Nicknamed “Mr. October” for his clutch-hitting in three consecutive World Series titles for the Oakland Athletics (1972–1974) and back-to-back World Series wins for the New York Yankees (1977–1978), Reggie Jackson was emblematic of 1970s pop and sports culture. He was a great baseball player, sure, but he also a celebrity known by people who couldn’t care less about the sport. Setting a new record for salary at the dawn of free agency in 1976, he became a model of the post-1960s Black athlete: polarizing but not particularly political. Commentators of the day said the era of the sports hero was over, replaced by superstars like Jackson.
“Jackson embodied a complex model of [B]lack manhood,” writes sports historian Johnny Smith. “Rejecting white expectations of black gratitude, he defied the sports establishment, battling white owners, managers, teammates, and reporters.”
But Jackson’s career also “signaled the gradual decline of activism among the most prominent black athletes,” continues Smith. “Consumed by fame and wealth, [Jackson] foreshadowed an era where black athletes expressed political insouciance.”
“I’m not much for politics,” Jackson himself explained, just a few years after Muhammad Ali’s conviction for draft evasion was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1971.
“Sometimes I underestimate the magnitude of me,” Jackson also declared. He seemed, argues Smith, to “personify the ‘Me Generation,’ more interested in the politics of style than the politics of substance.” Individual emancipation was the new thing in a post-Civil Rights era.
“Black columnists questioned his blackness and excoriated Jackson for surrounding himself with white friends and white women. Yet white writers vilified him as too flamboyant and too outspoken, arrogant and selfish.”
Reginald Martinez Jackson was born in 1946 just north of Philadelphia. His father had played in the Negro leagues. The younger Jackson excelled in high school sports and won a football scholarship to Arizona State University. He switched to baseball after his freshman year. His debuted in the Major Leagues with the Kansas City Athletics in 1967.
The A’s soon moved to Oakland, California. This was the city where the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense had been organized. While “no one confused Reggie Jackson with [Black Panther co-founder] Huey Newton,” Jackson was soon battling A’s owner Charles Finley for a raise to reflect his soaring hitting stats. At the time, team owners used a standard one-year option clause in contracts to “reserve” a player’s services for another season. Owners could do this year after year, meaning a “one-year contract essentially became a contract for life.”
Player Curt Flood likened the reserve clause to slavery and took the system to the Supreme Court in 1972. SCOTUS reaffirmed the owners’ power, but the reserve clause was nonetheless soon dismembered through arbitration and collective bargaining. Free agency, the ability of players to move on after the expiration of contracts, was codified in 1976.
Jackson—wearing a gold bracelet with diamonds spelling out Reggie— celebrated by signing a record-breaking five-year contract worth about $3 million with the New York Yankees during that Bicentennial year. The signing was televised.
“The Yankees’ press conference underscored the dynamic relationship between professional sport, media, and celebrity,” writes Smith.
Celebrity being a love/hate relationship, Jackson was soon blasted as “petulant,” “a baby,” and a “prima donna” of the new sports/entertainment nexus. He dressed in a $7,000 fur coat, collected Rolls Royces, and partied at Studio 54. A feud with Yankees’ Manager Billy Martin—“Archie Bunker in [Yankee] pinstripes”—was more grist for the celebrity mill and race relations as white fans flocked to Martin’s side in the contretemps.
People Magazine named Jackson one of the Most Intriguing People of 1977. A Reggie! candy bar and other endorsements cemented the new era of big sports business. All the while Jackson was criticized for not being a team player, at least until his three consecutive home runs in game six of the 1977 World Series.
With that and other career highlights, Reggie Jackson’s place in baseball history is secure. Johnny Smith’s positioning of Jackson in the larger social history of the 1970s enriches and contextualizes the stats.
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended to correct the dates of Jackson’s World Series wins with the Yankees.