Cooperstown Confidential: Reggie Jackson and the Mets

When Reggie Jackson speaks, people react. So it was inevitable that when excerpts from Jackson’s new autobiography made their way to the public, the media and fans would respond in kind. Perhaps the most inflammatory words from Reggie’s pen had to do with the New York Mets, who owned the first pick in the 1966 amateur draft and had been expected by some observers to select Jackson. They did not, prompting some to speculate as to why that decision was made.

Jackson says the Mets’ reasoning was simple; they did not appreciate that he had a girlfriend of Mexican ethnicity at the time. Jackson says he was given this information by Bobby Winkles, his coach at Arizona State. According to Jackson, Winkles told him, “You’re dating a Mexican girl, and the Mets think you will be a problem. They think you’ll be a social problem because you are dating out of your race.”

Jackson’s accusation, while certainly an indictment of the Mets’ organization in the 1960s, is really not a new one. For years, there has been speculation that the Mets avoided drafting Jackson because of his tendency to date white women. Jackson is now making a claim that is only a little bit different; it was the Mexican heritage of his girlfriend that upset some of the suits in the Mets’ front office.

So is this true? Before we get to that, let’s first set the scene from June of 1966, when baseball held its second annual draft at the Hotel Roosevelt in New York City. Paul Richards, working for the Braves at the time, previewed the draft by calling it “the best [group of young talent] we have had in years.”

By virtue of having the worst record in the major leagues in 1965, the Mets held the first pick in the draft. According to the consensus of pre-draft reports, Jackson and 17-year-old high school catcher Steve Chilcott were rated about even. Chilcott had left-handed power, always a desirable commodity in a young catcher. But some scouts thought that the Mets would take Jackson, who was more advanced as a college player at Arizona State and was theoretically closer to making the majors.

The Mets decided to take Chilcott. Bing Devine, working as an assistant to Weiss, explained that the Mets’ reasoning had to do with positional need. “We went for Chilcott,” Devine told The Sporting News, “because we thought that catching was our greatest need.”

With Chilcott off the board, the Kansas City A’s happily took Jackson. Kansas City’s general manager, Eddie Lopat, diplomatically praised both Jackson and Chilcott. “Our reports rate them comparable,” Lopat informed The Sporting News. “They both run well, throw well, and have power. Our scouts tell us that Jackson is somewhat more polished and that he could be ready for the majors in two years.”

Reading between the lines, Lopat seemed to be hinting that he would have taken Jackson if the A’s had owned the No. 1 pick overall. After all, Lopat’s boss was Charlie Finley, an impatient man who likely would have preferred the player on the faster track to the major leagues. Adding credence to that theory, let’s consider the sentiments of A’s scout Bob Zuk, the man who had scouted Jackson in college. Zuk had let it be known that he rated Jackson the best prospect in the draft. He had recommended to his bosses that the A’s should draft Jackson if the Mets bypassed him.

Zuk’s advice was good; the pick of Jackson helped turn Finley’s franchise from laughingstock to dynasty. With Jackson the centerpiece to the lineup, the A’s would win a division title in 1971, three straight world championships from 1972 to 1974, and another division title in 1975.

The Mets’ selection of Chilcott would end badly. After a poor rookie season in the low minors, Chilcott found his hitting stroke in 1967. Misfortune then intervened. During a Florida State League game that summer, Chilcott dove back into the second base bag on a pickoff attempt, suffered a dislocated right shoulder, and saw his season come to an end. Chilcott was never the same. After six seasons of long struggles in the Mets’ organization, he signed with the Yankees, playing one shortened season in their system before drawing his release at the age of 24. Forced to retire, Chilcott never made the majors.

In retrospect, the selection of Chilcott proved disastrous. But that doesn’t prove that the Mets were racists. For potential answers to that question, we need to look at the environment of baseball in 1966. The game was ultra conservative when it came to race. No one had hired a black manager. There were no black coaches. Although there were numerous black players, no team had ever roomed a black player with a white player. And some teams still allowed their players to be segregated in separate hotels during spring training.

Given such an environment, and given that some baseball executives of the 1960s dated back to the days before Jackie Robinson, it’s certainly possible that Jackson was snubbed for reasons of race and ethnicity. And if he was, he was not the only player to be affected by such social constraints of the day. Let’s look at the 1969 trade that sent Oscar Gamble and hard-throwing reliever Dick Selma from the Cubs to the Phillies for an aging Johnny Callison. Rumors have long circulated that the Cubs parted ways with Gamble because of his practice of dating white women. The Cubs, known for their conservative ways as an organization, supposedly did not want their players moving beyond racial boundaries when it came to dating.

In contrast to Jackson, Gamble has always questioned this theory, perhaps in part because no one from the Cubs’ organization ever told him directly of an unspoken ban on interracial mingling. But Gamble has always been more tolerant and accepting than Jackson. There are reasons to question why the Cubs made such a deal.

The Cubs’ trade of Gamble was puzzling, if only because Gamble was one of the Cubs’ top young prospects, a 20-year-old outfielder with speed and power. Cubs manager Leo Durocher had once compared Gamble to Willie Mays. Cubs scout Buck O’Neil, who signed Gamble, said he was the best young player he’d signed since reeling in Ernie Banks. So how is it that a player who had been mentioned in the same breath as Mays and Banks could then be traded for the injury-plagued Callison, who was now 30 and a full four years removed from his All-Star prime? From a baseball standpoint, giving up Gamble and throwing in Selma for an aging Callison did not seem sensible for the Cubs.

A more famous case of a player whose fate may have been affected by antiquated racial attitudes involved the Yankees. Let’s consider how the Yankees treated Vic Power, a highly touted prospect who played in their system during the 1950s. A slick fielding first baseman and capable batsman, Power had the kind of talent that prompted some writers to predict that he would become the first black player in the history of the Yankees franchise.

Power looked to be on a direct path to the Bronx, but off-the-field appearances dictated otherwise. As Power rose through the system, he was considered too radical by the team’s front office, which was run by the capable but conservative general manager, George Weiss. Weiss preferred an African-American player with a more reserved personality, someone like Elston Howard, who would eventually break the Yankees’ color barrier. Unlike Howard, Power was not the type to embody the old-line, conservative traditions of the Yankee organization.

A native of integrated Puerto Rico, Power was shocked by the segregationist practices here in the states and challenged the status quo. He tried to buck social trends by staying in segregated hotels and eating in restaurants designated for whites only. When he faced roadblocks to these simple rights, he spoke out about the injustices of the American system.

Still, the Yankees might have overlooked Power’s outspoken ways if not for his decision to date white women. Hardly the shy and withdrawn type, Power liked to go out to restaurants and nightclubs, where he could be seen in the company of his dates, white or otherwise. Unlike Gamble, Power felt that race most likely played a major factor in keeping him out of New York. “Maybe the Yankees didn’t want a black player who would openly date white-skinned women,” Power told author Danny Peary in his book, We Played The Game. So Weiss kept Power buried at Triple-A Kansas City despite eye-popping offensive numbers, including a .331 season in 1952 and a .349 season in 1953.

Weiss and Yankee ownership did their best in making excuses for why they failed to promote Power. “Our scouting reports rate Power as a good hitter but a poor fielder,” co-owner Dan Topping told United Press International. That was pure nonsense; Power was an exceptional fielding first baseman who was athletic enough to play third base and second base.

“The first Negro to appear in a Yankee uniform must be worth waiting for,” chimed in Weiss. The Yankees had no intention of “waiting” for Power. After the 1953 season, they traded him to the Philadelphia Athletics as part of a blockbuster 11-player deal. None of the players the Yankees received would perform as well as Power. The trade insured that Power would never play for the Yankees during Weiss’ tenure in the Bronx.

That brings us back to Jackson. While it might be comforting to believe that racial attitudes had changed from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, Jackson’s allegation brings that under serious question. So is it possible that the Mets considered an interracial relationship in making a decision to bypass Jackson as the No. pick in the draft?

“The short answer is very much yes,” says former major leaguer Billy Sample, an African-American outfielder who played in the 1970s and eighties. “When I was coming up in the mid-seventies, we all had heard of talented black players with white girlfriends who never got out of the mid-minors. A lot depends on the leadership of the executives and coaches in the minor leagues; Texas was great about that (individual freedom), though ironically I had three plus years of death threats and harassment as a major leaguer with a white spouse.”

As Sample points out, there was a clash between the conservative nature of team employees and the differing attitudes of young athletes. “The scouts, in those days especially, primarily were white, most likely small town social conservatives, and the southern states had the best weather for baseball playing; may not have been the best to be a borderline draft eligible player with a white female friend, even if you were just friends.”

The issue is a difficult one to consider. In trying to decipher the Mets’ attitude regarding race in the 1960s, there is no definitive answer, no concrete proof, no overwhelming evidence that the Mets did something nefarious. If you were to take this to trial, the lack of a smoking gun would probably doom the prosecution’s case to failure.

Yet, there does appear to be a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence that something beyond usual baseball considerations played a role here, given the prevailing attitudes of the 1960s and the various characters involved in this scenario. Race affected so many aspects of the game back then that it’s not a stretch to think that it affected the draft status of a future Hall of Famer.

In weighing all of the factors and viewing the structure of the game with a healthy dose of skepticism, I have to say that I believe Reggie Jackson.

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Comments

  1. bucdaddy said...

    Bruce,

    Just one tiny thing: I doubt a 30-year-old Johnny Callison was seen as “past his prime” in that era. Clearly, he wasn’t quite the force he was at age 25 and 26, but he was still an above-average MLB hitter, put up ERA+s of 120 and 117 in the two years before the trade. Plus he was an excellent defensive right fielder, often among the league leaders in putouts, assists, DPs and fielding %. Just saying I don’t think there was nearly the consensus on what constituted a player’s prime years in the 1960s that we have today.

    Just for the fun of it, I looked up the ages of the players the Cubs got a few years earlier for Lou Brock at age 25. Ernie Broglio was 28 and in the middle of a mediocre season, and Bobby Shantz was 38. Has there ever been any suggestion the Cubs made that trade because of Brock’s racial attitudes? I dunno. Sometimes teams just make stupid trades.

  2. bucdaddy said...

    Adding to the Cubs’ defense just a bit: In 1969 the Cubs had Jim Hickman (32 years old) and Al Spangler (35) splitting RF. Hickman put up a 110 ERA+, Spangler a 60. The Callison trade allowed them to fill RF full time with a slightly younger and better player, and move Hickman to 1B, where he was still getting old but not as old as the guy he moved out: Ernie Banks (39).

    The Cubs had just come off the collapse of 1969 and probably felt they were just a player or position change or two from pushing themselves over the top. Their opening day lineup had Williams, Santo, Banks, Callison and Hickman in the middle, and they came out of the gate 12-3. Williams, Santo and Hickman (of all people) had great years, while Callison had an average offensive season but likely played his usual good defense. But there were about four offensive black holes in the lineup and that probably killed their chances of winning anything.

    Just saying the deal probably made a lot more sense at the time than it does today.

  3. Barney Coolio said...

    “Mexican” is not an ethnicity.  It is a nationality.  A person can be of Mexican nationality yet can be of any race:  white, black, mestizo.  I have heard this Reggie Jackson story before and in the past I always was under the impression that Jackson’s girlfriend was of white Mexican descent.  She was white, and people may or may not have been aware that she was of Mexican heritage.  Similar to how most people in the 1960’s didn’t realize or acknowledge Jackson’s partial Puerto Rican heritage.

  4. BlftBucco said...

    I took these additional quotes from the book “The Baseball Draft the first 25 years”

    Whitey Herzog a Mets coach in 1966 went to draft and recalls “After it was over, I remember our general manager Bing Devine going around to the tables and asking the other clubs who they had Number 1. Nine had Chilcott and ten had Reggie.  At that time you couldn’t have gone wrong with either one.”

    Casey Stengel who was the Mets Vice President of Western Scouting and was instrumental in the decision to draft Chilcott stated “One look is eneough for me.  This boy has all the tools to be a major league hitter.” This said after watching him go 4 for 4 in one game that he scouted.

  5. AlbaNate said...

    Could have been racism. Or just bad judgment or incompetence. These are the Mets we’re talking about, after all.

  6. Bruce Markusen said...

    Two things: a) the Jackson allegations are not new; this has been alleged before, and by people other than Reggie Jackson and b) given that catchers generally have a short shelf life, I wouldn’t necessarily take the catcher over an outfielder with all-around skills.

  7. Jim Clark said...

    Reggie Jackson is a born liar. He also complains that the blacks on the Yankees didn’t automatically side with him. Imagine judging people on their merits and not their skin color…Reggie don’t like that.

      Just wondering…if you have two top players, one of whom is projected to be a Stan Musial and the other Yogi Berra, whom do you select? Obviously you can’t go wrong with either, but with a perpetual shortage of top catchers, wouldn’t you pick the catcher?

  8. LA said...

    In 40 years the same story will be told of homosexual players and athletes.  Though Reg probably won’t be telling it.

  9. john said...

    I agree with Bruce, yet again.  I’m afraid you’re not going to find too many in agreement, though.  Not in today’s environment.

  10. Philip said...

    Bruce,

    I tend to agree with bucdaddy on the Gamble thing.

    The Cubs made stupid deals before trading Gamble. They made stupid moves after trading Gamble.

    Just because a scout compares someone to a great player doesn’t mean management will feel the same way after seeing that player in their system for a year or two.

    In the early 80s, NHL Los Angeles Kings then-scouting director Wren Blair compared a top pick, center Doug Smith, to future Hall of Famer Bobby Clark. Yet, in the high scoring early 80s, Smith never put up more than 41 points.

    The 19-year old Gamble hit .225 as essentially a late season call-up for the 1969 Cubs. Meanwhile, Chicago suffered a stunning collapse and lost the division flag to the Mets.

    Though, indeed, Callison had some injuries which limited him to 134 games, he had hit a respectable .265, slugged .440 and hit 16 homeruns for the Phillies. Callison was known for a strong arm while even then Gamble was noted for his defensive liabilities.

    Moreover, the Cubs were in a win now mode while Philadelphia was rebuilding.

    After the trade, Leo Durocher told UPI that Johnny Callison would be the Cubs starting right fielder in 1970, with Jim Hickman likely moving to center and displacing the light-hitting Don Young. Billy Williams would return to left. That’s exactly what happened and production from the Cubs outfield improved.

    Though the Cubs didn’t win in 1970 either, the club actually finished closer to first than they had in 1969, only five games behind Pittsburgh, and might have pulled it off if not for injuries to first baseman Ernie Banks (155 games to 72) and catcher Randy Hundley (151 games to 73).

    Hickman popped 32 homeruns and hit .315. Callison hit 19 homeruns, batted .264 and slugged .440 (again), basically the same numbers he put up in 1969. Gamble hit one homerun in 275 at bats for the Phillies.

    Re: Jackson

    Author Dayn Perry (“Reggie Jackson: The Life and Thunderous Career of Baseball’s Mr. October”) has stated he interviewed Jackson’s Arizona coach Bobby Winkles (later a major league manager and coach), who denied saying the Mets didn’t draft Jackson because Reggie had a white girlfriend.

    ‘‘For the book, I interviewed Bobby Winkles, Reggie’s baseball coach at Arizona State and, according to Reggie, the source of the “the Mets aren’t going to draft you because you have a white girlfriend” rumor. (Note: She was actually Hispanic.) Winkles denies ever telling Reggie anything like that and says he never had any idea why the Mets didn’t draft him.’‘

    So who is lying? Jackson or Winkles? Or could it be that Winkles merely offered speculation without any hard evidence himself and then later backed off the accusation while Jackson took what his former coach told him to be as fact.

    Then, as Bruce noted, there is also the George Weiss factor. But given the passage of time (and of key people involved) we may never know the whole truth on this one.

  11. dennis Bedard said...

    Ditto Jim.  Jackson is not the most credible source out there.  His ego always got in the way of the truth.  And we are supposed to believe him 45 years later.  My memory is fading but I seem to recall that Rod Carew has a white wife in the late 60’s and it never became an issue.

  12. Kevin Ocala, Fl said...

    Am I mistaken, or didn’t Al Campanis room with Jackie Robinson? This would be contrary to the assertion that, “Although there were numerous black players, no team had ever roomed a black player with a white player”.

  13. Bruce Markusen said...

    Kevin, the first black and white players to room together were Chuck Dobson and Reggie Jackson with the A’s in 1968.

  14. Paul E said...

    If Winkles denies it, then Reggie made it up. If inkles said it, then Reggie won’t ever forget it….
    Me thinks RMJ has a bug up his rear end about not being the 1st pick in the draft-whether Winkles relayed the message or not. And, being Reggie, he has to be envious of ASU teammate Rick Monday actually being an overall #1.

    Bill James told the story of Vic Power going to a “whites-only” restaurant. The waiter says, “I’m sorry sir, we don’t serve Negroes.” Power replied, “That’s OK, I don’t eat them.”

  15. Paul G. said...

    The Yankees of these decades had so much talent that it was not unusual for players with huge minor league seasons to get blocked for a year or two, nor was it unusual for the Yanks to unload good talent that they couldn’t use for spare parts that they could use.  The Yankees primary first baseman in 1952-1953 was Joe Collins, who was a solid but not spectacular player, backed up by an aging Johnny Mize, who you may have heard of.  And the Yankees were in the process of winning consecutive pennants #4 and #5, so it was not like they were desperate for help.  (Well, maybe they could have used him in 1952 with the close pennant race with Cleveland, but Vic had a blah 1951 season, Joe Collins had his career year, and it is not exactly obvious where he would play anyway.  If you are thinking utility, they already had a really good one in Gil McDougald.)  It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Vic Power’s social life played a role in the decision to go in a different direction, but I seriously doubt it was the only factor.

    Also keep in mind that the younger Moose Skowron, the next Yankee starting first baseman, was hitting just as well or better than Vic on the same team in those same years and he didn’t get promoted until 1954.  It’s not like the Vic was the only one getting blocked.  For that matter, Moose ended up being the better player despite playing in a stadium that hated his skill set.  It’s not like the Yankees made a terrible baseball decision.

    As to Reggie: great ballplayer, huge ego.  When Reggie doesn’t get his way it has to be nefarious, no?  Because no one honest ever disagrees with Reggie….

  16. John C said...

    Reggie might be right, and he might be wrong. George Weiss would be the only one who knows for sure, and he took the secret to his grave.

    Either way, the Mets were only wrong in hindsight. There are all sorts of sources from 1966 that indicate that Reggie and Chilcott were rated about even going into the draft. The Mets had never been able to stabilize their catching situation to that point in their history, and here was one that all of the scouts were drooling over. The pick made perfect sense for them, leaving out any issues of who Reggie Jackson’s girlfriend was.

    And on top of that, the fact that it didn’t work out was just dumb luck. Chilcott hit .290/.370/.467 in 1967 in A-ball at the age of 18. On a team where the average age was 21.3, and which hit .234/.323/.322 as a team. And went 94-46 in spite of that fact. Chilcott’s production matched that of a 20-year-old Ken Singleton, who was also a regular on that team. If you had asked 100 scouts at that time if the Mets had made a good pick, 100 out of 100 would have said yes.

    But he got hurt, and never played as well again. Stuff like that happens sometimes. And Reggie should be happy it worked out the way it did. The A’s of that era were better than the Mets, the 1969 miracle notwithstanding.

  17. Marc Schneider said...

    Jackson may or may not be correct about this specific event, but it’s pretty clear that race was at least a background factor in many baseball decisions in the 1950s and early 1960s. The Yankee organization during the 1950s was pretty clearly racist; there are quotes from executives to the effect that fans from Westchester would be offended by seeing black players on the Yankees. It’s true that the Yankees had so many good players that they were able to select who they wanted and, no doubt that many white players were blocked. (And, yes, Power turned out not to be such a great player.) But isn’t it odd that the Yankees had only one significant black player during the entire 1950s?  This at a time when National League teams were bringing up guys like Mays, Aaron, Robinson, etc.  And, in fact, the Yankees started losing World Series in the mid-1950s to teams (the Dodgers, Braves, Pirates) that had significant black players. 

    Now, that’s different that saying that specific decisions were driven by racial factors. I agree that it’s probably unfair to look at the respective careers of Jackson and Chilcott and conclude that the only reason the Mets took Chilcott was race. But, even if race was not outcome determinative, it seems to me quite likely that race was always a part of the background for at least some organizations.  (As it was in the country as a whole.) In general, baseball teams back steered away from any controversial player, black or white.  But any black player in that day that deviated from the accepted norm was controversial to a lot of the team executives.  So that, even if you could make a legitimate baseball argument for taking either Chilcott or Jackson, it’s quite possible that Jackson’s dating habits was a tie breaker.

  18. dennis Bedard said...

    Jackson was very cocky.  I have to believe he went out of his way to rub people the wrong way.  You have to remember the era.  The 68 Olympics, Ali, and the increasing confrontational tone of many black athletes.  Curt Flood and large afros in the ABA come to mind for whatever reason.  I also remember Reggie posing shirtless for Sport Illustrated.  They put him on the cover.  I may be wrong but I have an image in my mind of walking to the mailbox as a kid and seeing that image as the mailman handed it to me.  I can assure everyone that such a picture did not sit well with the button down, scotch and soda types in the front offices at the time.  There was a reason, beyond race, that Billy Martin, almost decked him in Boston.

  19. Bruce Markusen said...

    Marc, very well said. Race could very well have been the tiebreaker, once everything else about Jackson and Chilcott had been looked at. Interesting stuff.

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