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Mr. October’s three-for-all

- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 19, 2008

As the New York Yankees took batting practice before Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, Reggie Jackson whacked ball after ball into the right-field seats at Yankee Stadium.

"Hey," second baseman Willie Randolph cautioned the slugger. "Save that for the game."

Jackson grinned and said, "Don't worry - there are plenty more where those came from."

The date was Oct. 18, 1977, and seldom has a sporting statement proved so true.

That night Jackson slammed three home runs on three pitches from three Los Angeles Dodgers hurlers (Burt Hooton, Elias Sosa and knuckleballer Charlie Hough), winning the game 8-4 and the World Series for the Yankees while giving one of baseball's most memorable postseason performances.

And in the process, he earned a lasting nickname: Mr. October.

"It gave me chills when he hit that third one," Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles recalled. "It didn't matter whether you liked the Yanks or detested them - you put away whatever you felt for the team and just bathed in the magnitude of Reggie's achievement."

ABC's Howard Cosell put it this way as Jackson rounded the bases after his third swat: "Oh what a beam on his face! How can you blame him? He's answered the whole world."

It was entirely appropriate that Cosell should hail Jackson. The middle-aged broadcaster and the 31-year old ballplayer were twins from a personality standpoint - flamboyant and brash. People loved or hated them with equal fervor, but on that autumn evening in the Bronx, Jackson figuratively thumbed his nose at all his detractors.

There were almost too many to count. Opposing clubs and their fans hated Jackson because of his arrogance. Some of his teammates had felt the same ever since Reggie signed with the Yankees as a free agent during the offseason and announced in spring training, "I'm the straw that stirs the drink."

What about Thurman Munson, the Yankees' catcher and captain during the 1976 season, which ended with a four-game sweep by the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series?

"Oh, yeah, maybe I should say me and Munson," Jackson acknowledged, "but he can only stir it bad."

So much for team chemistry.

Statistically, Jackson was baseball's supreme all-or-nothing guy. During a 21-year major league career with four franchises, he hit 563 home runs (11th on the all-time list) but batted .300 only once, had a mediocre career average of .262, and struck out a record 2,597 times.

When the postseason arrived, though, Reggie more than justified his nickname. He batted .357 with 10 homers and 24 RBI in five World Series. All told, he played on 11 division champions, six pennant winners and five World Series champions with the A's, Yankees and Angels. Babe Ruth is the only other man to slug three home runs in a World Series game, and he did it twice (1926, 1928).

In 1977, Jackson hit four homers on four swings because he connected off Hall of Famer Don Sutton on his last at-bat in Game 5, which the Dodgers won 10-4. Call it a preview of coming attractions.

You might assume, with all this success, that Jackson would be adored by his managers. Forget it, at least in one case. Reggie and the equally hot-tempered Billy Martin tangled repeatedly during the 1977 season, once nearly coming to blows in front of a national TV audience. It's unlikely that Martin was applauding during Jackson's fireworks show in the 1977 Series, although it earned the Yankees their first championship in 15 years.

Jackson also frequently incurred the wrath of owner George Steinbrenner. The following season, Martin suspended Jackson for five games for defying an order to bunt. Describing his two club adversaries for reporters the night his right fielder returned, Martin famously said, "One's a born liar [Jackson], and the other's convicted [Steinbrenner had been indicted for illegal campaign contributions]."

Steinbrenner promptly fired Martin for the first of five times and gave the job to the stolid Bob Lemon, who directed the Yankees to another World Series triumph over the Dodgers in 1978. The prickly relationships among Jackson, Martin and Steinbrenner were examined 30 years later by ESPN in a series titled "The Bronx Is Burning."

Following Jackson's final blast in Game 6, the crowd of 56,407 chanted "REGGIE! REGGIE! REGGIE!" until their hero emerged from the dugout and took a bow - not reluctantly, we may assume.

"Suddenly I didn't care what the manager or my teammates had said or what the media had written," Jackson once recalled. "It was the happiest moment of my life."

Small wonder.