You’ve seen the commercials, you’ve seen the 30 for 30 — “You Don’t Know Bo.” But here’s a story about Bo Jackson you’ve never heard.
The scene is Fenway Park in the summer of 1990 at the height of Bo mania.
This was the year of Bo running up the outfield wall like Spider-Man. This is about the time when Bo started breaking bats over his knee like they were twigs. Teammate Mark Gubicza says he tried it himself, but with less spectacular results.
“I tried to do it too and I felt like I had to go on the DL,” said Gubicza.
Gubicza, a teammate of Jackson’s for 5 years and now a broadcaster for the Los Angeles Angels, recalls a game in Boston when Bo struggled to make any contact at all. It would appear to be an 0-for-5 game in a 13-4 Royals win over the Red Sox on July 15.
“Bret Saberhagen and I are in the clubhouse and we had a football,” said Gubicza, talking about the Royals’ two-time Cy Young winning pitcher. “When Bo comes in, Sabes throws it to him. I go to ‘tackle’ him.”
“Within seconds, he’s picked up Sabes and me both up, one in each arm. A 440-pound deadlift. We were not breathing too good.”
Two days later was Jackson’s greatest day in the majors. He hit 3 homers and drove in seven in a game at Yankee Stadium on July 17 before separating his shoulder diving for a ball that turned into an inside-the-park home run for Deion Sanders. (In case you’re wondering, Bo and Deion never faced each other on an NFL field, which is probably fortunate for Sanders, but according to Deion, Bo stiff-armed him in Auburn’s 59-27 rout of FSU in 1985.)
Jackson didn’t play again until Aug. 26, but he did hit a home run against Randy Johnson in his first at-bat after injury, tying an MLB record with homers in four straight at-bats.
Jackson was more than a ballplayer, he was a cultural sensation and a marketing phenomenon. In 1990, Score released a classic special baseball card of Bo shirtless, in shoulder pads holding a baseball bat behind his head. Savvy kids learned to hunt these cards in stores by thumbing through the plastic packs and finding the distinctive black & white card in the center of packs. Along with the Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie Upper Deck card, it was probably the most sought after card of the “junk wax era.”
1990 was also the last regular season Jackson played in the NFL. As spectacular as he was in baseball, he had his flaws. He struck out far too much to ever hit for high average, and he didn’t get on base enough to really utilize his speed. His career high in steals was 27, and Baseball-reference.com has him as a below average fielder (-4.5 dWAR) for his career. But in football, his “hobby,” he had a legitimate claim to be a true GOAT. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry for his career with the Los Angeles Raiders, and had three runs of 88 yards or more in just 38 career games.
“He told me before he got hurt in the Bengals game that he was going to concentrate on baseball,” said Gubicza, who attended several Raiders games to watch Jackson. Baseball, Gubicza says, was more of a challenge to him.
In a Jan. 12, 1991 playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Jackson suffered a hip injury, and an avascular necrosis, a destruction of cartilage and bone cells in the hip. He never played in the NFL again.
Jackson managed to rehab with an artificial hip implant and make it back to the majors, and hit 32 homers in 556 at-bats over three seasons, but he wasn’t the same player. He retired in 1995 at age 32 as the only man to play in a baseball All-Star Game and an NFL Pro Bowl.
And he won the Heisman Trophy in 1985, one of the many exploits he once shared with Adam LaRoche’s son in one of the greatest moments in spring training history.