Bo is the 37th Greatest Royal, but almost certainly the most famous. George was pretty famous too, but did he ever have a Saturday morning cartoon? Bo was a national sensation, a celebrity and a spectacle. Sometimes it is hard to separate the legend from reality. He once hit the longest home run at Royals Stadium that traveled 450 feet at the top of grassy knoll. No wait, it was 500 feet! Or did it hit I-70? He once threw out Harold Reynolds at home plate from the warning track of the Kingdome. Later in that game, he bowled over Brian Bosworth on a goal line stand!
A lot of fans no doubt feel that Bo should be higher on this list. Many like to think Bo was much, much better than he was, or project what his career "might have been" had it not been for his injury. All we can really go on however, is what he did. And his game had some faults. He hardly walked at all. He didn't hit for much of an average. He has the twelfth worst on-base percentage in Royals history for players with a minimum of 1000 plate appearances, worse than Rey Sanchez, Ken Harvey or Mark Quinn. He struck out a ton. He would make sensational catches on line drives in the gap, then miss a line drive right at him the next inning.
Still, he was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, a unique blend of power and speed, and when he played, you always had the chance to see something you had never seen before. He was so famous, so incredible, you could mention just his first name and everyone would know who you were talking about.
Bo was born Vincent Edward Jackson in Bessemer, Alabama, the eighth of ten children. He earned the nickname "Bo" from family members who described him as a "wild boar". Bo grew up in poverty like so many other children in the poor South, and without a father. He had an awful stuttering problem and frequently found himself in scuffles or general mayhem. His mother quickly whipped him into shape telling him that if he didn't change his ways, he'd end up "in jail or in hell". Bo listened to his mother.*
*-Much of this entry is taken from "Bo Knows Bo" an interesting but sometimes unintentionally hilarious autobiography from Bo with the help of the great Dick Schaap. Here is one example of such hilarity. This is an actual quote: "And when I come back, I want to be reincarnated as a dolphin - or as an F-16." (pg. 203)
When Bo was ten, he was not allowed to play Little League because he was so much better than his peers, so he played against thirteen year olds in Pony League. When he was fourteen, he played with grown men in a semipro league. He also played a number of hobbies, including track, wrestling and football. But these sports were just to pass the time until the season came for his true love - baseball.
"My first love is baseball and it has always been a dream of mine to be a major-league player."
After his senior year, Bo was drafted by the New York Yankees in the second round, and offered $250,000 to sign. Bo turned them and the University of Alabama down and instead decided to attend Auburn University.
Bo excelled on the gridiron at Auburn, but also played on the baseball team.* At first, many SEC fans thought Bo was a freakshow and rode him hard. One game in Georgia, fans heckled him for his play on the football field. Bo promptly hit a ball 385 feet that hit a 85 foot high light-tower. He then smacked two more home runs in the game and won the respect of many fans. He was drafted by the California Angels after his junior year, but Bo insisted on staying at Auburn through his senior season.
*-Take that in for a second. Bo Jackson once played with an aluminum bat. It is amazing no SEC third basemen were killed.
Bo rushed for 1,786 yards his senior year and won the 1985 Heisman Trophy. That spring, he was barred from playing college baseball midway through the year by by the NCAA for taking a paid flight to visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL team. Incensed, Bo told the Bucs to trade his rights, or else he would play baseball. When a trade to the 49ers fell through, Bo began visiting baseball teams. That June, the Royals selected Bo in the fourth round of the MLB Amateur Draft.
"I heard Ruth hit the ball. I'd never heard that sound before, and I was outside the fence but it was the sound of the bat that I had never heard before in my life. And the next time I heard that sound, I'm in Washington, D.C., in the dressing room and I heard that sound of a bat hitting the ball — sounded just like when Ruth hit the ball. I rushed out, got on nothing but a jockstrap, I rushed out — we were playing the Homestead Grays and it was Josh Gibson hitting the ball. And so I heard this sound again."
"Now I didn't hear it anymore. I'm in Kansas City. I'm working for the Cubs at the time, and I was upstairs and I was coming down for the batting practice. And before I could get out there I heard this sound one more time that I had heard only twice in my life. Now, you know who this is? Bo Jackson. Bo Jackson swinging that bat. And now I heard this sound... And it was just a thrill for me. I said, here it is again. I heard it again. I only heard it three times in my life."
Bo still had to decide whether or not he would accept an offer by the Bucs to be the highest paid rookie in NFL history, or ride the buses in the Royals minor leagues. He chose to ride the buses.
Bo was immediately assigned to AA Memphis. He struggled initially, going 4-45 to begin his professional career. Many began to whisper he had made the wrong choice.
Then Bo began to hit. In one minor league game, he wowed fans with a 550 monster home run shot. In 53 games, he hit .277 with seven home runs and a .473 slugging percentage. In September, he was called up to the Major Leagues.
On September 14 against the Mariners, Bo hit his first big league home run. It was a shot off of Mike Moore that has been claimed to be the longest home run in Royals Stadium history, a 475 shot that landed at the top of the grassy knoll.
Bo made the big league club to begin the 1987 season, and on April 14, he tied a team record with seven RBI to go along with two home runs. Four days later, he tied the MLB record with five strikeouts in a game. Later that month, the Los Angeles Raiders selected Bo in the seventh round, as the 183rd pick. Bo had an escape clause with the Royals to play football, but with his hitting really beginning to take off, Bo was enjoying his baseball career. Raiders owner Al Davis offered Bo the opportunity to play football part-time, once the baseball season was over.
Bo took the opportunity to become a two-sport athlete, although it did not sit well with some fans, teammates and those in the press.
"To be a great baseball player, you need a little humility. And that, to be blunt, is why Bo Jackson is heading for the door. If he has any significant success in cleats, you'll never see him back in spikes."
Royals fans began to boo Bo, feeling he was not committing to the team, and for playing for the hated rivals of their beloved Chiefs, the Los Angeles Raiders. Bo would slump badly the second half of the season, hitting just .188, and would sit much of September in favor of hot prospect Gary Thurman. Still, Bo's twenty-two home runs were a Royals rookie record, although he hit just .235 with an amazing 158 strikeouts.
That fall, Bo averaged seven yards a carry for the Raiders, good for 554 yards in seven games. He gave the Royals a scare when he sprained his ankle against the Chiefs. Some Royals officials began to publicly express doubt that Bo could continue in both sports. Manager John Wathan told reporters he expected Bo to start 1988 in Omaha.
Bo made the team in 1988 and got off to a very good start.* By the end of May, he was hitting over .300 with nine home runs and fourteen stolen bases. He then tore his hamstring on a groundball and missed a month of the season. Despite the missed time, he finished second on the team with twenty-five home runs and second in steals with twenty-seven swipes. He slugged .472 despite just a .246 batting average.
*-He began hitting so well, it didn't matter if he was even set in the box. Many highlight reels in 1988 featured the clip of Bo calling timeout, stepping out of the box as Orioles pitcher Jeff Ballard goes into his windup, then realizing the umpire did not call timeout, stepping back in the box and slamming a home run.
Bo got off to a great start again in 1989, hitting eight home runs in April and slugging .650. In Minnesota, he became the first right-handed hitter to ever hit a ball into the right field upper deck. A week later, he hit the longest home run in Arlington Stadium history, an amazing shot of Nolan Ryan. In July, he was the leading vote-getter for the All-Star Game. Bo led off the bottom of the first inning, and on the second pitch from Rick Reuschel, Bo slammed it 450 feet to dead center field. He became the second player ever to homer and steal a base in the All-Star Game, and he was named the game's MVP.
Bo missed two weeks in late July and nursed a sore quadricep much of the year, but he still managed to smash thirty-two home runs and 105 RBI, fourth in the league in both categories. He also led the league with an amazing 172 strikeouts. He stole twenty-six bases and threw out eleven baserunners. And he rushed for 950 yards in just eleven games with the Raiders that fall.
By 1990 Bo was a national superstar, with popular Nike ads running on the television.* The Royals were a draw, both at home and on the road. Bo and the Royals engaged in a bitter arbitration battle over his salary. Bo lost the case, and when he proposed a long-term deal with the Royals, ownership said no due to the financial problems of minority owner Avron Fogelman.
*-I would be remiss if I did not post this hilarious Youtube clip of Bo's prowess on the Nintendo game "Tecmo Bowl". Bo was quite frankly the best video game athlete of all-time and it was simply unfair for a player to choose the Raiders because of how absurdly good he was in that game.
That season, both Bo and the Royals struggled out of the gate, despite lofty expectations. Bo took our his frustration by snapping wooden bats over his knee.
"I didn't want to break bats. I really wanted to tear up the whole stadium, turn it upside down, run everybody out of the stands. I wanted to go in the dugout and throw a bat or a helmet or the water cooler - anything to get rid of the frustration." "Sometimes I just wanted to go back to the bench and cry."
Bo began to heat up in late June, slamming seven home runs in ten games. On July 17, he hit three home runs in a game in Yankee Stadium, missing a shot at a fourth home run when he hurt his shoulder making a sensational diving catch. He would miss a month - then homer in his first at-bat off the disabled list, tying the MLB record for home runs in consecutive at-bats.
Greatest ISO in Royals History (min. 1000 plate appearances)*
1. Bo Jackson 1986-1990 .230
2. Steve Balboni 1984-1988 .229
3. Danny Tartabull 1987-1991 .228
4. Gary Gaetti 1993-1995 .224
5. Raul Ibanez 2001-2003 .201
*-ISO is slugging percentage minus batting average.
Bo would slug a career best .523 with twenty-eight home runs and 78 RBI. Despite playing in just 111 games, he would finish sixth in the league in home runs.
On January 13, 1991, the Raiders were facing the Bengals in an AFC Playoff game when Bo went up the right sideline for a run. Bengals linebacker Kevin Walker grabbed Bo's right leg, dislocating his hip and severing a blood vessel. Although not considered a serious injury at the time, it would lead to avascular necrosis, deteriorating the cartilage around the hip.
Its pretty puzzling how such a routine play could effectively end the career of such a superior athlete. Doctors have debated Bo's injury for years. Perhaps the human body was not meant to be that amazing. The cartilage and ligaments just could not withstand the power.
That March, the Royals released him, to save money on his $2.3 million contract.
"We released him quickly so we weren't committed to the year's salary. Maybe that was a little cold. But we knew his career was effectively over."
-Royals General Manager Herk Robinson
Bo, determined to prove his detractors wrong, signed with the Chicago White Sox. He would play just twenty-three games that year, although that was more than many thought he would play the rest of his career. His football career was over, and he missed the entire 1992 baseball season, but he did play in 1993 and 1994 as a fairly productive designated hitter for Chicago.
In 1995, with a work stoppage preventing the season from beginning, Bo decided he had enough. He went back to Auburn and completed his degree, then retired from the limelight.
Bo has been pretty quiet in the decade since retiring from baseball. One gets the impression he was always a bit uncomfortable in the limelight. He was a shy kid, with a stuttering problem who always stood out because of his freakish athletic prowess. People don't like to be freaks. We want to be accepted, not leered at. Maybe Bo wants to live a life of normalcy after being gawked at for so long.
Or maybe he wonders what could have been. Some think he could have developed into a Hall of Fame baseball player. Many think he was a slam dunk for the Pro Football Hall of Fame had he dedicated himself to the sport full-time. Maybe he could have been great at both. We'll never know.