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Reggie Jackson's Summer of '69

If you never saw Reggie Jackson at the bat, in his prime, I'm sorry.  He was truly the first of his kind.  Oh sure, others such as Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle inspired awe with their overall charisma and prodigious blasts, but those guys had more than merely years as a head-start on Jackson.  They also happened to make their living in New York, and they were both white.

The Major League career of Reginald Martinez Jackson started in 1967, just 20 years after Jackie Robinson broke through the color barrier.  But unlike Robinson, who had no choice to let his play do the talking for him, and Henry Aaron, who simply preferred it that way, Jackson spoke as often and as loud with his mouth, as he did with the lumber, which was, well, often and loud.  Along the way he crushed the stereotype that suggested a jock- especially a black one- was all brawn, no brain.  Articulate and intelligent, Reggie selected his words carefully, in the same manner he would wait for his pitch at the plate.

Home plate was his sanctuary.  He once said he preferred hitting over sex (well, who doesn't? Oh.)  When the muscular Jackson grabbed a bat, time came to a halt, or as he put it, “Everyone is helpless and in awe.” That included Reggie.  He was the first to stop and admire the distance of his majestic homeruns (or taters, as he called them), long before the likes of Barry and Manny.  He even looked cool striking out, which he did with alarming regularity.

Reggie often bragged if he played in New York they'd name a candy bar after him (he was right).  But his story didn't start there; it began instead in Kansas City.  And it blossomed in Oakland.  (Jackson also said, upon signing with the Yankees in 1977: "I didn't come to New York to be a star.  I am bringing my star with me." He was right about that, too).  It was Reggie Jackson who put baseball in Oakland on the map, even if it took the natives a while to catch on.

Before the 1969 season got underway, the Athletics were just a team in outlandish uniforms on the wrong side of the tracks. Across the bay, fans flocked to see the San Francisco Giants, who had moved to the Area ten years before the A's.  With a Juan (Marichal) and two Willie's (Mays and McCovey), the Giants were the toast of the town; the Athletics were playing in their third city since 1953, and four decades removed from their glory years in Philadelphia.

In one breathtaking half-season, Reggie Jackson single-handedly changed that.

Reggie SI cover

Reggie was the first Oakland "A" to grace the cover of SI.
(photo courtesy of SI Vault)

The season began innocently enough with Reggie going deep twice in his first 13 games.  He was only in the lineup for two at-bats on April 24, but he made the most of them by hitting homeruns in both trips.  The next night in Seattle he duplicated his two-tater feat, going 3-for-4 with four runs scored, and four RBI's in a 14-2 rout. 

Leading off the ninth, Reggie was plunked by a pitch.  That would happen a dozen times in 1969, one shy of the league lead (Frank Robinson).  Teammate Sal Bando, who had a pretty decent year himself (.281/.400/.484, 31 HR's, 111 walks), was hit by a pitch on 11 occasions, making he and Jackson the most targeted tandem in the junior circuit.

After a 6-pack worth of homeruns in April, the 23-year old continued his assault on American League pitching with nine round-trippers in May, including three more 2-homer games, one of which took place at Yankee Stadium, where two of baseball's most notable long balls were hit (Ruth's 60th and Roger Maris' 61st).

By the time June came to a close, you couldn't speak of Reggie Jackson without mentioning those Yankee legends.  That's because the slugger terrorized the league to the tune of 14 homeruns, leaving him with a total of 29 at month's end.  It wasn't just the balls leaving the park, either; Jackson hit .365 in June, and slugged .875.  He scored 28 runs, and drove home 37 more.  Of course, he struck out 23 times, too.

Reg

On June 11, Reggie homered in the first inning in Washington, who was managed by another Number 9, Ted Williams.  Leading off a tie game in the 13th, Jackson connected again.  Later he received some kind words from Teddy Ballgame: "I wasn't sure the first time I saw him. The second time I was amazed. He is the most natural hitter I have ever seen."  Depending on who you ask, that may have been only the second biggest compliment Reggie received.  For in attendance that night was President Richard Nixon (with daughter Julie, and her husband David), who later sent a congratulatory note to Oakland's chief player, noting that both times his daughter had seen Jackson play in person, he hit two homeruns.

Yes, Reggie Jackson was gaining some distinguished followers, even if those back home were slow to appreciate him (attendance was down from the previous season, the Athletics' first in Oakland).  Which saddened the young star, who said, "Crowds do something for me."

Indeed, they did something for him at Fenway Park, where the A's outscored the Sox 38-13 in a three-game sweep.  Jackson went for 9-for-13 with four homeruns and 15 runs driven in.  In his last 10 at-bats of the weekend, he collected 8 hits: three long balls, a triple, and two doubles.  He was particularly spectacular in the middle contest (won by the A's, 21-7), where he hit safely five times in six trips to the plate, homered twice, and had 10 RBI's.

Even Reggie's boss couldn't resist showing up to the ball park to witness his star player, and on July 2, Jackson treated Charlie Finley to a trio of taters.  Said Finley later, "I never saw anyone hit three homeruns in a game before."  Replied Jackson, "You ought to come out more often."

As Reggie went, so went the A's, and on July 4 they were all alone in first place, even after a 10-4 loss to Minnesota.  Alas, that was their last day atop the division, as the eventual champion Twins went on to sweep a three-game series.

On the same day man landed on the moon for the first time, Reggie Jackson hit a moon shot in Anaheim.  It was his 37th homerun of the season, at the time the most ever for a player in the season's first half, and earned him his first All-Star invite, as well as more Ruth Maris talk.

Jax

The pressure became too much for Jackson, who homered only ten more times in 1969.  Minnesota's Harmon Killebrew eventually passed him for the league crown, and his Twins beat out the A's by nine games in the American League West.  Reggie had warned that "the Babe will nip you in September", and he was right.

Still, very few players in Oakland A's history have had a season like the one put up by Jackson in 1969.  Though he slumped mightily in the last two months, he still managed to hit .275, with an OBP of .410.  His 47 homeruns remained the most in an Oakland uniform until his last year in baseball (1987), when rookie Mark McGwire hit 49.  He led the league in slugging (.608), runs scored (123), and intentional walks (20). 

And while the A's and Reggie Jackson ultimately lost both the battle and the war in 1969, their time was coming.  Said Jackson that year, "I hope I am in Oakland when they fill the park day after day. We are going to be a dynasty. We are going to roll over teams like the Orioles are rolling over teams now."

Naturally, Reggie Jackson, who talked the talk, and walked the walk, was right.

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