There haven't been too many players whose flair for the dramatic could rival that of Reggie Jackson's.
After winning three World Series titles with the Oakland A's and spending one season in Baltimore, the perennial All-Star and two-time American League home run champion signed a five-year contract with the Yankees prior to the 1977 season.
Almost immediately, Jackson made news in New York, whether it was with his play or his outspoken nature. But he backed up his words, hitting 32 home runs and driving in 110 in the 1977 regular season. That fall, Jackson became "Mr. October" when he hit five home runs in the team's Fall Classic triumph over the Los Angeles Dodgers, including three longballs in the deciding Game 6 at Yankee Stadium.
Jackson, who tallied 563 career home runs and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993, spoke with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III at Yankee Stadium in early September.
What excited you about joining the Yankees as a free agent in November of 1976?
It was the city, the fans and the owner. I've always been a baseball fan, and the Yankees and their winning tradition -- the great history from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Elston Howard through Thurman Munson -- made me admire the pinstripes for a long period of time. I was courted pretty well and sought after by George Steinbrenner and a couple of his players. Thurman was really the guy who was an important part of me going to New York. The excitement of the city when I went for a visit was impressive.
When you signed with the Yankees, what did you want to accomplish during your time in New York?
I wanted to be the best player I could be. And I thought that could happen in New York or Los Angeles. I thought about playing for the Dodgers, but my first choice was to stay with Baltimore. Eddie Murray was a year or two away, and they always had good pitching there. My mother lived in Baltimore, and it was a good baseball town. I offered the Orioles a five-year, $1.8 million deal, but I couldn't convince them on that, so I became a free agent. The money was even between the Dodgers and the Yankees, but the Yankees had already made a commitment and the Dodgers came in too late. My agent and I thought that if I didn't stay in Baltimore, the challenge of playing in New York would be the best place for me in my prime.
What did you think of the group of guys on that team when you got to spring training?
It was different and socially awkward. It was a different time in those days. It's not really something that I would want to expand on for an article like this. But it was just clique-ish and awkward. I'll just leave it at that.
You never seemed fazed by the bright lights of New York City. Why do you think you were so well prepared to handle the pressure that comes with being a star on the Yankees?
There were close ties that I had throughout my life. My father was a hard worker. He demanded as close to perfection as you could get with hard work. His first focus was education, not sports. I went to Arizona State on a football scholarship and played for Frank Kush, who was a really tough, disciplinary, old-school coach. The baseball coach, Bobby Winkles, was the same way. Being a good person and developing character was more important to them than being a great athlete. That, plus the example that my father set, stayed with me throughout my life. Then, I played for a manager in the minor leagues by the name of John McNamara, who was a very kind soul. He developed a father-like relationship with me and kept me in touch with life. Playing in the South during the '60s was probably the most difficult thing I went through. I played in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, and Macon, Georgia, and I wasn't welcomed in those towns. But the social support that I got from the men that were leading the team and my teammates was important in my development. So I think that the path God created for me was what I needed, and I believe that I was destined to go to New York. I've always needed support and needed people to like me or care about me, and when I was in New York, I had tremendous fan support. The first couple of months were tough, but once people got to know me, it worked out pretty well. The relationship that I developed with George Steinbrenner and his family has been extremely special. I consider myself very fortunate to be part of the Steinbrenner family.
Did you begin to enjoy your time in New York when things calmed down toward the end of the regular season?
I don't know if I ever really had an enjoyable day that season. The pressure to prove I was worth my contract, dealing with Billy Martin and having an article written about me by Robert Ward that got turned around was tough. That story [with its famous "straw that stirs the drink" quote] really drove a wedge between me and the team. To this day, I remember some of the writers who hated me. The social inequities and racism at the time were very difficult to deal with. It was 40 years ago and when you talk about all of that, you just remember a lot of the tough, awkward negativity that was there. I like to focus my thoughts on winning that championship and the home runs.
Well, that's understandable. Getting back to your play on the field, how important was it for you to have such a big month of September, when you hit 10 of your 32 regular season home runs?
It certainly was important. I always played pretty well in September and October. When the focus and the demand for excellence increased or the need was there, I was able to concentrate and get things done. It was helpful to get into a groove even before the postseason began.
You hit a big home run in Game 4 of the World Series in Los Angeles and another one in Game 5. How did you feel going into that epic Game 6?
I really couldn't have felt any better. I was comfortable, and I had hit a groove. I knew that my swing was there, so I really wasn't worried about anything. I had great batting practices in L.A., and I remember kidding around in the outfield with a couple of the players because they were talking about how well I was hitting the ball. That feeling carried over to Game 6.
What, if anything, sticks out to you about the morning of Game 6?
It was an ordinary day. I had a big breakfast over at Nectar Cafe on 79th Street and Madison Avenue, where I ate all the time. I had three eggs over easy with some potatoes, bacon, sausage, toast and a big glass of milk. Then, I went back there for some lunch, and I headed over to the ballpark at around 2 o'clock. I remember driving up through Harlem. I represented Puma shoes, and I used to hand out 20 or 30 pairs of those Pumas to the kids a couple of Saturdays each month on the way to Yankee Stadium. That's what I did that day. As far as how I felt when I was getting ready for the game, I knew what it felt like to play well down the stretch and be comfortable and calm when it mattered most because I had done well in the World Series games I played in with Oakland. I felt like I could really dominate that game, and that's how things worked out.
Looking back, how were you able to hit home runs off of Burt Hooton, Elias Sosa and Charlie Hough in the same game?
We had a really good scouting team, led by Gene "Stick" Michael. And they gave me such a great scouting report. I wanted to know how the Dodgers pitched to other similar hitters with different counts. The statistics that I wanted at the time were what they threw when the hitter had a free move - 2-0, 2-1 or 3-1. I also wanted to know how they pitched guys when they were on top of the count and behind in the count. I got some really good statistics and Gene Michael told me, "They're going to pitch you in." That tip really helped me. I was also pretty good, so we made out all right.
After hitting the first two home runs on the first pitch, did you have any thoughts of taking a pitch in the third at-bat?
No. Those are statistics that people keep but the athlete has no thought of. If you see a good pitch, you let the barrel hunt. You let the dog eat. You won't see any hitter that has impact -- or, as I say, with dynamite in the barrel of his bat -- walk to home plate and purposely take the first pitch. Big hitters don't get a lot of good pitches to hit, so when you leave the on-deck circle, you swing. You swing at the first thing that's hittable.
How soon after hitting the third home run did you realize the historical significance of what you had done?
I knew it was special, but I didn't know all of the history. I knew that Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had hit four home runs in a World Series for the Yankees and that Gene Tenace and Duke Snider had also accomplished that feat. When I hit number five, I knew that I was the only guy to do that, but I didn't know that Ruth was the only other guy to hit three in one World Series game. Even before I hit the last home run, I really thought that we were going to win because Sparky Lyle was in the bullpen with a four-run lead. When he came into games that season, the rest of it was icing on the cake.
What was the reaction from your teammates after you hit the third home run?
They showered me with praise. I remember our batboy, Ray Negron, trying to get me to go out and tip my cap to the fans. After the second home run, I wouldn't do it. After the third home run, he pushed me out of the dugout, and I went out and saluted and thanked the fans.
All these years later, what does it mean to you to have authored one of the single greatest performances not only in the history of the Yankees, but in the entire sport?
Being with the Yankees and winning world championships with them makes you part of a great fraternity. It's the greatest sports franchise in sports - no other team has 27 world championships. I'm honored to be mentioned as one of the Yankees greats, especially because I only played there five years. To be included in the group of guys with Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, Maris, Whitey, Yogi, Elston, Mattingly, Jeter and Bernie Williams is pretty cool.
What's the best part of winning in New York City?
It's really a bigger stage than anywhere else. The stage is so big. The town has so many people. The media is global. The Yankees brand is global. So when you do something there, you just get credit and recognition. I don't even know that we accomplished any more than the recent New England Patriots or Golden State Warriors teams, but when you do it as a Yankee, you go to different parts of the world and people say, "Oh, you're a Yankee. You're from America."
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.