Why Reggie Jackson's powerful remarks on racism still resonate today

Updated

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. − The feelings have been burnt into his soul for more than a half-century, and now returning to the same community that left him humiliated, fuming and frightened for his life, Reggie Jackson’s words, with raw, unadulterated emotion, pierced the heavy air.

Jackson, a Hall of Famer, has often expressed his feelings about playing in the Deep South in 1967 while in the minor leagues in Birmingham, Alabama, but on this day at a luncheon in the afternoon, and again on national TV at night, it was different.

This was meant for the world to hear.

Jackson, in an open forum in Birmingham Thursday, was asked if he were a better person having come up through the city where Jim Crow laws existed and whether he was stronger after enduring the social inequities in Birmingham.

“I paused for 30 seconds," Jackson told USA TODAY Sports on Saturday morning, “and I said, 'Sir, I would never want to do that again. I wouldn’t ask anyone else to do it again. I don’t want anyone to think that because I went through that, it made me a better person. It did not make me a better person.'

“Humans are not built for that. You don’t put a human being in a situation like that and think they’re better for it. I wouldn’t want a white person in a prejudiced community, to go through that, frightening their life to make him better. I wouldn’t want a Black person to go through that. I wouldn’t want a Native American to go through that. I wouldn’t want a member of the LGBTQ community to go through that.

“To go through that, and think it makes you a better person?

“(Expletive) you!"

Reggie Jackson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993.
Reggie Jackson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993.

Jackson, who attended the historic Rickwood Field Game in Birmingham, was not a guest of Major League Baseball. He was not a paid guest for Fox. He came to pay respects to the Negro Leagues and the passing of Willie Mays.

So, when Alex Rodriguez simply asked Jackson his thoughts of returning to Birmingham before the game, the emotions that he vented earlier in the day came flooding out.

“I’ve talked about this plenty of times,’’ Jackson said, “but it was always in print, just newspapers and magazines."

This time it was live TV.

It was during prime time at Rickwood Field.

Uncensored. Raw emotions.

And powerful, reminding America of the horrifying times in this country and the reality that many of those things have not gone away.

“Coming back here is not easy,” Jackson, 78, told Rodriguez. “The racism when I played here, the difficulty of going through different places where we traveled, fortunately I had a manager and players on the team that helped me get through it. But I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.’’

Jackson wasn’t done.

He was just getting started.

"I walked into restaurants and they would point at me and say ‘The (N-word) can’t eat here.’ I would go to a hotel and they would say ‘The (N-word) can’t stay here.’ We want to Charlie Finley’s country club for a welcome home dinner, and they pointed me out with the N-word, ‘he can’t come in here.’ Finley marched the whole team out. Finally, they let me in. He had said ‘We’re gonna go to a diner and eat hamburgers; we’ll go where we’re wanted.'

"Fortunately, I had a manager in Johnny McNamara, that if I couldn’t eat in the place, nobody would eat and we’d get food to travel. If I couldn’t stay in a hotel, they’d drive to the next hotel and find a place where I could stay.”

Jackson, who thanked Finley for telling the country club manager that the entire team would leave for another diner if Jackson couldn’t stay, went on to thank his white teammates like Joe Rudi, Dave Duncan and Rollie Fingers for helping him cope in a city that still believed in the Jim Crow laws.

“I slept on their couch (Rudi and his wife) four nights a week for about a month and a half,” Jackson said. “Finally, they were threatened that they’d burn the apartment complex down unless I got out. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

Jackson’s response to the one question lasted more than three minutes.

No one on the Fox set interrupted him.

No producer screamed into a headset trying to stop him.

“I really didn’t think it would get as much attention as it has gotten,’’ Jackson told USA TODAY Sports after the game, “but as much response as it generated, I didn’t get one negative response. Not one.

“I didn’t know Alex would ask me that question, but I’m glad they gave me a chance to respond.

“I’m glad people listened."

Loud. And clear.

Really, the oddest reaction was from America itself.

Folks acted as if they were shocked this was happening 50 years ago and not centuries ago.

Wake up.

It was in the ’80s when Al Campanis, general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, uttered on national TV that Blacks lacked “the necessities" to be general managers or managers in the game.

It was in the early ’90s in Los Angeles when Rodney King was brutally beaten by police officers on the city streets and every officer was acquitted.

It was in the mid-’90s in Vero Beach, Florida, when an apartment complex refused to allow a reporter’s two black children to swim in its community swimming pool.

It was in the past five years that George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor was shot and killed in her bedroom in Louisville, and Ahmaud Arbery was murdered jogging in Georgia.

So, really, we’re shocked that Jackson couldn’t eat in restaurants, sleep in hotels and hang in country clubs with his white teammates 57 years ago?

Welcome to America.

Racism still flourishes in this country, but the only difference, as Hank Aaron once told me, “the difference back then is that they had hoods. Now, they have neckties and starched shirts."

“In the South," Jackson said, “you knew they didn’t like you. You knew they didn't want you. They didn’t hide it."

Now, racism may not be as overt, but as Jackson reminded the country this week, don’t be naive to think it has gone away, or even greatly diminished.

Oh, and just in case you needed a reminder, there are only two Black managers in baseball, one Black general manager and there still has never been a majority Black owner. Jackson said Saturday he still is incensed the he was denied the opportunity to bid on the Oakland Athletics in 2005 when it was sold to John Fisher.

So, you really believe things have changed?

“I am glad,’’ Jackson said, “that I said what I did. It needed to be said."

And repeated over and over again.

Oh, the memories

Jim Marshall, 93, one of the original New York Mets, says one of his greatest thrills of his career was being a teammate of Willie Mays with the Giants, spending time together on a goodwill trip to Japan.

“You hear everyone say he was a five-tool player," Marshall tells USA TODAY Sports, “but what they don’t say is that if you break down every tool, he was the best in every category.’’

Indeed, Mays is the only player in baseball history who led the league in 10 different categories in his career, according to STATS Perform: Hits, runs, homers, triples, stolen bases, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases and walks.

Marshall, who was a backup first baseman, said his job was to throw batting practice whenever the Giants were about to face a left-hander that day.

“So here I am," Marshall says, “pitching against Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Willie Mays. I’m telling you, it was not fun. There were times I didn’t even have a screen in front of me. I always pitched Willie inside. I knew if I threw one out and over the plate, I’d be dead.’’

Marshall says his favorite time with Mays was a goodwill tour in Japan with him in 1960 and watching the Japanese fans flock to him. He was voted the MVP of the tour, even though McCovey had the superior numbers.

“We went to a few parties together, but you never had to worry about Willie,’’ Marshall said. “He did not drink. And when it was midnight, he was off to bed.

“The party was over.’’

Marshall’s favorite Mays story?

“We were in Milwaukee (April 30, 1961), Mays comes into the clubhouse and tells the manager Bill Rigney, 'I can’t play. I’m really sick. I had some bad ribs and I just can’t do it.’

“Rigney told him, 'Hey, there’s still an hour before the game, so let’s plan on playing, OK?’

“Well, the next thing we know, Willie’s in the lineup and he hits four home runs. Four! He was on the on-deck circle when the game ended or I would have sworn he would have hit five. No doubt about it.’’

Mays was the ninth player in history to hit four homers in a game, a list that has now expanded to 18 players.

No one has ever hit five homers.

The biggest rivalry in the game, Marshall said, was between McCovey and Mays. Mays was the star. McCovey wanted to be just as big.

“McCovey had one goal in mind,’’ Marshall said. “If Mays hit one, McCovey wanted to hit one further. There was a rivalry for popularity.

“Felipe Alou and I would just sit on the bench and watch the show. I was just looking up the other day how many homers he hit off Hall of Famers. He hit 18 homers off Warren Spahn and five off (Sandy) Koufax.

“I’m telling you, there was nobody like him.

“And there never will be.’’

Around the basepaths

≻ While Chicago White Sox manager Pedro Grifol’s future is uncertain past this season, one name that is floating around internally as a potential replacement in 2025 is Skip Schumaker, manager of the Miami Marlins.

Schumaker, the reigning NL manager of the year, played seven years in St. Louis for Tony La Russa, who will be an integral part of the decision-making process.

≻ While the CBA has a provision that would allow two teams to play a game in Paris next season, MLB officials say there won’t be one until at least 2027. There currently is no game scheduled in Europe in 2025, with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs opening the 2025 season in Tokyo.

≻ The Detroit Tigers know they have an awfully nice trade chip in starting pitcher Jack Flaherty, who signed a one-year, $14 million contract and has a 2.92 ERA.

≻ Florida Marlins lefty Jesus Luzardo is not expected to be traded now after going on the injured list with back problems. He also was on the injured list earlier this season with elbow tightness.

≻ Tony Clark, executive director of the players union, was visibly moved walking through the Negro Southern League Museum and visiting with former Negro League players and their families.

“This affords me the opportunity to just say, 'Thank you,'" Clark said, “give back and remind others as to the importance of this history and what it means in the grand scheme of things. It’s very easy for the history to get lost. It’s very easy for the history to get brushed aside.

“Having an event is great and it brings and sheds a light on that history, but it will be very important beyond this week and beyond this game that history continues to be told.’’

≻ With the passing of Willie Mays on June 18, the oldest living Hall of Famer is now Luis Aparicio, 90, followed by Sandy Koufax at 88.

≻ While the San Francisco Giants are campaigning to universally retire Willie Mays’ number (24), MLB officials say it's unlikely.

If you retire Mays’ number, then you must retire Hank Aaron’s number. And if you retire Aaron’s number, Roberto Clemente is deserving. Jackie Robinson’s number, 42, deserves to stand alone.

≻ The New York Mets are closely watching the health of Astros ace Justin Verlander, who’s back on the injured list and in danger of not pitching 140 innings. He has pitched just 57 innings in 10 starts this season.

If Verlander reaches 140 innings, his $35 million player option for 2025 vests and the Mets are required to pay $17.5 million of it.

If he doesn't, they’re off the hook.

≻ MLB scouts have insisted all season that Chicago Cubs prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong may not be the impact bat that’s been hyped, and so far they’ve been proved correct. He’s hitting .200 with a .570 OPS.

≻ Perhaps the scariest team in the National League the second half of the season could be the Arizona Diamondbacks, who haven’t been above .500 since April 3 and will have their three best starters back in July: Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly and Eduardo Rodriguez.

As the D-backs proved last year on their road to the World Series all you need to do is get in to the postseason.

≻ Believe it or not, the Boston Red Sox lead the American League in stolen bases. The last time they led the league in that stat? 1935.

≻ The Baltimore Orioles had four pitchers undergo season-ending surgery in a 17-day span. Yet, their starting rotation has the third-lowest ERA (3.02) in baseball, led by Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes (2.14 ERA).

“The game doesn’t stop for you,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde told reporters. “We keep playing.”

≻ The Los Angeles Dodgers, with Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Walker Buehler on the injured list, have Tyler Glasnow as their true ace, but have found a nice No. 2 without scouring the trade market: Gavin Stone, 25, is 8-2 with a 3.04 ERA in 14 starts.

≻ MLB is hoping that the automatic strike zone will be ready for the 2026 season with players able to challenge balls and strikes.

≻ In a rather ironic twist, there was an advertising billboard behind the left-center-field fence at Rickwood Field promoting ... BetMGM.

Willie Mays was actually banned from working in baseball by then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1979 for being a a goodwill ambassador at Bally’s Casino in Atlantic City.

“A casino is no place for a baseball hero and Hall of Famer,’’ Kuhn said.

Mays, along with Mickey Mantle who had also been banned, were reinstated by commissioner Peter Ueberroth in 1985.

≻ Kudos to the production folks at Fox Sports with the pregame and in-game interviews featuring Reggie Jackson, Barry Bonds and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick.

≻ Just in case you haven’t noticed − and most haven’t − Cleveland Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan is hitting .390 with a 1.013 OPS.

≻ Dr. Lawrence Rocks, who has a second installment of a science cartoon series debuting Sunday with White Sox shortstop Paul DeJong and Astros manager Joe Espada as voices, says one of his favorite baseball highlights was seeing the great Satchel Paige pitching at Yankee Stadium in 1948. Paige was his favorite pitcher.

≻ Just how impactful is Mets 22-year-old catcher Francisco Alvarez? The Mets are 19-1 in games he has played since April 4, with the pitchers yielding a 2.34 ERA with him and 4.11 with anyone else behind the plate.

≻ Beautiful moment for Philadelphia Phillies starter Ranger Suarez and his family who finally got to see him pitch in person last week.

Joseany Cabello, Suarez’s wife and mother of their two children, did not have a visa to come to the United States from Venezuela until they were married over the winter. They were all together to watch Suarez pitch and spend their first Father’s Day together last weekend.

≻ Do you realize that San Diego Padres infielder Luis Arraez has never woken up a single day since reaching the big leagues when he was not a .300 career hitter? He’s one of 11 players in history to accomplish the feat.

≻ Welcome back Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, who is scheduled to make his season debut Sunday for the Texas Rangers. Fellow Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom is expected to join him in August.

Follow Nightengale on X: @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Reggie Jackson's powerful racism comments still resonate today

Advertisement