The 2017 Baby Bombers may have fallen one victory short of reaching the World Series, but the Yankees have, historically, owned October. In fact, one of the franchise’s fabled Bronx Bombers owns the nickname for the month associated with the Fall Classic.
Reggie Jackson earned the honorific “Mr. October,” primarily for what he accomplished in one memorable game 40 years ago when he busted the pinstriped ghosts of autumns past.
Three home runs on three pitches against three different pitchers on a clear, 56-degree night in the Bronx.
In a clinching Game 6 of the 1977 World Series on Oct. 18 against the Los Angeles Dodgers that gave the Yankees their first championship since 1962, a drought that seemed like an eternity to the franchise’s ownership and fans.
Before a crowd of 56,407 that chanted his first name loudly and relentlessly, prompting a curtain call and dugout hugs from teammates and a manager he alienated for much of that eventful season with his controversial comments and boastful swagger.
“I felt vindicated,” Reginald Martinez Jackson said in a delirious, champagne-fueled locker room after that 8-4 victory over the Dodgers. “All that stuff I’d been through with Billy [Martin, the fiery and controversial Yankees manager], none of it mattered anymore at the moment. I can’t imagine ever feeling as good as I felt, taking that turn around the bases the third time.
“I felt like Superman,” Jackson continued. “Nothing can top this. Who’s ever going to hit three home runs in a deciding World Series game? Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio? At least I was with them for one night.”
It was a night that closed a season of high drama with three booming exclamation points.
In the broadcast booth for ABC, doing analysis for play-by-play announcer Keith Jackson, was the bombastic Howard Cosell, a verbal match for the outspoken Bronx Bomber who wore No. 44.
When Jackson’s third homer soared into the rarely reached black seats in dead centerfield about 475 feet away, Cosell tried to drown out the crowd with these shouted words as Reggie circled the bases:
“Oh, what a blow! What a way to top it off! Forget about who the Most Valuable Player is in the World Series! How this man has responded to pressure! Oh, what a beam on his face! How can you blame him? He’s answered the whole world! After all the furor, after all the hassling, it comes down to this!”
The furor and the hassling was a year-long occurrence, chronicled in the 1978 book “The Best Team Money Can Buy” by Steve Jacobson, Newsday’s Yankees beat writer in 1977.
“It was a very fatiguing year. There was something going on all the time,” said Jacobson, a longtime columnist now retired. “The season was full of [George] Steinbrenner’s rancor. The Yankees were so emotional afterwards because of what they had gone through during the season and the playoffs.”
Jackson’s Game 6 theatrics seemed unlikely nine days earlier when, in the throes of a 1-for-14 ALCS slump against the Royals, the slugger was benched by Martin for the deciding Game 5 in Kansas City against Royals lefthander Paul Splittorff. This was an unheard of and risky tactic by the combative Martin, who defied the wishes of the equally combative Steinbrenner, who had signed Jackson — against Martin’s wishes — to a five-year, $3-million free-agent contract in the offseason.
Jackson’s ill-fated “straw that stirs the drink” comments in Sport magazine that spring angered catcher Thurman Munson, the target of the remark, and nearly all of the other Yankees, except for Jackson’s trusted friend and confidant, backup catcher Fran Healy. It was Healy who told Jackson to take the high road with reporters before the ALCS finale, even though Reggie was seething not only because of his benching but also because Martin tasked respected coach and former Yankees star Elston Howard with informing Jackson of the demotion.
But Jackson, who came to the Yankees with a reputation for postseason heroics (he starred for the 1972-74 Oakland A’s World Series champions), delivered a clutch pinch-hit RBI single in the eighth off Doug Bird as the Yankees overcame a 3-1 deficit to win, 5-3, and reach the World Series for a second straight year. They had been swept by the Cincinnati Reds in 1976.
“We learned a lot from 1976 and were determined to give a much better performance,” rightfielder Lou Piniella said in a phone interview from his Florida home. “It was a long, tiring season in a lot of ways and we had to go through a good Kansas City team in the playoffs. The Dodgers were a really good team, too. That night was electric. The Stadium was really rocking. It was loud. It was raucous and it was just a great atmosphere.”
POWER TRAVELS WELL
The Yankees led the Series three games to two after a 10-4 loss in Los Angeles in Game 5. Jackson homered in his final at-bat that day, his second of the Series.
Jackson’s home run stroke made the cross-country journey for Game 6. He put on a powerful display in batting practice, recalling that he hit 20 of 40 pitches into the stands. Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph, according to Jackson in his 1984 autography “Reggie” written with Mike Lupica, said, “Would you do us all a favor and save a little of that?” To which Jackson claimed to have replied with a laugh, “There’s more where that came from.”
Indeed there was.
After a four-pitch walk in his first at-bat, Jackson came to bat with one on in the fourth and the Yankees trailing 3-2. He belted Burt Hooton’s first pitch into the lower seats in right to put the Yankees ahead to stay. “It was an inside fastball that I didn’t get in enough,” Hooton told Newsday by phone last week from his Texas home. “I still think I jammed him but not enough, and he was strong enough to get it over the rightfield wall. That’s the way we pitched to him the whole Series. We threw fastballs inside. If you got it in on him, you had a chance to get him out. We didn’t get it in enough.”
That was the case when Jackson faced reliever Elias Sosa with one on in the fifth.
“Fastball, also on the inside of the plate, and the result was the same,” Jackson said of his rocket into the rightfield bleachers in the 2008 book “Yankee Stadium: The Official Retrospective” by Mark Vancil and Alfred Santasiere III. “I didn’t always swing at the first pitch, but in both of those situations, the pitcher threw me a strike that I knew I could drive.”
Jackson knew he wasn’t getting a fastball when he came up with no one on in the eighth and the Yankees leading 7-3; knuckleball specialist Charlie Hough was in the game. “I really couldn’t believe they were going to let him face me,” Jackson said in “Yankee Stadium.” “I had had a lot of success against knuckleballers in my career.”
That trend continued with his majestic third home run. “I felt like I was going to strike him out. I threw what I thought was a really good knuckleball,” Hough told the YES Network in the Reggie Jackson Yankeeography.
But Jackson put a really good swing on it.
“The moment was frozen in time when the ball went up there,” Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey recalled to the YES Network. “There are times as an opponent you have to acknowledge greatness. That was the time.”
FELLOW PLAYERS WOWED
Garvey showed Jackson a silent form of respect by turning his back away from the Dodgers’ dugout and politely applauding into his glove as Jackson rounded first.
He acknowledged the gesture to reporters after the game. Said Garvey, “I must admit when Reggie hit his third home run and I was sure no one was listening, I applauded in my glove.”
The way the crowd was roaring, no one would’ve heard Garvey no matter how loudly he had clapped. On an MLB Network special before the 2016 All-Star Game in San Diego, where Garvey finished his career, he said, “If you can’t recognize greatness, you really can’t appreciate the game.”
Certainly Jackson’s teammates appreciated what they’d witnessed. “He had a way of rising to the occasion,” Randolph told the YES Network. “I just had a feeling before the game he would do something special. Once he hit the . . . second home run, I knew he was going to hit another one because he was in such a good groove.”
Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles, who didn’t get along well with Jackson, nonetheless was awed. “It was probably the greatest [single-game] performance by a player I’ve ever seen,” Nettles said in John Tullius’ 1986 book, “I’d Rather Be a Yankee.” “It gave me chills when he hit that third one . . . And it didn’t matter in the slightest whether you liked him or detested him. You put away whatever you felt for the guy and just bathed in the magnitude of the achievement. He was my teammate and I was pulling for him and so was each and every guy in the Yankee dugout.”
Jackson’s performance obscured the team’s accomplishment of winning the World Series for the first time in 15 years and also the accomplishments of several teammates. Munson and Piniella contributed big hits earlier in the Series and Chris Chambliss’ two-run homer tied Game 6 at 2 early. Emerging star Ron Guidry went the distance to win Game 4 and Mike Torrez delivered two complete-game victories, including the finale.
“The highlight of the Series, obviously, was winning,” Piniella said, “but the sub-highlight was the great night that Reggie had. He won the MVP, and rightfully so.”
Newsday’s Joe Gergen, then a columnist and now retired, recalled, “All the tension and emotions of the season lifted for one night. All of what happened leading up to that night made it all the more remarkable. If you didn’t see it, if you didn’t write about it, you wouldn’t have believed it. Basically, it was like watching Babe Ruth, or what it might have been like with Ruth in the 1920s. Three home runs on three pitches. It’s the kind of thing you remember and you just say, ‘Wow!’ ”
Forty years later, that’s still the perfect three-letter description.