The Tragedy of Bo Jackson

Bo Jackson

After winning the Heisman Trophy as the greatest college football player in 1985, the Kansas City Royals persuaded Auburn University athlete Bo Jackson to sign with the Royals instead of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the National Football League. He joined the Royals after just fifty-three games in the minors. While showing speed and power, Jackson struck out frequently and too often displayed questionable defense. In his first major league at bat on September 2, 1986, Jackson hit a monstrous home run that many took as a portent of his great ability. Could Bo Jackson be the next generation Hall of Famer for the Royals, someone who would pick up the mantle of George Brett? Many people thought so at the time.

Kansas City Monarchs star Buck O’Neil described in his autobiography how he heard a unique crack from Bo Jackson’s bat, a sound he had heard only three times in his life. He wrote that he first heard it from Babe Ruth. “It wasn’t so much the sight of him that got to me as the sound,” O’Neil wrote. “When Ruth was hitting the ball, it was a distinct sound, like a small stick of dynamite going off.” That sound set Babe Ruth apart from everyone else. “The next time I heard that sound was in 1938, my first year with the Monarchs. We were in Griffith Stadium in Washington to play the Homestead Grays, and I heard that sound all the way up in the clubhouse, so I ran down to the dugout in just my pants and my sweatshirt to see who was hitting the ball. And it was Josh Gibson. I thought, my land, that’s a powerful man.”

O’Neil then added, “I didn’t hear it again for almost fifty years. I thought I’d never hear it again. But I was at Royals Stadium, scouting the American League for the Cubs, and I came out of the press room and was going down to field level when I heard that ball sound as if the Babe or Josh were still down there. Pow! Pow! Pow! It was Bo Jackson—the Royals had just called him up.” O’Neil certainly understood baseball, and he was convinced that Jackson had the talent to become one of the greatest players ever.

Jackson was also a media celebrity from the very beginning. Steve Cameron observed, “Bo was a one-man circus. He drew crowds like Elvis or Princess Di….Bo was the Royals’ biggest attraction ever. Never mind that Brett, a future Hall of Famer, shared the same dugout, George was ignored like a utility infielder whenever the Bo Show came to town.” That star power caused jealousy in the clubhouse and a certain amount of tension within the Royals organization, but as long as he performed on the field any complaints sounded hollow. In 1987, Jackson’s first full season in a Royals uniform, he batted only .235, but he also hit twenty-two home runs. While his average could stand improvement, the homers were welcome.

Bo Jackson announced late in 1987 that he intended to play professional football with the Los Angeles Raiders as a “hobby” in the off-season. His teammates immediately criticized him for not taking baseball seriously enough, a criticism that was both accurate and beside the point. While he did not make baseball his life, like his teammates, Jackson also had such enormous talent that he could pursue other sports and perform well in everything he did. Unfortunately, had he decided to commit himself only to baseball he would probably still be playing and headed to Cooperstown at the end of a long and illustrious career? Jackson responded poorly to these criticisms and found himself at the center of a controversy in Kansas City, as many questioned if he would ever fit in there. He found himself booed on the field and castigated in the media. In some respects, Bo Jackson was more suited to the spotlights of New York or Los Angeles than to the traditional culture of Kansas City.

Even so, every year that he played for the Royals, Jackson’s performance improved. In 1988 he slammed 25 homers and stole twenty-seven bases but still struck out 146 times. However, in 1989 he finally raised his batting average to .256, hit 32 home runs with 105 RBIs, and used his speed and strong arm to become one of the most exciting left fielders in baseball. That year he made the All-Star squad for his first and only time. In his last year in Kansas City in 1990, Jackson raised his average to .272, and still hit twenty-eight homers.

Jackson suffered a serious hip injury while playing for the Raiders in the 1990-1991 football season. The Royals fully believed he was finished because of this injury and gave him an unconditional release at the beginning of the 1991 baseball season. Jackson then signed with the Chicago White Sox, but played only twenty-three games before realizing he could not continue. He received enormous sympathy for his attempt to come back, but it was painful just watching him try to run bases and chase fly balls. Such an elegant player previously, he appeared as but a shadow of the person who had performed so well for the Royals. Jackson submitted to a hip replacement and tried to come back in 1993. He saw part-time service as a designated hitter with the White Sox in 1993 and the California Angels in 1994 but never performed as he had with the Royals.

It was a sad end to the career of Bo Jackson. Some would say it was a tragedy, and they would not be far off. Of the three great bat sounds that Buck O’Neil wrote about, all were made by men who might be considered tragic figures. Babe Ruth, of course, had an enormously successful career in the major leagues. That success was never equaled in life as a whole, and he died earlier than the normal three score and ten, with his last years riddled with despair. Josh Gibson, the “black Babe Ruth,” hit more home runs in the Negro Leagues than anyone but never got a chance to play in the majors. He died in 1945 just as the National League was on the verge of being integrated, and humanity will never know how good he might have been.

Bo Jackson had his shot in baseball and showed flashes of excellence, but his career was cut short by an injury that took place on a football field. Had he been able to play a full career in the major leagues he might well have become among the greatest in the game. Buck O’Neil was right: Jackson had a unique gift. I wish I had been able to see him demonstrate those gifts over a long career.

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