Bo Jackson: Man, Myth, Royal, and 1989

Part of the “African-American Royals Project” series.

When it comes to cultural relevance, there are really two Royals who stick out most in the course of Royals history. The first is obviously George Brett, who is the most iconic Royals players in franchise history. And it makes sense. Brett’s list of accomplishments over his 21-year career is legendary, and probably will never be matched. He is after all, a member of Royals and Baseball Hall of Fame, a former MVP (1980), and the Royals’ all-time leader in WAR (88.6) by a considerable margin (Kevin Appier, who is in second place, only has a WAR of 47.0). If you see a fan in a Royals jersey of a non-active player at Kauffman Stadium, chances are, it will probably be one of George Brett.

However, the second most-iconic Royal in franchise history? That honor may belong to Bo Jackson.

Now, Jackson doesn’t match Brett’s career numbers or impact on the Royals. Jackson only played eight years total in baseball, including five in Kansas City with the Royals. Jackson only made one All-Star appearance, unlike Brett who appeared in 13 Mid-Summer classics. And lastly, Jackson did not make either the Royals or Baseball Hall of Fame, unlike Brett. In many ways, one could argue that there are more deserving African-American players in Royals history who would be more deserving of Jackson’s legacy. After all, Amos Otis, Frank White, Willie Wilson, John Mayberry, and Hal McRae are all African-American Royals who are currently members of the Royals Hall of Fame.

However, what makes Jackson so legendary is not necessarily his metrics or his long-term impact, but the magnitude of his impact in his short while in Kansas City. Jackson endeared young fans (especially myself) to the game of baseball with his unmatched athleticism, and cultural significance (after all, who can forget “Bo Knows”). Jackson made Kansas City relevant on a national level, not just with baseball fans, but the casual sports fan across the country. And Jackson is a great “What If” tale, as it is debatable what kind of long-term impact he could have had in Kansas City had he not got hurt playing professional football.

Thus, it’s not a surprise that one would see just as many Bo Jackson Royals jerseys as George Brett ones these days at Kauffman Stadium.

The story of Jackson growing up may be as legendary as his professional sports career itself, which may be hard to believe considering that Jackson was one of the few players in the history of American sports to play and excel in two professional sports. Born Vincent Edwards Jr. in Bessemer, Alabama, Jackson was one of 10 kids, and had a reputation for being a tough, hard-headed youngster to deal with who often clashed with fellow kids and elders, as chronicled in Norm King’s writeup on Jackson in Jackson’s SABR Biography.

Young Vincent could never be confused with the program’s caring namesake; he was such a difficult youngster, that his family began referring to him as a boar hog. That eventually was shortened to Bo, and the nickname stuck.

Jackson inherited two traits from his absentee father, A.D. Adams, size and a terrible stutter. The size made him big, tough, and athletic, while the stutter made him a target of ridicule among other children. What he did not get from his father was discipline.

“We never had enough food,” Jackson wrote in his autobiography. “But at least I could beat on other kids and steal their lunch money and buy myself something to eat. But I couldn’t steal a father. I couldn’t steal a father’s hug when I needed one. I couldn’t steal a father’s whipping when I needed one.”

“Bo Jackson” by Norm King; SABR Biography Project; Last revised: September 5, 2017

Not a great student, Bo found his outlet through athletics, and particularly excelled in football and baseball. He parlayed that athletic prowess to a dual football and baseball scholarship to the University of Auburn, and he was most known for his exploits on the field in the gridiron of the SEC. He rushed for 4,303 yards over his college career, and in 1985, he won the Heisman Trophy, college football’s highest honor.

However, even though he was expected to be a consensus No. 1 pick, and an impact running back at the NFL level, Jackson was torn between his love for football AND baseball, as chronicled by King.

Yet, as good as he was at football, his goal was to play professional baseball. “My first love is baseball,” he said, “and it has always been a dream of mine to be a major league player.”

“Bo Jackson” by Norm King; SABR Biography Project; Last revised: September 5, 2017

Because of this conflicted desire, as well as a stellar campaign on the diamond at Auburn, Jackson was unfortunately sabotaged by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who held the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft in 1986. During his senior year of baseball with the Tigers, Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse flew Jackson on his private jet for a workout, ensuring Jackson that such an act wasn’t a violation of NCAA rules. Unfortunately, much to Jackson and the Tiger baseball team’s dismay, it was, and Jackson was immediately ruled ineligible for the remainder of the college baseball season.

“I think it was all a plot now, just to get me ineligible from baseball because they saw the season I was having (after hitting .401 in 1985, Jackson was batting .246, with 7 home runs and 14 RBIs in 21 games in 1986) and they thought they were going to lose me to baseball,” he said in an ESPN documentary on his life. “(Like) if we declare him ineligible, then we’ve got him.”

“Bo Jackson” by Norm King; SABR Biography Project; Last revised: September 5, 2017

The decision angered Jackson so fervently that despite being picked No. 1 overall and offered a four-year deal worth $5-7 million dollars to play RB for the Bucs, he instead chose to sign with the Royals, who drafted him in the fourth round of the 1986 MLB Draft. In fact, Jackson slid to the 4th round because many MLB teams felt that it was almost a sure thing that Jackson would go to the NFL, and thus, it would just be a wasted draft pick. However, Royals scout (and Hall of Fame member) Art Stewart was confident that Jackson would sign with the Royals if drafted, and the moved ended up paying off for Kansas City.

And furthermore, Jackson made his presence known with his first batting practice as a Royal, especially with legendary KC Monarch and Negro League ambassador Buck O’Neil in attendance, as chronicled in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, “You Don’t Know Bo.

Jackson debuted with the Royals in 1986 at 23-years-old, the year after the Royals won their first World Series. After only playing 23 games as a rookie, he ended up playing 116 games the following year, in which he became a regular in the Royals outfield. However, from 1986-1988, while Jackson certainly could hit for power (he hit 22 home runs in 1987 and 25 home runs in 1988), he struggled to hit for average (.235 and .246 in 1987 and 1988, respectively) and also had problems with striking out (36.4 and 31.7 strikeout rates in 1987 and 1988, respectively). Thus, while Jackson showed flashes of greatness in the field and superb home run power, there were concerns that his “swing and miss” issues would prevent him from transitioning from a “good” to perhaps a “great” player.

However, things started to come together for Jackson in 1989, his age-26 season. In the first month of the season, Jackson got off to a scorching start for the Royals, as he hit 8 home runs, drove in 20 runs, stole 9 bases on 10 attempts, and posted a slash of .282/.337/.647 as well as an OPS of .984 in 23 games and 92 plate appearances. Jackson’s start also had an impact on the Royals team, as they went 16-8 during the first month of play in 1989. While Jackson cooled off a bit after the first month, he still ended up posting a .263/.307/.522 slash in the first half to go along with 20 home runs, 59 RBI, and an .829 OPS 81 games and 336 plate appearances. And if that wasn’t enough, Jackson frequently awed fans with his arm and prowess on the field, especially in a June 5th game against the Mariners where he famously threw out Harold Reynolds at home to save the game for the Royals in the bottom of the 10th.

Jackson ended up earning himself a spot in the 1989 All-Star game due to his impressive first-half performance. And in the Mid-Summer classic, while batting against San Francisco Giants pitcher Rick Reuschel and with president Ronald Regan and broadcaster Vin Scully on the air, Jackson provided the game’s most memorable moment.

Jackson ended up going 2-for-4 in the game and ended up earning the All-Star Game MVP in a 5-3 victory for the American League. Jackson ended up earning not just the respect of baseball fans everywhere, but also opposing NL All-Star manager Tommy LaSorda:

“Bo Jackson was exciting, really” Lasorda said. When he hit (his home run), I thought it sounded like he hit a golf ball. He’s awesome and exciting.”

“Bo Jackson” by Norm King; SABR Biography Project; Last revised: September 5, 2017

Jackson ended up finishing the 1989 season with a slash of .256/.310/.495 with an OPS of .805 in 135 games and 561 plate appearances. Jackson also mashed 32 home runs, drove in 105 RBI, and stole 26 bases, but he did lead the league in strikeouts with 172, a 30.7 percent strikeout rate. While the Royals did go 92-70 in 1989 under manager John Wathan, they finished seven games behind the Oakland Athletics in the AL West, who ended up beating the San Francisco Giants in the World Series that season.

Even though 1989 was Jackson’s lone season as an All-Star, 1990 was shaping up to be Jackson’s best season as a professional at the plate. He improved his BB/K ratio from from 0.23 in 1989 to 0.34, and also put up a slash of .272/.342/.523 and .866 OPS to go along with 28 home runs and 78 RBI. However, he only played in a 111 games, as he suffered a shoulder injury diving for a flyball at Yankee Stadium that put him out of commission for a good handful of contests. The injury was unfortunate, as Jackson ended up hitting three home runs in the same game.

Injury ultimately abbreviated Jackson’ career, as a hip injury he suffered against the Cincinnati Bengals while a running back with the Los Angeles Raiders ended up not only ending his football career, but also severely stunted his baseball one as well. After getting hip surgery, Jackson ended up getting released by the Royals in 1991 and only played in 183 more games from 1991-1994, which were split between the Chicago White Sox and California (now Los Angeles) Angels.

It’s hard to project what Jackson would have become as a Royal should he had not suffered that horrendous hip injury in the NFL. His power and improving patience were promising signs that Jackson could have been the first 40-home run hitter in Royals history (that honor eventually went to Jorge Soler this year). Unfortunately, that idea will just be a “What If,” exhibit 5 of the 100’s of “What if” scenarios that have followed Jackson’ career as a dual athlete.

Despite his short tenure, Jackson’s influence on baseball in Kansas City is relevant, especially with Gen X and Millennial baseball fans. I had a “Bo Knows” poster in my room, and I was just a kid living in Sacramento, not Kansas City at the time. I remembered the highlights of him scaling the wall after making a catch on the run, and him breaking bats not only over his knee, but over his head as well.

Jackson was a Royals icon and still remains one to this day. Whenever I think of the powder blue uniform with the “Royals” name across the chest, I think of Jackson first, not Brett, which I know is sacrilege in the eyes of many Royals fans. But Jackson had that kind of impact, and he helped prove that baseball could be a “cool” sport with the modern sports fan, and that honor wasn’t just reserved for the NBA or NFL athletes.

Jackson will never get in the Hall of Fame, and most likely won’t get inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame either. But Jackson’s impact on the game, especially in Kansas City, cannot be debated, even if it was only for a short while.

I am just jealous of those Royals fans who were lucky to see him at Kauffman Stadium in person during his playing days.

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