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He Should Be Right at Home With Best

August 01, 1993|JIM MURRAY

It was about 10 years ago. I was lying in a hospital room at Valley Presbyterian. I had been operated on that afternoon and I had bandages over both eyes. I was depressed. I had left strict orders there were to be no phone calls put through.

The phone rang. I groped for it, banged it against the bed, managed to get it up to my ear. I was annoyed.

It was Reggie Jackson. Reggie doesn't deal with the word no. He had charmed, bullied, cajoled his way through the switchboard. "He'll want to talk to me. I'll buck him up," he had promised the nurse.

He did. He didn't promise to hit a home run for me or bake a cake, but I remember he made me smile. That wasn't easy that night.

That was Reggie. Rules are not made for Reggie. They're for other guys.

When I first knew Reggie Jackson, he was on the Oakland A's and he had hit 45 home runs by the middle of August.

He had star written all over him. He had the most exciting at-bats in the history of baseball. He didn't swing at a pitch, he pounced on it like a leopard coming out of a tree.

He finished his swing like a pretzel. His left leg was in a kneeling position on the ground, his right leg looked like a corkscrew. He went around like a window shade going up.

You half expected to hear him flapping.

He looked better striking out than most guys do hitting a triple.

You have never seen relieved looks like those that pitchers got when they got the ball past him. They looked as if they had escaped a haunted house. Or won a lottery.

When he hit the ball over the fence--which he did more than 550 times in his career--he went into this leaning chug around the bases, the top half of his body stuck out beyond the lower half. He had a home run trot the ages could envy. Of course, he had a lot of practice at it.

Reggie was all show business. He had the flair for self-dramatization all the great ones have--part Babe, part Barnum. He was a dominant presence wherever he went.

I remember once after an Oakland World Series in which he had bopped the Dodgers, he sent down a crushed beer can to me in the press room. A colleague looked at it. "What'd he do--sit on it?" he asked. The messenger shook his head. "I think he crushed it between his thumb and forefinger," he said.

I still have that can. I loved Reggie for another reason: He wore glasses. But, it was a funny thing. On Reggie, you never really noticed. Energy just poured out of him. He was rarely still. I think he played cards standing up.

His finest hour, to be sure, was the World Series of 1977. He put on a home run display that would have popped the eyes of Babe Ruth himself. I remember he had hit two home runs in Game 6 and I had gone down in the bowels of Yankee Stadium to write my story when a shadow appeared in the doorway.

It was a colleague, Rick Talley: "The son of a blank just hit another one!" he said, laughing.

We scoured the record books. "That's four in a row!" I exclaimed. "He hit a home run the last time up Sunday!"

It was inevitable that Reggie had to take the act to New York, of course. There was no way Reggie would round out his career in the relative obscurity of Oakland. Reggie was as right for Broadway as Lunt and Fontanne.

"They'll name a candy bar after me," he predicted when he signed. Reggie had no false modesty. Or any other kind.

The fur flew wherever Reggie went. But so did the pennants.

A lot of people were upset that Reggie carried a .262 batting average into the Hall of Fame. But of the last half dozen or more hitters inducted, only Rod Carew carried a batting average higher than .300. Rabbit Maranville got in with a .258 average. Luis Aparicio had .262.

You didn't measure Reggie Jackson by number of hits--although there were 2,584 of them--but by length. Almost half of them, 1,075, were for extra bases. He drove in 1,702 runs.

But you measured him by the soundest yardstick of all--championships. Teams Reggie Jackson played for got in an incredible 11 league championship playoffs, five with the Oakland A's, four with the Yankees, and two of the three the Angels have been in. Reggie made pitchers sweat--and pulled his team along with him. He got into five World Series.

He richly deserved his sobriquet, "Mr. October." Reggie hit 10 World Series home runs and drove in 24 runs and batted .357. Only Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Yogi Berra and Duke Snider had more Series homers.

Even when he failed, it was high drama. One of the most dramatic confrontations I have ever seen in a World Series was Game 2 of the 1978 classic when, with his team down, 4-3, two out, and men on first and second, Jackson faced rookie fastballer Bob Welch in the ninth inning.

It was David and Goliath stuff. The Boy of Summer vs. Mr. October. The count went to 3-and-2. Reggie fouled off two pitches with a swing you could have tested airplanes in. Then, he struck out.

As the cliche goes, it was what the grand old game is all about. Casey at the Bat revisited. Historians were ecstatic.

Reggie never did anything quietly in his life anyway. You always knew when Reggie came into a room. It was either Reggie or the circus.

He goes into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown today. They build institutions like that for guys like Reggie. It'll be a livelier place with Reggie around. Trust me.

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