Summer in the Baltimore sandlots signaled Jackson's arrival to baseball


August 01, 1993|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

COOPERSTOWN, NEW YORK — Cooperstown, N.Y. -- He came into prominence with the Oakland Athletics, and he will go into the Hall of Fame representing the New York Yankees. But it was in Baltimore that Reggie Jackson first attracted national attention.

And it wasn't when he left the Orioles to become the marquee player in baseball's first free-agent pool in 1976. Jackson, who hit 47 home runs in his second full season in the big leagues, had established himself as a dominating performer long before that controversial, but productive, season.

It was more than a decade before that Jackson began to make his mark during an explosive summer on the sandlots of Baltimore. He wasn't yet eliciting the familiar chant, "Reg-gie! Reg-gie!", but those who saw him quickly took notice.

The year was 1965. Jackson was better known as a former high school All-America halfback who went to Arizona State on a football scholarship. Division I freshmen were not permitted to participate in varsity sports, so Jackson's football and baseball talents had not yet been fully exposed.

When he decided to concentrate on baseball during the summer between his first and second year of college, Arizona State coach Bobby Winkles (who would later manage the California Angels) provided Jackson with a contact. Walter Youse, then a scout for the Orioles who still works for the Milwaukee Brewers, ++ was running a nationally acclaimed amateur team.

Leone's Boys Club was perennially one of the top teams in the country. The fit proved to be a natural for Jackson, a 19-year-old Philadelphia native whose mother lived in Baltimore.

The summer baseball crash course began with a phone call, a workout -- and some apprehension. Youse's team was sponsored by the late Dominic Leone, a South Baltimore restaurateur and city councilman. Although segregation had been outlawed more than a decade before, acceptance was slow on sandlot baseball fields.

Jackson became the first black to play for Leone's -- but not before a workout that was, in some ways, as humorous as it was awesome.

"I don't think Walter knew I was black from talking to me on the phone," Jackson said last week while preparing for his induction into the baseball Hall of Fame here this afternoon.

The workout was held at Swan Park, site of a solitary baseball field just west of Hanover Street -- and Youse remembers it as though it were yesterday.

"He showed great power, speed and arm strength," Youse said. "He could run 100 yards in 9.6 seconds. He was raw, but you could see he had the ability to make it big."

Reggie put on a show that day, leading to a comment that has become almost legendary around Baltimore sandlot circles. Everybody there, including Reggie, heard what was accepted as a joking remark at the time: "Every time he [Jackson] swung the bat, he got whiter and whiter."

"I was raw"

Jackson also remembers the workout that took place more than 28 years ago.

"I don't know that they wanted me to make the team," he said. "They had me run against their fastest player, and he couldn't beat me.

"I was running 6.2 and 6.3 in the 60 [yard --] -- wearing football shoes. I didn't have any baseball spikes. Then they had me throw from the outfield -- and I had a rocket arm in those days.

"But I really hadn't had any good coaching. I could play, but I was


Bernie Smith, who played the outfield, first base and pitched, was a teammate of Jackson's on that 1965 Leone's team.

"He was the same then as he is now -- he had a big ego," Smith said with a laugh. "I can still remember one game when we had a big lead and the guy pitching against us was throwing knuckleballs.

"He struck Reggie out and when he came back to the bench he told Youse: 'Walter, get me out of there. This guy's not good enough for me.'

"But what I remember most about Reggie was his power. The first time I saw him was that day at Swan Park. It didn't take long to see it."

Even then, Jackson was noted for his power.

"Reggie never really was a good hitter -- he'll die not being a good hitter," Youse said. "He had trouble with the same pitch then that he had trouble with in the big leagues -- the fastball up around the letters always gave him trouble. But he had unbelievable power."

Despite that one blind spot, Youse recalled what he said to Jesse Gore, an assistant coach, in 1965. "He had the greatest tools of any player I had ever seen," said Youse, who counts another Hall of Famer, Al Kaline, among the many players he has sent into professional baseball.

Twists of fate

The summer Jackson played for Leone's was right after baseball's first amateur free-agent draft. Had it been a year earlier, considering Youse's connection with the club, Jackson most likely would have started his career with the Orioles, instead of just passing through for one season.

"I took him out to Memorial Stadium to work out," Youse said, "and he hit balls to the top of the stands in right field. Hank Bauer [then the Orioles' manager and later one of Jackson's managers in Oakland] went wild."

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