The Legend of Bo
The latest in in a series of favorite JoeBlogs reprints
I saw Bo Jackson was trending on Twitter, and it inspired me to pull out this blast from the past: The Legend of Bo. I wrote it in 2006.
OK, so one day in New York, Bo Jackson complained in the dugout before a game. Reporters surrounded Bo, which never made him happy anyway. Reporters wanted to explain things, and Bo Jackson wasn’t about explaining. Bo was about doing.
“Everything I do, people tend to exaggerate it,” he moaned. “With me, they want to make things bigger than they are.”
Bo said he was just another guy. He wasn’t some sort of folk hero, like John Henry or Pecos Bill. No, he hurt like other players. He made mistakes like other players. He struck out a lot. He wasn’t forged out of steel, and he couldn’t outrun locomotives, and he couldn’t turn back time by flying around the world and reversing the rotation of the earth.
“I’m just another player, you know?” he said.
Then the game began, Royals vs. Yankees at Yankee Stadium.
First time up, Bo hit a 412-foot homer to center field.
Second time up, Bo smashed a 464-foot opposite-field home run. Longtime Yankees fans said that ball landed in a far-off place where only home runs by Ruth, Gehrig and Mantle from the left side ever reached.
“Colossal,” teammate George Brett would say. “I had to stop and watch.”
Third time up, Yankees manager Stump Merrill walked out to the mound to ask pitcher Andy Hawkins how he intended to get Bo out this time.
“I’ll pitch it outside,” Hawkins said.
“It better be way outside,” Merrill replied.
Hawkins threw it way outside. Jackson poked the ball over the right-field fence for his third homer. The New York crowd went bananas.
Bo never got a fourth time up that day. Instead, Bo hurt his shoulder while diving and almost making one of the great catches in baseball history. New Yorkers stood and cheered Bo as he walked off the field. It’s possible that no opposing player ever heard those sorts of cheers at Yankee Stadium.
“You know what?” Royals Hall of Famer Frank White would say almost 20 years later. “I really did play baseball with Superman.”
Yes, you read that right — it has been 20 years since Bo Jackson was a rookie. That means there is an entire generation of young baseball fans who never experienced that incomparable thrill of watching Bo play baseball.
How can you explain Bo Jackson to a kid today? Old-time baseball fans and scouts are always telling tall tales about players — they will say, “Oh, you should have seen Mickey Mantle before he hurt his knees; he ran so fast he could bunt for doubles.” They will say: “Before Pete Reiser started running into walls, he could play left field and center field at the same time.” They will say, “There was nobody quite like Monte Irvin before he went to war; he used to hit for the cycle three times a week.”
So what makes Bo different? Well, for one thing, it’s all on video. Bo really did break a baseball bat over his thigh after striking out. Bo really did throw a ball from left field all the way to first base on a fly to double-up Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk. Bo really did, in his spare time, transform into the most sensational running back the NFL has ever seen. He really did … well, he really did a lot of stuff.
First time I ever saw Bo Jackson was in 1986 in a makeshift ballpark in Charlotte, N.C. He had just started his pro baseball career, and even then it seemed a bit surreal. Bo had won the Heisman Trophy at Auburn. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked him No. 1 overall, of course, sent a limo to pick him up and drive him to Canton, where sculptors were already working on his Pro Football Hall of Fame bust.
Instead, he signed to play baseball with the Royals.
“That day we signed Bo was one of my greatest days in professional baseball,” says Art Stewart, now the Royals’ senior adviser to the general manager. “There was just nobody like this guy.”
On the day Bo signed, he asked whether he could take batting practice. Bo had not swung a bat in months. He hit the first pitch he saw off the base of the crown scoreboard in center field. It had to fly 450 feet. Avron Fogelman, who co-owned the Royals, shouted: “Get me that baseball.” Bo promptly hit the second ball he saw to almost the exact same spot, off the base of the scoreboard.
“Get me that ball, too,” Fogelman said.
That was the day that Buck O’Neil heard the sound — a crack of the bat he heard only three times in his life. The first time he heard it was as a boy, when he watched Babe Ruth take batting practice. The second time was as a player in the Negro Leagues, and the player was Josh Gibson. The third time was Bo that first day in Kansas City.
“You had to rub your eyes,” Art Stewart said. “Because you couldn’t believe what you were seeing.”
A short while later Bo was playing for the Memphis Chicks in that little park in Charlotte. He muscled a long fly ball over the Krispy Kreme sign in left-field.
“That was Bo Jackson’s first professional home run,” the public-address announcer said.
Everybody cheered. And then someone pointed and shouted, “He broke his bat.”
Yes, kids. Bo Jackson broke his bat on his first professional home run. That’s the kind of guy we’re talking about here.
Bo Jackson was always grouchily unimpressed with himself. Michael Jordan thought that was part of Bo’s magic. “Neither of us is very easily amazed,” Jordan told Newsweek in those days when he and Bo were the two greatest athletes in the world. “You have to expect things of yourself before you can do them.”
So when Bo Jackson was called up to the big leagues that September after only 53 minor-league games, he shrugged. When he had his first four-hit game in only his fifth game, he announced, “It’s just another night.” Two days after that, he faced Seattle’s Mike Moore, a power pitcher who would win 161 games in the big leagues. Before the game, Bo went over to Willie Wilson’s bats, liked the feel of one, and announced, “This is mine.”
With Willie’s bat, Bo Jackson hit a 475-foot blast to left-center. It was the longest home run ever hit at Royals Stadium.
Yes, kids. Bo Jackson’s first major-league home run flew 475 feet.
“It felt good,” Bo said, “But it can only last a couple of minutes. Everybody was oohing and ahhing and giving me high fives. You know the usual stuff that goes on.”
You know. The usual stuff.
“There’s something about Bo,” Royals general manager John Schuerholz said then. “Call it mystical or magical.”
Nobody had any idea what to make of Bo Jackson. On the one hand, he really didn’t know how to play baseball. He was striking out nearly every other at-bat. Fly balls were an adventure. He needed time to learn … but there was no time. He was playing football. He was a Nike icon — Bo Knows commercials were the hottest thing in sports. He was too big a star to ride minor-league buses.
“I think if Bo had been able to stay healthy and been given time to learn the game, he would have been a Hall of Famer,” says Allard Baird, who was working as a scout for the Royals at the time. “I have no doubt in my mind about that. He had everything you could want in a player. Everything. But that just wasn’t Bo’s destiny.”
No, instead, Bo’s destiny was to become a comic book hero.
September 2, 1986
Bo’s first game. His first at-bat was against Hall of Famer Steve Carlton. He hit a ground ball to second base, and Tim Hulett picked it up and threw to first — only Bo was already past the bag.
“Oh man, nothing that big should move that fast,” said Royals Hall of Famer and former hitting coach John Mayberry.
April 14, 1987
Bo Jackson faced Detroit’s Nate Snell with the bases loaded. In spring training that year, Snell had forced Bo to pop out with the bases loaded and Bo threw his bat and glared at Snell.
“Bo was the kind of guy who wanted to prove you wrong,” Frank White says. “If you told him he couldn’t do something, he would do it.”
Snell threw a fastball, and Bo crushed it. Grand slam. It was his fourth hit of the day, his second homer, seventh RBI. He also stole a base. When the bat boy picked up the bat, he realized something. Bo had broken his bat on the homer again.
July 29, 1988
Bo Jackson was facing Baltimore’s Jeff Ballard. He called timeout and stepped out of the box. He adjusted his batting glove when he realized that the umpire did not actually grant his timeout, and Ballard was throwing the ball. Jackson jumped back into the box, swung that bat and … yeah. He hit a home run. “Most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Bob Schaeffer, Kansas City’s first-base coach at the time.
May 15, 1989
Legendary baseball writer Peter Gammons was in Minnesota to write a Sports Illustrated cover story about Jackson, so he watched Bo take batting practice. It was a typical Bo hitting session — he cracked rockets all over the field. Then it was time for his last swing. Bo jumped into the cage and hit left-handed. He hit a titanic shot 450 feet off the Hardware Hank sign in right field.
“I got work to do,” Bo said to the other players, whose jaws had dropped. He ran out to the outfield to shag some fly balls.
May 23, 1989
Bo locked into a fastball battle with Nolan Ryan. Up to that point, they had met six times, and Bo had struck out six times. This time, Nolan kept pumping 100-mph fastballs and Bo kept fouling them off, a real clash of the titans. Ryan was not going to try a curveball — this was man-to-man. He threw one last fastball. Bo connected. Bo hit the ball 461 feet, the longest ever homer at Arlington Stadium.
“They better get a new tape measure,” Bo said.
July 11, 1989
All-Star Game in Anaheim. Bo Jackson led off with a monstrous 448-foot home run to straightaway center field — it cleared two fences out there.
“Bo Jackson says hello!” Vin Scully would say.
“Unbelievable,” Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn would say.
“I got a piece of it,” Bo would say.
The next inning, he beat out a double-play grounder by running to first in 3.81 seconds — one of the fastest times ever clocked for a right-handed hitter. He stole second base (becoming only the second player to hit a homer and steal a base in an All-Star Game, with Willie Mays). He scored the game-winning run. He was selected MVP.
July 11, 1990
Bo ran up the outfield wall. Literally. He chased down a fly ball and caught it about four steps in front of the fence. He put his right foot on the wall, then his left, then his right — until he was 7 feet off the ground and sideways. For a guy who didn’t want to be seen as a superhero, he sure kept doing superhero things.
“What do you think of Bo Jackson?” a reporter asked, well, Bo Jackson.
“I’ve known this guy for years,” Bo said of Bo. “And nothing he does fazes me.”
There are so many more. One coach says he saw Bo Jackson swing a bat so hard, he actually broke it even though he missed the ball. Once, he ran over catcher Rick Dempsey. Dempsey broke his thumb but said: “I held him to fewer yards than Brian Bosworth.” That goes back to a Monday night game.
We don’t even have time for all the legendary football stories.
There was the time when Bo faced Roger Clemens, who had struck him out four straight times. “I’m going to get him this time,” Bo said. He smashed a home run over the left-field fence.
And there was “The Throw.” That deserves its own section.
On June 5, 1989, the Royals were playing at Seattle. It was the 10th inning, score was tied 3-3, Harold Reynolds was on first base when Scott Bradley rifled a double to left field. Reynolds was running on the pitch, so it was obvious he would score the winning run.
“It’s up to Bo Jackson to try and stop Reynolds from scoring,” the television announcer said. “He can’t do it …”
Reynolds rounded third, headed for home and prepared to have his teammates mob him when he saw his teammate Darnell Coles pumping his arms, the baseball signal for “SLIDE!”
Reynolds thought: “Slide? Are you kidding me?”
So, he was about to launch into what he called “a courtesy slide” when he saw that Kansas City catcher Bob Boone had the ball. Boone tagged him.
“Yes he can!” the announcer shouted.
In the clubhouse afterward, Reynolds would watch the play again and again and again, and never figure out exactly what happened.
What happened was this … Bo Jackson had gotten the ball and made a flatfooted throw of 300 feet in the air. It was a perfect strike. It was so impossible, so ridiculous, so absurd that no umpire was on the spot to make the call. Home-plate umpire Larry Young finally came to his senses and made a fist — Reynolds was out.
“Now I’ve seen it all,” Scott Bradley would say.
“This is not a normal guy,” George Brett would say.
“That was just a supernatural, unbelievable play,” Seattle manager Jim Lefebve would say.
“I just caught the ball, turned and threw,” Bo grumbled. “End of story. … It’s nothing to brag about. Don’t try to make a big issue out of it.”
Bo Jackson’s baseball career really ended on a football field in Los Angeles — he hurt his hip against the Cincinnati Bengals. He did come back and did a few remarkable things after that, but it was different. He wasn’t superhuman anymore.
In four-plus seasons with the Kansas City Royals, Bo Jackson hit only .250. He hit 109 homers and stole 81 bases. He banged 32 homers one season, and stole 27 bases another. He struck out more than 600 times. That was his great flaw. When Bo connected with the ball, he hit .385. He made some great plays in the outfield, but one year he had 12 errors in only 97 games. He played in that one All-Star Game.
The thing is, anyone who ever saw him play will never forget him. Every game was like a Harry Houdini performance — you expected to see something you had never seen before. This story began with that July day in 1990 at Yankee Stadium when Bo Jackson hit three home runs. He got hurt, though, and missed more than a month.
He returned on Aug. 11 to face Seattle but was so unsure about his health that he did not even take batting practice. Then he said, “I can play.” He came up in the second inning. The pitcher was Randy Johnson. First pitch, Bo crushed a long fly ball to center field. The ball splashed in the waterfall to the left of the scoreboard. The Royals estimated the homer flew 450 feet.
“I’m not trying to brag,” Jackson said. “But I actually saw the threads on the ball right before I hit it.”
For once, Bo Jackson had impressed himself. And that might have been his greatest feat of all.