By Glen Sparks
Jackson or Smith, who was the better Reggie?
You probably know more about Reginald Martinez Jackson, born May 18, 1946, in Wyncote, Pa., near Philadelphia. He rarely lacked for attention, and he truly did spectacular, front-page, “the straw that stirs the drink” sort of stuff during his 21-year career. Before retiring following the 1987 season, Jackson hit 563 home runs and led the American League four times.
At the 1970 All-Star game in Detroit, the left-handed slugger rocketed a Dock Ellis pitch into a light-standard atop Tiger Stadium in right-field, 520 feet from home plate. He led the Oakland A’s to three World Series titles and the New York Yankees to two. In 1977, “Mr. October” blasted three home runs on three straight pitches in Game Six against the Los Angeles Dodgers (off Burt Hooton, Elias Sosa and Charlie Hough, in that order.)
Jackson made 14 All-Star teams and the writers, as they should have, elected him to the Hall of Fame in 1993, in his first year on the ballot. As much as anyone, he was the face of Major League Baseball in the 1970s.
Now, about that “the straw that stirs the drink” thing. He supposedly said that to sportswriter Dave Anderson in July of 1977, to the dismay of teammate Thurman Munson and others. Braggadocio and Reggie Jackson frequently knocked around together. Of course, Jackson did back it up more often than not. He once said that if he played in New York City, they’d name a candy bar after him. He did, and they did. (Catfish Hunter, a cut-up, said this about the Reggie Bar: “I unwrapped it, and it told me how good it was.”)
Jackson liked to take a mighty cut and frequently tied himself into a knot after missing a pitch badly. He struck out 2,596 times, more than anyone in the game’s history. He actually finished with 13 more K’s than hits. No. 44 accumulated 76.6 oWAR points but finished 17.2 points in the hole on dWAR.
One of the great scenes in the Bronx Zoo era of Yankee baseball happened June 18, 1977, during a Saturday afternoon nationally televised game versus the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Jim Rice hit a ball to shallow right field. Jackson jogged in to field it and Rice, hardly a speed burner, ended up on second base. A furious New York skipper, Billy Martin, yanked Reggie from the game. The NBC cameras caught the whole dugout rhubarb on videotape.
“The best thing about being a Yankee is getting to see Reggie Jackson play every day. … The worst thing about being a Yankee is getting to see Reggie Jackson play every day.” – Graig Nettles
The “Other” Reggie
Carl Reginald Smith, born April 2, 1945, in Shreveport, La., grew up in Compton, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles. He played on four Major League teams (the same number as Jackson) and one in Japan, the Yomiuri Giants, in the same era as the more famous Reggie.
Smith belted 314 home runs during a 17-year career, or 249 fewer than Jackson. He drove in 1,092 runs, or 610 fewer than Jackson. Yes, so far, this comparison seems awfully lopsided in favor of Reggie J.
But, let’s move on. Smith batted .287 to Jackson’s .262. His on-base percentage also beat out Jackson, .366 to .356. And, even though Jackson did out-homer Smith by a wide margin, he topped Smith in slugging percentage by just one point, .490 to .489, and in OPS+ by only two, 139 to 137.
Paul Haddad, author of High Fives, Pennant Drives, and Fernandomania, did an interesting comparison of Smith and Jackson. Over a 162-game average over their careers, the numbers look like this: Jackson: 32 home runs, 98 RBI, 89 runs scored, 27 doubles, 79 walks and 149 strikeouts. Smith: 26 home runs, 89 RBI, 92 runs scored, 30 doubles, 73 walks and 84 strikeouts. Wow, pretty close.
On defense, it isn’t even close. Smith won one Gold Glove, probably could have won another, had a great arm and finished with 2.6 dWAR points. (Jackson accumulated 76.6 oWAR points to 55.9 for Smith, which seems like a greater margin than it should be. Even so Smith’s figure is 5.6 points higher than Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda and 7.4 points than inductee Lou Brock.)
What might the difference be? For one, Smith didn’t last as long as Jackson. He retired, or, rather, left for Japan after the 1982 season. (It should be said that he clearly had something left in the tank. He hit .284 in ’82 for the San Francisco Giants and belted 18 homers in only 349 at-bats.) It didn’t help that Smith also suffered some serious injuries late in his career, missing chunks of the 1979-81 seasons.
Jackson won the MVP in 1973 with Oakland and finished in the top five two other times with the A’s and once with the Yankees. Smith finished fourth in the balloting with the Dodgers in 1977 and 1978.
Of course, Jackson lit up the postseason, as mentioned earlier. He hit 18 home runs in 77 playoff and World Series games. Smith hit six in 32.
Reggie Smith also didn’t lit up any reporter’s pens with his electrifying quotes. The man who made seven All-Star teams once said, according to Haddad, “I don’t concern myself with what people say about Reggie Smith.”
Smith stayed on the Hall of Fame ballot for one year, 1988. He grabbed 0.7 of the vote, and that was that. He subsequently did some coaching for the Dodgers and now runs youth baseball academies in the L.A. area.
Bill James rated Jackson as the seventh best right-fielder in baseball history in his 2003 Historical Baseball Abstract. He rated Smith the 20th best but gives him his due, even comparing him with Jackson. He calls him “almost as good, not quite.”
That seems fair. Smith didn’t always do the spectacular stuff that Jackson often did. He was a steady player, though, a complete player, and a very good player.