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Mudville: September 18, 2021 12:42 pm PDT
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Reggie Looks West

A dark blue Yankee jersey, a sweet pair of vintage shades, and a pensive Reggie Jackson looking to the west is what makes the 1982 Topps #551 card so fascinating to look at. I’ve long thought it was an awesome baseball card, but recently I took another look and thought to myself “what was on Reggie’s mind?”

By 1981, the year this photo was taken, Reggie Jackson had established himself as a Yankee great. His success in leading the Bronx Bombers to consecutive titles in the 1977 and 1978 World Series sealed his legacy as a Yankee forever. In many ways however, this card is symbolic of the Yankees transition from the 1970s to the young stars who built the strong but trophy-less Bombers of the ’80s.

“Mr. October” was famously born in the playoffs of 1977. Jackson was at the heart of the Yankees lineup, and the key component to the consecutive World Series of 1977 and 1978.

The 1978 Yankees had a tumultuous first half of the season to say the least. At the All-Star break that season, Boston led the AL – 14.5 games ahead of the Yankees. The second half of 1978 is perhaps Reggie’s most impressive performance as a Yankee. That team was in sync after Billy Martin resigned, and he did that because of a heated argument Jackson served a suspension for. Everything changed.

In an interview Reggie Jackson had with YES host Nancy Newman, he recalls a conversation with Lou Pinella in the dugout in September of that year. The Yankees surged in the second half of the season and were now only 3.5 games behind Boston. Reggie asked Lou Pinella at that point, “what do we do now?”. He responded, “we keep winning”. And they did just that.

1982 Topps Reggie Jackson #551

Yankee fans remember those two seasons because of the playoffs and titles and obviously, what the Yankees accomplished in the second half of the 1978 season was spectacular. They overcame so many difficulties throughout the regular season but still managed to get themselves into the postseason and actually repeat as champions. But Jackson’s most productive year as a Yankee was 1980. His batting average reached .300 for the first and only time. He also tied Ben Oglivie’s 41 home runs for most in the league that season. A less flashy, but questionably more impressive statistic was his OBP of .398 that year. In other words, nearly four of every ten times Reggie Jackson had an AB during the 1980 season, he got himself on base.

Those unbelievable numbers were not enough for Steinbrenner to look away from an aging Reggie Jackson who was thirty-four by the start of the 1981 season. His offensive production vastly decreased, perhaps knowing his time as a Yankee was coming to an end. That season he only hit 15 home runs in 94 games. Compare that to his 41 home runs in 143 games played in 1980, and you can immediately see that 49 games played less is disproportionate to having tallied 26 less home runs.

By 1980, Yankees manager Dick Howser had repurposed Jackson as a designated hitter instead of his traditional position as a star outfielder. To replace him, the Yanks signed Dave Winfield to a $24 million ten-year contract to take over right field. Steinbrenner’s decision was understandable and falls in line with his history of moving players in and out of the club on a whim. At the time, Winfield was a younger and more athletic asset who eventually occupied the grass that was once Reggie’s. The Boss was ready to rebuild a Yankee squad for the 1980s, and that didn’t include Reggie Jackson.

Reggie headed west in 1982.

Much took place after the 1981 Yankees season ended in defeat. The post-season was filled with controversies and volatile headlines that tarnished the Yankee standard of excellence. Steinbrenner was obviously infuriated and unfortunately for Jackson, he was the big name in many of those negative headlines. The worst one covered a scuffle that ensued between him and third baseman Graig Nettles at a celebratory dinner after the Yankees swept the Oakland A’s for the AL Championship and landed a ticket to the World Series.

From the Yankees third baseman’s perspective and the reports altogether, Reggie Jackson’s friends were being rude to Nettles’ wife Ginger, even asking her to leave her seat and make room for someone else. Nettles was understandably angry, and certainly right to confront the men who treated his wife poorly. Allegedly, Jackson “knocked a bottle of beer out of Nettles’ hands”, an aggressive action destined to trigger an immediate reaction from Nettles who “punched Jackson in the mouth”.

This purportedly broke out into an all-out wrestling match, but no one really knows for sure. The truth about what happened that night at the restaurant will always be a little scarce. But keep in mind, these were the New York Yankees star players who should have been celebrating a sweep of the Oakland A’s to head to another World Series. Instead, the Yankees were fighting at a public restaurant, and Mr. October was the flashiest name in that article. Steinbrenner was at this dinner and saw everything unfold.

Not a good look. I can’t help but try to picture this scene, laughing at the idea of how Steinbrenner reacted in this situation.

``Don't make me come over there, boys``

After winning the first two games of the World Series, the Dodgers won the next four and the title all together. In late October and early November, Steinbrenner was apologizing to Yankee fans and publicly shaming his team. Though understandable, especially after such an embarrassing collapse, Reggie heard Steinbrenner’s remarks. Confidently, he said to the press “I don’t have anything to apologize for (…) I tried my best”. Steinbrenner heard of Reggie’s comments and the day after issued the following statement: “If the players are satisfied with their performance, that’s their business, (…) I resent it when players make light of the apology.” While Steinbrenner’s statement is tactful in purposefully not naming any players, the response was quick and almost certainly a shot taken at Reggie’s unapologetic behavior.

Guess which outfielder did apologize to Steinbrenner though: Dave Winfield. In addition, Reggie’s .237 batting average during the regular season and questionable behavior to say the least during the postseason in 1981 worked against his standing as a Yankee. A young Dave Winfield seized on Jackson’s increasingly tumultuous rapport with Yankee ownership and management to cement his position in the Yankees right field for the entire 1980s. It goes without saying that Winfield was always the plan Steinbrenner had for the future of his outfield, and was only was a question of time. Reggie’s tenure as a Yankee could have perhaps lasted a year or two longer if the events of the 1981 season played out differently.

Steinbrenner had enough. Reggie’s age, naturally decreasing performance, and public outbursts during and after the 1981 Postseason failure was enough to ship Jackson out of the Bronx. But his frustration is understandable. At thirty-five turning on thirty-six, Reggie Jackson’s time as a Yankee had come to an end. On January 22nd 1982, Reggie Jackson was traded to the California Angels.

All this said, it is undeniable that Reggie’s season was cut short and affected by the 1981 Major League Baseball strike. Fernando Valenzuela didn’t help either. Steinbrenner’s commitment to Winfield before the 1981 season even started definitely signaled to Jackson that his role on the Yankee roster was less secure than when he shined as Mr. October in the 1977 and 1978 World Series. Certainly, a lot was going on off the field in MLB and the Yankees organization to at least affect Reggie Jackson’s ability to reproduce his .300 BA and 41 homers in 1980.

Regardless of what unfolded between Reggie and the Yankees in 1981, fans and experts alike didn’t question his all-star status in 1981 or 1982. This card marks a crossroad for Reggie Jackson’s career and a passing of the torch from the seventies Yankees to the young but winningless stars of the eighties.

Reggie looks and feels accomplished. Almost as if he is at peace with the decision Steinbrenner was going to make in January of 1982, to ship him off to the Angels when a silly injury forced him to miss the first two games of the 1981 World Series. It’s also as if Topps was commemorating his greatness as a Yankee, as Steinbrenner was beginning to turn his head at the thirty-five year old Bronx Bomber legend. Between 1980-1984, Reggie Jackson made every all-star game. It is important to remember that this card was printed before he played any baseball for the Angels. But the choice of the photo is very unique, compared to other 1982 Topps All-Star cards.

This 1982 Topps All-Star gem, speaks volumes for the greatness of Reggie Jackson as a Yankee. His stoic demeanor featured on this card suggests that he knew the “Mr. October” New Yorkers fell in love with in the late 1970’s was not going to bring the city a third world series title. But his statistics and accomplishments that brought him to the 1982 All-Star game among the total of fourteen appearances throughout his decorated career, are captured in this card. His last All-Star game would be in 1984, but this exquisite photo of Reggie Jackson with a calm and resolve look on his face and a vintage Louisville Slugger held over his right shoulder, captures the excellence of Mr. October. At the same time, his struggle with Steinbrenner in 1981 and his knowledge of his eventual departure from the Yankees in January of 1982.

It is a satisfying card to say the least, because as a collector, you see on this 1982 Reggie Jackson Topps card a man who’s satisfied, happy, and proud of his achievements as a Yankee. Ultimately, Reggie Jackson was on record saying that he wished to finish his career in California. But this card really makes you wonder: could Reggie have led a 1980’s Yankees team with star teammates like Rickey Henderson, Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Willie Randolph? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s fun to think about.

Jackson has been on record saying firmly that he wanted to be a Yankee because he felt welcomed there. As an assistant coach for the Oakland A’s, the organization never promoted him and even had stadium security show his ID. In an interview, he explains that guards told him “Sorry Mr. Jackson, we know who you are, but we were asked to do this.” These more recent issues Jackson had with the Oakland A’s are unwelcoming, reminiscent of how James Dolan treated Knicks legend Charles Oakley at Madison Square Garden. Jackson then went on to say that George Steinbrenner was the second person who called him after he was inducted into the HOF in 1993, said he was proud of what he accomplished in the Pinstripes and thanked him for everything. Of being a Yankee Jackson says, “I always felt welcome”. Nothing captures that more than the 1982 Topps #551 Reggie Jackson card.

But we do know this: the Dave Winfield Yankees never won a title throughout the 1980’s – and George Steinbrenner wouldn’t get one until Paul O’Neil occupied right field in 1996.

Will Desvallees is a recent graduate of Wake Forest University with a Bachelor in History. He is currently living in NYC, watching the Yankees every day, and looking forward to seeing if Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo pay off. He loves baseball cards as much as he loves the sport, and loves writing stories about cardboard.

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