A Look Back

The Hunt for Mr. October

This October will mark the 40th anniversary of the New York Yankees’ 1977 World Series championship. It was the team’s first title since 1962 and made Reggie Jackson an international superstar. Jackson was already an established star – he had won the 1973 AL MVP and World Series MVP Awards while with the Oakland A’s – but his performance in New York took him to a higher level.

The Yankees had been swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the 1976 World Series, so George Steinbrenner was determined to bring in a big bat for the following season. Steinbrenner wined and dined Jackson, who had been dealt to Baltimore at the beginning of the ’76 season and was an unrestricted free agent. On November 29, the Yankees owner got his man. Jackson signed a five-year deal worth $3.5MM…in total!

Manager Billy Martin wasn’t happy with the move. He preferred solid, gritty players like himself over highly paid prima donnas like Jackson was reported to be. Martin’s feeling helped to escalate a sometime back-biting, nasty relationship between the owner, manager, and player. But, the fans were excited to get a player that once hit 47 home runs in a season and belted a mammoth 520-ft home run at the 1972 All-Star game in Detroit.

The adjustment to New York was not an easy one for Jackson. It didn’t help matters when a June Sport Magazine interview blew up in Jackson’s face. In a Q & A conducted during Spring Training, Jackson was quoted as saying “This team, it all flows from me. I’m the straw that stirs the drink. Maybe I should say me and (Thurman) Munson, but he can only stir it bad.”

Jackson said the quote was taken out of context and that he never said what was printed about Munson. But, Sport Magazine and reporter Robert Ward stood by their story. Whether it was out of context or not, the damage was done. The players and fans loved Munson and were loyal to their captain. Martin loved Munson too, so the article did even further damage to his relationship with Jackson.

Martin also refused to bat Jackson in the cleanup spot of the order, something that Jackson took as an insult. Except for a nine-game stretch in May, Jackson didn’t hit regularly from the #4 spot until early August.

Despite the drama and soap opera-like atmosphere, there was one thing that was certain. Reggie Jackson could flat-out crush a baseball. Even if he swung and missed, Jackson took such a monstrous swing that it would intimidate the opposing pitcher. He was just what the lineup needed, a bona fide masher. He belted 32 home runs and drove in 110 runs in his first season in the Bronx. That October, under in the big lights of the big city, he became a New York and baseball legend.

First, the Yankees had to get by the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS. The Bombers trailed two-games-to-one in the best of five series before a 6-4 win evened things up. Inexplicably, Martin benched Jackson to start the game. But, trailing 3-1 in the top of the 8th, Jackson delivered a pinch-hit RBI single to narrow the deficit. The Yankees scored three more times in the 9th to capture the pennant.

In the Fall Classic, the Yankees led the Los Angeles Dodgers three games to two, with Game 6 set for Yankee Stadium. The Yankees’ Mike Torrez (who had been traded from Baltimore to Oakland in the Jackson deal in ’76) faced off against the Dodgers’ Burt Hooton.

Down 2-0 in the 2nd inning, Jackson drew a lead-off walk and Chris Chambliss followed with a go-ahead home run. The Yankees trailed again in the bottom of the fourth inning, 3-2. Jackson turned on Hooton’s first pitch and smashed a shot into the upper deck in right field to tie things up once again.

One inning later, Jackson came to the plate with a man aboard and the Yankees ahead 4-3. This time, Jackson hit a laser beam into the lower deck in right field on reliever Elias Sosa‘s first pitch. The buzz among the fans began to grow louder and louder each time Jackson took a swing. The finish line to a championship was in sight.

The Yankees had increased their lead to 7-3 when Jackson led off the 7th inning against knuckleballer Charlie Hough. Jackson wasn’t patient at the plate in his last at-bat of the night either, hitting a moonshot on the first pitch he saw from Hough. The ball landed in the blackened batter’s eye in dead center field, approximately 450 feet from home plate.

The Yankees went on to an 8-4 victory thanks to Jackson’s three home runs on three swings. While being interviewed during the series, Munson told reporters, “Go talk to Mr. October — I don’t feel like talking.” And, just like that, a lifelong moniker was born.

Jackson was the easy choice for World Series MVP. With a home run in his last at-bat in Game 5, Jackson had homered in four straight official at-bats. And, at least temporarily, Steinbrenner, Jackson, and Martin were one big happy family.

 

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