Wednesday, July 6, 2016
A King's Ransom Worth of Memories: My Review of Handsome Ransom Jackson: Accidental Big Leaguer
Ransom Jackson was a good hitting, two-time All-Star third baseman whose major league career spanned the 1950s. While his most productive years were spent with the Chicago Cubs, he also played on the Brooklyn Dodgers and Cleveland Indians. Jackson was a popular, easy-going player and the worst thing his critics ever had to say about him was that he lacked fire on the field.
The 90-year-old former major leaguer recently released his autobiography, Handsome Ransom Jackson: Accidental Big Leaguer. It's a nice trip down memory lane for anyone who remembers the 1950s and a worthwhile book for anyone who wants to know a little about baseball back then--a light-hearted, anecdote-filled look at a bygone era in American sports.
Modern Little League parents who give up every single weekend of their kid's childhood for travel team tournaments--out of fear they will be left behind and not allowed to make the local high school team--will appreciate a simpler time in which an athletic kid who had never played high school baseball or football could stroll to a college football practice to watch friends, be invited to join the team by the head coach and end up starting in the backfield in the Cotton Bowl by the end of the season. And not only that, but later be invited by the same coach, who was also the baseball coach, to join the baseball team in the spring and go on to hit over .400 and lead the conference three straight years and end up signing a professional baseball contract. Those were the days.
For fans who grew up only knowing modern baseball millionaires, Jackson explains his contract talks after his first year, 1951; a season in which he hit .275 with 16 home runs and 76 RBIs. Cubs director of player personnel Wid Matthews offered him a $2,500 raise--up to a whopping $9,000. When Jackson reminded Matthews of his stats (including 8 more RBIs than Rookie of the Year Willie Mays), and mentioned that he felt he had value in the marketplace, Matthews answered, "There was one other team that wanted you and all they offered was a broken bat, a caved-in catcher's mask and an old ball. The best thing for you to do is get your things together and get down to spring training and try to make the team." Unable to argue with that kind of logic, Jackson quickly signed.
In 1956 when he was traded to the Dodgers, Jackson hoped for a bit of a raise since he was going to a contender and was fresh off two straight All-Star seasons. The Dodgers' Buzzie Bavasi had other ideas and sent him a contract for $20,000--the same he had made with the Cubs. When Jackson called Bavasi and reminded him of his accomplishments, Bavasi replied, "You did all that with the Cubs. You didn't do anything with the Dodgers." After a long pause, the big-hearted Bavasi finally said, "I'll tell you what. You sound like a nice young man. We'll give you a thousand-dollar raise." These were the type of negotiations for all ballplayers in the days of the reserve clause.
The 1956 trade to the Dodgers set Jackson up to battle an aging Jackie Robinson for the third base job. Jackson includes an entire chapter discussing his new teammates, the fabled "Boys of Summer," and particularly the talent, pride and class that Robinson showed.
A strong point of the book is the fact that Jackson's remarkable career provided him a chance to witness history and throughout the book he liberally drops names and stories of the famous and not-so-famous guys he played with and against. He talks of Cub teammate Chuck Connors, who after a brief major league career moved to Hollywood and became television's Rifleman. He also reminisces about Joe Garagiola, Ralph Kiner, Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, Duke Snider, coach Rogers Hornsby and manager Frankie Frisch. In addition, he played in the same backfield in college with NFL great Bobby Layne.
Jackson has no axes to grind, throws no one under the bus and is grateful for the opportunities baseball gave him. But he does not sugarcoat his opinions of why the Cubs couldn't win in the 1950s and the role owner P.K. Wrigley played in the lack of success.
The book is well-written and flows smoothly. Coauthor Gaylon H. White (The Bilko Athletic Club: The Story of the 1956 Los Angeles Angels) contributed additional research and fact-checking and does a good job of keeping things organized into an easy and enjoyable read.
This is a fun book and definitely worthwhile for any baseball fan. The true treasure of the book is the ample supply of first-person anecdotes. Unfortunately, there are not many guys around from that glorious era. Jackson and White deserve our thanks for taking the time to share the priceless memories.