Mr. October reflects on Yankee Stadium
Jackson has countless memories of his time in pinstripes
NEW YORK -- Quite a few longtime Yankees observers were surprised that the person chosen to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the first game of the last season of Yankee Stadium was Reggie Jackson. Among those was "Mr. October" himself.
Make no mistake. Although he spent only five years of his 22-season career in the Bronx, Jackson knows his Yankees history and that his place in it may not be as lofty as such icons as Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. That is why Jackson invited both to join him that night. Berra agreed, but Ford had previous commitments in Florida.
"They are 1 and 1A with the Yankees, as far as I'm concerned," Jackson said. "As for where I stand, I can't put a number on it. But wherever I am in line, I'm proud to be there."
The Yankees' thinking about inviting Jackson to be at the center of a special occasion was not hard to fathom. The renovated Yankee Stadium was only in its second season when Jackson signed with the Yankees as a free agent. He as much as anyone helped make the "new" Stadium as fitting a place for championship clubs as the previous "House That Ruth Built."
In that infamous "The Bronx Is Burning" season of 1977, the Yankees won their first World Series in 15 years. The clincher was climaxed by the single greatest individual achievement by any player in the renovated park as Jackson hit three home runs off three pitches from three pitchers.
Sure, David Wells and David Cone pitched perfect games there, and Joe Torre's reign was filled with memorable postseason performances, but nothing can quite touch what Jackson did the night of Oct. 18, 1977.
"One thing I remember clearly about that night is that I had a great batting practice," Jackson said recently. "That's not always the case. You can break seats all over the place in BP and then go 0-for-4. But that night, I was as locked in as I've ever been. The stroke continued throughout the game."
Jackson's first home run was off Dodgers starter Burt Hooton, the second off Elias Sosa and the third -- and most impressive -- was off knuckleballer Charlie Hough. Reggie's exclamation point of a drive off Hough reached the area of blackened seats in dead center field.
"At that time, it was only the second ball hit out there," Jackson said. "And the crowd, oh man, what a noise!"
Things were so noisy around Jackson in his Yankees years that it seemed as if he were there longer than five years. Despite his confrontations with principal owner George Steinbrenner, manager Billy Martin and some teammates, Jackson never lost sight of the hallowed ground on which he played, the same patch Ruth patrolled 50 years earlier.
"I remember the first time I came here as a visiting player with Oakland in 1968," Jackson said. "They just had the three monuments then, to Ruth, [Lou] Gehrig and [Miller] Huggins, and they were in play against the center field wall. The first thing I did when I took the field for BP, I ran out there to read what was on those plaques. You knew you were in a special place."
Jackson did his best to make the redesigned facility special, too. He was already mired in controversy when he made his Yankees debut because of a magazine article in the spring in which he was quoted as calling himself "the straw that stirs the drink" -- a direct knock on captain Thurman Munson. Before playing a game for the Yankees, Jackson had unwittingly put pressure on himself.
"I was nervous that first day," Jackson said. "I was the new kid in town, the biggest salary in the game. And it was, 'What are you going to do for me today?' from the fans. I had a pretty good day, a double and a single."
Someone who was in the park that day mentioned that Jimmy Wynn homered for the Yankees.
"I don't remember that," Jackson said. "I was digging my own movie."
Jackson could never forget that he homered in the Yankees' first home game of 1978. He once said that if he became a star in New York a candy bar would be named after him. Sure enough, the Standard Brands Candy Co. came out with a product called the Reggie Bar, which was distributed to fans as a promotion. When Jackson hit a three-run home run in the first inning, fans celebrated by throwing candy bars all over the field.
"There were still a few out there when I took the field," Jackson said. "I put some in my pocket. Hey, they were good candy bars."
Jackson's five-year contract came to an end after the 1981 World Series, which the Yankees lost to the Dodgers in six games. Steinbrenner lured free agent Dave Winfield to New York with a 10-year contract. Jackson signed on with the Angels. In recent years, Steinbrenner has said that not re-signing Jackson was one of his greatest mistakes.
It certainly seemed that way April 27, 1982, Jackson's first game back at the Stadium. Facing former teammate Ron Guidry, Jackson hit a solo home run off the façade of the upper deck in right field in the seventh inning. The crowd of 35,458 reacted as if Jackson was still wearing pinstripes by chanting "Reg-gie, Reg-gie" as he rounded the bases and demanded a curtain call, which he obliged.
"That can't top a three-homer game in a World Series clincher, but it came close," Jackson said. "After all was said and done, the fans here let me know how they really feel. They continue to do that whenever I'm back."
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.