Bookshelf review: Reggie Jackson

May 21, 2010

The Life and Thunderous Career of Baseball’s Mr. October, by Dayn Perry. Morrow, 326 Pages, $25.99

Whatever words are used to describe Reginald Martinez Jackson, the Hall of Fame outfielder for the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees (with less effectual stints on the Angels and Orioles), “complex” has to be among them. And that’s “complex” as in “difficult to fathom” and the psychological term for “a group of related, often repressed ideas and impulses that compel characteristic or habitual patterns of thought, feelings, and behavior.” Both meanings are applicable in Perry’s bewildering biography.

Perry — identified on the book jacket as a “ columnist — presents Jackson (and indeed most of the main characters in the book) as mainly mean-spirited, egotistical, and insecure, among other adjectives. One wonders exactly when those attributes took hold, since the author describes Jackson as a fairly decent fellow early on (although towards the middle of the book Perry depicts Jackson as something of a high school thug and a bully).

Jackson, the product of a mixed marriage between an Hispanic father and African-American mother, grew up in an ethnically-mixed neighborhood in Pennsylvania (Perry goes so far as to infer that some of the athlete’s best friends were Jewish). So it’s not surprising that Jackson was unprepared for the racism he encountered during his minor league years in the deep south. Much of this molds him into the suspicious, belligerent, yet racially-ambivalent adult he becomes, chastised by black and white teammates.

A quote attributed to Yankees’ teammate Mickey Rivers perhaps revealed Jackson’s dilemma: “Your first name’s white, your second is Hispanic, and your third belongs to a black. No wonder you don’t know who you are.” Throughout the book, Perry portrays Jackson as a man unsure of his place in baseball and society at large. Was his legendary ego and self-aggrandizement part of a protection mechanism, a means to puff himself up through money, power, and sexual conquests? Jackson often tried to separate himself from his African-American teammates, many of whom he considered inferior by dint of their poor education (he had attended the University of Arizona); he claimed to have an IQ of 160.

With so many “bad guys” in Jackson, it’s difficult to know who really is at fault when it comes to the many altercations — physical, attitudinal, and other — involving the temperamental ballplayer. Perry parses Jackson’s every move and utterance, as if looking for a justification of his behavior. More often than not, according to the author, Jackson believed it had to do with race. Was Jackson the victim of a white America that didn’t want to see a black man succeed? Or is this just so much melodrama? That’s for the reader to decide, but Perry’s arguments are, frankly, unconvincing.

There are several problems with this book, not the least of which is the lack of documentation on many of claims Perry makes or incidents on which he reports. In his “Notes on Sources,” Perry writes that he had tried twice — unsuccessfully — to secure Jackson’s support for the project (compare this with James S. Hirsch’s near-decade courtship of another Hall of Famer for Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend). “At certain points in the book,” Perry says, “I enter Reggie’s head and presume to communicate through his thoughts. I do so in the service of the narrative, and any thoughts I relay, while ultimately assumptions of what I believe he may have felt at certain times, are informed by the facts and by what I came to learn of Reggie’s inner workings.” This is, understandably, very dangerous territory. Since he wrote the book without Jackson’s cooperation or those of the many former teammates who declined to participate in Perry’s project, one wonders where he did get that information — other than previously printed materials — and how reliable that data might be.

Some of Perry’s assertions border on the strange, as when he writes that Charles O. Finley, the mercurial and penurious owner of Jackson’s first team, “hired…an eleven-year-old team vice president (the young Stanley Burrell, later the rapper MC Hammer).” There is no citation for this. Burrell was, indeed, an employee with the team — as a batboy — and Finley might have remarked in jest about promoting him, but does anyone seriously believe, despite anecdotal information by the attention-grabbing owner, that Burrell served in an administrative capacity with the team? In another instance, Perry reports on a particularly ugly racist incident that occurred in a southern restaurant when Jackson was in the minors, with the waiter employing a racial epithet towards the ballplayer, but, again, there is no sense mention of it in the “Sources” section to serve as confirmation.

Throughout Jackson’s career, Perry depicts him as fighting against self-perceived indignities. Some are borne out of jealousy by his teammates and managers; others, the author implies, were racially motivated. When Jackson had his number retired by the Yankees, Perry write, “Bob Sheppard recited the names of the honored Yankees over the public address system….save for one: the deceased Billy Martin. Those who watched at home saw a slow pan across all the retired numbers, but before the camera reached Martin’s number, the telecast faded to commercial.” Perry offers an explanation, leaving it to the reader to infer that Jackson had something to do with it, one last poke in the eye to his former manager and adversary.

Perry also makes a number of factual errors. At one point, he claims the two-million-plus home attendance the Yankees achieved in 1977 was the first such occurrence since 1949. In fact, the Yankees reached that mark in 1976, and had previously hit that figure in 1950. Elsewhere he writes that 1981 featured “baseball’s first-ever three-tiered play-off.” First of all, this is only true if you include the Fall Classic as a “play-off” series. Second, while technically true, it’s a one-shot deal necessitated by a mid-season the players’ strike that divided the season into two parts. The current format of two rounds leading into the World Series did not begin until 1995. He also has Mickey Rivers somehow ranging over 400 feet to make a catch. Individually, these might seem like trivial, but taken as a whole, it represents something more sinister, if done purposefully, or merely careless. I realize the tight budgets that publishing houses have to deal with these days, but it doesn’t seem that someone looked at this very hard (not to proofreader/copy editor: “bullpen” is one word with regard to baseball.)

After all is written, the reader is still confused as to exactly who Reggie Jackson is. But that’s only fitting. If this book is indeed reasonably accurate, it seems Jackson isn’t too sure either.

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