Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Don't Buy the New Reggie Biography

Happy Birthday to Mr. Reginald Martinez Jackson, a man who did so much to make my childhood bearable.

How did Reggie get to be 64? The same way Tom Seaver got to be 65, Mike Schmidt got to be 62, and Carl Yastrzemski got to be 70: By not dying. If only we could say that about 64-year-old Bobby Murcer, 64-year-old Catfish Hunter, and 63-year-old Thurman Munson. Those are the ages that these men would be now. Alas...

There's a new biography out about him, titled Reggie Jackson: The Life and Thunderous Career of Baseball's Mr. October, by Dayn Perry of Fox Sports.

It took me 4 days to read it. When it was over, I thought I understood Reggie a little better. And it is well-written.

But the best birthday present I can give my first real sports hero is to tell you all: Do not buy this book.

Remember what Billy Martin said about Reggie and George Steinbrenner? "The two were meant for each other. One's a born liar, and the other's convicted."

It can't be denied all that hard: George was convicted of making illegal campaign contributions, and Reggie has said a lot of things that, with a little research, were proven untrue.

The book suggests that Reggie inherited a lot of his personality traits from his father, tailor and bootleg liquor distiller Martinez "Marty" Jackson. Traits such as telling tall tales, looking out for money first and other priorities second, and difficulty with being faithful to the women in his life. As much as I would like to, I can't defend Reggie against these charges.

But the book doesn't just take shots at Reggie. In fact, it is an equal-opportunity hatchet job. It rehashes things about George and Billy, and also brings up things I hadn't known before, things that, had they been known at the time, would have destroyed whatever reputations they still had, much as happened to O.J. Simpson (though none of them killed anybody, as far as I know), Pete Rose (though none of them bet on baseball, as far as I know) and Mark McGwire (though none of them used steroids, though the book suggests that Reggie introduced to McGwire and Canseco the guy who introduced steroids to them).

The book also suggests that what Reggie supposedly said about Thurman Munson in that infamous SPORT magazine article was true, that Thurman was an incredibly insecure guy, particularly where his salary was concerned; that as much as Thurman admired Jim "Catfish" Hunter, it did bother him that George made an exception to his promise to Thurman that he would always be the highest-paid Yankee, and then made another exception to sign Reggie, and then another with Rich "Goose" Gossage.

This is in sharp contradiction to the scene in the film version of The Bronx Is Burning, where Thurman (played by Erik Jensen) says to Reggie (Daniel Sunjata), "You think I'm jealous of you? What have you got that I want? I've got a wife and three beautiful children." (At the time, Reggie was not all that long from being divorced, and what is believed to be his one and only child was years away from being born.)

On the other hand, this is not the first book to suggest that Reggie was, and perhaps remains, a lonely man, but that his parents' breakup damaged his ability to form lasting relationships on any level. Perry torches Reggie's father, and makes his mother look bad as well, although not nearly as bad as his father.

The new book also makes several other Yankees look bad. It does no favors for Chris Chambliss. It hits Sparky Lyle hard. It trashes Graig Nettles, making him look like one step up from the Ku Klux Klan. Perry hits Nettles so hard, I began to wonder if Bill Lee was a consultant on the book.

From Reggie's Oakland Athletics days, it hits Vida Blue, John "Blue Moon" Odom, Mike Epstein, and especially Billy North. Hardly surprising, considering the A's image as a team always at odds with each other, and apparently agreeing on only one thing, that they hated their team's owner.

Which brings me to this: The book really slams team owner Charlie Finley. Fair enough: This isn't the first book to slam him, and it won't be the last. Finley was an innovator who built a dynasty, but also a cheap bastard who shafted Kansas City. He tried to shaft Oakland. In the process of shafting K.C., he also shafted Denver, Louisville and Dallas. And, in trying and failing to shaft Oakland, he shafted Denver and New Orleans. He shafted several of his players, including Reggie and Catfish, the 2 best players he would ever have. He broke up his dynasty because, multimillionaire though he was, he wasn't willing to give up the occasional extra few thousand dollars (how quaint the amounts now sound). And he generally acted like a madman who, much of the time, didn't even care enough to show up at the ballpark.

There are even some people in the book who look good at times, but not at others, including John McNamara, who did so much to help Reggie through his 1967 season at Double-A Birmingham, flashpoint of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s; but then, as manager of the A's in 1970, sided with Finley and let Reggie be treated like dirt. (They appear to have reconciled when McNamara managed the California Angels, as the Anaheim franchise was then known.)

Should we know that these baseball men did some awful things? Yes. Do we need to know all the awful things they did? I don't think so.

What really pisses me off is that a lot of the people Perry trashes in this book are no longer able to defend themselves. If Bill Madden is to be believed, George Steinbrenner has suffered strokes that have left him in a state resembling Alzheimer's disease. Reggie's parents, Billy Martin and Charlie Finley are dead, and thus they cannot respond either.

Who ends up looking good in the book? Reggie's Oakland teammates, particularly Catfish, Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers. Reggie's Oakland manager Dick Williams, and his Anaheim manager Gene Mauch. And Angels owner Gene Autry, the legendary Singing Cowboy, looks like one of the most decent and generous men who ever lived, a portrayal that matches much of what I've heard about him. But his wife and successor as Angels owner, Jackie, ends up looking bad.

Most of the people this book rips were not all bad. Many of them did good things, and not just on the field. Some did wonderful things. Perry doesn't seem to give them much credit for this, though.


Reggie deserves a fair assessment of his life and his baseball career. You could walk away from such an assessment wondering what he was thinking sometimes. But this new biography is mostly negative, seeming to praise him for two things: The big hits he got, and for being the first black baseball player to really get away with being outspoken.

Even that isn't really true: Jackie Robinson, Frank Robinson, and eventually Hank Aaron all were admired for the stands they took. Reggie may have taken it to the next level, and he'd be the first guy to tell you that he deserved credit for that. But, as a student of history, and especially of baseball history, he'd also be the first guy to tell you that he didn't start it.

In his book Memories of Summer, in which he discussed many of the New York baseball legends he covered in the 1950s, and what had happened to them since, Roger Kahn said, "No, you couldn't possibly approve of Mickey Mantle. What you could do was love him."

A lot of people will read Dayn Perry's new biography Reggie Jackson: The Life and Thunderous Career of Baseball's Mr. October, and come away shaking their heads, but still remembering why they loved the guy.

Maybe Perry should have discussed that in his book. Instead of writing a "fair and balanced" (he does work for Fox, after all) book about a sports icon, he wrote a cold-blooded listing of events that make his subject look like a caricature of what he was -- or like Billy Martin's image of him, which is ironic because Perry hits Billy hard, too.

Why do people love Reggie? Why do they love Seaver, or Yaz, or Pete, or Tony Conigliaro? Why did they love Mickey, or Willie, or Hank? I'm not a psychologist, and I can't explain what makes a person say, "Yeah, I know, he did some things I can't approve of, but... but I love him. Still."

As Neil Young -- another such person -- might have said, "I sing a song because I loved a man. I know that some of you won't understand."

Dayn Perry could have said words to the effect of, "Reggie Jackson had his flaws, but he was good for the game of baseball, and he was good for America."

Instead, he wrote a book that shows his writing talent and Reggie's baseball talent. But both the subject and those who might want to read it deserve better.

As a baseball fan, and as someone who still admires Reggie Jackson, I'm asking you: Do not buy this book.

UPDATE: In 2013, in response to this book, and to the film version of The Bronx Is Burning, Reggie wrote a rebuttal: Becoming Mr. October, telling of his life up to and including the 1978 World Series. I had long hoped that, following his 1984 Reggie: The Autobiography, he would write another memoir. This is most of it. I wish he had written more about what his life's been like since.
He also teamed up with fellow Hall-of-Famer Bob Gibson on Sixty Feet, Six Inches, as good an inside look on how baseball is played -- from the perspective of one of the leading strikeout pitcher of his generation and the leading home run hitter of the next generation -- as we are ever likely to see. But that's about how he (and Gibson) approached playing the game. It doesn't say much about his life. (In 1994, Gibson published Stranger to the Game, covering his entire life to that point, and his thoughts on life and baseball at the time.)

As of 2016, Reggie is still alive. Maybe he's got another book in him.

No comments: