Jackson was born in the Wyncote neighborhood of Cheltenham Township, just north of Philadelphia. His father was Martinez Jackson, a half Puerto Rican, who worked as a tailor and who was a former second baseman with the Newark Eagles of Negro league baseball. He was the youngest of four children from his mother, Clara. He also had two half-siblings from his father’s first marriage. His parents divorced when he was four; his mother took four of his siblings with her, while his father took Jackson and one of the siblings from his first marriage, though one sibling later returned to Wyncote. Martinez Jackson was a single father, and theirs was one of the few black families in Wyncote. He was able to develop a social ease with the Jewish community in Wyncote, as all his friends, girlfriends, coaches, and teachers during that timeframe were Jewish. In 1972, Jackson joined his Jewish teammates on the A’s – Ken Holtzman and Mike Epstein – in wearing black armbands for the rest of the postseason after the Munich Massacre at the Olympics in September. At Cheltenham High School, he was a classmate of Yonatan Netanyahu, who led the Israeli raid on Entebbe in 1976. Jackson graduated from Cheltenham High in 1964, where he excelled in football, basketball, baseball, and track and field. A tailback in football, he injured his knee in an early season game in his junior year. He was told by the doctors he was never to play football again, but Jackson returned for the final game of the season. In that game, Jackson fractured five cervical vertebrae, which caused him to spend six weeks in the hospital and another month in a neck cast. Doctors told Jackson that he might never walk again, let alone play football, but Jackson defied the odds again. On the baseball team, he batted .550 and threw several no-hitters. In the middle of his senior year, Jackson’s father was arrested for bootlegging and was sentenced to six months in jail.
In football, he was scouted by Alabama, Georgia, and Oklahoma, all of whom were willing to break the color barrier just for Jackson (Oklahoma had black football players before 1964- including Prentice Gautt, a star running back recruited in 1957, who played in the NFL with the St. Louis Cardinals). Jackson declined Alabama and Georgia because he was fearful of the South at the time, and declined Oklahoma because they told him to stop dating white girls. For baseball, Jackson was scouted by Hans Lobert of the San Francisco Giants who was desperate to sign him. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Minnesota Twins also made offers, and the hometown Philadelphia Phillies gave him a tryout but declined because of his “hitting skills”. His father wanted his son to go to college, where Jackson wanted to play both football and baseball. He decided to attend Arizona State University on a football scholarship. His high-school football coach knew ASU’s head football coach Frank Kush, and they discussed the possibility of him playing both sports. After a recruiting trip, Kush decided that Jackson had the ability and willingness to work to join the squad.
One day after football practice, he approached baseball coach Bobby Winkles asking if he could join the team. Winkles said he would give Jackson a look, and the next day while still in his football gear, he hit a home run on the second pitch he saw. In five at bats he hit three home runs. He was allowed to practice with the team, but could not join the squad because the NCAA had a rule forbidding the use of freshman players. Jackson switched permanently to baseball following his freshman year, as he did not want to become a defensive back. To hone his skills, Winkles assigned him to a Baltimore Orioles-affiliated amateur team. He broke numerous team records for the squad, and the Orioles offered him a $50,000 signing bonus if he joined the team. Jackson declined the offer stating that he did not want to forfeit his college scholarship. In the beginning of his sophomore year in 1966, Jackson replaced Rick Monday (the first player ever selected in the Major League Baseball draft and a future teammate with the A’s) at center field. He broke the team record for most home runs in a single season, led the team in numerous other categories and was first team All-American. Many scouts were looking at him play, including Tom Greenwade of the New York Yankees (who discovered Mickey Mantle), and Danny Murtaugh of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In his final game at Arizona State, he showed his potential by being only a triple away from hitting for the cycle, making a sliding catch, and having an assist at home plate. Jackson was the first college player to hit a home run out of Phoenix Municipal Stadium.
I the 1966 Major League Baseball draft on June 7, Jackson was selected by the Kansas City Athletics. He was the second overall pick, behind 17-year-old catcher Steve Chilcott, who was taken by the New York Mets. According to Jackson, Winkles told him that the Mets did not select him because he had a white girlfriend. Winkles later denied the story, stating that he did not know the reason why Jackson was not drafted by the Mets. It was later confirmed by Joe McDonald that the Mets drafted Chilcott because of need, yet again the person running the Mets at the time was George Weiss, a known racist, so the true motive may never be known. Jackson, age 20, signed with the A’s for $95,000 on June 13 and reported for his first training camp with the Lewis-Clark Broncs of the short season Single-A Northwest League in Lewiston, Idaho, managed by Grady Wilson. He made his professional debut as a center fielder in the season opener on June 24 at Bethel Park in Eugene, Oregon, but was hitless in five at-bats. In the next game, Jackson singled in the first inning and homered in the ninth. In the home opener at Bengal Field in Lewiston on June 30, he hit a double and a triple. In his final game as a Bronc on July 6, Jackson was hit in the head by a pitch in the first inning, but stayed in the game and drove in runs with two sacrifice flies. Complaining of a headache, he left the game in the ninth inning, was admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lewiston, and remained overnight for observation. Jackson played for two Class A teams in 1966, with the Broncs for just 12 games, and then 56 games with Modesto in the California League, where he hit 21 homers. He began 1967 with the Birmingham A’s in the Double-A Southern Leaguein Birmingham, Alabama, where Jackson got his first taste of racism, being one of only a few blacks on the team. He credits the team’s manager at the time, John McNamara, for helping him through that difficult season.
Jackson debuted in the major leagues with the A’s in 1967 in a Friday doubleheader in Kansas City on June 9, a shutout sweep of the Cleveland Indians by scores of 2–0 and 6–0 at Municipal Stadium. (Jackson had his first career hit in the nightcap, a lead-off triple in the fifth inning off of long reliever Orlando Peña. The Athletics moved west to Oakland prior to the 1968 season. Jackson hit 47 home runs in 1969, and was briefly ahead of the pace that Roger Maris set when he broke the single-season record for home runs with 61 in 1961, and that of Babe Ruth when he set the previous record of 60 in 1927. Jackson later said that the sportswriters were claiming he was “dating a lady named ‘Ruth Maris.'” That off-season, Jackson sought an increase in salary, and Athletics owner Charlie O. Finley threatened to send Jackson to the minors. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn successfully intervened in their dispute, but Jackson’s numbers in 1970 dropped sharply, as he hit just 23 home runs while batting .237. The Athletics sent him to play in Puerto Rico, where he played for the Santurce team and hit 20 homers and knocked in 47 runs to lead the league in both departments. Jackson hit a memorable home run in the 1971 All-Star Game at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. Batting for the American League against Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis, the ball he hit soared above the right-field stands, striking the transformer of a light standard on the right field roof. While with the Angels in 1984, he hit a home run over that roof. In 1971, the Athletics won the American League’s West division, their first title of any kind since 1931, when they played in Philadelphia. They were swept in three games in the American League Championship Series by the Baltimore Orioles. The A’s won the division again in 1972; their series with the Tigers went the full five games, and Jackson scored the tying run in the clincher on a steal of home. In the process, however, he tore a hamstring and was unable to play in the World Series. The A’s still managed to defeat the Cincinnati Reds in seven games. It was the first championship won by a San Francisco Bay Areateam in any major league sport.
During spring training in 1972, Jackson showed up with a mustache. Though his teammates wanted him to shave it off, Jackson refused. Finley liked the mustache so much that he offered each player $300 to grow one, and hosted a “Mustache Day” featuring the last MLB player to wear a mustache, Frenchy Bordagaray, as master of ceremonies. Jackson helped the Athletics win the pennant again in 1973, and was named Most Valuable Player of the American League for the season. The A’s defeated the New York Mets in seven hard-fought games in the World Series. This time, Jackson was not only able to play, but his performance led to his being awarded the Series’ Most Valuable Player award. In the third inning of that seventh game, which ended in a 5–2 score, the A’s jumped out to a 4–0 lead as both Bert Campaneris and Jackson hit two-run home runs off Jon Matlack—the only two home runs Oakland hit the entire Series. The A’s won the World Series again in 1974, defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in five games. Besides hitting 254 home runs in nine years with the Athletics, Jackson was also no stranger to controversy or conflict in Oakland. Sports author Dick Crouser wrote, “When the late Al Helfer was broadcasting the Oakland A’s games, he was not too enthusiastic about Reggie Jackson’s speed or his hustle. Once, with Jackson on third, teammate Rick Monday hit a long home run. ‘Jackson should score easily on that one,’ commented Helfer. Crouser also noted that, “Nobody seems to be neutral on Reggie Jackson. You’re either a fan or a detractor.” When teammate Darold Knowles was asked if Jackson was a hot dog (i.e., a show-off), he famously replied, “There isn’t enough mustard in the world to cover Reggie Jackson.” On June 5, 1974, outfielder Billy North and Jackson engaged in a clubhouse fight at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium. Jackson injured his shoulder, and catcher Ray Fosse, attempting to separate the combatants, suffered a crushed disk in his neck, costing him three months on the disabled list.
The Yankees signed Jackson to a five-year contract totaling $2.96 million ($12,457,965 in current dollar terms) on November 29, 1976. The number 9 that he had worn in Oakland and Baltimore was already used by Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles. Jackson asked for number 42 in memory of Jackie Robinson, but that number was given to pitching coach Art Fowler before the start of the season. Noting that Hank Aaron, at the time the holder of the career record for the most home runs, had just retired, Jackson asked for and received number 44 as a tribute to Aaron. Jackson wore number 20 for one game during spring training as a tribute to the also recently retired Frank Robinson, then he switched to number 44. Jackson’s first season with the Yankees, 1977, was a difficult one. Although team owner George Steinbrenner and several players, most notably catcher and team captain Thurman Munson and outfielder Lou Piniella, were excited about his arrival, the team’s manager, Billy Martin was not. Martin had managed the Tigers in 1972, when Jackson’s A’s beat them in the playoffs. Jackson was once quoted as saying of Martin, “I hate him, but if I played for him, I’d probably love him.” The relationship between Jackson and his new teammates was strained due to an interview with SPORT magazine writer Robert Ward. During spring training at the Yankees’ camp in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Jackson and Ward were having drinks at a nearby bar. Jackson’s version of the story is that he noted that the Yankees had won the pennant the year before, but lost the World Series to the Reds, and suggested that they needed one thing more to win it all, and pointed out the various ingredients in his drink. Ward suggested that Jackson might be “the straw that stirs the drink.” But when the story appeared in the June 1977 issue of SPORT, Ward quoted Jackson as saying, “This team, it all flows from me. I’m the straw that stirs the drink. Maybe I should say me and Munson, but he can only stir it bad.”
Jackson has consistently denied saying anything negative about Munson in the interview and he has said that his quotes were taken out of context. However, Dave Anderson of The New York Times subsequently wrote that he had drinks with Jackson in July 1977, and that Jackson told him, “I’m still the straw that stirs the drink. Not Munson, not nobody else on this club.” Regardless, as Munson was beloved by his teammates, Martin, Steinbrenner and Yankee fans, the relationships between them and Jackson became very strained. On June 18, in a 10–4 loss to the Boston Red Sox in a nationally televised game at Fenway Park in Boston, Jim Rice, a powerful hitter but notoriously slow runner, hit a ball into shallow right field that Jackson appeared to weakly attempt to field. Jackson failed to reach the ball which fell far in front of him, thereby allowing Rice to reach second base. Furious, Martin removed Jackson from the game without even waiting for the end of the inning, sending Paul Blair out to replace him. When Jackson arrived at the dugout, Martin yelled that Jackson had shown him up. They argued, and Jackson said that Martin’s heavy drinking had impaired his judgment. Despite Jackson being 18 years younger, about two inches taller and maybe 40 pounds heavier, Martin lunged at him, and had to be restrained by coaches Yogi Berra and Elston Howard. Red Sox fans could see this in the dugout and began cheering wildly, and the NBC TV cameras showed the confrontation to the entire country. Yankees management defused the situation by the next day, but the relationship between Jackson and Martin was permanently poisoned. However, George Steinbrenner made a crucial intervention when he gave Martin the option of either having Jackson bat in the fourth or “cleanup” spot for the rest of the season, or losing his job. Martin made the change and Jackson’s hitting improved (he had 13 home runs and 49 RBIs over his next 50 games), and the team went on a winning streak. On September 14, while in a tight three-way race for the American League Eastern Division crown with the Red Sox and Orioles, Jackson ended a game with the Red Sox by hitting a home run off Reggie Cleveland, giving the Yankees a 2–0 win. The Yankees won the division by two and a half games over the Red Sox and Orioles, and came from behind in the top of the ninth inning in the fifth and final game of the American League Championship Series to beat the Kansas City Royals for the pennant.
During the 1977 World Series against the Dodgers, Munson was interviewed, and suggested that Jackson, because of his past post-season performances, might be the better interview subject. “Go ask Mister October”, he said, giving Jackson a nickname that would stick. (In Oakland, he had been known as “Jax” and “Buck.”) Jackson hit home runs in Games Four and Five of the Series. Jackson’s crowning achievement came with his three-home-run performance in World Series-clinching Game Six, each on the first pitch, off three Dodgers pitchers. (His first plate-appearance, during the second inning, resulted in a four-pitch walk.) The first came off starter Burt Hooton, and was a line drive shot into the lower right field seats at Yankee Stadium. The second was a much faster line drive off reliever Elías Sosa into roughly the same area. With the fans chanting his name, “Reg-GIE! Reg-GIE! Reg-GIE!” the third came off reliever Charlie Hough, a knuckleball pitcher, making the distance of this home run particularly remarkable. It was a towering drive into the black-painted batter’s eye seats in center, 475 feet away.
Since Jackson had hit a home run off Dodger pitcher Don Sutton in his last at bat in Game Five, his three home runs in Game Six meant that he had hit four home runs on four consecutive swings of the bat against as many Dodgers pitchers. Jackson became the first player to win the World Series MVP award for two teams. In 27 World Series games, he amassed 10 home runs, including a record five during the 1977 Series (the last three on first pitches), 24 RBI and a .357 batting average. Babe Ruth, Albert Pujols, and Pablo Sandoval are the only other players to hit three home runs in a single World Series game. Babe Ruth accomplishing the feat twice – in 1926 and 1928 (both in Game Four). With 25 total bases, Jackson also broke Ruth’s record of 22 in the latter Series; this remains a World Series record, Willie Stargell tying it in the 1979 World Series. In 2009, Chase Utley of the Philadelphia Phillies tied Jackson’s record for most home runs in a single World Series. An often forgotten aspect of the ending of this decisive Game 6 was the way Jackson left the field at the game’s end. Fans had been getting somewhat rowdy in anticipation of the game’s end, and some had actually thrown firecrackers out near Jackson’s area in right field. Jackson was alarmed enough about this to walk off the field, in order to get a helmet from the Yankee bench to protect himself. Shortly after this point, as the end of the game neared, fans were actually bold enough to climb over the wall, draping their legs over the side in preparation for the moment when they planned to rush onto the field. When that moment came, after pitcher Mike Torrez caught a pop-up for the game’s final out, Jackson started running at top speed off the field, actually body-checking past some of these fans filling the playing field in the manner of a football linebacker.
As he entered the last year of his Yankee contract in 1981, Jackson endured several difficulties from George Steinbrenner. After the owner consulted Jackson about signing then-free agent Dave Winfield, Jackson expected Steinbrenner to work out a new contract for him as well. Steinbrenner never did (some say never intending to) and Jackson played the season as a free agent. Jackson started slowly with the bat, and when the 1981 Major League Baseball strike began, Steinbrenner invoked a clause in Jackson’s contract forcing him to take a complete physical examination. Jackson was outraged and blasted Steinbrenner in the media. When the season resumed, Jackson’s hitting improved, partly to show Steinbrenner he wasn’t finished as a player. He hit a long home run into the upper deck in Game Five of the strike-forced 1981 American League Division Series with the Brewers, and the Yankees went on to win the pennant again. However, Jackson injured himself running the bases in Game Two of the 1981 ALCS and missed the first two games of the World Series, both of which the Yankees won. Jackson was medically cleared to play Game Three, but manager Bob Lemon refused to start him or even play him, allegedly acting under orders from Steinbrenner. The Yankees lost that game and Jackson played the remainder of the series, hitting a home run in Game Four. However, they lost the last three games and the World Series to the Dodgers.
On April 27, 1982, in Jackson’s first game back at Yankee Stadium with the Angels, he broke out of a terrible season-starting slump to hit a home run off former teammate Ron Guidry. The at-bat began with Yankee fans, angry at Steinbrenner for letting Jackson get away, starting the “Reg-GIE!” chant, and ended it with the fans chanting “Steinbrenner sucks!” By the time of Jackson’s election to the Hall of Fame, Steinbrenner had begun to say that letting him go was the biggest mistake he had made as Yankee owner.
During his freshman year at Arizona State, he met Jennie Campos, a Mexican-American. Jackson asked Campos on a date, and discovered many similarities, including the ability to speak Spanish, and being raised in a single parent home (Campos’s father was killed in the Korean War). An assistant football coach tried to break up the couple because Jackson was black and Campos was considered white. The coach contacted Campos’s uncle, a wealthy benefactor of the school, and he warned the couple that their being together was a bad idea. But the relationship held up and she later became his first wife. Jackson has been divorced since 1973. Kimberly, his only child, was born in the late 1980s. During the off-season, though still active in baseball, Jackson worked as a field reporter and color commentator for ABC Sports. Just over a month before signing with the Yankees in the fall of 1976, Jackson did analysis in the ABC booth with Keith Jackson and Howard Cosell the night his future team won the American League pennant on a homer by Chris Chambliss. During the 1980s (1983, 1985, and 1987respectively), Jackson was given the task of presiding over the World Series Trophy presentations. In addition, Jackson did color commentary for the 1984 National League Championship Series (alongside Don Drysdale and Earl Weaver). After his retirement as an active player, Jackson returned to his color commentary role covering the 1988 American League Championship Series (alongside Gary Benderand Joe Morgan) for ABC.
He also made appearances in the film The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, in which he played an Angels outfielder diabolically programmed to kill the Queen of England. He also appeared in Richie Rich, BASEketball, Summer of Sam and The Benchwarmers. He played himself in the Archie Bunker’s Place episode “Reggie-3 Archie-0” in 1982, a 1990 MacGyver episode, “Squeeze Play”, and the Malcolm in the Middle episode “Polly in the Middle”, from 2004. Jackson was also considered for the role of Geordi LaForge in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation, a role which ultimately went to LeVar Burton. From 1981 to 1982 he hosted for Nickelodeon’s Reggie Jackson’s World of Sports.
Jackson and Steinbrenner would reconcile, and Steinbrenner would hire him as a “special assistant to the principal owner”, making Jackson a consultant and a liaison to the team’s players, particularly the minority players. By this point, the Yankees, long noted for being slow to adapt to changes in race relations, have come to develop many minority players in their farm system and seek out others via trades and free agency. Jackson usually appears in uniform at the Yankees’ spring training complex in Tampa, Florida, and was sought out for advice by such recent stars as Derek Jeter, before his retirement, and by former Yankee star Alex Rodriguez. “His experience is vast, and he’s especially good with the young players in our minor league system, the 17- and 18-year old kids. They respect him and what he’s accomplished in his career. When Reggie Jackson tells a young kid how he might improve his swing, he tends to listen”, said Hal Steinbrenner, Yankees’ managing general partner and co-chairperson. Jackson was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1993. He chose to wear a Yankees cap on his Hall of Fame plaque after the Oakland Athletics unceremoniously fired him from a coaching position in 1991. The Yankees retired his uniform number 44 on August 14, 1993, shortly after his induction into the Hall of Fame. The Athletics retired his number 9 on May 22, 2004. He is one of only eight MLB players to have their numbers retired by more than one team, and one of only three to have different numbers retired by two MLB teams. In 1999, Jackson placed 48th on Sporting News 100 Greatest Baseball Players. That same year, he was named one of 100 finalists for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team, but was not one of the 30 players chosen by the fans.
The Yankees dedicated a plaque in his honor on July 6, 2002, which now hangs in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. The plaque calls him “One of the most colorful and exciting players of his era” and “a prolific hitter who thrived in pressure situations.” Each Yankee so honored and still living was on hand for the dedication: Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Don Mattingly. Ron Guidry, a teammate of Jackson’s for all five of his seasons with the Yankees, was there, and would be honored with a Monument Park plaque the next season. Out of respect to some of the players who Jackson admired while growing up, Jackson invited Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks to attend the ceremony, and each did so. Like Jackson, each was a member of the Hall of Fame and had hit over 500 career home runs. Each had also played in the Negro Leagues, as Jackson’s father, Martinez Jackson, had.