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Grant Jackson, former Orioles reliever and Pirates’ winning pitcher in Game 7 of 1979 World Series, dies at 78

Former Pirates pitcher Grant Jackson acknowledges the crowd during the 40th anniversary celebration of the 1979 World Series team at PNC Park in Pittsburgh on July 20, 2019.
Former Pirates pitcher Grant Jackson acknowledges the crowd during the 40th anniversary celebration of the 1979 World Series team at PNC Park in Pittsburgh on July 20, 2019. (Matt Freed/AP)

Grant Jackson, the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the 1979 World Series for the “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates and a reliable left-hander for 18 seasons in the majors, died Tuesday from COVID-19 complications. He was 78.

The Pirates said Jackson died at Canonsburg Hospital in Pennsylvania.

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Known for bringing the ball far behind his back and then slinging it toward the plate, Jackson was 86-75 with 79 saves and a 3.46 ERA in 692 games from 1965 to 1982. He was 3-0 with a 2.55 ERA in 13 postseason appearances.

In 5 ½ seasons with the Orioles, Jackson went 24-12 with 39 saves and a 2.81 ERA 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.

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“I still toss the ball around, and I go to fantasy camps every year,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 2018. “Being in baseball, I never had a job in my life.”

Jackson’s home in Pittsburgh was 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.

Scott McGregor, left, and Grant Jackson, who played against each other in the 1979 World Series, share a laugh during a pregame ceremony in 2008.
Scott McGregor, left, and Grant Jackson, who played against each other in the 1979 World Series, share a laugh during a pregame ceremony in 2008. (GENE SWEENEY JR / Baltimore Sun)

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 Pirates.

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He said 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.

In Game 7 of the 1979 World Series, Jackson entered in the fifth inning with the Pirates trailing the Orioles 1-0. He pitched 2 ⅔ hitless innings at Memorial Stadium and was replaced by Kent Tekulve in the eighth with Pittsburgh ahead 2-1.

Pittsburgh won, 4-1, completing a comeback from a three games to one deficit. Led by Willie Stargell, the Pirates celebrated to their theme song, “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge.

“Winning Game [7] of the 1979 World Series was my biggest thrill in baseball, no doubt. People from that era here in Pittsburgh still remember it like it was yesterday,” Jackson told The Toledo Blade in 2005.

He was a fierce competitor with what he called “a jive-time fastball” and wasn’t afraid to shave a chin.

“[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, he said. “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.’”

Jackson spent parts of six seasons with the Pirates, going 8-5 with a 2.96 ERA in 72 relief appearances for the 1979 champions. He made six scoreless appearances during that postseason.

“This pandemic has affected every family throughout our community, and the Pirates family is no different,” team President Travis Williams said, adding that Jackson “remained dedicated to the Pirates and the city of Pittsburgh” and was “an active board member of our alumni association who was always willing to help make an impact in our community.”

Jackson began his career in 1965 with the Phillies. He was a starter for them in 1969, throwing four shutouts in an All-Star season, and in 1970 and made some spot starts for the Orioles in 1971. After that, he shifted almost exclusively into a relief role.

“I like to start,” he once told The Baltimore Sun. “That’s where the money is. … On the other hand, working out of the bullpen you’ve got to have a whole lot of saves, keep the earned-run average low, and slip in a few wins to get a big contract.”

In June 1976, he was part of a 10-player trade, sent with Ken Holtzman and three others from Baltimore to New York for a package that included Rick Dempsey, Scott McGregor and Tippy Martinez. Jackson went 6-0 with a 1.69 ERA in helping the Yankees reach the postseason.

Jackson was taken by the Seattle Mariners in the expansion draft after the 1976 season and quickly traded to Pittsburgh. He later played for Montreal and Kansas City and returned to Pittsburgh in late 1982 to pitch one last game.

Curiously, Jackson was a switch-hitter, batting .136 in 236 at-bats. He hit two career home runs, both tiebreaking drives in the late innings that made him the winning pitcher.

Jackson became a bullpen coach for the Pirates from 1983 to 1985 and was a bullpen coach for Cincinnati in 1994 under former Orioles teammate Davey Johnson. He also coached in the minors, including with the Orioles organization.

Jackson is survived by his wife, Millie; children Debra, Yolanda and Grant Jr.; and 10 grandchildren.

Private funeral services will be held Saturday.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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