'Cardboard Gods': Reggie Jackson

Updated: April 23, 2010, 12:39 PM ET
ESPN.com

Editor's note: This excerpt from "Cardboard Gods," by Josh Wilker, focuses on the "superduperstar" of the 1970s, Reggie Jackson. Copyright © 2010 by Josh Wilker. Excerpted with permission by Seven Footer Press.

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Courtesy Seven Footer Press

Topps 1976 #500: Reggie Jackson

Behold the All-Star. As shadows give way to sun, he pauses, reveling for a moment in his own magnificence, readying to move onto that bright stage he was born to command.

The year before I got this 1976 card, I'd caught a glimpse of the last of the A's dynasty at my first baseball game, when Ian and I had spent our voices cheering for Yaz. Our seats were in right field, close enough for the star player of the visiting team to hear us if we called his name. I don't remember if I ever did, but I do recall marveling at how he was known by everyone around me by just one name, his first name, as if the fans yelling it, or muttering it like a curse, were as intimately acquainted with him as I was with my brother.

A sense of excitement and apprehension surrounded Reggie throughout the game. Where Yaz kept failing to answer the crowd's call for greatness, Reggie kept disappointing the crowd's uneasy murmuring hope that he could be contained. Finally, late, the sky darkening and the huge, blinding banks of artificial lights flooding the field in something brighter than day, Reggie capped his methodical destruction of the home team by lashing a double to plate the go-ahead run. As he stood with one foot on second base, his hands on his hips, the crowd wove their voices together in a ragged chorus of caustic, resentful awe. Just before the bottom of the ninth the sound rose up again from everyone around me, directed at the powerful gold-clad man walking toward us, to his position, the customarily unfocused haze of unhappiness for once alighting on something specific, the strutting spectacular conquering god.
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Though in the latter years of my childhood I would come to loathe Reggie Jackson as much as anyone in the crowd around me that first day at the ballpark, I now believe Reggie Jackson is worthy of my gratitude for being the loud and proud center of the baseball era I've clung to my whole life. He may even have been the best player. I would have guessed that Joe Morgan or perhaps Fred Lynn or Jim Rice outperformed Reggie during my baseball-card-collecting years of 1975 through 1980, but on closer look Morgan had a couple of subpar, injury-hampered years, as did Lynn, and both Boston sluggers benefitted significantly from playing in arguably the best hitter's park of the time; meanwhile, Reggie just kept mashing, year in and year out, wherever he earned his bulging paycheck. And on top of all that, Reggie was Mr. October, the successor to Bob Gibson as baseball's best postseason performer.

But Reggie's central position in this world, my world, was not based solely, or even predominantly, on performance. Though baseball has never been a hermetically sealed universe unto itself, it seems to have embodied the times during the 1970s with an abandon never seen before or since, seething and sparkling and belching and flailing with all the careening spasms of the epoch. And no baseball player epitomized the times more than Reggie: Reggie the iconoclast who shattered baseball's implicit ban on facial hair; Reggie the bombastic celebrity most aptly described by the Sports Illustrated cover caption that read "Superduperstar!"; Reggie the embodiment of the new baseball term "free agency," with all its tangled connotations of hard-won rights and individuality and base self-interest and greed; Reggie the self-proclaimed straw that stirred the drink; Reggie the biggest and loudest and most petulant and sensitive and compelling beast in the whole late 1970s Yankees dynasty known as the Bronx Zoo; Reggie the candy bar that told you how good it was when you unwrapped it; Reggie the walking 60-point tabloid headline; Reggie the one-man neverending tickertape parade. Even my father, who never cared about baseball, knew who Reggie was, and throughout his life he has mentioned the time -- and not without some awe -- when he stopped on his way to work in downtown Manhattan to join a crowd and watch Reggie, larger than life, pass by on a slow-moving convertible as the confetti rained down and everyone chanted his name.

But even in this card, as in all cards: transience. The faces in the crowd -- faces that will watch the every move of the lordly All-Star in the foreground -- have been blurred to something like Monet's lily pads, those hypnotic omens of the inevitable dusk into which we'll all dissolve. All names, even those of the greatest among us, will eventually unravel to silence. And by the time the card thrummed in my palm in 1976, the regal joy of the card's blazing gold uniform was a lie: The one and only Superduperstar had moved on, traded to Baltimore in a move prompted by Reggie's impending free agency. The magnificent early-1970s A's, the most successful baseball dynasty to never wear pinstripes, became an empty golden shell for the remainder of my childhood, gutted by the complicated, equivocal freedom of the day.