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Mr. October... and Mr. March
My Saturday with Reggie Jackson and Phil Lynott
Happy Sunday, JTL readers!
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Now, then — let’s get down to business, which today entails what will surely be the only piece you read this weekend to feature both Reggie Jackson and Phil Lynott…
I spent a significant portion of my Saturday with both of them — Mr. Jackson via Reggie, a new Amazon Original documentary, and Mr. Lynott via Thin Lizzy’s self-titled 1971 debut album, which always gets a fair amount of turntable time at Epstein Manor this time of year. And I was struck, for the first time, by the many parallels between them.
Both were deeply driven Black men whose personalities, ambitions and defenses were largely shaped by growing up in broken homes and predominantly white communities — Reggie in Cheltenham Township, PA, and Phil in Dublin, Ireland. Both men absolutely relished the spotlight; both men behaved heroically in some circumstances, and abominably in others. And both men achieved their greatest accomplishments during the 1970s.
Reggie Jackson, to me, is the quintessential baseball player of the ‘70s — if not the best, then certainly the MLB star who shone the brightest while also personally embodying all of that era’s complications and contradictions. And if Phil Lynott never achieved whatever the music biz equivalent of five World Series rings in ten years would be, he was at least the very definition of ‘70s-style rock n’ roll swagger. (And that run of “classic era” Thin Lizzy studio albums from 1974’s Nightlife to 1979’s Black Rose: A Rock Legend wasn't too shabby either.)
And despite all of the interviews and ink over the decades, both men remain frustratingly enigmatic. Reggie is a fascinating and engaging documentary, one which hits all the obvious marks while tracing the arc of his superstar career, while also taking the less obvious tack of putting said career in the context of the Black experience in Major League Baseball. I say “less obvious,” because while Reggie is undoubtedly one of the great Black MLB players of all time, his main topic of conversation during his playing days was usually “Reggie,” with the challenges and prejudices that players of color had to deal with only mentioned in interviews whenever Reggie himself was running up against them. So it’s interesting to hear Reggie humbly speak about himself here as the beneficiary of trailblazers like Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Henry Aaron, the latter of whom appears here in a couple of memorably depressing segments shot not long before his death.
There’s one particularly sad moment where, while discussing the progress that Black people have (or have not) made in the game since 1972 — when Jackie Robinson used his pre-game World Series speech to decry the lack of Black managers in MLB — Henry tells Reggie that the only reason he has an office at the Atlanta Braves’ ballpark is so that the Braves can go, “See? Hank Aaron has an office right down the hall!” The men agree that the white-run baseball establishment is happy to employ legends like themselves in a superficial capacity, but isn’t interested in letting them have any significant power or decision-making input.
Indeed, it’s quite possible that Reggie’s eyes were only fully opened to MLB’s deep-seated racial barriers after his retirement. He expresses gratitude that George Steinbrenner hired him for a meaningful position in the Yankees’ front office, saying he now realizes that most MLB owners wouldn’t have offered him a similar seat at the table. (That includes George’s son Hank, who was apparently so deaf to Reggie’s attempted input that Reggie finally left the Yankees in disgust and took an advisory role with the Houston Astros.) And lest the horrors of the Rob Manfred era make us nostalgic for the days of Bud Selig’s piss-stained polyester slacks, the doc also reveals the particularly galling tale of how Selig cock-blocked Reggie’s attempt to buy a MLB franchise. (Of course, even I could have told Reggie that whenever a used car salesman says “Trust me,” you should do exactly the opposite.)
Overall, Reggie paints Reggie in a sympathetic light, while demonstrating why he was one of the most exciting (as well as most controversial) players of his era. Still, there are definitely a few “Hey, wait a minute!” moments scattered throughout the documentary. While recounting his battles with Billy Martin, Reggie says that he’d heard the manager wouldn’t bat him in the cleanup position “because he didn’t want a Black man hitting cleanup for the Yankees.” Which blithely ignores the fact that known Black man Chris Chambliss hit cleanup 114 times for the Yankees in 1976, the year before Reggie joined the Yankee roster. There’s also an odd segment in which Derek Jeter laughs about how Reggie once lied to him with a straight face, saying he’d never gone up to the plate with the intention of hitting a home run… and then, just seconds later, Jeets says “The thing I’ve always loved about you, Reggie, is that you’ve never lied to me.” Er… wot?
Honesty is a recurring theme throughout the doc, but while Reggie repeatedly says things to the effect of, “I’ll always tell you the truth — it’s just that people don’t want to hear it,” one comes away wondering if Reggie sometimes confuses the absolute truth with the unfiltered expression of whatever thought happens to pop into his head at the moment. As with, say, Pete Townshend, I believe that Reggie genuinely believes what he saying as he’s saying it… I’m just not always sure that he’ll be singing the same tune in a subsequent interview. In any case, just like its subject back in the day, Reggie is well worth watching.
If Reggie Jackson is baseball’s “Mr. October,” then Phil Lynott must be rock music’s “Mr. March”. Thin Lizzy’s music sounds great all year round, but its intrinsic Irishness makes it a shoo-in for steady rotation around St. Patrick’s Day. Though Phil’s sadly been gone since 1986, Thin Lizzy was recently voted Ireland’s greatest band of all time in a poll by the country's Radio Nova, with Phil and the boys stomping U2 in the final vote by a 21 percent margin.
March is also the month I most often tend to pull out Thin Lizzy, the band’s full-length debut, though not necessarily for any Guinness-swilling purposes. I first discovered the album during the cold and wet Chicago March of 1990, shortly after the album — which sold poorly upon its initial release, and thus had been almost impossible to find — was reissued on CD in early 1990. I was taken by its folksy post-psychedelic sound, which bore little resemblance to the hard-charging twin-guitar attack of classic Lizzy, but had a rawness and intimacy that I fell for almost immediately.
I also quickly connected with the album’s lyrics, the bulk of which were clearly penned about the life and love that Phil had left behind when the band moved to London to make the album and seek their fortune. I was going through some similar changes myself that March; I’d been out of college and back in Chicago since the previous June, and was now preparing to call it quits with my college girlfriend who was still on the East Coast. My band Lava Sutra had just begun playing our first gigs, and people seemed to dig us, but my own future felt about as uncertain as it had ever been. Meanwhile, one of my dearest friends had just gotten married — the first of my high school pals to tie the knot. We were all saying goodbye to one chapter of our lives and warily embracing another, a theme that each listen to Thin Lizzy echoed, soundtracked and fully drove home.
Yesterday afternoon, with the snow melting on my apartment deck and all sorts of sadness from the past entwining in my head with scattered hopes for a hazy future, it felt like the right time to pull out Thin Lizzy for another comforting spin. And once again yesterday, the subject of honesty came up — this time in the form of “Honesty is No Excuse,” my favorite cut off the entire album. And I found myself wondering if Reggie has ever heard it…