Jackson is still at home in New York spotlight

January 07, 1993|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- There was something very appropriate about the news conference that introduced the newest member of the Baseball Hall of Fame yesterday.

Few athletes ever sought or accepted the spotlight as eagerly or enthusiastically as Reggie Jackson, so it was only fitting that he have the glare all to himself. There was nobody else to share the stage, which was also the case during much of his always eventful 21-year career.

As the 29th player to be elected in his first year of eligibility, Jackson was the only one to survive the scrutiny of the 423 members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America who voted in this year's election. And, as was usually the case when he was playing, Jackson did it with style.

His 396 votes gave him the 10th-highest percentage of all time, easily surpassing the 318 (75 percent) necessary from the panel of 10-year members of the BBWAA. Still, he said that even though he felt his 563 home runs (sixth on the all-time list) would provide a ticket to Cooperstown, N.Y., he was apprehensive, even unsure, about being elected in his first year.

"I think the nicest thing about this is that I'm a fan," said Jackson. "I think I'm enjoying it as much from that angle as I am as a [former] player going in.

"I think it's neat. . . wonderful. . . great. . . it's a good feeling," said Jackson. "But the closer it [the announcement] got, the less I talked about it. You tell the little white lie and say you stop thinking about it.

"I think it's natural to be concerned. I was afraid, scared that I might not make it. I was wondering: 'What do I do? Where do I go? Do I hide? What do I say?' All of those things went through my mind."

Jackson was asked, given his nature, not to mention the 563 home runs, why he had any doubts. "I was just being a normal human being," he said.

If being alone in the spotlight was appropriate for Jackson on this day, then it was also only fitting that New York was his stage.

Jackson, who played for four teams in five cities, spent most of his career (nine years) with the Athletics. But when it came time to decide which team he would represent in the Hall of Fame, Jackson's decision to go with the Yankees was similar to one made 11 years earlier by Frank Robinson, who spent most of his playing career with the Cincinnati Reds, but chose to have an Orioles cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.

"It was tough," Jackson said. "I spent eight years with the A's, then spent my last season [1987] with them. And I lived in Oakland for a long time.

"But I think I'm best known for what I did in New York, so I'm going in as a Yankee," said Jackson, who played for them from 1977 to '81. The fact that the A's, for whom he has worked in minor capacities the past five years, curiously severed the ties this past winter undoubtedly figured prominently in his decision.

Jackson will be recognized as a Yankee in the Hall of Fame even though he acknowledges he had both the best and worst of times in the Big Apple.

He and owner George Steinbrenner, who flew in from Tampa, Fla., to attend the news conference, were constant sparring partners. Jackson was never on the same page with his manager, usually Billy Martin. And he didn't endear himself to Thurman Munson, the team captain and acknowledged leader, with his self-assessment of being "the straw that stirs the drink."

"It's true that I had my greatest success and biggest disappointments in New York," Jackson said. "I wanted to stay, and I hated to leave [after the 1981 season]. I think if I had stayed, I could've put them over the hump, but it didn't work out."

Jackson is satisfied that he and Munson were able to work out their differences and develop a feeling of mutual respect before the catcher was killed flying his own plane in 1979. But his relationship with Martin, who died Christmas night in 1989, was tenuous from the start and deteriorated rapidly to the point where it was irreversible.

"I always felt that Billy Martin and I should have gotten along great," said Jackson. "We should have been good friends. We came from similar backgrounds. It's one of the big regrets I have."

The highlight of Jackson's career came in 1977, his first year with the Yankees, when he hit three home runs in the sixth game of the World Series against the Dodgers. He had also homered in his last at-bat of Game 5 -- and the four home runs came on four consecutive swings (interrupted by a walk in his first at-bat in Game 6).

That series spawned the nickname "Mr. October" that Jackson relishes. His Hall of Fame resume includes seven World Series records, six of which he set in 1977.

Jackson credits his father, Martinez, who is 88 years old and came from Philadelphia yesterday, for instilling the mental toughness that many felt separated him from other superstars of his era.

"The bottom line with him was to get the job done," said Jackson. "To be able to share this with him is something special.

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