Reggie Jackson, Executive Assistant with the Houston Astros during pregame...

Reggie Jackson, Executive Assistant with the Houston Astros during pregame in game 2 of the ALCS at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Tx on Oct 20, 2022 Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Major League Baseball’s historic event at Rickwood Field this past week was meant to be a celebration of the Negro Leagues. Everything about Thursday night’s game between the Cardinals and Giants was meticulously staged for that purpose, from the period uniforms worn by each team to Fox’s retro-throwback broadcast feel for the fifth inning: black-and-white video, a single overhead camera shot, no floating strike-zone box.

What wasn’t as scripted? The raw history lesson delivered on the pregame set by Reggie Jackson, who didn’t pull any punches about his own career experiences at Rickwood Field. The Hall of Famer wasn’t there to pay tribute. Instead, the former Yankees great detailed his hardships as a Black player in Birmingham, Alabama, a place governed then by Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation during his time in the minors.

This was not ancient history, either. Jackson was talking about the mid-1960s, and he got emotional during the live appearance on the set as host Kevin Burkhardt along with Fox regulars Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz and Derek Jeter looked on, speechless.

It was A-Rod who posed the opening question to Jackson, asking him, innocently enough, “How emotional is it for you to come back to a place that you played with one of the greatest teams around?”

Jackson, always known to be a straight shooter, didn’t glamorize those days in the least. On a night overflowing with nostalgia, only two days after the passing of Willie Mays, Jackson took the audience down a harrowing road through one of the most shameful chapters in America’s existence.

“Coming back here is not easy,” Jackson replied. “The racism when I played here, the difficulty of going through different places where we traveled. Fortunately I had a manager and I had players on the team that helped me get through it. But I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”

Typically, in these roundtable-type interviews, maybe Ortiz or Jeter would then follow up, perhaps steering Jackson toward another topic. But not this time. Jackson had the floor for this national broadcast, and he wasn’t close to being finished.

“People said to me, you think you’re a better person — you think you won when you played here and conquered?” Jackson said. “I said I would never want to do it again. I walked into restaurants and they would point at me and said the [N-word] can’t eat here. I would go to a hotel and they said the [N-word] can’t stay here.

“We went to [A’s owner] Charlie Finley’s country club for a welcome home dinner and they pointed me out with the N-word, he can’t come in here,” Jackson said. “Finley marched the whole team out. Finally they let me in there. [Finley] said we’re going to go to the diner and eat hamburgers. We’re going where we’re wanted.”

Jackson credited his Double-A manager, John McNamara, for helping him navigate  the Jim Crow landscape, as well as naming several Birmingham (and later A’s) teammates: Rollie Fingers, Dave Duncan and Joe Rudi (along with Rudi’s wife, Sharon). The Rudi family basically sheltered Jackson at one point.

“I slept on their couch three, four nights a week, for about a month and a half,” Jackson said. “Finally they were threatened; they would burn our apartment complex down unless I got out.”

Jackson then brought up the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist church, a racially motivated attack orchestrated by the Ku Klux Klan that killed four young Black girls and injured dozens more, many of them children who were part of the same Sunday prayer group. On a night when the names of legendary ballplayers were invoked, Jackson angrily singled out Bull Connor, who was the white supremacist “commissioner of public safety” for Birmingham, and how the Klan ringleaders were never punished until decades later.

To think that Jackson’s early development as a Cooperstown-bound player was forged amid such racially charged, life-threatening hazards — also endured by many others of his generation — can be difficult to comprehend here in the 21st century. And that’s what made Jackson’s personal account so powerful, and educational. It didn’t come from a book or a grainy YouTube video. Jackson delivered these horrifying details during a baseball pregame show, reminding viewers not only of those still living with these scars but how unexpectedly close to the surface they remain.

Everyone is familiar with Jackie Robinson’s barrier-breaking journey. Before Thursday, however, maybe only a fraction  knew of the continued blatant (and publicly endorsed) racial animosity toward Black players  nearly two decades after Robinson made his Brooklyn Dodgers debut in April 1947. Reliving those days still made Jackson shudder, especially when he reconsidered how things could have turned out for him in ‘60s Birmingham, in the shadow of Rickwood Field.

“I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” he said. “At the same time, had it not been for my white friends, had it not been for a white manager . . .  I would have never made it. I was too physically violent. I was physically ready to fight someone. I’d have gotten killed here because I’d have beat someone’s [expletive] and you’d seen me in an oak tree somewhere.”

Jackson’s chilling reference to being lynched closed out the interview, with Burkhardt wrapping it with “Reggie, I can’t even imagine . . .  “

And ultimately, that was the message. Jackson made the unimaginable all-too-real again and brought to life a chapter of baseball — and Birmingham — that needs to be remembered.

Yamamoto a cautionary tale

Maybe Yoshinobu Yamamoto got too amped up for his first start at Yankee Stadium. Maybe the Dodgers were too distracted by his electric stuff to pump the brakes. Either way, there’s little doubt that Yamamoto landing on the injured list this past week with a rotator-cuff strain was the direct result of firing a season-high number of fastballs with a crazy uptick in velocity — a recipe for disaster.

If Yamamoto, 25, was trying to show the Yankees — as well as the sellout crowd of 48,048 in the Bronx — what they missed out on, he succeeded by allowing only two hits and striking out seven in  seven scoreless innings that night. To do so, Yamamoto threw 56 fastballs (out of 106 pitches), with more than half of those (29) at 97 mph or higher. In his previous 12 starts, he threw a total of three pitches at that speed, so we’re talking about a dramatic increase and what most would consider a potentially dangerous number.

Yamamoto attributed the velocity jump to better mechanics. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts acknowledged that adrenaline probably played a part. But for a Japanese rookie still getting adjusted to MLB’s variables and a heavier workload, it came off as some questionable handling of a 12-year, $325 million investment.

The initial diagnosis for Yamamoto, who had to leave his next start after only two innings, was triceps tightness — often a precursor for UCL problems and eventual Tommy John surgery (Yu Darvish had a similar path in 2015). But an MRI revealed the rotator cuff strain, with Yamamoto’s return date unclear (though the Dodgers do not believe it will end his season).

Yamamoto’s June flameout brings to mind the Mets’ well-executed maintenance job with Kodai Senga, who went virtually injury-free in making 29 starts (12-7, 2.98 ERA) in 2023 after signing his five-year, $75 million contract. And that was after Senga came to the U.S. with a sketchy medical history, a minefield that pitching coach Jeremy Hefner deftly navigated.

Obviously, it’s been a much different story with Senga this season. The Mets’ presumed ace has yet to make a start after being sidelined with a shoulder strain and triceps issues since late February. He’s expected to face hitters this week, but given the glacial pace of his rehab, a return before August  seems unlikely.


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