Unenchanted interlude: Reggie Jackson’s lost season in Baltimore

My most enduring memory of Reggie Jackson is from a game at Yankee Stadium in late September 1981. The Yankees were playing the Orioles near the end of a unique season in which no games had been played between June 12 and August 10 because of a players’ strike. This explained, in part, why Jackson entered the game having hit only 13 home runs.

After four memorable seasons in the Bronx, it was unfortunate that his contract year should fall in such an unusual season. Then again, perhaps it didn’t matter. The combination of Jackson and the Yankees had always been combustible. He had also recently turned 35, an age at which even the best hitters typically begin the descent into mediocrity.

At the end of August the Yankees, concerned with Jackson’s lack of production, invoked a clause in his contract requiring him to take a physical. That the episode became very public spoke to the tensions that existed. One sensed that, after five years of drama, the relationship was nearing an end.

After the physical, Jackson, as though he had something to prove, began to hit. This was not atypical for a player whose finest moments were often less a product of action than reaction. Entering the Orioles’ game, Jackson had hit six home runs in September, nearly doubling his season total.

In the bottom of the first inning, the Yankees greeted Orioles’ starter Dennis Martinez with three straight singles. Jackson then came to the plate with runners on first and third and the Yankees ahead 1-0. With Martinez clearly vulnerable, the anticipation was heightened. Jackson took the first pitch for a ball.

What I recall next is not so much rising to my feet as being pulled to them, in unison, with 40,000 other fans, by a perfect combination of sound and trajectory. Many home runs, hit by lesser players in unassuming situations, catch the crowd by surprise. This was a phenomenon unfamiliar to Jackson. His mere presence at the plate, regardless of the game situation, always commanded the crowd’s attention. His swing was a powerful sweeping motion that left him so extended that the lower half of his left leg was not merely parallel to the ground, it was nearly touching it. It was a swing with one intended purpose.

After Yankee Stadium was renovated in the early 1970s it contained a section of bleachers in center field painted black. It remained empty to provide hitters a “batter’s eye” so they could track the flight of the pitch. According to the New York Times’ account of the game, the ball Jackson hit off Martinez traveled approximately 435 feet and was only the third ball ever hit into that section (one of the other two had been Jackson’s third home run in Game Six of the 1977 World Series). It would be, in terms of Jackson’s Yankees’ career, his final regular season home run at Yankee Stadium.

Lost on me at the time was that Jackson, had history played out differently, could have been playing for the Orioles that day. Still a nascent baseball fan circa 1977, I was aware Jackson had previously played in Oakland. Although I vaguely recalled some controversy concerning his whereabouts during the 1976 season, I was unaware of the specifics. It’s interesting how a fact here or there is neglected, sometimes to enhance a story, other times to simply streamline it.

In Nice Guys Finish Last Leo Durocher sought to correct the misconception that the 1951 Giants had lost their first 11 games. As he told it, they actually won their first game and then lost the next 11 (except that he also got it wrong, as the Giants won two of their first three games before losing 11 straight).

Likewise, Jackson did not, as some believe, go directly from the A’s to the Yankees. Would it make a better story if he had? Perhaps. It would have at least proved a seamless transition from the team that dominated the early 1970s to the team that dominated the late 1970s. But the tendency to gloss over Jackson’s 1976 season involves more than mere enhancement of a story.

In retrospect, Jackson landing in Baltimore in 1976 possesses a certain provincial quality, as if he needed to spend a season off-Broadway before tackling the “big time.” It’s a view no doubt colored by what he both became and accomplished in New York. Baltimore, in truth, was probably less provincial—or at least more of a city—than Oakland. And whatever Baltimore was vis-à-vis New York, its baseball team had finished ahead of the Yankees for 10 straight seasons.

During this period the Orioles had won four pennants and two world titles. While the Yankees had become a moribund franchise, the Orioles had become a storied one, boasting the greatest defensive third baseman of all time, the American League’s finest pitcher, and an already legendary manager who, one might have thought, would have famously clashed with Jackson. Of course, it was said that Earl Weaver’s favorite play was the three-run home run. So maybe it was love at first sight.

Although the Orioles were competitive throughout the 1970s, the 1976 team was transitioning from the pennant-winning teams of the late 1960s/early 1970s to what would be a resurgence at the end of the decade. Frank Robinson, Boog Powell and Dave McNally were gone. Doug DeCinces had replaced Brooks Robinson as the starting third baseman. Paul Blair and Mike Cuellar were playing their final seasons with the team.

The Oakland A’s were transitioning in a different direction. With free agency set to take effect in November 1976, owner Charlie Finley was in the process of dismantling the team. One such trade saw Jackson, Ken Holtzman and minor leaguer Bill VanBommel traded to the Orioles in April 1976 for Don Baylor, Mike Torrez and Paul Mitchell. Within a year or two the A’s, depleted of their talent, would be mockingly referred to as the “Triple A’s.”

The trade, which occurred just a week before opening day, caught Jackson by surprise. Unhappy with how he had been treated by Finley, and unsure about his future, he didn’t immediately report to the Orioles. Prior to the trade Jackson had expressed dissatisfaction with the $165,000 salary he was set to earn in the final year of his A’s contract. The trade didn’t abate that sentiment, and he held out for three weeks seeking a higher salary. He only reported after the Orioles agreed to increase his salary to $200,000.

Jackson’s decision to hold out, whatever its practical implications, certainly carried symbolic ones. To wit, it sent the obvious message that he didn’t want to play for the Orioles. It also, in light of his contract with the A’s, cast him in a less than honorable light. Orioles’ ace Jim Palmer, for one, described the holdout as “very selfish.” The holdout, and all its attendant consequences, would help define Jackson’s 1976 season.

Orioles’ general manager Hank Peters, following the events of 1976, probably had good reason to be frustrated with Jackson. If he was, it didn’t linger and he later described Jackson as a “dedicated athlete and a fine gentleman.” One sentiment he did express was that, had Jackson not held out, the Orioles might have won the American League East. Mathematically speaking it seems unlikely as the Orioles finished 10.5 games behind the Yankees and were effectively out of contention by the end of June. At the same time, it’s unclear how the season might have played out had Jackson been there at the outset. By the time he reported the Orioles had fallen to 6-9 and were already five games behind the Yankees. Jackson’s presence might have mitigated the bad start.

The holdout, however it may have affected the Orioles, did come at a statistical price for Jackson. At 30 he was in the prime of his career and in 1975 had hit 36 home runs, tied for the American League lead, and driven in 104 runs. Reduced to 134 games, Jackson was probably denied another 30 home run, 100 RBI season. He still managed 27 and 91, respectively.

He also missed an opportunity to achieve a feat accomplished by only five players as of 1976. Jackson, although never much of a base stealer in New York, had stolen them regularly in Oakland. Jackson stole 28 bases with the Orioles, his career high and one of only two seasons in which his steals outnumbered his home runs. Had he played a full season, he likely would have become the sixth player to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season.

Jackson’s first home run with the Orioles, a grand slam, came on May 12th. For the record, it drove in DeCinces, Al Bumbry and Mark Belanger. Two days later in New York he hit his second home run off once and future teammate Jim “Catfish” Hunter. It was his first of two off Hunter that season.

For fans of obscure statistics, Hunter was one of five future Hall-of-Famers Jackson would homer against in 1976. The others were Nolan Ryan, Gaylord Perry, Dennis Eckersley and Bert Blyleven. Of those players with 500 or more career home runs, none ever homered against more different pitchers bound for Cooperstown in a single season (it’s not clear who holds the actual “record,” although Johnny Bench homered off seven such pitchers in 1970).

Success was not immediate, however, and missing April apparently took a toll. “You could see he wasn’t ready,” said Oriole left fielder Ken Singleton. As of early June Jackson was hitting .205 with just three home runs. And he was starting to hear it from Orioles’ fans, particularly after a game in which his error cost Holtzman a shutout. “I’m not mad, but I don’t like it,” Jackson acknowledged. “It bothers me. I’ll always remember it.”

The Baltimore Sun article in which those quotes appeared suggested that Jackson’s tenure in Baltimore might be brief. The article also presents a fascinating look at Jackson’s tendency—which would get him into trouble in New York—to express himself all too candidly. He claimed that he had never been booed in Oakland, stated that he is “a person who wants to be liked,” and then noted he “[didn’t] care what the fans think” about the error. He also vowed to neither tip his cap nor sign autographs when he did start hitting.

Occasionally overlooked in discussions of Jackson’s legacy was his ability to consistently produce in different environs. That’s certainly not a given. Any number of players who were stars in one city were disappointments elsewhere. Jackson is the only player to win home run titles with three different teams (the A’s, Yankees and Angels), and the first to hit at least 100 home runs for that many teams.

He wouldn’t win the home run title in Baltimore, finishing five behind the Yankees’ Graig Nettles. But after the slow start, he did hit home runs in earnest. This included a stretch between July 18th and 23rd in which he homered in six straight games, then the American League record. He hit nine home runs in July and was named American League Player of the Month.

In typical Jackson fashion, his batting average had actually dropped during the home run streak. But as he said after that 1981 home run, “I’m not going to hit .300 so I’m concentrating on hitting the ball long. I’ll take my one for four and hope it’s 420 feet.” Aptly put for a .262 career hitter with 563 home runs. Except that Jackson was nothing if not enigmatic. In 1980 he had hit .300 and still led the league home runs.

The Orioles were enigmatic in their own way. They were an organization where success was a byproduct of the “Oriole way.” It was a system where success was achieved by instilling uniformity and fundamentals at each level of the organization. The phrase “fundamentally sound” is often a euphemism for “small ball.” That was not the Earl Weaver Orioles, however.

Notwithstanding the emphasis on pitching and defense, Weaver didn’t embrace tactics such as bunting and the hit-and-run. Weaver believed mightily in home runs, and the Orioles’ success over the years owed much to power hitters like Frank Robinson, Powell, Lee May, Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken, Jr.

So could Jackson, who certainly had the requisite power, have fit into such a system beyond one season? Weaver apparently thought so, describing him as a “hard” player who “hustles, runs everything out, hates to embarrass himself. He’ll take a guy out on a double play, or run into a wall, making a sliding catch.” He compared Jackson to Robinson as a player who ”can reach a special level of concentration in the key situations that win games . . . kinda like Frank, when the score’s 9-2 either way, his concentration lapses and he gives away at bats or makes a meaningless error. That may hurt his batting average or his fielding average, but it don’t hurt his team none.” Jackson was also complimentary. “Now I could play for the little Weave. The man will chew you out, read you the riot act down to the ground, and then forget all about it.”

There was at least one other parallel of note between Jackson and Robinson. It was a decade earlier that the Orioles had acquired Robinson from the Reds in exchange for Milt Pappas. Robinson would win the Triple Crown in 1966 and help the team win four pennants in six seasons. Jackson and Robinson are two of the greatest players to ever be traded in their primes.

The difference is that Jackson, unlike Robinson, was going to be a free agent who would expect to be paid considerably more than $200,000 per season. Catfish Hunter, who in late 1974 had become a free agent through arbitration, already had a five-year deal with the Yankees worth $3.5 million. There was no reason for Jackson not to anticipate a comparable payday. Was there any reason for the Orioles to provide one? The team had been doing just fine sans free agency. Throwing inordinate sums of money at a player seemed contrary to the tenets of the “Oriole way.”

In fact, the Orioles were very interested in keeping Jackson. The Sun reported in mid-August 1976 that Peters was “optimistic” the team could sign him. According to the article, Jackson had expressed a willingness to stay in Baltimore if, in part, the Orioles also signed soon-to-be free agents Bobby Grich, Wayne Garland and Ross Grimsley. “If they don’t sign Grich, Garland and Grimsley, there is not much I can do,” he said. “It makes no sense to stay here and finish fifth.” In mid-September, after the Orioles had signed Grimsley, the Sun reported that Jackson was optimistic regarding his negotiations with Peters.

Jackson’s former teammates tell a different story. “When Reggie came here, there were no illusions he would stay,” said Palmer. Brooks Robinson added, “Just from some of the things Reggie said while he was here, I had a feeling he wouldn’t be back.” Singleton tells of how Jackson, on the season’s final road trips to certain cities, would hold court with the local reporters to discuss whether he would consider playing for that city’s team. According to Singleton, Jackson told Cleveland reporters that there were “[n]ot enough papers here to carry my quotes,” the Milwaukee writers, “Too much beer, and I don’t drink beer.”

Yet the star who apparently couldn’t wait to leave, and the club for whom a high-priced free agent would have seemed anathema, continued to talk in earnest. Jackson didn’t officially become a free agent until early November, and the Orioles had exclusive rights to negotiate with him until that time. Jackson’s website states that what he wanted to stay in Baltimore was a five-year deal worth $1.5 million (a portion of which would be payments to his parents).

There is not, it would seem, an absolute truth that can be derived when attempting to recount contract negotiations. Contrary to Jackson’s account, the Sun reported in November 1976 that the Orioles had, in fact, offered Jackson $1.5 million for five years. The Sun reported subsequently that Peters had made a final offer of $2.5 million for five years. According to the latter article, whose first sentence described Jackson’s “short, unhappy stay in Baltimore” as having apparently ended. He had ruled out both Baltimore and Montreal because “he does not like either city.” New York also happened to be offering more money, and in late November 1976 Jackson signed a five-year deal with the Yankees worth $2.9 million.

When considering the prospect of Jackson remaining in Baltimore, one can feel faint tremors in baseball’s historical continuum. Reggie Jackson going to the Yankees was not simply the most significant free agent signing of its time, it remains the most significant of the entire free agency era. It was important to the success of free agency, a risk/reward proposition unlike any the game had seen, that a player demonstrate in its nascency the full potential for reward. Hunter and Andy Messersmith, two early free agents, had not.

Jackson would be different. His five seasons in New York would bring three pennants, two world titles, and (excluding the shortened 1981 season) yearly averages of 30 home runs and 102 RBIs. Any lingering doubts as to his worth were erased during the 1977 World Series. After a first pitch strike from Don Sutton in Jackson’s final at-bat of Game Five, he would see eight more pitches in the Series. Four would be taken for balls and the other four—off four different Dodgers’ pitchers—would be hit for home runs.

The footage of the final three home runs, all of which came on the first pitch of Jackson’s final three at-bats of Game Six, conveys an eerie sense of nonchalance, as though hitting a baseball 400 feet isn’t hard. Despite already possessing three championship rings and a World Series MVP award, this was the night Jackson officially became “Mr. October.” After that night, any image of Reggie Jackson in a uniform without pinstripes became either preliminary to that moment, or mere postscript.

Jackson’s October performances came on the brink of an era in which cable television effectively nationalized the coverage of sports and helped increase its cultural significance exponentially. One consequence is that the importance of winning championships has increased dramatically. No longer is athletic greatness measured based primarily on individual statistics. Jackson’s Game Six performance was a seminal event, a stunningly sublime moment that contributed to the collective template for how we have come to judge performance under pressure. Any athlete who fails to handle his time in the crucible is found wanting and is labeled, often unfairly, as a “choker” or a “failure.”

Compounding matters for subsequent generations of athletes was how Jackson did it. In the age of ESPN, sports have crossed over into entertainment. Like Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath, two of the other forerunners who helped forge the marriage between sports, entertainment and popular culture, Jackson was unafraid to publicly crave the grandest stages and then deliver on them.

Most immortals who have that season or two in the unfamiliar uniform (Babe Ruth as a Brave, Hank Aaron as a Brewer, Willie Mays as a Met, etc.) have it at the end of their careers as shadows of their former selves. So it’s easy to look away, to forget it happened. Jackson’s season in the strange uniform occurred when he was at the height of his powers. That fact makes it less easy to ignore.

Any assessment of Jackson’s career has to consider, at least statistically, his time in Baltimore. There is, inevitably, a mercenary quality to the season, a feeling that Jackson never wanted to be in Baltimore and, depending on whom you believe, had no intention of staying. His accomplishments that season, not insignificant in and of themselves, seem less consequential than they otherwise might.

It’s a feeling that would have been mitigated had the Orioles reached the postseason. For a player for whom October baseball took on a special meaning, it stands out as the only season between 1971 and 1978 when his teams did not make the playoffs. It’s also the only season between 1969 and 1983 when neither Jackson nor the Orioles were playing in the postseason.

Each party was ultimately better off without the other. Jackson’s legacy changes dramatically, and most certainly for the worse, if he doesn’t go to New York. Following Jackson’s less-than-flattering comments to the Cleveland reporters, Indians’ president Ted Bonda responded in kind. “I think he’s grossly overpaid,” said Bonda. “He’s no superstar. I don’t consider a .260 hitter a superstar.”

When Jackson surpassed 550 career home runs in 1987, the players he joined in that group were Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Frank Robinson and Harmon Killebrew. In terms of his statistical legacy, he was considerably closer to Killebrew than to the other four. He ended his career with a mediocre batting average, nearly 2,600 strikeouts (not merely the record, but 650 more than the player then in second place, Willie Stargell) and a reputation as a marginal fielder.

But assuming Weaver is correct, how many at-bats did Jackson give away in meaningless situations? If this can’t be quantified, we do know how he performed in the most meaningful situations, hitting .357 in 27 World Series’ games. In the three World Series he played in as a Yankee he hit .400 with 8 home runs and 17 RBIs (he also had a 12-game hitting streak over those Series). If his 563 home runs and 1,700 RBIs would have ensured a spot in the Hall of Fame, his other numbers would have presumably required that, like Killebrew, he wait a few years after becoming eligible. The October performances, particularly those as a Yankee, made him an overwhelming (94 percent of the vote) first ballot inductee.

As for the Orioles, in 1977 they would finish only 2.5 games behind the Yankees. Maybe Jackson’s presence would have shifted the balance. The team remained competitive, however, never winning fewer than 90 games in any full season between 1977 and 1983. It did this without the benefit of high-priced free agents, adhering to the practice of building teams through trades, draft picks and its farm system.

It’s easy to say that it’s more honorable to build a championship team than buy one. Yet it’s arguably the right way, and it was certainly the “Oriole way.” The Orioles would win the pennant in 1979 and add a third world title in 1983. Although it’s surprising that the team apparently offered Jackson as much as $500,000 per season, it was an action that proved anomalous and ultimately fruitless.

There is a story, recounted by Weaver, of Jackson stealing second base of his own volition. “He got up with a big smile on his face like he had done something wonderful,” said Weaver. “The next hitter was Lee May. Naturally they walked him. Reggie had taken the bat out of Lee May’s hands. I jumped him for that one.” It’s a puzzling story as it’s unclear why a team would walk May with the number five hitter (usually the dangerous Singleton) due up.

According to Baseball-Reference, there were 24 occasions in 1976 where the opposing team, following a Jackson steal of second, did not walk May. Odder still is that the site has no record of May having ever been walked after a Jackson steal of second. Did it ever happen? It’s a question one is tempted to ask about Jackson playing for the Orioles. We know that he did, of course. We’re just not sure whether, when discussing the historical import of both Reggie Jackson and the Earl Weaver Orioles, it adds anything to either story.

References & Resources
Chass, Murray,“Jackson Homer Beats Orioles,” The New York Times, September 28, 1981.
Durocher, Leo, Nice Guys Finish Last, (University of Chicago Press, 2009), 299.
Allen, Maury, Mr. October: The Reggie Jackson Story, (Times Books), 167.
Hatter, Lou, “Jeers giving Jackson an urge to travel,” The Baltimore Sun, June 6, 1976.
Boswell, Thomas, “Mr. October,” The Complete Armchair Book of Baseball, Ed. John Thorn (Galahad Books, 1997), 87.
Hatter, Lou,“Jackson ties his Bird signing to decisions of three others,” , August 12, 1976.
Nigro, Ken, “Yanks due Jackson’s signature,” The Baltimore Sun, November 29, 1976.
Nigro, Ken, “Yankees appear assured of landing Jackson,” The Baltimore Sun, November 26, 1976.
“Jackson called no asset,” The Baltimore Sun, August 6, 1976.

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Comments

  1. Jim G. said...

    I found it interesting the three immortals you referred to. In each case they were returning “home”, purposefully or not. And, in fact, Reggie finished his career with forgettable time on the A’s again. It would have been more in line with the others if he would have played for San Francisco.

    Very good article, though. I was fully conscious of Reggie season in Baltimore and often wondered about the circumstances of his time there.
    Another guy connected to Reggie who had a one year stay in his prime that people often forget about is Goose Gossage as a Pirate.

  2. dan said...

    I believe Reggie Jackson was the first notable steriod user and that Jose Cansenco (who was taken under Reggie’s wing in the early A’s days and in the gym + introduced him to the steriod provider in that gym) has stated in the past that a HOF player has used them totally pointing the arrow in Jackson’s direction.  I wish someone would research this…..

  3. D Leaberry said...

    Reggie Jackson was in and out of Baltimore so quickly that the exquisite taste of crab cakes, crab soup and steamed crabs are sadly lost on him.

  4. Jim C said...

    Well-written and researched. I’ve always despised Reggie, and if he was a steroid user I would not be the least bit surprised. He holds one record, career strikeouts, though with the way every hitter swings for the fences these days, regardless of count or game situation, he probably won’t have it much longer. As a player he was a selfish, me-first the team second stat-padding asshole, with a glove that clanged regularly, and who never met a cutoff man he couldn’t overthrow. Along with Phil Rizzuto, he is the least-deserving player in the Hall.

  5. Paul E said...

    Well written article. Somehow, Jackson and Baltimore just don’t seem much of a fit. But, is B’more any different than a town like Oakland?

    So, who is the guy who hit homers off the most Hall of Famers in a single season?

    Wasn’t much of a Reggie Jackson fan simply because he never met a microphone he didn’t like. Come on, dude – just pretend to be humble… Was not Jackson the guy who first gave us the jive, self-important athlete who spoke of himself in the third person?

    The press loved him because he always had something to say, and for as jive an act as he had, they sure gave him mulligans at every opportunity whenever he stuck his foot in his mouth.

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