Remembering the Unappreciated Reggie Jackson

It has been almost a quarter of a century since Reggie Jackson last played in a major league baseball game. When he played, Jackson, a fourteen-time All-Star, was loved by some fans, hated by many fans and ignored by almost no fans. He was a great player who was drawn to controversy, playing for two of the most colorful and difficult owners–Charlie O. Finley and George Steinbrenner–in the history of the game. He was also drawn to winning, playing on 11 division winners, six pennant winners and five World Champions during his career. On all five of those World Series winning teams Jackson was one of the best, and frequently the best.

When looking back on Jackson’s career many words come to mind, but underrated is not one of them. However, at least with regards to awards voting, Jackson, through a combination of being unappreciated and unlucky, may not have received his due. Jackson finished in the top ten in MVP voting six times, while only winning the award once in 1973. In 1973, when he won the MVP, Jackson played in 151 games hitting .293/.383/.531 for a league leading OPS+ of 162, stealing 22 bases while only being caught eight times for a team that easily won its division. He also played a decent right field and led his leagues in homeruns (32) and RBIs (117). It was a great year for a great player which was properly recognized by the BBWAA. It was not, however, his best year.

In 1969, Jackson hit .275/.410/.608 for a league leading OPS+ of 189 while hitting 47 home runs and stealing 13 bases. That was good for fifth in the MVP balloting. Five years later, Jackson followed up his 1973 MVP season by hitting .289/.391/.514 for a league leading OPS+ of 166 in 1974. That season also included 25 stolen bases in 30 attempts while his team won the division again. Jackson finished fourth that year. Jackson had a few other great years including 1980 when he hit .300/.398/.597 when he was 34 years old. In 1980, however, George Brett was by far the best player in the AL and clearly deserved his MVP award.

Jackson’s failure to win in 1969, and particularly in 1974, is different and somewhat intriguing. Sometimes the league’s top slugger, which Jackson was both years, loses out to a pitcher having a great year, or a player who brings substantially more defensive value and somehow gets the attention of the voters, but that was not the case in either of these years. Instead, Jackson lost out to two players, Harmon Killebrew in 1969 and Jeff Burroughs in 1974, who were also sluggers with limited defensive value. Even more, Jackson did not simply lose to these players, but finished behind several other players in the voting each year.

Killebrew’s MVP award in 1969 is easily defendable. He was a great player having a great year. Killebrew hit more home runs, drove in more runs, walked more, played more games, hit for a higher batting average and had a higher on base percentage than Jackson. Killebrew also led his team to a division title over Jackson’s A’s. Given all that, there was no way that voters in 1969 could have been expected to support Jackson, who had a higher slugging percentage, played his home games in a significantly tougher hitting environment and contributed more with the glove. In retrospect, Jackson probably had the better year, but based on the tools they had at the time, the voters made an understandable choice.

It is harder to explain why Boog Powell, Frank Robinson, and Frank Howard all finished above Jackson. Powell, who finished second had fewer home runs, fewer walks, a lower on base percentage and a lower slugging percentage than Jackson and was not exactly a standout defender at a key position. Robinson had a slightly higher on base percentage but 15 fewer home runs and a significantly lower slugging percentage. Howard, for his part, had one more home run, a batting average .020 higher than Jackson, but trailed him in every other major offensive category. Killebrew’s league leading 140 RBIs probably sealed the MVP vote for him, but Jackson’s 118 RBIs were more than Robinson or Howard and only slightly behind Powell’s 121. If a comparable vote were held today, Jackson would probably finish a strong second, but still trail behind Killebrew, despite having a slightly better year.

The 1974 vote, however, is even more puzzling. In 1969, Jackson lost to a future Hall of Famer coming off of a great year, but in 1974, he was beaten out by an obscure slugger having a pretty good year. Jeff Burroughs is one of the most forgettable MVPs in history, but in 1974 he was a very good player. The 1970s was a time when voters viewed RBIs as an extremely important measure when evaluating MVPs. Burroughs drove in 25 more runs than Jackson while hitting .012 higher, enough to put Burroughs just above .300 with Jackson just below. A player who, in the 1970s led the league in RBI while hitting .300 in a year when no catcher or middle infielder had a great season, was likely to win the MVP; and Burroughs was a beneficiary of that.

The two players were reasonably well matched in other areas with Jackson posting a slightly higher slugging percentage and Burroughs a slightly higher OBP. Jackson hit more home runs, stole more bases while playing significantly better defense in a tougher park for hitters. Jackson had a better season, but based on what voters knew at the time, Burroughs may have been a plausible MVP selection, particularly if defense, speed, and park effects are ignored completely.

Jackson did not, however, finish second in the MVP voting. He finished fourth behind Burroughs and two of his teammates. The A’s in 1974 had four of the top six MVP candidates. Joe Rudi came in second, Sal Bando third and Catfish Hunter sixth. Interestingly, Burroughs’ teammate Ferguson Jenkins finished fifth in the voting; and may have been the best player in the league that year.

By 1974, a cottage industry had emerged among baseball writers describing how underrated Joe Rudi, a stalwart member of the dominant Oakland A’s, was. This narrative helps explain how voters could have seriously thought Rudi was more valuable than Jackson in 1974. Rudi drove in six more runs than his fellow A’s outfielder Jackson while posting a batting average .006 higher than Jackson. Jackson, for his part, had more stolen bases, walks, and home runs, as well as slugging .030 higher and posting an on base percentage that was .057 higher. Even in the mid-1970s it should have been clear that this was a much better season than Rudi’s. Bando was, of course, the star third baseman on those A’s teams and a reasonably underrated player himself, but his .243/.352/.426 paled in comparison to Jackson’s numbers in 1974. Ironically, the only player on those 1974 A’s who even approached Reggie Jackson’s value was Hunter, who finished behind Rudi, Bando and Jackson in the MVP voting.

In 1974, a strong MVP argument could have been made that pitchers Hunter (25-12 2.49 143ks), Jenkins (25-12, 2.82 225), Gaylord Perry (21-13, 2.51 216), or even Bobby Grich (.263/.376/.431) who also played great defense at second base. Or Rod Carew, another second baseman who, while not as good with the glove as Grich, hit .364/.433/.446. Instead, the MVP went to the wrong slugger. Based on the preference for sluggers on winning teams which was so strong at the time, however, Jackson’s fourth place finish is baffling. Burroughs drove in a lot of runs but even by the standards of 1974 was clearly a one dimensional slugger and nothing else. Interestingly, the NL MVP choice was just as strange where Steve Garvey beat out at least half a dozen more deserving candidates including Johnny Bench, Mike Schmidt and Joe Morgan.

From the perspective of 2011, a strong argument can be made that Reggie Jackson was the best player in his league three times, in 1969, 1973 and 1974 despite only winning the award once. The 1969 award was won by a deserving player who had a great year, but one that was not quite as good as Jackson’s. The same cannot be said of 1974 when Jackson lost to an inferior player having an inferior year but who drove in a lot of runs and managed to keep his batting average just above .300. Jackson had a great career and has been recognized by the Hall of Fame voters, but as time goes by the controversy, free agencies and fights with Steinbrenner and Billy Martin are changing how we remember him. And between 1969-1974, he was one of the best, and oddly enough, most underrated players around.