Today marks the 50th birthday of one of the highest profile baseball players—or athletes in any sport—of the 20th century. He didn’t have the greatest career nor did he even come close to Cooperstown, but for a few years his star was among the brightest in the sky.
It’s Bo Jackson.
Today, Bo knows AARP membership, but he was as big as it got back in the day. I remember reading an article trying to figure out who was the biggest and most marketable name in all of sports, Bo Jackson or Michael Jordan. The article ultimately concluded it was Jordan, but that tells you how big Jackson was. He was in plenty of commercials, most notably the famous Nike “Bo Knows” ones, in which Jordan was just one of the galaxy of stars orbiting Bo.
Calling Bo Jackson a star baseball player misses at least half the equation—the more important half, at that. He was a true two-sport star—and baseball was his second sport. His best sport was football. As a running back at Auburn, he won the 1985 Heisman Trophy. A great football career seemed ahead for him.
Then he shocked the world by deciding to go for baseball instead, and abandon football. It’s easier on the joints. Jackson joined the Royals and in 1986 made his major league debut. However, it turned out the lure of football was too strong, and in 1987 he made his debut with the Oakland Raiders. He remained a regular in both sports through 1990, when a hip injury ended his football career.
He also made a memorable controversy for himself when he explained his decision to return to football by calling it a “hobby”—a word choice that caused him no small amounts of grief.
Jackson is something of a what-if in baseball. He had talent, but he was a far better football player. In 1989, his best season, Jackson hit 32 homers, stole 26 bases, and drove in 105 runs, but hit only .256 with a .310 OBP. He also had just 15 doubles.
Then again, there’s always the question of how good he could’ve been if he had applied himself full-time to baseball. Surely, he would’ve been better. Not only would he have had more practice time, but those nicks in football can’t be good for the body. In fact, his football-ending hip injury cost him dearly in baseball, sidetracking his career. That said, Jackson’s big problem was that he was a good hitter, but never a great hitter.
His best strength in baseball may have been his sense of timing. In his only All-Star Game, he belted a monstrous first-inning homer that had everyone talking the next day. He once hit three straight homers before going on the DL—and then hit a homer in his first swing upon returning, becoming one of the few people to homer in four straight at-bats. Near the end of his career he played for the White Sox, and when they won their division, it was Bo who drove in the run that clinched a playoff berth.
When he had his first big league at-bat—a national story broadcast across the country—Jackson came within 10 feet of homering. He hit a long ball that went just foul. He ended up striking out, but still had people’s attention.
Jackson’s ability to perform his best when the most were watching showed in football, too. In his fifth NFL game, Jackson played for the Raiders on Monday Night Football against Seattle. Not only did he rush for 221 yards, but he had two touchdowns that many vividly remember. On one, Jackson steamrolled the (over)hyped Brian Bosworth—who’d promised the world before the game that he’d contain the KC Royal. The other was a 91-yard run, punctuated by Jackson running out of the end zone and down a Kingdome tunnel.
Oh, and here’s a fun fact: That great Monday Night Football performance came on Bo’s birthday—his 25th, on Nov. 30, 1987. So it’s the silver anniversary of that game.
One last Bo Jackson story that I have to share. A few years ago he appeared on the Spike TV show Pros vs. Joes, pitting four great athletes against four barroom blowhards. They’d have some events where the joes try to match the pros at their own game, but also one special event, where neither pros nor joes had any experience.
In the Bo Jackson episode I saw, the pros and joes all gave skeet shooting a chance. Jackson had apparently never shot skeet before, but within two or three shots had the hang of it. He started nailing everything after that, the best of any of the competitors.
That Bo Jackson—he sure was something. And today he’s 50 years of something.
Aside from that, many other baseball events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something that occurred X-thousand years ago today). Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d prefer to just skim.
2,000 days since Lou Piniella manages his 3,000th game. His record is 1,519-1,420.
3,000 days since Curtis Granderson makes his big league debut.
4,000 days since the Red Sox sign free agent Carlos Baerga.
4,000 days since the Indians trade controversial reliever John Rocker to Texas.
4,000 days since the Royals sign free agent left fielder Chuck Knoblauch.
4,000 days since Yankees sign big name free agent Jason Giambi to a blockbuster deal.
4,000 days since the Cardinals sign free agent Tino Martinez.
5,000 days since former NL manager Birdie Tebbetts dies.
6,000 days since a cameraman for WGN accuses Albert Belle of throwing a drink at him in the seventh inning of the day’s White Sox game. Belle had just been removed for a pinch hitter and was rather upset.
7,000 days since Barry Bonds drives in a personal best seven runs, and it’s just enough to guide his team to an 8-7 win. He’s 3-for-3 with a double and two home runs in the Giants win over the rival Dodgers.
7,000 days since Carlos Delgado makes his big league debut.
7,000 days since Frank Tanana appears in his last game.
10,000 days since the Players Association sets Aug. 6, 1985 as its strike date. This will turn out to be the shortest strike in professional sports history.
1870 Frank Killen, pitcher, is born.
1870 A new rule declares that a batter can call for a high pitch or a low pitch from the hurler. It was a very different game back then.
1885 Boston obtains starting pitcher Old Hoss Radbourn, who was under the control of the NL following the demise of the Providence Grays baseball club.
1889 Baltimore leaves the American Association, a major league, for the Atlantic Association, a minor league.
1898 Firpo Marberry, the game’s first star relief pitcher, is born.
1926 The Red Sox hire Bill Carrigan to manage them. He won two world titles as their skipper in the previous decade but will have no success with them this time
1927 The Boston Braves release hard-hitting first baseman Jack Fournier.
1932 The Reds trade Babe Herman to the Cubs for four players.
1950 Pittsburgh signs free agent Pete Reiser.
1952 Jackie Robinson accuses the New York Yankees of prejudice. He says their front office lets very few black players into their farm system.
1953 In Springfield, Mo., Yankees star Mickey Mantle undergoes surgery to remove torn cartilage from his right knee.
1953 Player representatives reject Commissioner Ford Frick’s plan for a conference on their pension after he bars the players’ attorney from being present.
1955 The White Sox trade starting pitcher Virgil Trucks to the Tigers.
1959 Jack Scott, pitcher who twice lost 21 games in a season (1920 and 1927), dies at age 67.
1960 Bob Tewksbury, pitcher, is born.
1961 In a six-player deal, the White Sox send longtime ace Billy Pierce to the San Francisco Giants. Accompanying him is Don Larsen and going to Chicago are first baseman Bob Farley, pitchers Eddie Fisher and Don Zanni, and a player to be named later (who turns out to be a minor leaguer named Vern Tiefenthaler).
1964 The Red Sox nab Sparky Lyle from the Baltimore farm system in the Rule 5 draft. In the same draft, the Cubs select Bobby Cox from the Dodger system, and the Angels take Vic Power from the Phillies.
1970 The Cubs trade Hoyt Wilhelm to the Braves, which is odd because just two months earlier the Cubs got Wilhelm off waivers from Atlanta.
1970 The Cardinals draft Cecil Cooper from the Red Sox in the Rule 5 draft.
1971 The White Sox claim Jorge Orta from the Mexicali squad in the Mexican Northern League.
1971 Matt Lawton, Twins outfielder, is born.
1971 Ray Durham, star second baseman, is born.
1972 In a five-player trade, Kansas City nabs Hal McRae from the Reds for not much of note in return.
1972 The Phillies make a pair of trades in one day, one netting them an outfielder and another costing them one. They get Cesar Tovar in a trade with the Twins and lose Oscar Gamble in a deal with the Indians.
1976 Atlanta sells Jimmy Wynn to the Yankees.
1977 The Cubs sign free agent Dave Kingman, who will enjoy his best season with the Cubs.
1980 Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino is born.
1981 Rich Harden, pitcher, is born.
1987 Cleveland releases slugger Andre Thornton.
1988 Oakland signs free agent Billy Beane. He doesn’t do much for them on the field but has quite a future ahead for himself in various capacities with the club.
1988 The Royals sign free agent catcher Bob Boone.
1988 Wally Berger, a terrific center fielder for the Braves, dies at age 83.
1993 Colorado signs free agent Ellis Burks.
1994 The Angels sign free agent reliever Mitch Williams.
1994 The Mets trade Fernando Vina to the Brewers.
1999 Big league umpires vote 57-35 to form a new union.
2000 The Seattle Mariners purchase Japan Pacific League star Ichiro Suzuki.
2001 The Expos sign a one-year lease to play their home games at Olympic Stadium.
2010 The Dodgers trade Ryan Theriot to the Cardinals.
2011 The Cubs sign free agent outfielder David DeJesus.
2011 The Dodgers sign free agent second baseman Adam Kennedy.