics clubhouse, nursing a strained hamstring, so he had the leisure to talk of such things.
I reminded him of Mattingly's cavalier disregard for the past, and a cloud seemed to pass over his bearded face. Would he, too, be forgotten so soon? A chilling thought. "Well, that sort of thing doesn't surprise me," he said, "but it disappoints me. Anytime I got close to a record, I damn well knew who held it and just about everything there was to know about him. And don't tell me Pete Rose didn't know everything about Ty Cobb. But I wonder about these guys." Here, his hand swept the clubhouse in an elaborate gesture of dismay. "I wonder how many guys in this room have ever heard of Hank Greenberg or Jimmie Foxx or Rogers Hornsby. I wonder how many of them know who holds the National League record for home runs—Hack Wilson, 56. Or how many of them can tell you what the major league record for homers was before Ruth hit his 60 and who held it—Ruth, 59.
October 4, 1987
"I wonder if players like Mattingly, Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs, guys who get 200 or more hits in a season, have any idea who George Sisler was. Of course, all Sisler ever did was get 257 hits in a season. Man, think of it. Two...hundred...and...fifty...seven...hits!"
So how about Reggie Jackson? Where does he stand in the pantheon? How about the Hall of Fame?
"First of all, I don't think the Hall of Fame is what it used to be," Jackson said evenly, "or what it should be. When I think of the Hall of Fame I think of somebody like Joe DiMaggio—an impeccable player, a winner, a class act. Or Willie Mays or Hank Aaron or Roberto Clemente, players who could dominate a league or an era. Those are Hall of Fame players.
"Now, they're letting in guys who have been good players, sure, but who have just been around for 20 years amassing a lot of stats. Some of them haven't even been on winning teams, and they've just been good, never dominant, never that much above the others. To me, they aren't Hall of Fame players."
Yes, and Reggie Jackson?
"I don't want to knock myself, but if the Hall of Fame is what I think it should be, I'm a borderline case. I'm a guy who should maybe get elected the second time around. The strikeouts [2,597 lifetime] hurt me. The batting average [.262] hurts me. Then again, I've played on some winners [five world champions], I've put up some numbers [563 career home runs] and I've performed in championship games [a .357 Series batting average and numerous Series records, including the three straight homers on three pitches in 1977]. That won't hurt me. But I'm shy of the Mayses and the DiMaggios, that caliber of player. And I know it."
For a player who has been such a conspicuous, even self-dramatizing, presence in the game for so long, Reggie is bowing out with what, for him, amounts to quiet dignity. The Athletics, the team with which he started and, now, is ending his playing days, gave him a "day" last Saturday in Oakland Coliseum, but he had asked other American League teams to kindly refrain from "embarrassing" demonstrations as he passed through en route to retirement.
"Naw," he said to speculation that he might play another year. "I'm going to do a lot of whatever I want and a lot of nothing."
Sounds good to me. Reggie, I wish you well. Your place in history is assured. Let's just hope your successors in 20 years have the good sense to look you up.