Reggie Jackson: "Race is always on my mind, even today"

When the Bronx Zoo became too much, the Yankees hall of famer relied on advice from his tough, hardworking father

Published November 27, 2013 12:00AM (EST)

Reggie Jackson      (AP/Ben Margot/Salon)
Reggie Jackson (AP/Ben Margot/Salon)

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When things were hard in New York, with Billy Martin or the tabloids or teammates, George Steinbrenner asked my dad to call me and offer some guidance.

My dad gave me practical, pragmatic advice. He was a tailor, and there were lots of conversations where he said, "You don't want to come home and do what I'm doing. You don't want to be working for me." “Do what you're supposed to do,” he said. “Beat on the baseball. Don't worry about the manager.”

Those were his terms. You beat on the baseball and things will work out. As long as you've got a bat in your hand, you have the final say -- you have the last word. That mattered, because when I was a kid in the late 1950s, your father was the sheriff. If you didn't do what he said, he'd start taking his belt off, and you got your mind right -- in a hurry.

Back in the days when I was a kid and then a teenager, your father was the law. It was different then. When we ate dinner at my house, and the old man came home after work, you were quiet at the table. There was no discussion of "How was your day?" and how school went and what the teachers were telling you and what you were learning. His interaction with school was when the report card came home. If you did anything to require your father to go to school and look into how you were performing, you got whipped. You did not make the old man miss work.

There weren't any discussions at the dinner table. He read the newspaper and he ate dinner. If there was any little rustling of the fork too much or something – he had his readers on, that he got at the drug store – and if he pulled the newspaper down to look at you, to stop you from what you were doing, you were interrupting him. There was no, "Stop doing that." He'd look at you and you'd stop.

So during my time with the Yankees, he didn't want to hear, "The papers are making up stories about me." Or "I have 45,000 people on my case.” No bullshit!

Were those problems about race? I never thought, “I’m the highest-paid player in the game, and I’m an African-American male.” I kind of looked at what’s going on and went, “Wow. What’s happening?” You know, during the season, very early in the ’70s, certainly ’76, I knew I was the highest-paid athlete and that was impactful. I knew what some of the challenges were. It’s not top of the mind but it is part of your experience; it goes with the territory.

It's not just my opinion. If you look on TV and see the most disliked athletes, you go, “Gee, wow! The top seven are all black. I wonder why?” That’s not my editorial. That may be my comment, but I’ve looked at the facts. There must be some substance to it.

Race is always on my mind, even today. If you’re a minority, it’s on your mind. Today you could get into an elevator and there’s a woman who’ll adjust her clutch. You feel those things. And today color is still something that is – I don’t want to say top of mind – but it’s in our minds. You think about it. Whether you act on it or not is another thing.

With everything that was going on [between me and Billy Martin] you had your representation, you had duties, you have a leadership position; you had parents. You’re not just acting on your own. You have restrictions and awareness.

These days, I get advice from the Bible. I try to do my best to read the Bible every day to get a little help from my prayer book. That's probably the most important part of my day. I think that's a good guide in life.

Give thanks every day for what you have. There's not enough time in your day to give thanks for everything that you have: eyesight, sense of smell, your friends, your home, the shoes you put on. If you give enough thanks, it humbles you, and it’s important to be humble and be gracious to your fellow man. Give thanks to God or your supreme being. Give thanks and it gets you started on the right way. Read whatever your theology is, whatever you believe or whatever your religion is. Read something; you'll be better off for it.

I always thanked God; always had a prayer when playing baseball. I got that from home. “Please have mercy, dear Lord have mercy.” My prayer on the foul line was, "Guide me, lead me; do with my life as you see fit."

By Reggie Jackson as told to David Daley

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