Cooperstown Confidential: Reggie Jackson and the Metsby Bruce Markusen
October 11, 2013
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.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.