NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- They don't make 'em like Reggie Jackso anymore. Which is another of baseball's problems. He struck out 2,597 times, the most of any swinger in the history of the game, but that was part of his charm. Reggie lit up the entire ball park, and he deserved his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame yesterday. Style does count. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Reggie Jackson was a Hall of Fame ballplayer even when he was churning the air with a monumental strikeout, or nearly getting skulled by a fly ball he had misjudged. He won games. He put fannies in the seats. He played in 11 league championships. Welcome to the Hall of Fame.
It is my distinct impression there are no Reggie Jacksons anymore. He has been out of the game for five seasons, and baseball is devoid of players who can light up the ball park. Jose Canseco? The other players watch closely when he is swinging, but he has worn out his act at an early age. Barry Bonds? He is a terrific player for the first 162 games, but there is something icy about him, something distant. He is a star, but Reggie was a sun. Reggie heated things up.
You shouldn't get into the Hall of Fame for being a showman, but Reggie was the real thing, the prima donna of the opera, the high-wire act in the circus. Or in his own words, "the straw that stirs the drink." He did not mind being called Mister October, but that was mostly mid-October. He hit .357 in his five World Series but he batted only .227 in his 11 league series, and you could look it up.
He also hit 563 home runs, the sixth-highest total in baseball history. This is by definition a Hall of Fame player, although I do not believe in statistical criteria for the hall. Don Sutton and Phil Niekro -- who finished second in the voting, 40 below the 318 votes needed for inclusion -- both won more than 300 games and my personal computer flashes "longevity." On the other hand, Billy Williams (.290) is in the Hall of Fame and Tony Oliva (.304) is not. I do not understand that.
Pee Wee Reese is in the Hall of Fame and Phil Rizzuto is not. I do not understand that, either, since I spent my early childhood watching Rizzuto scamper home against my Brooklyn Dodgers in early October when baseball used to showcase its World Series in broad daylight.
Orlando Cepeda and Richie Ashburn and Tony Perez and Steve Garvey and Curt Flood are all on the cusp. But Reggie Jackson is a Hall of Fame attraction as well as player, and baseball may be running out of them.
The great athletes are making choices to play running back in the fall and point guard in the winter, and by the time spring comes around they are getting ready to go to college. They may play baseball, but not as an obsession.
Reggie Jackson comes from a place where baseball was important. He was born in Wyncote, Pa., on May 18, 1946, when there were still two teams in Philadelphia. He would later play for one of them, the westward-bound Athletics, in Kansas City and Oakland. He had an urban feel for the game. He knew what the Babe had done. He had followed Jackie Robinson and Frank Robinson and Henry Aaron on their incursions to Philly.
Nowadays we get base-stealing champions like Vince Coleman who "don't know no Jackie Robinson, man." We get part-timers like Deion Sanders who take on-the-job training and still dominate a sport they do not know. Reggie knew his game. Like Pete Rose, another original who must some day be honored for his playing glory rather than his gambling disgrace, Reggie knew exactly where he stood on the all-time lists.
Jackson was also driven by coming from the time we call the Sixties. He once said he wanted to be remembered as the Aretha Franklin signature lyrics: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. The Sixties. Dick Allen horrified America by wearing a mustache in a major-league game, and a young man in Philadelphia took notice. His name was Reginald Martinez Jackson, and he had ancestors in Africa and Spain, and he spoke English and Spanish. He played football for Arizona State but he was a baseball player. He blended a 60s sense of pride with a flair for self-promotion.
Reggie was destined for Yankee Stadium. The Yankees had gone down in four in the 1976 World Series, and Reggie arrived and proclaimed himself "the straw that stirs the drink," which drove Capt. Thurman Munson into a glowering rage, until the two sized each other up in the clubhouse and discovered they were not all that different. Maybe the Yankees would have won in 1977 and 1978 without Reggie, but I don't think so. George Steinbrenner once said the greatest mistake he made was letting Jackson go after 1981, and the Yankees haven't won anything since. Reggie Jackson transformed a team.
Hall of Fame players do that.