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Legends of October: Reggie Jackson
After Game 2 of the 1977 World Series, which pitted Reggie Jackon’s Yankees against the Dodgers, Reggie found himself struggling: he was hitting a paltry .167 for the series and an even paltrier .136 for the postseason.
He was also feuding with manager Billy Martin, and it seemed that the two of them were tearing apart the team. Captain Thurman Munson was asked about the clubhouse discord. “It’s just an overheated controversy,” the Yankees catcher said. “Reggie’s struggling and would like to do better. Billy probably doesn’t realize that Reggie is Mr. October.”
The name — “Mr. October” — was delivered with sarcasm and even a hint of malice on the part of Munson. For reasons no one could yet imagine, it would stick.
It would stick because of the miracles that unfolded on the night of Oct. 18, 1977: Game 6 of the World Series. The series had shifted back to the Bronx with the Yankees grasping a 3-2 lead. In the late hours of Game 5, Reggie had a hit home run in a 10-4 Yankees loss. It was ultimately meaningless, but it was also a harbinger.
What followed in Game 6 is, of course, perhaps the quintessential clutch performance in World Series history. It was a curious case of player meeting moment against a backdrop that only added to the story.
In the summer of 1977, New York, a city near bankruptcy, reeled from blackouts, rioting, a record heat wave, the Son of Sam murders, and a divisive mayoral election. America’s signature town seemed to be crumbling before our eyes. The power of sports to lift people out of misery is so often overstated, but there’s no doubting that Reggie’s performance that night helped heal New York.
Reggie’s first time up, Burt Hooton walked him on four pitches. The next time he stalked to the plate, the Dodgers were ahead 3-2. With Munson creaking to a modest lead off first, Hooton aimed a low fastball. He left it too far over the plate, and Reggie thumped it 325 feet and over the right-field fence.
The camera lingered on Reggie after he returned to the Yankees dugout. “Hi, mom,” he mouthed. “That’s one of the few times I’ve seen him smile in the last seven days,” announced Tom Seaver in the broadcast booth.
Reggie came up again in the fifth. As he readied himself he asked what reliever Elias Sosa threw. “Fastballs,” bench coach Gene Michael said. “All fastballs.” Sosa did as expected and delivered a first-pitch fastball to Reggie, and Reggie crushed it. Dodgers right fielder Reggie Smith scarcely had time to turn around before the ball reached the seats.
In the bottom of the eighth with the Yankees leading 7-3, Reggie came up for the final time. The chants of “REG-GIE! REG-GIE!” all but deafened. Knuckleballer Charlie Hough’s first offering was, in the words of Tommy Lasorda, “a perfect pitch.” And maybe it was. But on this night, Reggie could handle even perfection.
And he did. Reggie assaulted Hough’s tumbling knuckler 475 feet to distant center field. He emerged from the dugout for a curtain call and the loudest ovation anyone had ever heard. “Fulfillment is written on his face,” intoned Howard Cosell to the viewers at home.
Three. Impossible, unthinkable three.
Twice the sky-scraping Babe Ruth had hit three homers in a World Series game, but even Ruth’s feats lacked the scene-setting of Reggie’s moment. The Yankees permitted a bit of drama in the top of the ninth, but after Mike Torrez clutched the final out, Yankees fans stormed the field.
A long night of celebration — and arrests — followed. Reggie escaped the mounting chaos by reviving some of his old football skills. Over on 125th and Seventh in Harlem, young boys were already blocking traffic and holding up newsprint photos of their new hero: Reggie Jackson.
The Yankees were champs for the first time since the days of Mantle and Maris, and Reggie, for the second time in his career, was named World Series MVP. The man who alienated a team and city and who, for so long, seemed diminished by the expectations, was, for that night and many others to follow, the toast of New York.
In the clubhouse, Reggie held up a photo of his hero, Jackie Robinson. “What do you think this man would think of me tonight?” he asked the reporters in his midst.
The next morning, the New York Post would run an editorial on the wonders of the previous night and what they meant to beleaguered New Yorkers. “Who dares call New York a lost cause?” the paper mused.
Forevermore, Reggie would be known as “Mr. October.” Perhaps Mr. Munson knew something all along.
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