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Nightengale: The Day MLB Changed Forever: When Reggie Jackson Struck it Rich

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New York Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson. Photo: goldenagebaseballcards.com

The Rolls-Royce Corniche, with the burgundy exterior and tan leather interior, still sits proudly in Reggie Jackson’s garage, symbolizing the power of free agency.

Exactly 40 years ago Tuesday, Jackson signed a five-year, $3 million contract with the New York Yankees as baseball’s most celebrated free agent, forever changing Major League Baseball’s landscape.

Jackson, staying at the O’Hare Hyatt in Chicago, agreed to the deal on a cocktail napkin when Yankees owner George Steinbrenner offered to include a Rolls Royce. The car cost $63,000 – $11,500 more than the average player salary.

“It’s hard to believe the money that’s out there now,’’ Jackson tells USA TODAY Sports. “When I signed, if you got a million dollars, it would change your life. You’d pay off your house, your life insurance, take care of your parents, and really do what you want forever for a million.

“Nowadays, they’re paying guys $1 million just to sit on the bench. You’re seeing guys get $200 million, $300 million. There are guys opting out of contracts that will pay them $25 million a year.

“If I came around now, they wouldn’t be able to count the money.’’

There were six work stoppages during Jackson’s Hall of Fame career – the biggest issues involving free agent compensation and salary arbitration – and Major League Baseball is now less than 48 hours away from the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement.

Still, there’s not a soul on either side of the negotiating table who dares to even hint at the possibility of a work stoppage. Simply, there’s too much at stake for a deal not to be reached this week.

It all changed in 1976, in that free agent class, when the likes of Reggie Jackson, Bobby Grich, Don Baylor, Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers, Gene Tenace, Don Gullett and Gary Matthews struck it rich. Led by Jackson, the top 14 free agents that year received a total of $22 million.

Reggie Jackson played right field for the New York Yankees from 1977 to 1981. Photo: Walt Michot, Sun Sentinel
Reggie Jackson played right field for the New York Yankees from 1977 to 1981. Photo: Walt Michot, Sun Sentinel

There were 41 players who earned $20 million alone in salary last season, and clubs are making so much money that no team has been sold since 2012. It’s the longest stretch without a team sale since the advent of free agency.

“I’m not surprised at all,’’ says Jeremy Kapstein, baseball’s first super-agent with about 60 clients in 1976, and now a consultant to Baltimore Orioles GM Dan Duquette. “You saw it coming with the television revenues.’’

Kapstein, who became the CEO of the San Diego Padres in 1989 and later spent 15 years as senior adviser for the Boston Red Sox, remembers recommending that the Padres sign one of their young stars to a seven-year, $20 million contract. Padres owner Joan Kroc couldn’t believe the price.

“I said, ‘Joan, in 10 years, there will be players making $20 and $25 million year,’’ Kapstein recalled. “She asked why?’ I just pointed to the cable box on the TV.’’

Ironically, it was one of Kapstein’s clients, Grich, who paved the way for Jackson’s arrival in New York. Steinbrenner’s first priority was signing Grich, the Orioles’ All-Star second baseman. But Grich wanted to play at home for the California Angels, and signed a five-year, $1.5 million deal, rejecting the Yankees’ $2.2 million offer.

And, if you want to know the truth, Jackson now divulges that he wanted to play in Southern California, too.

“I really wanted to go to the Dodgers,’’ Jackson says. “I was disappointed they were so late. By the time they came around, I already made a deal with George and shook his hand, signing the deal on a napkin.’’

Jackson actually got larger offers from the Montreal Expos ($5 million) and  Padres ($3.5 million), but the lure of New York and Steinbrenner’s recruiting were impossible to resist.

“I didn’t really push the money part,” Jackson says. “I knew I was going to be rich. I think I would have been successful anywhere, but I wouldn’t have gotten the notoriety or the level of success I had with the Yankees”

It worked out perfectly. The Yankees twice defeated the Dodgers in the World Series before Los Angeles beat them in 1981. Jackson and New York were made for one another. Jackson loved New York and the limelight, and New York loved Jackson right back.

“I made more money off the field than on it,’’ said Jackson, who was annually paid $250,000 every Jan. 2, with the rest deferred. “I had nothing but fun. In New York, they were giving me free clothes, shoes, fur coats. I was Joe Frazier and Walt Frazier rounded into one.

“Just the recruiting process was unbelievable. I remember George taking me around town with all of his buddies. We went to the 21 Club, and he told me how this place is ‘big time.’ I said, ‘George, how big can this be if they don’t have wall-to-wall carpeting in here?’

“George was showing off his new item, and he loved it.’’

A legend was born.

And free agency, while only in its infancy in 1976, changed the game.

“It’s still so hard to believe it was 40 years ago,” Jackson says. “Wow.’’

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale

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