Mr. October turns 74 today.
“I’m a grandpa,” Reggie Jackson says.
He wasn’t always. He hit home runs once, 563 of them in the big leagues. He hit three during one memorable and theatrical night in the old Yankee Stadium, on just three swings of the bat in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series. He hit one off a light-tower at old Tiger Stadium in the '71 All-Star Game that they’re still talking about, just because the ball seemed to be on its way to the moon.
But they were always talking about Jackson in his prime, when he was as big a star as there was in the sport. He wasn’t just an awesome nickname, one of the best in baseball history. He was one of those guys for whom you really only needed one name:
At the time George Steinbrenner signed him to a five-year, $3 million free agent contact in 1976, it was the biggest ever awarded to a baseball free agent. He’d once said that if he played in New York, they’d name a candy bar after him, and they did. He’d win two World Series there, after the three in a row he’d previously won with the A’s.
We talked about a lot of baseball things when I called him on Friday to wish him an early happy birthday. I figured Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, the greatest home run night in Series history, was as good a place to start as any. It ended Reggie’s first season with New York, one filled with controversy involving him, Thurman Munson and a quote from a sports magazine story about him, in which he said he was “the straw that stirs the drink,” and Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner of course.
It was the night the Yankees won their first World Series since 1962, and the night Reggie really did become "Mr. October." He’d already hit two home runs when he stepped up to the plate against Charlie Hough in the bottom of the eighth inning.
I asked him about the moment.
“Well, I knew it was gone,” Reggie said. “And I knew the number was three. I was always a statistical person. I knew that I had five homers for the Series then, and nobody had ever hit that many [Chase Utley and George Springer would tie him in 2009 and '17 respectively]. So a lot was going through my mind as I began my way around the bases, in the middle of all that noise.
“The next day there was a picture in the [New York] Daily News of me rounding second and going past [Dodgers shortstop] Bill Russell. And both of my feet were off the ground. That was exactly how I felt in that moment.”
He was asked what makes him the most proud when he looks back on his career.
“I stood my ground,” Jackson said.
He paused then and spoke of the 1960s, '70s and '80s in baseball, and the players he saw across his 21 seasons.
“I always had a great appreciation of the great players I played with, and the ones I played against,” Jackson said. “I saw the last years of Willie [Mays] and Hank [Aaron]. I saw Al Kaline, Willie McCovey and Billy Williams. Frank Robinson and Pete Rose and Johnny Bench. I’m honored to have been friends with Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver. Jim Rice. Ozzie [Smith].”
“They helped me understand that it’s more than talent, for any of us,” Reggie Jackson said. “It takes character to be a great player. I’m seeing that right now in ‘The Last Dance’ with Michael Jordan.”
The anniversary of his Major League debut arrives in a few weeks. It was with the Kansas City Athletics, June 9, 1967. He was 21. His last season was '87, when he returned to the Oakland A’s. He was 41 and still managed 15 homers that year. And anyone who ever saw him knows how the ballpark would come to a stop when he came to the plate, they know it wasn’t just a journey with Reggie.
It was a trip.
We talked about the 1981 World Series, one Reggie will always remember as the one that got away from the Yankees. He’d hurt his leg in the American League Championship Series and was held out of Games 1 and 2 at Yankee Stadium, both of which the Yankees won. But he was ready for Game 3 at Dodger Stadium. Bob Lemon sat him anyway, saying it was a precaution, and because a lefty, Fernando Valenzuela was pitching. It means he sat a healthy Mr. October, in October. The Yanks lost Game 3. They never won another game in that Series, even though when Reggie did get back on the field for Game 4, he was 3-for-3 and on base five times.
“Still think about Game 3,” Jackson said. “Felt like I could have rose up one more time.”
I asked him what pitcher was the toughest on him. He laughed.
“I swear I went five years without hitting ... Scott McGregor,” he said, “even though he was throwing water balloons.”
“But then I went to the Angels and hit five homers off him in one year.”
“Best manager you ever played for?” I asked.
“Dick Williams,” Jackson said, referencing the manager with whom he won two World Series in Oakland in 1972 and ’73.
Finally I asked him for the best player he ever played with. And Reggie, always full of surprises, came up with one more, just because of the history he shared with the man when he first got to New York.
“Thurman Munson,” Reggie Jackson said, without hesitation.
Then we were back at Game 6, in 1977, when Reggie became a legend in the baseball place built for October legends.
“I remember as I rounded third, I looked up at George’s box,” Jackson said. “Because in that moment, I felt as if I’d repaid him.”