Reggie's Hall speech, like career, fell short

Phil Jackman

August 09, 1993|By Phil Jackman

All the reviews are in concerning Reggie Jackson's performance in Cooperstown at his Hall of Fame induction last week, and perhaps the strangest is one author's conclusion that the man's 27-minute acceptance speech was "inspired."

Come on.

Reggie leaned on every bromide, hackneyed expression and cliche while using all the tricks of the public-speaking trade by being alternately humble, introspective, concerned, humorous, falsely modest, rambling and ever the team player while giving the impression his message was strictly off the cuff and from the heart.

Fact is, the man has been Reggie Jackson too long to deliver any other kind of message. In other words, it was vintage Reggie at his political best, and certainly worth the effort of the candy bar company to reintroduce the famed "Reggie" bar combination of chocolate, chewy nougat and peanuts (ain't they all?).

Reggie belongs in the Hall of Fame, no doubt about it. He has some great numbers: 563 home runs, sixth on the all-time list; 1,702 RBI, 2,584 hits and some splendid efforts in World Series play.

After watching him over the course of two decades, however, there will always be a lingering feeling that he simply scratched the surface of his talent. It was noted that throughout his remarks, Reggie constantly mentioned Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson, players of that ilk, strongly hinting (campaigning?) he belonged on that plateau. Not likely. If he had kept progressing from the way he performed as a young player, maybe.

First in Kansas City, then Oakland as one of Charlie Finley's A's, Jackson ran like a sprinter, was an above-average outfielder and had an arm mindful of a 105mm howitzer. He stole bases. He hit the ball out of sight. He was a young Mickey Mantle.

All the while, though, he seemed to put much more time into being outspoken, flashy and controversial than into acquiring the art of making bat contact, and his overall skills eroded. He regarded defense as a annoyance between trips to the dish.

Here's an example of what Reggie might have been on the ball field. While being credited with 2,584 hits, he piled up the astounding total of 2,597 strikeouts. Mantle points out that during his career he fanned 1,710 times, "meaning for about 3 1/2 seasons I didn't even touch the ball." Jackson's total represents a little more than five full seasons.

Just for argument's sake, say he worked at it and ended his career with strikeout totals carried by men such as Joe DiMaggio (369) and Ted Williams (709). Or even Aaron, who in 12,364 at-bats fanned just 1,383 times. Cutting Jackson's strikeouts in half, we see that not only would his batting average have leaped ahead and not been the lowest by an outfielder in the Hall, .262, he would have had many more RBI and perhaps even threatened the 700-home run level.

Think of all that picture-opportunity time Reggie would have had "Cadillac-ing" around the bases, which ran in excess of a month and a half as it was. That would have been nice, but it wouldn't have been Reggie, he of the massive swing and miss, the dramatic stroll back to the bench, the everything I do is bigger than life demeanor.

More than any other player in or likely ever to be added to Cooperstown, Jackson was programmed to be much more than a guy putting on a uniform each day for the purpose of playing a game. Relegated to the time when diamond deeds didn't achieve the status of national importance each day, Reggie probably wouldn't have even played. Maybe something in the entertainment field would have suited him.

A good ballplayer, yes, he came alive afterward when he didn't have to share the spotlight with his supporting cast and he could expound on everything, including cabbages and kings. One of his threats to baseball beat writers used to be: "Better watch it, buddy, you'll be coming to me for quotes all season."

He was right. He was always the most quotable guy around, even when he had absolutely nothing to say. As a listener, it was understood that you realized Reggie was reading from a script most of the time and most things were to be taken in fun.

For instance, knocked out of the 1972 Series because of a leg injury, Jackson stood in the A's clubhouse daily on crutches, before and after games. Ask him why and, in all seriousness, he would reply, "I'm here to inspire the guys." He would then look away and bust out laughing.

Reggie never took himself too seriously and, it is assumed, he really didn't want anyone else to, either. His remarks together with endless battles with Finley, George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin, his Cooperstown "address," the candy bar, they were all part of the act. Baseball was his stage and sometimes it was hard to take, but the game benefited.

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