Sometimes photographs are great because of the story that they tell. It took a while for the story in this photograph to unfold. Like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, this photo tells of Reggie Jackson’s past, present, and future in 1976.
Jackson joined the Kansas City Athletics in 1967 and moved with the team to Oakland in 1968. With the Athletics, he was a six-time all-star, won a most valuable player award, and was the face of the team for a decade. Then the new era of free agency entered baseball in 1976, and it struck Oakland like a thunderbolt. Oakland owner Charles Finley tried to trade or sell many of the team’s marquee players. He was hoping to get something in return for them before losing them in the free-agent process. On April 2, Jackson, with Ken Holtzman and minor leaguer Bill VanBommel was traded to the Baltimore Orioles for Don Baylor, Paul Mitchell, and Mike Torrez.
Jackson had a love-hate relationship with Oakland and Finley. He enjoyed playing on a team that had been to the post-season five straight times and won the World Series three of those years. Jackson wanted to stay in Oakland because he and the other players knew the team had a unique chemistry. However, he and the other players hated playing for Finley. At the start of the 1976 season, Finley gave everyone on the team a 20% maximum pay cut. He knew he would lose most of the players to free agency after the season, so he decided to pay as little as possible. Jackson had his salary cut by $30,000.
In the photograph, there is a kid in the crowd wearing an Oakland Athletics hat. He is desperately reaching toward Jackson, trying to get an autograph. No one else in the group of autograph seekers seems to be working as hard as he is. Jackson probably does not see the kid because he is in his peripheral view. However, because of how the photograph is framed, it appears Jackson is ignoring him. It conveys Jackson’s bitterness toward Finley for taking him away from the teammates he loved playing within Oakland. At the same time, he could be trying to ignore his past in Oakland to look toward his future.
Jackson may have had mixed emotions about leaving Finley and his teammates in Oakland. His feelings about landing in Baltimore were clear; he did not want to play on the East Coast. He claimed that his businesses outside of baseball in Oakland and Arizona would suffer if he were not on the West Coast. He asked the Orioles to make up the difference with an increase in his contract. The Orioles’ season started on April 9, just a week after the trade, and Jackson had still not joined the team. There was some question if he would join the team at all. Could he sit out the season and become a free agent at the end of the year? No one knew the answer because free agency was so new. The Orioles agreed to give him back the 20% pay cut Finley had taken to match his contract from 1975. On May 2, Jackson made his Baltimore Orioles debut, and it happened to be against his former team, the Oakland Athletics. He went 0-2 with a walk and an RBI and was hit by a pitch thrown by Rollie Fingers.
Things started rocky when Orioles’ manager Earl Weaver fined Jackson for not wearing a necktie during a road trip to Milwaukee. Jackson did not like wearing a tie because he thought it was an East Coast tradition, and he was a West Coast guy. However, for the rest of the road trip, he wore a different tie every day. He also received what he thought was an undeserved talking-to from Weaver for showing up five minutes late to batting practice. For the rest of the season, Jackson never got comfortable in Baltimore and sulked about how he was unappreciated.
The photograph taken between May 14-16, slightly less than two weeks into his time with the Orioles, shows how uncomfortable he appears in his new uniform. Sitting on the railing, he keeps his distance instead of standing at the wall to engage with the fans. His blank emotions and limp body language show his interest in signing autographs.
At the end of the 1976 season, everyone wondered what team Reggie would sign with as a free agent. The Montreal Expos offered him the most money, but he was not interested in playing in Canada for the last-place team. San Diego Padres owner Ray Kroc offered him a chance to return to the West Coast. Jackson was not interested in playing for a team that finished 73-89. Finally, George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees made their pitch to Reggie. Jackson, who once said, “If I played in New York, they would name a candy bar after me,” was going to get his wish. The situation had all the glamour of a large city with the fame and endorsements that Jackson craved. He was also excited about joining a team that had played in the previous season’s World Series. Jackson signed for 3.5 million dollars over five years. It was the largest contract in baseball history at the time.
What is Jackson doing in the photograph? He is reaching for the fan’s scorecard so he can sign it. However, there is more to it than that; the scorecard is a New York Yankees scorecard. It is like George Steinbrenner is handing him a contract to sign eight months before it happened. In Jackson’s mind, did he already know he was leaving Baltimore? Was he already planning on going to New York?
The photograph nicely captures Jackson’s past with the Oakland Athletics, his present with the Baltimore Orioles, and his future with the New York Yankees.