He was a fierce competitor with a fastball that might shave a chin to save an Orioles win. For Grant Jackson, the mound was a bully pulpit from which to strut his stuff.
“[Sportscaster] Howard Cosell once asked me, ‘Is it true you would knock down your mother if she batted against you in the World Series?’ ” Jackson said.
Yes, the Orioles reliever replied. “But after the game, I’d pick her up, take her out to dinner and tell her, ‘I’m out there to do my job.’ ”
Do it he did, for 5½ seasons in Baltimore. A scrappy left-hander, Jackson went 24-12 with 39 saves and a 2.81 ERA with the Orioles, while helping them win the American League pennant in 1971 and division titles in 1973 and 1974.
In 1973, Jackson appeared in 45 games and went 8-0 with a 1.90 ERA. In one nine-game stretch in June, he logged three victories and two saves and retired 17 straight batters. Not one to heap praise, manager Earl Weaver called his performance “phenomenal.”
“I just throw a jive-time fastball,” he once said. “What’s that? Here’s a fastball, hit it if you can catch up with it.”
On Opening Day in 1974, while nursing a 3-2 lead, he struck out Detroit’s Jim Northrup with the bases loaded to beat the Tigers.
That game sticks in Jackson’s mind.
“The ‘Silver Fox’ [Northrup] couldn’t hit a slider, so it was, ‘See you later,’ ” he said. “The name of the game is throw strikes, and that’s what I did. I’m told that I never walked two batters in a row. I don’t know about that, but I know I whacked two in a row, after my own guys got hit.”
Now 75, Jackson settled in Pittsburgh, where the one-time All-Star spends his days mowing the lawn, pruning shrubs and doting on his wife of 50 years and 10 grandchildren.
“I just made the kids some cupcakes,” he said. “Anytime there’s a birthday, I do the baking.”
Come evening, Jackson strolls down the block to the local VFW hall where he’ll “have two drinks, shoot the bull and be home by 9.”
His home is cluttered with keepsakes, many from his Baltimore years (1971-1976), including pennants from the Orioles, Colts and Bullets.
“I was there when the big dogs were runnin’, when it was the city of champions,” Jackson said.
Raised on a farm in Ohio, he was dubbed “Buck” by his father, a nickname that stuck for life.
“I was plowing a field on a tractor when a tornado came up,” he said. “I jumped off and ran for cover. My father said, ‘Man, you were running like a young deer — but I can’t call you “Deer,” so I’ll call you “Buck.” ’ ”
He arrived in Baltimore in 1971 in a trade that sent slugger Roger Freed, the International League Most Valuable Player, to the Philadelphia Phillies, where Jackson, 27, had just gone 5-15 as a starter. But Freed fizzled out and Jackson blossomed in relief, pitching in three World Series for the Orioles, New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates.
His savvy came courtesy of George Bamberger, the Orioles’ learned pitching coach.
“I’d listen as he talked to the Big Four [Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson, all 20-game winners in 1971]. Then I put his advice in my knowledge box and locked it up,” Jackson said.
Who was the best of that lot?
“Cuellar. He was a competitor who got the j-o-b done,” Jackson said. “I remember in 1973, when Mike was to face [the California Angels’] Nolan Ryan, and we teased him because Ryan had just thrown a no-hitter. So Mike said, ‘Hey, he throws 100 miles an hour and I throw 15, and I guarantee you I win.’ ”
In a classic pitchers’ duel, Cuellar defeated Ryan, 3-1, in 11 innings.
A favorite teammate was slugger Boog Powell, for good reason.
“I love crabs, but I hate picking them,” Jackson said. “I’d say, ‘Hey Boog, I need a favor.’ And Booger would clean that crab in about two seconds.”
In June 1976, the Orioles dealt Jackson to the Yankees in a 10-player trade that brought pitchers Scott McGregor, Rudy May, Tippy Martinez and catcher Rick Dempsey to Baltimore. Jackson went 6-0 as New York won the AL flag. Three years later, with Pittsburgh, he helped the Pirates defeat the Orioles in the 1979 World Series.
In Game 7, Jackson pitched 2 2/3 hitless innings in a 4-1 victory. He is one of eight black pitchers to win a World Series game.
“I still toss the ball around, and I go to fantasy camps every year,” he said. “Being in baseball, I never had a job in my life.”
What is Jackson’s legacy?
“For 18 years in the majors, every time someone rang the bell to get The Buck ready, I answered.”
Black pitchers who have won at least one World Series game:
Joe Black Brooklyn Dodgers 1952
Bob Gibson St. Louis Cardinals 1964, 1967, and 1968
Jim “Mudcat” Grant Minnesota Twins 1965
John Wyatt Boston Red Sox 1967
John “Blue Moon” Odom Oakland Athletics 1974
Grant Jackson Pittsburgh Pirates 1979
Dave Stewart Oakland Athletics 1989