Obituary: Grant Jackson (1942-2021)

RIP to Grant Jackson, an 18-year major league pitcher who was a World Series hero for the 1979 “We Are Family” Pirates. Jackson died on February 2 at Canonsburg Hospital in Canonsburg, Pa., from COVID-19 complications. He was 78 years old. In his career, Jackson played for the Philadelphia Phillies (1965-70), Baltimore Orioles (1971-76), New York Yankees (1976), Pittsburgh Pirates (1977-81, 1982), Montreal Expos (1981) and Kansas City Royals (1982).

Grant Dwight Jackson — he was nicknamed “Buck” by his father — was born on September 28, 1942, in Fostoria, Ohio. He played guard on the Fostoria High School basketball team, as well as halfback/punter on the football team and a left-handed pitcher on the baseball team. In the summer of 1961, he struck out 33 batters in two games at an American Legion semi-final tournament tournament at Elyria. The Philadelphia Phillies signed him to a “modest” bonus contract on December 2, 1961. He was expected to be assigned to a Class-D team in 1962, but after working at the Phillies 1963 spring training facility in Leesburg, Fla., he started his career with the Class-C Bakersfield Bears instead.

Jackson spent two seasons with Bakersfield, adjusting to the rigors of pro baseball. His first season was a bit of a wash, as he battled control issues and walked 71 batters in 98 innings. He also struck out 86 in 29 games (including 10 starts) and ended the year with a 4-5 record and 5.79 ERA. Jackson bounced back to win 12 games in 1963, as the Bears moved up to a Class-A team. He piled up a 10-game winning streak at one point.

Source: The News Journal, March 15, 1966.

After that, Jackson moved up the ranks pretty quickly. He got his first taste of AA ball in 1964, though he was hit pretty hard in a brief stay. The Phillies advanced him to AAA in 1965 and he debuted in the majors that September. Jackson’s first game was on September 3, 1965, relieving Ray Culp with two runners on in the fifth against the Cincinnati Reds. Phillies manager Gene Mauch gambled by bringing in the rookie against the heart of the Reds’ lineup. It looked like a brilliant move at first, as he fanned Tony Perez and Deron Johnson on six fastballs. Then he fell behind Frank Robinson and tried to get a knee-high fastball past him. Robinson deposited the ball over the Crosley Field scoreboard for a 430-foot, 3-run home run.

“I just threw fastballs because I loosen up slow,” Jackson said later. “I was nervous at first, but not afraid of the hitters. When I got behind Robinson, I wanted to have him hit my best pitch, a low fastball.”

Robinson went up to the rookie the next day and told him not to worry about the home run. “I hit ’em like that off everybody. Even Koufax,” he added.

Jackson was roughed up in his first five games, with an ERA approaching 20.00. Then he got a start in the final game of the season, which was the second half of a doubleheader against the Mets. Jackson worked the first 9 innings, allowing a run on six hits while striking out 11 Mets. The Phillies won the game in 13 innings, and Jackson lowered his ERA to 7.24 on the season, with a 1-1 record.

Jackson worked on improving his curveball in winter ball in Puerto Rico and came into the 1966 training camp determined to win the fourth starter spot. “I keep reading that Darold Knowles and Bo Belinski and John Boozer are the big hopes,” he said. “Well, I would like the job myself. I guess I’ll just have to work hard and knock off the other ones one at a time.”

Jackson had an up-and-down spring but made the Opening Day roster. He appeared in just two games before being sent to the minors, though. His first outing was a scoreless inning against the Reds on April 16. On April 20 against Atlanta, though, he walked 3 batters and gave up an RBI single in 2/3 of an inning. He was sent to AAA San Diego soon after and won 10 games there, striking out nearly a batter an inning.

With two abbreviated appearances in the majors, Jackson’s MLB career didn’t properly start until 1967. The Phillies kept him around the entire season, primarily as a reliever. It wasn’t the job that he wanted, but he wanted to play in the majors, and the bullpen was the way to do it. He set the tone for the season in his first outing against the Mets on April 21. He worked 5-2/3 innings and struck out 8 while allowing a run. At the age of 24, Jackson established himself as a major-league reliever, with a 3.84 ERA in 43 games, including 4 starts. He had 83 strikeouts in 84-1/3 innings. He was even better in 1968, when he dropped his ERA to 2.95.

“[H]e’s not overpowering the way [Bob] Veale and [Chris] Short are,” explained Jim Wynn, after Jackson whiffed him in a 4-inning relief effort. “His ball is straight and swift. Theirs have a lot of movement and are swift. What makes his fastball so effective is that slow easy windup. Then — wham — the ball’s in on you.”

Jackson picked up just 10 starts in his first two full seasons. His one and only win in 1968 was a complete game victory over the Mets where he struck out 13. The Phillies, though, didn’t try him in the starting rotation on a regular basis until 1969. Naturally, he made the All-Star team for the only time in his long career and went 14-18 on a 99-loss team. He worked 253 innings and fanned 180 batters while throwing 13 complete games and 4 shutouts. Pitching coach Al Widmar taught Jackson to vary his speeds and add more movement to his pitches, and the pitcher learned the lessons well.

Unfortunately, Jackson didn’t have the same success in 1970, and it marked the end of both his Phillies tenure and his career as a starting pitcher. He won just 5 games and lost 15, and his ERA soared to 5.29. He had several run-ins with new Phillies manager Frank Lucchesi and asked to be traded mid-season. At one point, Lucchesi pinch-hit for him in the middle of an at-bat, when Jackson took a bad pitch that was called a strike. “They can say what they want,” Jackson said about reports that Lucchesi was a player’s manager. “They weren’t in the clubhouse every day. They didn’t hear what was said on the mound. I had the feeling he was always ready to take me out. A thing like that is always in the back of your mind. It makes you press.”

Lucchesi, for his part, blew up when Jackson credited an excellent performance to some advice that Cincinnati pitching coach (and former Phillies coach) Larry Shepard gave him, instead of listening to the Phillies’ current coaches.

“I consider [Phillies pitching coach] Ray Ripplemeyer one of the best pitching coaches in baseball. Jackson was trying to show him up,” Lucchesi fumed.

Jackson’s poor season didn’t leave the Phillies with a lot of takers, but the team dealt him away in December 1970. Baltimore sent 1970 International League MVP outfielder Roger Freed to the Phillies for Jackson, utility infielder Jim Hutto and outfielder Sam Parilla. In his new, happier, environment, he turned into one of the best relievers in baseball.

It took a while for Jackson to establish himself. The Orioles had Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson in the starting rotation, so there wasn’t many opportunities for Jackson and fellow swingman Jim Hardin to start. Between the dominance of the other starters and some ill-timed rain delays, manager Earl Weaver didn’t give Jackson a start until Jun 22, and Jackson responded with 6-2/3 innings of shutout ball against the Senators. A blister kept Jackson from pitching further, but he demonstrated to Weaver his usefulness. He made a total of 29 appearances, with 9 starts, and he finished the year with a 5-4 record and 3.13 ERA. However, those were the only starts Jackson would make for the Orioles, as he was moved into the pen permanently. From 1972 until his retirement in 1982, Jackson would start just 4 more games.

Unlike the down-on-their-luck Phillies, the Orioles were regular playoff contenders. He appeared in 1 game in the 1971 World Series against Pittsburgh, retiring 2 batters and allowing a walk to Roberto Clemente. Baltimore dropped to third place in 1972, but Jackson came into his own as a reliever, recording a team-high 8 saves in 32 appearances with 34 strikeouts.

The Orioles returned to first place in 1973, and Jackson turned in a brilliant season. He had a perfect 8-0 record in 45 games, with a 1.90 ERA and 9 saves. He didn’t put up the (relatively) gaudy save numbers of Detroit’s John Hiller or New York’s Sparky Lyle, because Weaver maintained a closer-by-committee system. Still, Jackson was dominant, even if few outside of Baltimore appreciated it.

“There’s only one man I want to know what I’m doing, and that’s [general manager Frank] Cashen, the man with the money,” Jackson said.

He threw 3 scoreless innings in the AL Championship Series against the Oakland A’s, picking up a win in Game Four by holding the A’s hitless in 2-2/3 innings of a 5-4 win. The Orioles lost the ALCS in both 1973 and ’74, delaying Jackson’s quest for a World Series ring for a few more years.

For all his relief heroics, Jackson only placed in the Top 10 in saves twice in his career. Once came in 1974, when he saved 12 games for the Orioles. All total, he won 24 games with the Orioles against 12 losses in six seasons, and he picked up 39 saves. The only time he really struggled was in 1976, when he got off to a slow start and had a 5.12 ERA in his first 13 games. On June 15, he was part of a massive trade with the New York Yankees, shaking up both teams. The Yankees received Jackson, pitchers Doyle Alexander, Jimmy Freeman and Ken Holtzman and catcher Elrod Hendricks. Baltimore got catcher Rick Dempsey and pitchers Tippy Martinez, Rudy May, Dave Pagan and Scott McGregor.

Grant Jackson, fireman. Source: Daily Press, October 9, 1979.

Jackson paid immediate dividends for his new team. In only 21 games, he picked up 6 wins and 1 save. He started twice and won both games, including a shutout against Detroit. In clutch situations, manager Billy Martin frequently used him over established closer Lyle. Jackson was roughed up in the ALCS win over Kansas City and pitched 3-2/3 innings of relief in Game Four of the World Series. He made it through 3 innings untouched before giving up hits to Pete Rose and Ken Griffey and an RBI double to Joe Morgan. He was relieved by Dick Tidrow, who allowed another run to score on a George Foster single. The Reds won the game 6-2 and finished the 4-game sweep of the Yankees in the next game.

Due to his age (he was 33), the Yankees left Jackson unprotected in the expansion draft, and he was claimed by the Seattle Mariners. Weeks later, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for infielders Craig Reynolds and Jimmy Sexton. The Bucs won a bidding war, as Seattle manager Darrell Johnson said eight or nine clubs were interested in him. “The man is a heckuva relief pitcher. He could make the difference in a pennant race and obviously the Pirates felt that way, too,” Johnson said.

Jackson, having pitched for perennial contenders like the Orioles and Yankees, wasn’t looking forward to moving to the West Coast for an expansion team, so the deal suited him fine. He had come to terms with his role as a reliever, even with the couple of wins with the Yankees as a starter in 1976. “When you come in with the bases loaded, no outs, you can’t get any better challenge than that,” he said.

Jackson just asked for the opportunity to pitch regularly, and Pirates manager Chuck Tanner was happy to accommodate. He appeared in 49 games in 1977, equaling a career high. He then appeared in 60 games in 1978 and 72 in 1979. He played better as the appearances piled up, too. In ’79, for instance, he had a 2.96 ERA and 14 saves to go with his 8-4 record. His strikeout numbers started to drop precipitously — he had 39 K’s in 83 innings in 1979 — but his hit and walk totals were declining as well. He may not have been the strikeout threat he was at the start of his career, but he was finding other ways to frustrate batters.

“When I was younger, I liked to strike out hitters. But now the thrill is gone. Why take three pitches to get an out when you can do it in one,” he reasoned.

With relievers like Jackson, Kent Tekulve and Enrique Romo, the “We Are Family” Pirates had a fearsome bullpen that helped the team win 98 games. The team blew past the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS in three games. Jackson picked up the win in Game One with 1-2/3 scoreless innings, as Willie Stargell pounded a 3-run homer for the 5-2 win in 11 innings.

Jackson appeared in four of the seven World Series games against the Baltimore Orioles. He allowed one hit in 4-2/3 innings, with 2 walks and 2 strikeouts. Most of the work came in Game Seven. With the Orioles leading 1-0, Jackson entered in the fifth inning, with two outs and a runner on first base. He got Al Bumbry to foul out to second baseman Bill Madlock and then threw two perfect innings. Meanwhile, Stargell hit a 2-run homer to put Pittsburgh on top. Jackson worked into the eighth inning, giving way to Tekulve with one out after allowing back-to-back walks. The Bucs’ closer worked out of the jam and threw a perfect ninth inning, as Pittsburgh, aided by some insurance runs, won the game 4-1 and the World Series. It is the last World Championship that the Pirates have won.

The Pirates were not able to repeat as World Champs, but Jackson remained a valuable reliever for as long as he was with the team. He went 8-4 with 9 saves and a 2.92 ERA in 1980, appearing in 61 games. His workload dipped to 45 games in 1981, but in the strike-shortened season, that was enough for 10th place among NL pitchers. Thirty-one of those games were with the Pirates, and the 38-year-old Jackson was still an effective reliever. He went 1-2 with a 2.51 ERA and 4 saves. The Pirates, looking to rebuild with a younger core, had already begun breaking apart the Family by trading Phil Garner to Houston weeks before. On September 2, Pittsburgh shipped Jackson to the Montreal Expos for a player to be named later or cash. (The Expos later sent $50,000.)

Once Jackson left Pittsburgh, he just wasn’t quite the same pitcher. He pitched in 10 games for the Expos and was knocked around for an ERA over 7.50. The Expos made it to the NLCS before losing to the Dodgers. In the offseason, he was traded to the Kansas City Royals for first baseman Ken Phelps. Some in Kansas City questioned the move, given the pitcher’s age, but manager Dick Howser pointed out that Jackson was a 39-year-old with a 30-year-old arm.

“Twenty-seven,” Jackson replied when asked about the comment. “My arm is only 27.”

In 20 games with the Royals, Jackson won 3 games and lost 1, but with an ERA of 5.17. He had a WHIP of 1.643, and surrendered 7 home runs. The Royals released him in July. Surprisingly, the Pirates signed him and brought him back to the team in September. He made a final appearance on September 8. Brought into the ninth inning with the Pirates down 5-0 and the bases loaded, Jackson gave up a grand slam to Ron Hodges, the first batter he faced. He then retired Brian Giles and Ron Gardenhire to get out of the inning. He did not pitch again and was released after the season.

In 18 seasons, Jackson appeared in a total of 692 games, which is #121 all-time among pitchers as of this writing. He had an 86-75 record, with 79 saves and a 3.46 ERA. He started 83 games and had 16 complete games, with 5 shutouts. He struck out 889 batters and had an ERA+ of 105. Baseball Reference values him at 14.1 Wins Above Replacement.

Jackson signed with the Pirates as a player in the 1982 offseason but elected to come back to the team as a bullpen coach instead. He held that position for two seasons and spent time as a minor-league pitching coach in the White Sox and Cubs organizations. He returned to the majors as the bullpen coach of the Cincinnati Reds for 1994 and 1995 before joining the minor-league Indianapolis Indians as a pitching coach for a few more seasons.

In his retirement, Jackson settled back in Pittsburgh, where he cared for his family and attended many Pirates events, particularly anything tied to the 1979 World Series team.

When asked about his legacy by the Baltimore Sun in 2018, Jackson replied with, “For 18 years in the majors, every time someone rang the bell to get The Buck ready, I answered.”

For more information: Baltimore Sun

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