Our athletic heroes are often said to be “larger than life,” but few fit that description more accurately than Reggie Jackson. A big-swinging star of five World Series-championship teams, Jackson delivered outlandish boasts, drove flashy cars, fought with teammates and, most importantly, smashed massive home runs when the cameras were rolling. Love him or hate him, he was indeed the straw that stirred the drink in the sporting conversation of his time.
Jackson is no longer as physically imposing, but his presence still looms large over the sport he dominated for two decades. In honor of his 70th birthday, here are seven facts about the man behind the baseball legend:
Clothes Make the Man
Jackson was seemingly destined for athletic glory from an early age, but had he failed in that endeavor, he had a decent fallback option. His dad, Martinez, operated a dry cleaning and tailoring shop out of their home in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, and young Reggie often helped out after classes and practices. Even after achieving the pinnacle of fame in baseball, he wrote, "To this day, if I had to put a pocket on a pair of slacks, or put cuffs on them, I could do it. And make a pretty good living at it.” Fortunately, he wasn’t asked to assist with his dad's liquor bootlegging business, for which the elder Jackson was arrested while his son was a high school senior.
With his strength and speed, it should come as no surprise that Jackson was an outstanding youth football player. An all-league halfback at Cheltenham High School, he fielded dozens of scholarship offers before becoming a starting defensive back at Arizona State; Reggie himself claims it was his best sport at the time. But he loved hitting long home runs as much as he despised grueling sprints, and the combination prompted him to request a tryout with the Arizona State baseball team. Jackson then wowed with a couple of those long home runs in batting practice, permanently setting him on a career path that involved somewhat less running.
Nothing but Air
Along with his ability to crush a baseball, Jackson is perhaps only slightly less known for the frequency with which he swung and missed. In a bizarre sense, he helped make the strikeout fashionable. Before 1960, only three players had struck out as many as 120 times in a season more than once; Reggie joined their ranks shortly after his big league career began in 1967, and by the time he was finished two decades later, he had racked up 120 strikeouts in a season 13 times. He remains the sport's all-time whiff king, with 2,597, as well as its only player with more than 2,500 hits and strikeouts.
What’s in a Name?
Jackson's famous nickname was hardly complimentary when first uttered. It came from Yankees catcher and captain Thurman Munson, who notoriously clashed with his new teammate after Jackson came to New York in 1977. Following Game 2 of that year's World Series, after Jackson questioned manager Billy Martin's decision making, Munson sarcastically quipped, “Billy probably just doesn’t realize Reggie is Mr. October.” Of course, after Jackson ripped three home runs in his legendary Game 6 performance, the press seized hold of the material, spinning a derogatory moniker into gold for its subject.
Jackson was the second baseball player to have a candy bar named after him. The first was early 20th century star Ty Cobb. The Baby Ruth? It was officially named after the daughter of former president Grover Cleveland, although it coincidently appeared as the Bambino was achieving widespread fame in 1921. Anyway, the Reggie! bar made its introduction as a free giveaway for the Yankees' 1978 home opener, and received a PR boost when fans littered the field with them following a Jackson homer. However, the Reggie! followed the path of other ill-fated novelty bars and was discontinued by 1980, although it resurfaced briefly after its namesake was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993.
A man who loved the spotlight, Reggie unsurprisingly dabbled in acting both during and after his baseball career. Of course, he wasn't exactly challenged to stretch the limits of his capabilities. He appeared as himself in episodes of Archie Bunker's Place, Mr. Belvedere and MacGyver, as well as the feature films BASEketball, Summer of Sam and The Benchwarmers. Additionally, he was credited as the "Angel Right Fielder" in The Naked Gun ("I must kill. . .the Queen!") and the "Baseball Coach" in Ri¢hie Ri¢h. But there is one case in which he inhabited a totally new character: An episode of Diff'rent Strokes in which he played "Larry," a guy at the YMCA targeted by Willis to be his surrogate dad for a father-son athletic competition. Bring on that Emmy.
Speaking of the small screen, Jackson was among the featured characters of ESPN's 2007 miniseries The Bronx is Burning. Based on a book by Jonathan Mahler, which weaves the narrative of the Yankees' tumultuous 1977 season into the larger socioeconomic problems plaguing New York City, the show starred Daniel Sunjata as the proud, sensitive and divisive slugger. But Jackson chafed at the way he was portrayed as a villain; he maintained that he was misquoted in an infamous interview with Sport magazine, which featured prominently in the first episode, and that the bigoted Martin was really the divisive figure in the clubhouse. His beef prompted him to write a memoir, Becoming Mr. October (2013), in which he sought to set the record straight.