Reggie gives credit to Steinbrenner

Published Jul. 18, 2010 5:01 a.m. EDT

When the Yankees announced their 2010 schedule, a romantic vision of Old-Timers’ Day looked something like this: George Steinbrenner in the owner’s box, Bob Sheppard at the microphone and Yogi Berra standing near home plate with his teammates from the 1950 World Series champions.

Instead, Saturday’s event was bittersweet. The organization is still mourning the losses of Steinbrenner and Sheppard, who died within the last week. And Berra was unable to attend after suffering bruises in a fall near his home in Montclair, N.J., on Friday night.

The ceremonies were still deeply meaningful to the Yankees and their fans — perhaps more so, under the circumstances. But it was impossible to ignore the empty spaces — even if, in Berra’s case, the absence was temporary. The Yankees, known for their history and power, were without a Murderers’ Row of storytellers.

So consider this: Prior to the commemoration of the ’50 champs, as the baselines filled with legends, the last man announced was Reggie Jackson.


That was not an accident, because accidents do not occur during ceremonies at Yankee Stadium. Joe DiMaggio used to be announced last. In The Bronx, as in a Hemingway novel, symbolism counts.

Jackson wore the pinstripes for only five seasons, so it would be hard to call him “The Greatest Living Yankee.” That title probably belongs to an active player: Derek Jeter. But throughout an emotional Old-Timers’ Day, it was obvious that Jackson, 64, is now one of the foremost caretakers of the Yankee legacy.

Jackson is employed by the team as a special adviser. But the unofficial job is more important.

It’s a role that requires a measure of humility, which, you may have heard, was not always Reggie’s most outstanding trait. But now Jackson understands that an awareness of one’s place in history involves appreciating — and celebrating — those who came before.

To be sure, Mr. October hasn’t morphed into Mr. Modesty. At one point during a Saturday news conference, he uncorked the following 1970s special: “I succeeded because I was gifted with gifts that I needed to be grateful and thankful for.”

Yet, the more important moment came when he acknowledged that his rarefied status in baseball came, in part, because of Steinbrenner’s largesse.

Detractors, take note: Reggie deflected credit.

“Coming to New York and having the career I had — having the players around me that I had — came because the owner was so committed to winning,” Jackson said, before listing Catfish Hunter, Ron Guidry, Graig Nettles, Thurman Munson, Goose Gossage and others.

“George put (together) the necessary parts to make the franchise a success. So, a .260 hitter lifetime with 2,500 strikeouts, I was able to perform in big moments because they were there more often — one hit, one home run in a moment late.”

Later, he added: “My image here — whatever it has come to be in baseball — is in large part because of the Yankee organization. I’m able to follow along the great lineage of Yogi and Whitey and Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio and Mantle. ... It’s certainly because of the city and the organization. I was one of those guys that reaped the benefits.”

Not quite the old straw-that-stirs-the-drink mentality, is it?

Maybe it’s the grief over Steinbrenner and Sheppard that has made Jackson so contemplative.

Jackson said he became “quiet” and “pensive” after learning of Steinbrenner’s death Tuesday. He kept a decidedly low profile at the All-Star Game in his home state of California. He avoided interviews for a few days. In a statement through the Yankees’ media relations office Wednesday night, he asked for time “to reflect on the enormous and lasting imprint” The Boss had left.

By Saturday, he was ready to talk. And he did, for 20 minutes. But it wasn’t easy.

“I’d rather not be here today,” he said, when asked about the difficulty of putting on his No. 44 uniform so soon after Steinbrenner and Sheppard died. “I’d have rather passed. But I need to be here. I talked to some people I respect in the leadership of the club. They thought I should be here. And so I’m here. It’ll be tough.”

At that moment, Reggie sounded like the dutiful son who came to shake hands at a family wake. He was needed, so he came. And he sorted through the emotions as best he could.

Sure, Steinbrenner and Jackson had legendary feuds. But Reggie played his last game for the Yankees in 1981. The animosity is gone. Jackson praised Steinbrenner for the standards he set and ethics he espoused. (Of course, Mr. October also seized upon the opportunity to remind us that The Boss believed his “biggest mistake in baseball” was letting Reggie leave as a free agent.)

“There are players and owners tied together, and I’m proud to be tied to him,” Jackson said. “That’ll never change. I’m extremely proud of that.”

Jackson didn’t play in the two-inning Old-Timers’ Game, and, really, he didn’t need to. His presence at Yankee Stadium was sufficient, on an afternoon when his place in franchise lore came into sharp relief.

It was a day to retell stories of championships won, of Jackson’s three-homer night in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series. That team was defined by the towering personalities of Jackson, Munson, Steinbrenner and manager Billy Martin.

And of those four, only Reggie remains.