Looking Back At Reggie Jackson's Lost Season In Baltimore, 40 Years Later
One of Reggie Jackson's best seasons came in Baltimore, and has more or less vanished down the memory hole. There isn't even a baseball card for it. It happened.
Illustration by Elliot Gerard
"Superduperstar" was what Sports Illustrated called him in a 1974 cover story—and truly, no baseball player of the 1970s radiated greater star quality than Reggie Jackson. Charismatic, quotable and controversial, the future Hall of Famer was unequaled in his flair for the dramatic, both on and off the field.
This is not to say that his appeal was uncomplicated. Sensitive, intelligent and massively egocentric, Jackson had a reputation for clashing with his teammates, managers, and owners, as well as a tendency to treat post-game interviews like therapy sessions. At home and on the road, fans flocked to see him launch baseballs into the stratosphere, or twist himself up like a giant pretzel while striking out, and he usually obliged on at least one count, if not both. (He would finish his career with 563 homers and 2,597 whiffs; the latter figure is still a major league record.) But the more intense the spotlight, the greater the likelihood that Jackson would rise to the occasion in spectacular fashion. They didn't call him "Mr. October"—or name a candy bar after him—for nothing.
And yet, one of the most productive and tumultuous seasons of Jackson's high-wattage 21-year MLB career has largely been forgotten. In 1976, he hit 27 home runs, drove in 91 runs, scored another 84, stole a career-high 28 bases (in 35 attempts) and led the American League with a .502 slugging percentage. Baseball Reference.com ranks Jackson's 1976 oWAR (Offensive Wins Above Replacement) as the sixth highest of his stellar career—despite the fact that he didn't actually make an official plate appearance until early that May.
1976 was also a year in which Jackson engaged in a high-profile contract holdout, lost his home to a mysterious blaze, and was briefly hospitalized by a Dock Ellis beanball to the face; he ran afoul of his manager, alienated his teammates and hometown fans, was hassled by Canadian customs officials on a pot charge, and capped it all by signing a five-year free agent deal with the New York Yankees for the then-huge sum of $3.5 million. But forty years on, most people only remember the Yankees contract—while Jackson's image on the August 30, 1976 cover of Sports Illustrated primarily elicits a puzzled reaction from those who view it: "Huh? Reggie played for the Orioles?" There isn't even a baseball card for it.
Jackson did indeed play for the Baltimore Orioles for one year—1976, the lone season of his career that he wasn't a member of the Oakland A's, the New York Yankees or the California Angels. But playing in Baltimore was certainly the furthest thing from his mind when the year began; if anything, 1976 started out in business-as-usual fashion for the Oakland A's star slugger—another year, another headline-grabbing contract dispute with A's owner Charlie Finley, a man who enjoyed denigrating his players in the press almost as much as he hated parting with his cash.
Finley's "Swingin' A's" had won three straight World Series in a row from 1972 through '74, and, with jocular new skipper Chuck Tanner replacing the dour Alvin Dark, looked set to win their sixth straight American League West division flag in 1976. Jackson, the 1973 AL MVP and MVP of the '73 World Series, had played a major role in the A's dominance during the first half of the 1970s, and his 36 round-trippers in 1975 had tied for the AL home run crown. But when he asked for a three-year contract at $200,000 per season, Finley, citing the slugger's drop in batting average from .289 in 1974 to .253 in '75, refused to pay Jackson a penny more than the $140,000 he'd earned the previous year. When Jackson refused to sign for that amount, Finley unilaterally renewed his contract with a twenty percent pay cut, the biggest allowed under the Basic Agreement of the time. "Not only was he refusing to give me a real raise," Jackson marveled in his 1984 autobiography, "now he was cutting me in a show of spite."
Jackson had been locking horns with Finley over money since 1966, when the organization drafted him out of Arizona State, but there was a new sense of urgency and acrimony behind this latest round of negotiations. The specter of full-scale free agency was looming ominously on the horizon, thanks to the December 1975 decision by arbitrator Peter Seitz that ruled Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to be free agents after playing an entire season without signed contracts. MLB players would no longer be bound to their teams in perpetuity via the Reserve Clause, and any currently unsigned player now had the option to become a free agent at the end of the 1976 season.
With his roster full of unsigned and disgruntled players like Jackson, the A's owner essentially understood that he had three choices: Give his players the money they were asking for, let them leave for greener pastures at the end of the season, or get something in return for them before they left on their own volition. On April 2, Finley rocked baseball by trading two of his most combative contract holdouts—Jackson and lefty pitcher Ken Holtzman—to the Orioles in exchange for outfielder Don Baylor and pitchers Mike Torrez and Paul Mitchell.
Holtzman was more than happy to get out of Oakland and away from Finley, but Jackson was both shocked and hurt by the trade—so much so, in fact, that he seriously considered sitting out the 1976 season in protest. That is, unless the Orioles gave him a significant raise to come to Baltimore. "I have other alternatives," he told reporters. "I have a real estate business, a Pontiac dealership, a television contract, and obligations to people who work with me. Life has more to offer than hitting a ball over a fence."
The Orioles hoped that Jackson would report in time for their April 9 home opener against the Boston Red Sox, but those hopes quickly evaporated as the sulking slugger went fully M.I.A.—the press assumed he was laying low at one of his homes in Oakland or Arizona, but he was actually hiding out in Honolulu at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, while his representative Gary Walker handled negotiations from Tempe. Orioles catcher Dave Duncan (who'd played with Jackson on the A's from '67 to '72) greeted the news of the Jackson-Holtzman deal by announcing that he'd change uniform numbers so that Jackson could wear number 9 in Baltimore as he had in Oakland, and O's team leaders Jim Palmer and Brooks Robinson left Jackson enthusiastic and welcoming phone messages. But by the middle of the month, that initial enthusiasm had clearly dissipated.
"Is the Messiah coming back, or what?" Palmer facetiously asked a journalist on April 14, following a New York Times report that Jackson was demanding a five-year contract worth $3 million. "The fact that Reggie is not here has hurt the attitude of the club and it has hurt our performance on the field," raged the 1975 AL Cy Young winner. "Do you think it ever occurred to Jackson that there are 24 other guys over here counting on him?"
"I have personal affairs on the West Coast to take care of, too," added Holtzman. "But I'm a baseball player, so I'm here."
Orioles manager Earl Weaver took a more philosophical approach to the situation, telling the Sporting News that he was simply pretending Jackson was on the DL. "The way I look at it," he said, "this is just like having Reggie with a pulled muscle or in bed with the flu."
Jackson finally ended his holdout at the end of April, once the Orioles agreed to pay him $200,000 for 1976 along with an unsigned contract guaranteeing him the same amount for 1977. "That didn't mean I wasn't going to play hard," Jackson reflected later. "I had tremendous respect for the Oriole organization ... it was stable, it was polished, it had Earl Weaver, and the Orioles are at the top or near the top every season."
But by May 2, when Jackson suited up for his first game as an Oriole, that stable, polished Orioles team was already five games behind the fast-breaking Yankees. The standing ovation Jackson received from the 24,819 fans at Memorial Stadium during his first plate appearance may have been at least partially sarcastic. He drove in the tying run in that day's 4-3 victory over his former A's, but the month off wasn't helpful. He didn't hit his first homer as an Oriole until ten days later, a grand slam off Jerry Augustine to beat the Brewers at Milwaukee. Conveniently, that blast came shortly after Weaver had blown up at Jackson for flouting the Baltimore dress code by not wearing a tie on a team flight. "Do ... Not ... Shit ... In ... My ... Face!," the pint-sized skipper screamed at him in full view of the team, reporters and assorted guests in the lobby of the Pfister Hotel. When the team returned home from their road trip, Jackson found that Baltimore fans had sent him over two dozen neckties.
Jackson's struggles at the plate continued through June, including one homerless streak that lasted nearly three weeks; though he was driving in runs like the Orioles hoped he would—he'd knocked in 34 by the end of June—the eight homers and .225 average were considered a definite disappointment. The same went for the O's 34-37 record, which put them in fifth place in the AL East, ten games back of the Yankees. Jackson's misery was further compounded by the news that his beloved two-story house in Oakland had been thoroughly decimated by a mysterious fire, which consumed all his mementos and trophies from his A's days. "It was if the fates were saying, 'Okay, kid. Close the chapter on the A's years,'" he later recalled. "'Let's get on with it.'"
Getting on with it didn't mean putting down roots in Baltimore, however. Camped out in a hotel room at Baltimore's Cross Keys Inn—he hadn't even bothered to rent an apartment in the area—Jackson began looking ahead to November, when the first "free agent re-entry draft," as it was then dubbed, would take place. He had very specific ideas of what would constitute a "good fit" for him: essentially, contenders located in cities where it wouldn't be problematic to be an outspoken black athlete. And since the rules of the re-entry draft dictated that players could only be drafted by 12 of the 24 major league teams, Jackson began publicly campaigning to make sure he wouldn't be drafted by teams that weren't on his list. "Nice try," he scoffed when a writer for the Long Beach Independent asked if he'd consider signing with the California Angels for 1977. He told Milwaukee writers that Brewers owner Bud Selig shouldn't bother wasting a draft pick on him. "I don't like snow," he said. "I don't like beer, either."
As for Baltimore, well, he wasn't exactly getting anyone's hopes up for a return to the Orioles. "Oh, it's all right," he told reporters. "It kinda reminds me of Halloween ... you know, these orange and black uniforms."
All of which would have been moot, if Jackson hadn't tapped back into his prodigious Reggie-ness in July. He hit .310 that month with nine home runs and 25 RBIs, including a streak in which he homered in a record-tying six consecutive games. "Park it, Sal," he joked to the press after hitting his 16th homer of the season, in reference to his former A's colleague Sal Bando, who was currently leading the AL with 19. "You're cluttering up the highway."
But on July 27, Jackson's shit-talking nearly got the better of him. After mouthing off to Yankees pitcher Ellis when the latter nearly grazed the slight Orioles shortstop Mark Belanger with a homeward toss—"Why don't you hit a big motherfucker like me?" Reggie taunted—he found himself on the receiving end of a high-and-tight fastball from Ellis, who may have also been delivering some delayed payback for the gargantuan home run that Jackson had hit off of him in Detroit during the 1971 All-Star Game. "Did I kill him?" Ellis chuckled to the home plate umpire, while Jackson writhed in the dirt, his signature aviator shades smashed to pieces.
X-rays showed no damage beyond a badly-bruised cheekbone. Jackson expressed disappointment to the press that Ellis hadn't called to see how he was doing; perhaps the pitcher was too busy counting the twenty-dollar bills that had been surreptitiously stuffed into his locker by his teammates as a tip for beaning Reggie. "Someone didn't like him," Ellis would later reflect in his autobiography. "He was supposed to get hit!"
Jackson continued to hit well through the end of the season, while playing capable defense in both right and center field, but the Orioles never managed to cut the first-place Yankees' lead below seven games, despite playing 54-32 ball in July, August and September; they finished a distant second in the AL East with an 88-74 record. Many Orioles fans believed that Jackson's April holdout effectively doomed their team to that finish; while it's hard to imagine that he could have single-handedly erased their 10.5 game deficit—Weaver estimated to Sports Illustrated in August that "If we'd had him all season, there's no question we'd be five games closer to first"—Jackson certainly would have had a shot at his second AL MVP award if he'd come to Baltimore straight from spring training. As it was, his 27 home runs were good enough to tie him with Sal Bando for second place in the American League, five behind Graig Nettles.
There was also no question that, even in a stacked field of free agents—it included his former A's teammates Rollie Fingers, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Gene Tenace, and Bert Campaneris—Jackson was clearly the most appetizing entrée on the re-entry draft buffet. Jackson, who had cracked to reporters in 1975 that, "If I played in New York, they'd name a candy bar after me," was now not joking around at all. He was openly angling to play for the Yankees, even dropping some less-than-subtle on-air hints about it while serving as a guest analyst during ABC's broadcast of the Yankees-Royals ALCS. "I can play for a man like that," he said of Yankees skipper Billy Martin.
The Montreal Expos, however, had other ideas. Having recently hired Dick Williams, who'd managed the A's from 1971 through 1973, the team ardently courted Jackson, even spending a reported $20,000 to fly Reggie and four of his associates in for a whirlwind tour of the city that included a lavish dinner party at the estate of Expos owner and multimillionaire Seagram's boss Charles Bronfman. They ultimately offered Jackson a five-year deal worth nearly $5 million.
Unfortunately for both Jackson and the Expos, the visit was marred by an incident in which Canadian Customs found a stash of marijuana in the ballplayer's luggage, and notified the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The authorities ultimately declined to file charges, since the amount in question was under an ounce and the bag in which it was found had been out of Jackson's control for at least 12 hours. But it led to some embarrassing headlines, and forced the Expos to do some hurried damage control. "We are satisfied that [Jackson] has absolutely no problem with any narcotic," Bronfman told the press.
More damaging to Montreal's case was the fact that Jackson's next stop after Montreal was New York City, where George Steinbrenner, over the vociferous objections of both Billy Martin and Yankees G.M. Gabe Paul, was waiting to woo him. Jackson proved incapable of resisting Steinbrenner's charm offensive and the allure of the Big Apple.
"It was as if I had seen New York across some crowded room, caught her eye, but never got the chance to talk to her," he recalled in his 1984 autobiography. "Now I was talking to her, feeling her. Being seduced by her. I was easy prey." He signed a five-year deal with the Yankees for $2.96 million, plus an extra sixty grand for a Rolls Royce. The Expos had offered significantly more money, but this was New York City, and Jackson was now the first black superstar to wear Yankee pinstripes. And in another year and a half, there would indeed be a candy bar named after him.
Jackson was also about to become the focal point of the most turbulent year in Yankees history; before the 1977 season was even a month old, he was awash in the controversy from his infamous "I'm the straw that stirs the drink" comment to a writer from Sport magazine, a proclamation that fell predictably flat with those same players who'd stuffed Dock's locker full of cash. The resulting media frenzy would become so intense that it made his 1976 sojourn in Baltimore seem like a vague memory.
Further erasing Jackson's Oriole past was his 1977 Topps card. The company test-printed a proof of the card with him in an Orioles helmet, but it never made it into the set; only eight copies are known to exist. Instead, Topps airbrushed Yankees pinstripes and a "NY" batting helmet over his Orioles gear. As he'd been traded to Baltimore too late the previous year for a card of him in an Orioles uniform to make it into the 1976 Topps set, subsequent generations of card collectors grew up seeing his '76 A's card followed by his '77 one as a Yankee; it's easy to assume that he simply went from Oakland to New York. Bitter Baltimore fans of a certain age knew better, but not many others did.
You can still, however, find cardboard proof of where Jackson actually spent his 1976 season—you just have to look really closely at the 1977 Topps Orioles team card to find it. There in the middle row, all the way to the right, stands a certain "superduperstar" with number 9 on his orange jersey. Yes, Reggie really played for the Orioles.
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