A nomadic career in baseball taught Grant Jackson a couple of lessons:
Rent, don’t buy.
Keep United Van Lines on retainer.
Jackson was a baseball journeyman. He moved around more than Dr. Richard Kimble. Though he never spent time in the third boxcar, midnight train, and his destination was never Bangor, Maine, nonetheless he was a king of the road.
Jackson, known as Buck, pitched in the big leagues for 17 years, from 1965 to 1982. That’s a long time. He played in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Kansas City and then back one more time to Pittsburgh. Throw in a later coaching gig in Cincinnati and Rand McNally is woozy.
Journeyman is jargon that has been used countless times to describe ballplayers that really can’t find a home. The resume might read Grant Jackson was a journeyman left-handed pitcher back in an era when moving from team to team wasn’t as common as it is today. But not many guys play in The Show for 17 years, now or back then. If Jackson could be labeled a journeyman, he sure had longevity and credentials to brag about.
Boomers that were baseball nuts in the 60s and 70s probably remember the name Grant Jackson. Short of confusing him for a couple of Civil War generals, most others won’t.
Our paths first crossed in 2010 but I don’t remember the specifics.
It was at the Pittsburgh Pirates fantasy camp in Bradenton, FL; my first of what was to become a life changing experience. Jackson was one of the 16 ex-Pirates who were there coaching us hacks and spinning old baseball tales. That camp was the 50th anniversary of my favorite team ever, the 1960 Pirates. I was too mesmerized being around my idols like Bill Mazeroski, Bill Virdon, Bob Skinner, Vern Law and Bob Friend to notice anyone else.
It was three years later, in 2013, that I went back to Pirates camp. Jackson was there once again as he had been for the ten years before. It was in that camp he started calling me ‘Roger.’ Every time he did, I corrected him: “It’s ROY, not Roger!” And every time I saw him that week he’d ask “Roger, how you doing?” By Wednesday, I finally gave up. Roger it was.
Two years later we were teammates. Sort of. He and his coaching partner, former second baseman Chico Lind, in a moment of temporary insanity, drafted me to play for their 2015 camp team. During a meeting right before our opening game, Jackson was reading the line-up and said “Roger, you are playing first and hitting sixth.” I looked around. There were no Rogers among my eleven teammates, so I trotted out to first base. I was Roger, the rest of that week, too.
It was a fun week. On the field we were a little better than average. We finished with a 4-3 record and a quick exit from the playoffs. The best part was Buck and me, just two old southpaws, gabbing. He was born and raised in Fostoria, Ohio, as was a former University of Miami roommate of mine. Life is good when you know one person from Fostoria; it’s over the moon when you know two. Sadly, Jeff Shiff has since passed but Buck knew his family. I told him how excited Jeff was the day he got a letter from home telling him that Fostoria just got their second traffic light. Jackson knew exactly where it was.
It was in Fostoria that Grant’s dad nicknamed him Buck, because he could run like a deer. Buck went on to become all-everything at Fostoria High School. The name stuck for the rest of his life.
He told me the story of the night in 1972 that Roberto Clemente, the Pirates superstar, died in a plane crash trying to bring supplies to the survivors of an earthquake in Nicaragua. Recounting that awful night, Buck broke down twice and started sobbing, the memory, 43 years later, was still raw. Clemente and Jackson were not teammates. In fact, they opposed each other in the ‘71 World Series, but that was the type of respect Clemente earned from everyone in the game. The plane crashed upon takeoff from Carolina, Puerto Rico, right into the ocean. Buck was playing winter ball in PR and broke every island speed limit when he heard the news to get to the crash site. Clemente’s body was never recovered.
Buck spent the first 11 years of his career split between the Phillies and Orioles. He was an All-Star with the Phillies in 1969 winning 14 games. He was traded to Baltimore in 1971, a season in which he pitched 77 innings with a 4-3 record and helped carry the O’s to the World Series. They lost to the Pirates in seven games. Clemente was the MVP. Jackson stayed in Baltimore for another five years before United Van Lines moved him to New York to become part of the 1976 Yankees.
It was June 15, 1976, when Buck was shipped to the Bronx along with Doyle Alexander, Jimmy Freeman, Elrod Hendricks and Ken Holtzman for Rick Dempsey, Tippy Martinez, Rudy May, Scott McGregor and Dave Pagan. He was the Yankees ‘Jackson’ before Reggie got there the next year. That ‘76 team was the one that brought the Yankees back, out of the darkest losing era in their storied history. By then I had become a Yankees fan. We had a lot to talk about. Or better said, I had lots to listen to.
It was a great move for the Yankees; they beat Baltimore by ten games that season to win the American League East. In Game 5 of the ALCS against Kansas City, the deciding game, Buck gave up a three-run home run to George Brett to tie the game in the top of the eighth. One swing of Chris Chambliss’ bat in the bottom of the ninth sent the Yankees to the World Series for the first time in a dozen years. Prior to the trade the 33-year-old Jackson pitched in 13 games for the Orioles with a 1-1 record. As a Yankee he took the mound in 21 games with a 6-0 record and a 1.69 ERA. He was more than just a trade throw-in; he was a difference maker for the stretch run.
The Yankees got swept in the World Series by Cincinnati, but that team was the nucleus for multiple world championships to follow. Buck, despite a solid year out of the bullpen, was one and done as a Yankee. Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner saw to that.
“Let me tell you, Roger,” Jackson remembered. “One day that season I was talking to (manager) Billy Martin and for some reason I showed him how to throw a punch. You may remember that Billy loved to scuffle, but he never won a fight.”
Off the field Buck was always smiling, always willing to lend a hand, but he was downright surly on the pitching mound. ABC’s Howard Cosell once asked him if it were true he would brush-back his mother if she batted against him. “Only if she was crowding the plate,” Buck laughed. “But after the game I’d take her out to dinner.” Martin liked what he heard and wanted to see if it would transcend to nightclubs, too.
“Billy asked me if I knew how to fight,” Buck, at six feet and a cruiserweight 180 pounds, continued. “I told him I could hold my own. That was a mistake. He told me I was going out with him every night and it was manager’s orders!”
That might have worked just fine for Billy; it didn’t for Steinbrenner. When the owner got word that Jackson was not only Martin’s private bouncer but in turn an enabler of Billy’s late-night activities, Buck’s name appeared on the list of unprotected Yankees for the expansion draft to stock the new Seattle and Toronto franchises. Whether it was Brett’s home run, the protection of Martin, or a combination of both, Steinbrenner, against Martin’s recommendation, made Jackson available to the start-up teams.
Seattle chose him as the 11th player selected. Buck told them he preferred not to be part of an expansion team. The Mariners quickly traded him to Pittsburgh for Craig Reynolds and Jimmy Sexton. It was a life changing experience for Jackson and a key one for the Pirates as well.
Jackson pitched for Pittsburgh for four years, 1977-81, where he was used exclusively out of the ‘pen with a 29-17 record and an ERA of 3.00. He’s best remembered for being the winning pitcher the last time the Pirates not only played in a World Series, but won. That was the 1979 “We Are Family” team. The Pirates rallied from a 3-1 Series deficit to beat the Orioles in seven games. Jackson didn’t surrender a run that post-season. He pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 7, enough for the Pirates to take a 2-1 lead and wait for Kent Tekulve to close it out. The city of Pittsburgh never forgot that Grant Jackson was the winning Game 7 pitcher. “My biggest thrill in baseball, no doubt,” he smiled.
The moving truck showed up again in 1981 when Pittsburgh shipped him across the border to Montreal and a year later the Expos did the same thing sending him to the Royals in 1982. The Royals released him late that season. Jackson re-signed with the Pirates, pitched one inning and retired as a Pirate. His wife Millie canceled the moving company retainer. He has lived in Pittsburgh ever since.
At age 40 it was time to call it a day. If indeed his longevity qualified him as a journeyman, Jackson was a damn good one. A career 86-75 won-loss record, a 3.46 ERA, and 79 saves. He appeared in 692 games, with 610 of them out of the bullpen. He pitched 1359 innings, striking out 889 hitters. He pitched in three World Series, winning one. He was 3-0 in 13 career post-season appearances with a 2.55 ERA. He was steady and dependable. His left arm rarely failed him.
The world is a little less friendly place this morning. Grant Jackson died from COVID complications on February 2. He was a spry and feisty 78-year-old, but he couldn’t strikeout the pandemic. I was fortunate that I got to know Grant Jackson. My life is better for it. After 2015 we met every year for the next five the last week of January in Bradenton. Every year, whether he knew the difference or not, I was still Roger. During camp games Buck would sit on a stool in front of his team’s dugout constantly yelling encouragement to his players. When I came to bat as an opponent, he would be heckling me. All I heard was him razzing some guy named Roger, so I didn’t pay much attention to it.
Nobody ever had a bad word about or was shorted by Grant Jackson. The Pirates lost a friend and ambassador with his death. “He always made himself available for any type of appearance we needed,” said Joe Billetdeaux, the Pirates director of Alumni Affairs. “He was a community asset, no doubt about it. He was very well known. A World Series hero.”
When word reached fellow fantasy camper Jack Steele about Buck’s passing he posted, “Heaven just got another ace on their pitching staff.”