So here’s my baseball book for this year: Becoming Mr. October, by Reggie Jackson. I saw it on the New Arrivals stand at the library and picked it right up. Reggie gives us a few chapters on growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, his college career at Arizona State, and his early professional career with Oakland, but the bulk of the book covers the 1977 and 1978 seasons with the Yankees, when they won the World Series two years in a row.
It actually works pretty well paired with Bill Lee’s autobiography, which I read last year. Bill Lee was a pitcher with the Red Sox in 1978, that near-mythical season when the Sox and Yankees ended up tied for first place in the American League East on the last day of the regular season and had to play a tie-breaker. Not surprisingly, Bill Lee makes a few appearances in this book as well, although we’re reading now from the other point of view.
One thing that struck me about both books is how badly the pitchers were handled. Bill mentioned Red Sox manager Don Zimmer refusing to adhere to a regular rotation, instead “saving” certain pitchers for key games, only to find they don’t produce because they’ve had too much or too little rest. Similarly, Billy Martin on the Yankees would decide he didn’t like a certain player’s attitude and bench him (often without explaining why), and then pitch another guy on only three days rest. Or, he might yank a pitcher in trouble in the fourth inning instead of letting him work out of the jam, and send in a closer for the final five innings of the game (or more, in case of extra innings). Favored pitchers he would leave in for all nine innings, fine for one outing but hell on a pitcher over multiple starts. After half a season of this, most of his pitching staff suffered permanently sore arms or worse. Reggie mentions several great pitchers who never pitched the same after working on one of Martin’s teams.
I have to wonder–was this typical? I mean, the Yankees and Red Sox were two of the best teams in baseball, and that’s how they were treating their pitchers. I have to imagine lesser teams were even worse off. Or were the Yankees and Red Sox special cases, who managed to win despite the way their pitchers were treated? No way a manager could get away with that today.
Then too, Billy Martin comes off terribly in Reggie’s book in general. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a positive account of Billy–even writers trying to be nice use euphemisms like “scrappy” or “feisty.” Reggie describes him as downright mean, a drunkard who harbors secret grudges that he satisfies by trying to humiliate his players on the national stage. Apparently he had a special dislike for Reggie from the very first day that Reggie showed up at spring training in 1977. Of course Reggie, an outspoken black man who had to fight for every bit of respect he ever got, simply wouldn’t put up with Billy and at times openly defied him.
Of course, Reggie was famous for speaking his mind, even boasting about his talents and accomplishments. It wasn’t idle though–he was truly the best power hitter in the game! Four home runs in four consecutive at-bats in the 1977 World Series, and that’s just for starters. I didn’t realize that Yankees catcher Thurman Munson originally referred to Reggie as “Mr. October” sarcastically, but Reggie quickly picked up the phrase and wore it proudly.
He admits in the book that in retrospect, he wouldn’t have said everything he did. He says he was naive about the media when he got to New York, as in Oakland there’d typically been only three sportswriters in the locker room after games and they’d had a strong respect for players who wanted to keep things off the record. In contrast, the Yankees locker room had dozens of sportswriters after a game, each looking for the best quote they could get and not above quoting overheard remarks, private conversations, or even subtly twisting their quotes to make them juicier. Reggie says now if he’d known how many hurt feelings there would be, he would have kept his mouth shut a lot more often. Quite an admission for a player who many thought at the time went out of his way to create controversy.
All in all, I would think this book would be of interest to any baseball fan. It’s an entertaining story by one of the more colorful characters to ever play the game, playing on one of the best Yankees teams of all time.