With MLB Spring Training upon us and in hopes of bringing in some proper baseball weather, I’ve been reading something a little different. With apologies to those people that come here to read about New England beers, we’re reviewing Becoming Mr. October by Reggie Jackson and Kevin Baker this time around. I received this as a gift from my dad, who also took to me to Reggie’s Hall of Fame introduction back in 1993. Long before discovering beer and before I got into Sci-Fi, I was a fan of the New York Yankees and this book gave me an interesting look into a rather turbulent period of their history that occurred just slightly before my time.
The book reads as a casual and reflective conversation between Reggie and his audience. In it, he tells the story of his transition from a tight-knit Athletics organization to a fractured Yankees clubhouse under the constant scrutiny of the New York media. The primary focus of the book is on his first two years with the Yankees; the turbulent 1977 and 1978 “Bronx Zoo” seasons in which in-house feuds constantly threatened to tear the team apart despite all its on the field success. I can imagine some of his accounts and descriptions might be controversial to someone who had followed those seasons, though his thoughts do come off as genuine. Reggie has never been someone to hold back on his opinions and he certainly has a lot to say about his main antagonist, manager Billy Martin; how he felt unfairly treated by the media; and the racism he experienced during his professional career.
Reggie joined the Yankees following the 1976 season as part of the first ever class of Free Agents in Major League Baseball. Free Agency drastically changed the way players were compensated and able to control their careers; things that not surprisingly created a number of conflicts as it began. It was common for tension to arise between players already locked into more team-friendly contracts and those that were able to take advantage of the Free Agent market and sign for what was often significantly more money. This tension, combined with Reggie’s reputation as being outspoken (or from his perspective, not sufficiently humble for a black player), caused immediate problems in the locker room that the ever present media was eager to pick on. As a result, Reggie quickly found himself to be a very controversial and polarizing figure right from the start.
Center stage in all of this is the dysfunctional reign of manager Billy Martin, who at the time was battling any number of personal demons, not the least of which was his alcoholism. Reggie depicts Martin as someone who was combative with many of his players, would purposefully misrepresent events to the press, and allow personal grudges to dictate on-field decisions that hurt both the team and often its players. Martin’s inability to lead and focus his team is shown to have either caused or exacerbated many of the internal problems facing the squad. It really has to be read about to be appreciated, but some of the low lights include Martin sleeping off hangovers in his office until minutes prior to game time, pulling position players at key moments as a way of asserting control, and consistently misusing pitchers to the point of ending careers early. To share a sentiment Reggie expressed, it is incredible for such a situation to have existed back then and impossible to imagine it today with national media and all the money involved.
Despite these hardships behind the scenes, the seasons covered in this book played out well for almost all concerned on the field. Reggie talks a good amount of baseball and describes key games and moments occurring throughout the course of the regular season and playoffs during the 1977 and 1978 campaigns. The 1977 post-season is, of course, when Reggie established his place in history and earned his Mr. October nickname by hitting hit 3 home runs (at the time something only Babe Ruth had accomplished) in the championship clinching Game 6 of the World Series. The 1978 season is also eventful in that it sees Reggie face an indefinite suspension following an argument with Martin as well one of the greatest single games of all time, a one game tie-breaker between the Red Sox and Yankees at Fenway Park to determine the AL East Championship.
Reggie also weaves into the narrative his thoughts about the racism he experienced throughout his career; something that had a significant impact on his outlook as a player. As a mixed race (part African American and part Puerto Rican) player coming up in the early to mid-1960s, he encountered a great deal of hardship in his early career. Things like college teammates not wanting to room with him and the Mets organization holding off on drafting him because he had a white (actually part Puerto Rican) girlfriend. Later on, playing in the South for the minor league affiliates of the Athletics, there were difficulties like finding restaurants that would serve him or places where he stay while playing in Birmingham, Alabama for the Athletics minor league affiliate. Even when he made it to Spring Training for the major league club in Georgia, he recalls the black players having to stay in an old army barracks outside of town and being discouraged from going out at night for their own safety. These experiences understandably left an impression on him and often caused him to wonder about how certain situations with certain players and the media would have been different had the color of his skin been different.
As a fan of both the Yankees and baseball in general, I enjoyed this book and liked its conversational tone. There is a lot of baseball lore and legend surrounding this particular period of Yankees history and reading an account from the perspective of one of the main participants was certainly interesting and perhaps has inspired me to seek out some other accounts as well.