Midweek Books: Remembrances of Octobers past

It’s been 36 years — my high school days! — since the legend of “Mr. October” was cemented.

Reggie Jackson was the catalyst of three consecutive World Series championship teams with the Oakland Athletics in the mid-1970s. After he signed with the Yankees as a free agent, guiding title teams in 1977 and 1978, that moniker, and his already-outsized persona, took on new dimensions.

But that dizzying fame — which included the creation of a “Reggie” candy bar, because, well, Babe Ruth had one — took a heavy toll, as Jackson told Bryant Gumbel Tuesday in the season premiere of “Real Sports” on HBO (link to trailer). He opens up about troubled relationships with teammates and managers and race relations as he rose to prominence in the decades marked by racial and ethnic tensions in America.

Becoming Mr. OctoberThe interview was aired a day before the start of a new World Series, as the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals tonight begin another Fall Classic at Busch Stadium, the fourth time they’ve met in the World Series.

Jackson has been making plenty of other rounds with the recent release of his memoir, “Reggie Jackson: Becoming Mr. October.” He admits to writing the book, in part, to counter a 2007 ESPN mini-series, “The Bronx is Burning,” based on a book with the same title by sports journalist Jonathan Mahler, that Jackson said vilified him.

Among the claims Jackson makes in the new book (written with Kevin Baker) is that he wasn’t the No. 1 pick by the New York Mets in the 1966 amateur draft because of race, and he quoted his coach at Arizona State telling him why.

In the New York Post, Larry Getlen writes that the book is classic Reggie, just being Reggie:

“Becoming Mr. October” is a score-settling lament about all the people who have wronged Jackson, who comes off as the A-Rod of his day — incredibly talented, disliked by his teammates and ignorant of why anyone would be mad at him.

Getlen says that while Jackson describes the book as an opportunity to clear the air about his many feuds and misunderstandings, he ends up stoking the flames even more, and against those who can’t answer back, like the now-deceased Yankees manager Billy Martin. Jackson accuses Martin of anti-Semitism and of ruining the arms of noted pitchers, including Yankees reliever Sparky Lyle.

Jackson strongly denies he made a disparaging comment about the late Yankees catcher Thurman Munson (who coined the “Mr. October” phrase sarcastically). The quote from Jackson — “Munson thinks he can be the straw that stirs the drink, but he can only stir it bad” — was published in a 1977 Sport magazine piece, “Reggie Jackson in No-Man’s Land.” Robert Ward, the article author, stood by his story when asked recently by the Associated Press:

“He’s been lying about it since it happened,” Ward said of Jackson. “He’s just lied and lied. And now I think probably he’s gotten to the age where he actually believes the stuff he says here. I made nothing up. Not one thing.”

So much for clearing the air.

* * * * * * * *

This World Series will be the last for Fox baseball analyst Tim McCarver, who is retiring.

McCarver was a young catcher for the Cardinals when they reached the World Series 49 years ago. Their post-season victory over the Yankees was the subject of one of the late David Halberstam’s many sports books, “October 1964.”

That year marked the end of the virtually all-white Yankees dynasty, as they wouldn’t return to the World Series again until 1976, the year before Jackson’s arrival. The Cardinals, with young African-American stars in Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Curt Flood, symbolized America on the cusp of the great events of the Civil Rights movement. October 1964

In a review for The New York Times, the legendary New York journalist Jimmy Breslin said Halberstam “takes only a halfhearted swing at social history.” But he admires how Halberstam portrayed the tough-minded Gibson purely within the realm of the game, saying that the author’s “moral romance works by isolating athletes from that larger social world where personalities, however forceful, remain subject to the powerful constraints of poverty and racism.”

But more recently, Rob Neyer contends it was 1963, when the Yankees were swept by Sandy Koufax and a more thoroughly integrated Dodgers team, that the social markings of America first revealed themselves in a baseball context.

So why didn’t Halberstam write October 1963? Because 1964 was a landmark year in the struggle for civil rights. It was in 1964 that three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi. And it was not long before the World Series that Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So 1964 is a convenient backdrop for a story about the contrast between the baseball teams that understood the importance of integration and those that didn’t.

* * * * * * *

Before the current post-season began, Mahler asked, in spite of baseball’s healthy financial state, “why does it feel so irrelevant?”

For as much as I like Mahler’s work in general, I think this attempt swings and misses.

There’s so much fretting about World Series ratings, and going up against the NFL juggernaut. For hardcore baseball fans, the answer is: So what?

I admit to becoming a bit nostalgiac about the game as I settle into middle age, and composing this post brought back plenty of memories.

Perhaps baseball will become for those of us aging boomers what it has for generations before.

Then again, I realize I’m part of the last generation that grew up steeped in baseball, listening to and watching it, absorbing its history and memorizing box scores. For those younger than me with a different experience, with sabermetrics as an anchor (which I’m not knocking) instead of deep emotional ties — if they are into baseball at all — there likely won’t be the same sentimental journey.

The best defense of baseball as it is comes from a commenter on Mahler’s essay named Chico Rose, who posted a quick response to the notion that the game is dying:

The rhythm of baseball is sublime. It allows you to fall in and out of paying attention, True, that is not a cultural value today, where everything seems to move to an incessant electronic beat. But that’s what I like about it. If that’s the road less traveled, in comparison with football and basketball, so be it.

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