The Day A Shit-Talking Reggie Jackson Tore Apart The Yankees

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Reggie Jackson New York Yankees Robert Ward The Straw That Stirs The Drink Tl;dr Best Of

This story was originally published in the June, 1977 issue of Sport. It also appears in the collection Renegades . It is republished here with permission, and includes a postscript from the author.

Oh, golden, yellow light shimmering on Reggie Jackson's chest! Yes, that's he, the latest member of the American League Champion New York Yankees, and he is standing by his locker, bare-chested, million-dollar sweat dripping from his brow, golden pendants dangling from his neck. God, he looks like some big baseball Othello as he smiles at the gaggle of reporters who rush toward him, their microphones thrust out, their little 98-percent pens poised, ready to take down his every word. But somehow, it's hard to ask the man questions… certainly not such standard ballplayer questions as "How's the arm?" or "Toe hurt?" …for not all ballplayers are Reggie Jackson, whose golden pendants catch the sunlight filtering through the steamy Fort Lauderdale clubhouse windows and reflect dazzlingly into your eyes. What are these priceless reflectors? Well, first, there is a small golden bar with the word "Inseparable" on it, a gift from Reggie's Norwegian girlfriend, and gyrating next to that memento is a dog tag—the inscrutable Zen koan (though slightly reminiscent of the Kiwanis Club), "Good Luck Is When Hard Work Meets Opportunity." And, finally, there is the most important bauble of all, an Italian horn that Reggie tells a reporter is supposed to keep the evil spirits away!

Evil spirits? Egads. What evil spirits can be following Reggie Jackson? The man has been on three World Series Championship teams (Oakland A's 1972–1974), has led the league in RBIs (1973: 117), home runs (1973: 32, 1975: 36) and was the American League's MVP in 1973. Since then he has topped his on-the-field-feats by playing out his option under Charles O. Finley, and refusing to sign with his new club, the Baltimore Orioles, until they gave him a gigantic raise. Finally came the coup de grace: signing with the New York Yankees for three million big ones. Reggie is expected to be the biggest thing to hit New York since King Kong. So where are the evil spirits?

"No evil spirits, actually," Reg says, answering a newsman's question. "Just in case, you know? Hey, could you move that mic out of the way? Shoving it up my nose like that is sooooo uncomfortable…."

The little man yanks his mic back.

"I am not merely a baseball player," Reggie says to another reporter, who nods gravely. "I am a black man who has done what he wants, gotten what he wanted and will continue to get it.

"Now what I want to do," he adds, "is develop my intellect. You see, on the field I am a surgeon. I put on my glove and this hat...."

He picks up the New York Yankee baseball hat. Itself a legend. Legendary hat meet legendary head!

"And I put on these shoes…." Reggie points down to his shoes. "And I go out on the field, and I cut up the other team. I am a surgeon. No one can quite do it the way I do. But off the field… I try to forget all about it. You know, you can get very narrow being a superstar."

Reggie removes his cap. "I mean, being a superstar… can make life very difficult, difficult to grow. So I like to visit with my friends, listen to some fine music, drink some good wine, perhaps take a ride in the country in a fine car, or… just walk along the beach. Nature is extremely important to me. Which may be just about the only trouble I'll have in New York. I'll miss the trees!"

Then, in his quiet, throaty voice, Reg politely says he must be off to the training room.

"Terrific," a jaunty reporter says as Reggie leaves. "He's so terrific. He's the kinda guy you don't want to talk to every day… because he gives you so much. It's like a torrent of material. He overwhelms you!"

"Yes," I say. "But how do the other guys on the Yankees feel about having a tornado in their presence? I heard Thurman Munson and some of the others gave him a chilly reception."

"No problem," says the reporter. "All that stuff about problems on the team is just something somebody wrote to sell papers. Hell, Reggie hasn't even been here for a week. There hasn't been time for resentment yet!"

The next day after practice, Reggie Jackson is once again standing by his locker, once again surrounded by reporters, who ask him to reveal his "personal philosophy of life."

I look down the seats before lockers and see last year's Yankee stars sitting like dukes around the king. Next to Jackson is Chris Chambliss. Remember him? He hit the home run that won the pennant for the Yanks. But no one seems much interested in this instant (though brief) hero's developing intellect or his reflections on recombinant DNA, which happens to be the subject Chambliss is discussing with Willie Randolph. And down the line a little farther is old gruff and grumble himself, Thurman Munson. Today he rubs his moustache, and stares at the floor, looking like Bert Lahr in the Wizard of Oz. Folks aren't rushing to ask him about the philosophical questions that are addressed to Jackson, yet Munson is the acknowledged "team leader."

And across the room is Catfish Hunter, the wise old Cat, and businesslike Ken Holtzman. Their combined salaries are enough to send up a space shot to Pluto, but no one is asking them if they like to recite Kahlil Gibran. It's strange, a little dreamlike. There is the Super Team, but if this first week is any example, Reggie Jackson has taken over so totally that it's almost as if the other players were rookies who had yet to prove themselves to the press.

Now, Jackson says goodbye to the reporters, and tells me he is going outside to sign a few late-afternoon autographs. Would I like to come? Certainly.

And so we stand by the first baseline while the fans crowd around, pushing and shoving and holding up their cameras.

"Smile, Reggie," says a woman with a scarf on her head, tied up so she looks like she has two green rabbit ears.

Reggie produces a semi-smile.

"You have such white teeth," she says.

Jackson turns to me and raises his eyebrows, then moves along signing scraps of paper and baseballs when a man on crutches is pushed precariously close to the edge of the stands. Jackson stops signing and demands that the other fans help the crippled man. The fans do what he says.

Finally, after Reggie has signed endless signatures, a young boy says, "Thank you, Mr. Jackson."

Reggie stops, looks up at me and says: "You sign a million before anyone ever says thank you."

On that perfect exit line, Reggie does a perfect exit. He picks up a loose ball and flips it to the crowd, who cheer and applaud. Waiting for Jackson to get his rubdown, I ask Sparky Lyle, who is seated in front of his locker: "How's it going?"

"Great,"' says Lyle. "I may be leaving tomorrow. We are only about $250,000 away from one another."

Perhaps not the best time to ask him about the new three-million-dollar superstar. But duty must be done.

"I don't think we need him," Lyle says. "Not to take anything away from his talents, but what we really needed was a good right-handed hitter. A right-handed superstar."

Jackson comes strutting into the room. Not a self-conscious strut. Just his natural superstar strut. He can't help it if he is bigger than all indoors.

Lou Piniella strides across the room and says, "Hey, Reg, how you doing?"

"How you doing, hoss?" Reggie says affably.

"I'm not the horse, Reg," Piniella says, with a good deal of uncertainty in his voice. "You're the hoss… I'm just the cart."

Jackson smiles, trying to pass the remark off as a joke.


Jackson and I enter the Banana Boat Bar, and he undoes his windbreaker just enough to reveal the huge yellow star on his blue T-shirt. Around the star are the silver letters that spell out superstar! At the bar, he discards the jacket. All around us people start staring and the waitresses start twitching in their green Tinkerbell costumes.

We order light beers, and Reggie gives me a pregnant stare and says, "If I seem a little distant, it's because I got burned once by Sport magazine. They wrote a piece which said I caused trouble on the team. That I have a huge ego. That I only hit for a .258 average. That I wasn't a complete ballplayer. They only say that kind of stuff about black men. If a white man happens to be colorful, then it's fine. If he's black, then they say he's a troublemaker."

I tell him that I have no intention of showing him as a troublemaker. As far as I'm concerned the league could use 50 more Reggies, and 50 fewer baseball players who sound like shoe salesmen.

But almost before I'm finished, Reggie has forgotten his fears. "You see," he says, "I've got problems other guys don't have. I've got this big image that comes before me, and I've got to adjust to it. Or what it has been projected to be. That's not 'me' really, but I've got to deal with it. Also, I used to just be known as a black athlete, now I'm respected as a tremendous intellect."

"A tremendous intellect?" I say.

"What?" says Jackson, waving to someone.

"You were talking about your tremendous intellect."

"Oh, was I?" Jackson says. "No, I meant… that now people talk to me as if I were a person of substance. That's important to me."

I mention Jackson's reportage on the Royals-Yankees pennant playoffs last year for ABC, saying that most of my friends felt that Reggie had done a much better job of analyzing the motivation of the players than Howard Cosell. What's more, he did it in the most hostile atmosphere imaginable, with Cosell constantly hassling him and chiding him for defending Royals' centerfielder Al Cowens on a controversial call.

"Well, that is part of my problem," says Reggie. "I do everything as honestly as I can. I give all I have to give. But I don't let people get in my way. Cosell was insecure. He thought I was trying to put him down, make him look bad by correcting him. He made quite a stink about me to the big people at ABC, but they took up for me. I really wasn't trying to compete with him. I was just being myself and it got me in trouble."

Jackson smiles, sits back and folds his arms over his superstar chest. A second later we are joined by Jim Wynn, who at 35 is trying to make a comeback with the Yankees: Once a tremendous long-ball hitter known as "The Toy Cannon," Wynn has been faltering, and certainly he can't have more than a year or so left. He orders a drink, and then Reggie and he begin to talk about hitting in Boston's Fenway Park.

"You are gonna love the left field fence," Reggie says.

"I know I will," Wynn says. "If they play me, you know I'll hit some out."

But he doesn't sound convinced. There is a lull in the conversation and then Wynn looks over at Reggie, and says, "You know, Reggie, I hope my son grows up to be like you. Not like me. Like you."

Wynn smiles in awe at Jackson, and I realize that for all their professionalism, the Yankees are just as subject to the mythology of the press as any fan. Just by showing up, Jackson has changed the ambiance of the locker room. And no one yet knows if it's for good or ill.

As I ponder, two of the original mythmakers appear at the Banana Boat—Mickey Mantle, now a spring batting coach, and his old crony, manager Billy Martin. Soon they are settled into drinking and playing backgammon, and when they are joined by Whitey Ford, Jackson hails a waitress and sends them complimentary drinks. The waitress comes back to Reggie and says, "Whitey Ford appreciates your offer of a drink, but says he would rather have your superstar T-shirt."

Reggie Jackson chats with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner while still a free agent in 1976. Photo via AP.


Jackson breaks into a huge smile, peels off his shirt, and runs bare-chested across the room. He hands the shirt to Ford, and then Ford, in great hilarity, takes off his pink cashmere sweater and gives it to Jackson. A few minutes later Reggie is back at the bar, the sweater folded in his lap.

"That's really something, isn't it!" Jackson says. "Whitey Ford giving me his sweater. A Hall-of-Famer. I'm keeping this."

He smiles, looking down lovingly at the sweater.

On the Yankees the old timers still retain their magic, even to the younger stars like Jackson. In a way it is easier for him to relate to them than his own teammates. For they were mythic, legends, as he is… In fact, their legends are still stronger than Reggie's, coming as they did back when ugly salary disputes didn't tarnish both players and managers.

This becomes even more apparent when Jackson moves to the backgammon table to join the crowd watching Mantle and Martin play one of the most ludicrously bad, but hilarious, games in recent history. Both of them beginners and slightly loaded, the two men resort to several rather questionable devices. The object of the game is to get your men, or chips, around the board, and into your opponent's home, then "beat them off the board." The man who gets all his men out first wins. (You throw a pair of dice to decide how many spaces you can move.) Martin rolls a seven and quickly moves nine spaces. Jackson and Ford laugh hysterically. Mantle rolls his dice, moves the properly allotted amount, and then simply slips three of his men off the board and into his pants pocket. Martin, busy ordering drinks and taking advice from Reggie, misses Mantle's burglary, which gives Mickey a tremendous advantage in the game. Martin's next roll lands him on two of Mantle's men and sends them back to the center bar. Mantle rolls the dice, orders another round of drinks and, while Martin chats with the waiter, takes four more of his chips off the table and puts them under his chair. Mantle chuckles as Martin, unaware of what has happened, rolls the dice. Reggie tries to control his laughter—unsuccessfully—the mirth bursting out of him. And now everyone is laughing, Mantle so hard that tears are streaming down his face. Martin suddenly notices that Mantle, despite weaker rolls of the dice, already has fewer men on the board.

"You bastard!" Martin shouts. "Where are all your chips?"

Mantle protests his innocence with great vigor but Martin reaches down and pulls out the evidence from under Mantle's chair. Mantle screams in mock surprise, and then throws up his hands. "Hell, Billy," he says, "you were beating me even though I was cheating."

"You bum," says Martin, "You bum. I'm just too good. I'm a winner."

"Nobody can beat Billy," Mantle says as he beams at his old buddy.

Reggie is still laughing, shaking his head, and I can't help but feel that he has missed something. Mantle, Ford, and Martin have a kind of loyalty and street gang friendship that today's transient players don't have time to develop. Soon Mantle and Martin are involved in another humorous game, and Reggie goes back to the bar. Alone.

Minutes later I join him and try to gauge his mood. What did he feel watching Mantle and Martin? In a second I have my answer, for Reggie starts talking and how he is less the showman. He seems to be talking directly from his bones:

"You know," he says, "this team… it all flows from me. I've got to keep it all going. I'm the straw that stirs the drink. It all comes back to me. Maybe I should say me and Munson… but really he doesn't enter into it. He's being so damned insecure about the whole thing. I've overheard him talking about me."

"You mean he talks loud to make sure you can hear him?"

"Yeah. Like that. I'll hear him telling some other writer that he wants it to be known that he's the captain of the team, that he knows what's best. Stuff like that. And when anybody knocks me, he'll laugh real loud so I can hear it…."

Reggie looks down at Ford's sweater. Perhaps he is wishing the present Yankees could have something like Ford and Martin and Mantle had. Community. Brotherhood. Real friendship.

"Maybe you ought to just go to Munson," I suggest. "Talk it out right up front."

But Reggie shakes his head.

"No," he says. "He's not ready for it yet. He doesn't even know he feels like he does. He isn't aware of it yet."

"You mean if you went and tried to be open and honest about he'd deny it."

Jackson nods his head. "Yeah. He'd say, 'What? I'm not jealous. There aren't any problems.' He'd try to cover up, but he ought to know he can't cover up anything from me. Man, there is no way.... I can read these guys. No, I'll wait, and eventually he'll be whipped. There will come that moment when he really knows I've won… and he'll want to hear everything is all right… and then I'll go to him, and we will get it right.

Reggie makes a fist, and clutches Ford's sweater: "You see, that is the way I am. I'm a leader, and I can't lie down… but 'leader' isn't the right word… it's a matter of PRESENCE... Let me put it this way: no team I am on will ever be humiliated the way the Yankees were by the Reds in the World Series! That's why Munson can't intimidate me. Nobody can. You can't psych me. You take me one-on-one in the pit, and I'll whip you…. It's an attitude, really… It's the way the manager looks at you when you come into the room… It's the way the coaches and the batboy look at you… The way your name trickles through the crowd when you wait in the batter's box… It's all that… The way the Yankees were humiliated by the Reds? You think that doesn't bother Billy Martin? He's no fool. He's smart. Very smart. And he's a winner. Munson's tough, too. He is a winner, but there is just nobody who can do for a club what I can do... There is nobody who can put meat in the seats [fans in the stands] the way I can. That's just the way it is… Munson thinks he can be the straw that stirs the drink, but he can only stir it bad."

"You were doing it just a few minutes ago over there with Martin, weren't you?" I say. "Stirring a little."

"Sure," says Jackson, "but he has presence too. He's no dummy. I can feel him letting me do what I want, then roping me in whenever he needs to… but I'll make it easy for him. He won't have to be 'bad' Billy Martin fighting people anymore. He can move up a notch 'cause I'll open the road. I'll open the road, and I'll let the others come thundering down the path!"

Jackson sits back, staring fiercely at the bar. A man in love with words, with power, a man engaged in a battle. Jim Wynn resumes his seat next to Reggie and watches him with respect. An ally.

But, I wonder—are there any others?


Billy Martin is sitting in his office at Yankee Stadium South. He is half dressed and his hair is messed, but for all that he still has what Jackson called PRESENCE. Now he runs his hand through his hair and laughs: "I couldn't lose to Mantle, could I?" he says.

"You had him psyched."

Martin laughs again and nods. "And he was trying to act like he wasn't mad"

Mantle comes in the door sipping coffee and looking about two years older than the night before. "You know," he says, "I woke up this morning, and I had me a whole pocket full of them white things!"

After we finish laughing, I ask Martin if he thinks there will be any problems having Reggie Jackson on the team.

Martin, who as Reggie himself said is "no dummy," smiles and asks, "What kind?"

"Like team leader problems?"

Martin shakes his head: "Not a chance. We already have a team leader. Thurman Munson."

I walk into the locker room and sit with Catfish Hunter in front of his locker and talk about Reggie. Catfish shoots a stream of tobacco juice on the floor, and shakes his head slowly, philosophically. "Reggie is a team leader," he says. "The thing you have to understand about Reggie is he wants everyone to love him."

For a second I think Cat is going to elaborate on this theme, but he holds back, chooses a new path—a safer one. "I mean," he says, "he can get hot with his bat and carry a team for three weeks. He's always ready to go all the time."

Hunter squints at me as if to say, "That's all, my friend. I'm staying out of this one."

Chris Chambliss's locker is right next door to Reggie Jackson's. The men literally rub elbows when they dress. Yet when I ask Chambliss how he feels about Reggie, he says, "I haven't had a chance to talk to him yet. I think he'll help the ball club. Most of the rumors you have heard are untrue. Still, we do have a lot of personalities on this team… things could happen. I doubt it. But they could."

I catch Thurman Munson as he comes in to practice. An hour late. I wonder if he isn't having some kind of psych battle with Jackson. Which star arrives on the field the latest? Gruffly, he declines to talk to me until after practice, and then he declines again for some 30 minutes. Finally, he nods me over and I ask him about Jackson.

"What are you asking me for?" he says. "Why does everybody ask me?"

"I'm not singling you out," I say. "I've asked quite a few others. But there has been talk that you two will have problems competing as team leader."

Munson shakes his head, makes a face. "No. No way. And what difference does it make if I'm not 'team leader'? There are a lot of leaders on this team. We've got a lot of scars. They are all leaders. As far as Reggie goes, he's a good player. He'll help the club. Has a lot of power."

"How about jealousy over his salary?"

"No," Munson says, "I don't care about that. He signed as a free agent. I hope he makes 10 million dollars. Is that all?" Munson turns away and begins to talk to a businessman about a shopping center they hope to build in Florida.


It's late in the afternoon and Reggie Jackson is taking extra batting practice. The only people left on the field are Thurman Munson and Chris Chambliss. And a young pitcher, a rookie who is new to me.

Jackson fouls off a couple of pitches, and Chambliss looks at Munson and says, "Show time!" There is a real bite in his kidding. "Hey," says Munson, "are we out here to see this?"

Jackson digs in and fouls off a few more.

"Some show!" says Munson. "Real power!"

Jackson tries to laugh it off, and finally connects on a pitch. It falls short of the fence, and Munson and Chambliss smile at one another. Munson steps into the cage, but Jackson hurries into the locker room.

Reggie Jackson, smacking the hell out of a dinger in Game 5 of the 1977 World Series. Photo via AP.


I am about ready to leave, and I thank Reggie for his cooperation, but he seems disturbed by my going. "Listen," he says, "I'd like to know what the guys thought of me. You talked to them. How about telling me?"

"Okay," I say. "I'll meet you back at the Banana Boat."

An hour later, at the Banana Boat, I tell Jackson that Lyle had said the team didn't need him, that Lyle said it was nothing personal, but the Yankees needed a right-handed hitter more. Then I tell him that Munson had denied there was any problem, and I mention that Chambliss had said, "I haven't had a chance to talk to him yet."

"Yeah," says Jackson. "You see it's a pattern. The guys who are giants like Catfish, the guys who are really secure… they don't worry about me. But guys like Munson. It's really a comedy, isn't it? I mean, it's hilarious… Did you see him in the batting cage? He is really acting childish. Like the first day of practice he comes up to me and says, 'Hey, you have to run now… before you hit.' You know he's playing the team captain trying to tell me what to do. But I play it very low-key. I say, 'Yeah, but if I run now, I'll be too tired to hit later,' and Munson says, 'Yeah, but if you don't run now, it'll make a bad impression on the other guys.' So I say, 'Let me ask the coach,' and I yelled over to Dick Howser, 'Should I run now or hit?' and Howser yelled, 'Aw, the hell with running. Get in there and hit.' So that's what I did. It really made Munson furious. But I did it so he couldn't complain. Listen, I always treat him right. I talk to him all the time, but he is so jealous and nervous and resentful that he can't stand it. If I wanted to I could snap him. Just wait until I get hot and hit a few out, and the reporters start coming around and I have New York eating out of the palm of my hand he won't be able to stand it."

Jackson delivers all this with a kind of healthy, competitive and slightly maniacal glee. It's as if he has said to himself, "Okay, they aren't going to love me. So I'll break 'em down. I'll show them who's boss." And he might. I can't help but think that the situation would be a lot healthier if the other Yankees had come to him.

"How has Chambliss been treating you?" I ask.

"Standoffish. They all have. You see Piniella in there yesterday? He said that stuff about me being the horse and him being the cart. That's how they feel. Bur at least he talked to me. That was a kind of a breakthrough. That and the thing with Whitey, with the sweater. That was good, too."

"Maybe you are overreacting," I say. "It is a new year, and everyone has heard about your legend, and they feel like they can't be the ones to come up to you and try to break the ice because then it will look like they are trying to kiss your ass, and they'll feel embarrassed and self-conscious."

Jackson nods hopefully. "Yeah, it could be that. I know it could be. Say, did you talk to Billy Martin about me?"

"Yeah," I say. "He told me that the Yankees had a team leader."

"Yeah? Who?"

"Munson."

Reggie laughs ruefully.

"But maybe he's gotta say that," I say. "It wouldn't look good to say you are the ream leader this early. It would hurt Munson's pride."

"That's right," Jackson says. "I just want you to know that [coach] Elston Howard came up to me today and said, 'No matter what anybody says, you are the team leader.' So I think there is some real heavy stuff going on. But it is weird. You know, up until yesterday Martin had hardly said two words to me. But he has made me feel I'm all right. Still, I don't understand it."

"It could go back to your verbal ability," I suggest. "I mean, a lot of athletes are suspicious of people who can talk well. It makes them feel dull and stupid, so they resent the other guy and get hostile toward him."

"Right," says Jackson. "That's true. I've been through that one before. But you know… the rest of the guys should know that I don't feel that far above them... I mean, nobody can turn people on like I can, or do for a club the things I can do, but we are all still athletes, we're all still ballplayers. We should be able to get along. We've got a strong common ground, common wants… I'm not going to allow the team to get divided. I'll do my job, give it all I got, talk to anybody. I think Billy will appreciate that… I'm not going to let the small stuff get in the way… But if that's not enough… then I'll be gone. A friend of mine has already told me: 'You or Munson will be gone in two years.' I really don't want that to be the case… because, after all is said and done, Munson is a winner, he's a fighter, a hell of ballplayer… but don't you see…"

Reggie pauses, and opens his hands in a gesture that seems to imply, "It's so apparent, why can't Munson and Chambliss and all the rest of them understand the sheer simplicity… the cold logic?"

"Don't you see, that there is just no way I can play second fiddle to anybody. Hah! That's just not in the cards…. There ain't no way."


The Stacks is Deadspin's living archive of great journalism, curated by Bronx Banter's Alex Belth. Check out some of our favorites so far. Follow us on Twitter, @DeadspinStacks, or email us at thestacks@deadspin.com.

Top image by Jim Cooke, photo via AP

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