“Never a Bad Game,” which chronicled the first 50 years of the Southern League, has been updated and re-released. (Ordering information below). Over the coming weeks, I’ll present excerpts from 10 of my favorites of the 50 stories told in the book.
Professional baseball was returning to Birmingham on April 14, 1981 after a five-year absence. The Barons were opening the Southern League season at old Rickwood Field, the aging starlet of a ballpark on the city’s decaying west side. The Birmingham News was giving appropriate sports-front coverage to the impending event.
But flip deeper into the section, to a page devoted to high school sports. The newspaper was honoring its top high school athletes of the week. There, a two-column 42-point headline proclaimed
Vincent Jackson wins
News’ player honor
It was the story of a young baseball pitcher and shortstop at McAdory High who had thrown a three-hitter in one game, delivered three hits and three RBIs in another. His coach, Terry Brasseale, said, “He’s an all-around athlete.” Enshrine that one into the Understatement Hall of Fame.
Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson had already established himself as a powerful running back and phenomenal hurdler at McAdory. Now, he was being introduced to the public for his baseball prowess, though Brasseale bemoaned that Jackson often missed baseball practice
Jackson went on to become a legendary running back at Auburn University. He rushed for more than 4,300 yards and 45 touchdowns. He won the 1985 Heisman Trophy. One can still raise a ruckus on Southern sports talk radio with a debate over who was the SEC’s best back ever, Jackson or Georgia’s Herschel Walker.
The Tampa Bay Bucs made Jackson the No. 1 pick in the draft. It seemed a given he’d play pro football. He did. But he also had something else in mind. The Kansas City Royals gambled their fourth-round draft pick on Jackson.
“He’s the finest athlete and prospect of our time, maybe ever. I mean, there have been others, but never our time, maybe ever,” Royals scouting director Art Stewart said. “I mean, there have been others, but never anyone with the overall talent, never anyone who combined the speed of a Willie Wilson, the arm of a Roberto Clemente and the power of a Mickey Mantle.”
Somehow, Stewart neglected the whole “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” and “faster than a locomotive” from the scouting report.
Jackson had eight seasons in the majors, with four productive, healthy ones with the Royals from 1987-1990. He was the All-Star Game MVP in 1989. Yes, he led the A.L. in strikeouts with 172 in 1989 and batted only .250 for his career. But he was a highlight segment just waiting to happen every time he took the field, “a god-given gift to the bedtime sportscasters,” as Steve Wulf wrote in Sports Illustrated.
But football hovered. The Oakland Raiders spent a seventh-round pick on Jackson in the ’87 draft – has any superstar ever been picked so deep in two separate drafts? – thinking he might give the NFL a second thought. He played in only 38 NFL games, with just 23 starts, but was a Pro Bowl pick in 1990. He injured his hip and the Royals ultimately released him and though he made a comeback with the White Sox and the Angels, Jackson never reached full potential.
Jackson made a brief stop in the Southern League, playing 53 games with the Memphis Chicks in 1986. Recalled teammate Van Snider, “He was a good guy, a good team guy. We all had a lot of fun. He elevated my game, I know that. Just his level of play, being there. It made the whole team lighter. For whatever reason everybody got life. Our team wasn’t the best team. It seemed we played harder after he got there. He had an aura about him, a natural leadership ability and guys kinda gravitated to him.”
His debut game was, according to the Los Angeles Times, “the most widely covered Minor League game in history,” with network coverage and attention from the major daily newspapers. To accommodate that coverage, the Chicks erected a big tent behind the left field fence for post-game interviews.
Someone asked Jackson if he retrieved the ball from his first hit. He did not, the Heisman winner said. “My trophy case is already full.”
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