Reggie's ego was only thing bigger than home-run swing

John Steadman

January 06, 1993|By John Steadman

Now that Reginald Martinez Jackson has moved into th Baseball Hall of Fame, it's going to be necessary to stretch the building or pass an appropriation to construct an entire new wing. It's not that his statistics won't fit on a plaque. It has to do with ego.

Jackson, when he was swinging for home runs and was an early legend in his own mind, once made it known he wanted a candy bar created in his honor. Reggie was chasing Babe Ruth's ghost as a player and personality but fell considerably short. He felt compelled to go public with the proposal that a candy bar be named after himself.

On the candy bar matter, he was grossly inaccurate. He presumed his own ability merited recognition. He believed the thought of the Baby Ruth candy bar had been conceived and marketed for the greatest player in the history of the game and wanted similar attention.

The only trouble: The Baby Ruth candy bar wasn't named after Babe Ruth by the Curtiss Candy Co., but was, instead, an honor reserved for a daughter of President Grover Cleveland, the first baby born to parents while they were in the White House. Her name was Ruth, thus the Baby Ruth candy bar. Reggie was dealing with an erroneous contention, but that made no difference to him.

More importantly, Jackson sold the self-serving proposal, and it came to pass the Reggie Bar was placed on the market. We bought it regularly for as long as it lasted. It had a distinctive taste and, possibly, could have made its mark. The only trouble was not enough other customers were in accord and the Reggie Bar went the way of Hadacol and other well-publicized products that made an early impact and then fizzled.

In voting for the Hall of Fame, Jackson got an overwhelming number of votes, 396 of the 423 cast, from the membership of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Those 563 homers in 21 seasons provided an almost-guaranteed electoral ticket. His career batting average, for an outfielder, was a mere .262, and he established the all-time high for lifetime strikeouts, an enormous 2,597.

As for the World Series, he was a show-stopper. He slugged 10 home runs in Series competition and played in six of them for the New York Yankees and Oakland A's, providing much of the impetus for five world championships. And, when on the Series stage, he had a penchant for handling as much pressure as the situation and opposing pitchers wanted to put on him.

When he hit three home runs in as many swings of the bat in the sixth game of the 1977 World Series, tying Ruth, it assured his eventual entry into the Hall of Fame. That was a majestic showing. It's our rationale -- but others didn't agree -- that his subsequent overall career, not just the World Series, needed to be measured in being appraised for the Hall of Fame.

For that reason, we had a reluctance to vote for Jackson. Our 10 player selections, instead, went to Dick Allen, Bobby Bonds, Ken Boyer, Orlando Cepeda, Jim Kaat, Minnie Minoso, Phil Niekro, Tony Oliva, Ron Santo and -- on a write-in basis -- the name of Pete Rose, who isn't eligible, but still received 14 votes that were thrown out.

Jackson got his start in Baltimore, not with the Orioles, but the Leone's amateur team coached by Walter Youse, in 1965. His mother worked for the government and lived in Baltimore after moving here from Wyncote, Pa. During his summer vacation from Arizona State, he decided to visit here rather than play in a highly regarded Alaskan semi-pro league.

Oddly enough, the Leone's team of that year might have been the best in a long line of championship clubs to represent Baltimore. However, it was eliminated in two straight games in the national tournament held in Johnstown, Pa. Jackson was the first or second fastest player on the roster, running to first base in 3.8 seconds, and produced, by far, the most batting power.

His ego, even then, was immense. He had to be the whole show and, eventually, in the World Series, he came close to attaining such a role. He modestly referred to the "magnitude of me" and also, with characteristic humility, said he was the "straw that stirred the drink." That sounds like put-on puffery, but Jackson never corrected the impression that he believed it.

There also was a side to Reggie that was arrogant and even crude. One time, upon introduction, he extended his left hand to a man who admired him, which meant he was as adept at offering insults as he was at hitting home runs.

Still, his ability to handle pressure in important games set him apart. For that reason, he gains a coveted Hall of Fame endorsement in his first year of eligibility, something such illustrious contributors as Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg and Roy Campanella never achieved.

The Baseball Hall of Fame, thus, makes way for Jackson, who had extraordinary power, a good throwing arm, fair fielding ability, a degree of showmanship and a propensity for striking out that was embarrassing. Yet the electorate set it aside and provided a ringing endorsement.

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