Yes, Alvin Jackson Was a Very Nice Guy
I was busy working on something else when I heard about Alvin Jackson Monday, so I kept going, with a heavy heart. Then I received emails from three pals, one an old ball player from Brooklyn saying, “From what I know, he was a class guy,” and one e-friend from West Virginia saying, “He sounds like a fine fellow,” and one pal at the Times, saying “I’m sure you knew him.”
Yes, I knew Alvin Jackson from April of 1962, knew him from games he won and games he lost, and I also knew him as a wide receiver in touch football. True.
You can read the lovely obit in the Times and learn a lot of the details of his life:
I was a young sportswriter in 1962, first year I traveled. Jackson was a steady pitcher on a team that lost 120 of 160 games. Casey liked him for himself and also because Casey, who was childless, was proud of the Mets' considerable number of "university men," many of them pitchers.
By Casey's standards, Jackson was a university man, but Jackson could also keep the ball low and he never lost his poise. When we interviewed Alvin after losses, he kept it inside, which I attributed it to the caution of a black man from Waco, Tex., who has learned not to show too much of himself. He also had occasional whooping laugh that he allowed to escape.
We never got serious about much, but on Aug. 28, 1963, I watched Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech from the Mall in Washington, on the TV in my hotel room in Pittsburgh, and when I went down to catch the team bus to the ball park, I got into a conversation with Alvin and Jesse Gonder, the catcher, and Maury Allen of the (good old) New York Post. We agreed that something momentous had happened that day and I felt we all had gotten a glimpse of the others’ heart.
Alvin was living on Long Island in the off-season, and one of my colleagues at Newsday mentioned that we played touch football once or twice a week at a park in Hempstead. Jackson and most players had the same economic level as reporters, so sometimes he worked at a winter job, but most game days he showed up, ready for a run, ready to break a sweat.
In 1963, another Met, Larry Bearnarth, who was living nearby, joined the game.
They got their tension during the season. What they wanted was a workout. They never big-timed us, tried to call plays or ask for the ball. Joe Donnelly, who had a great arm, and I, who had no arm at all, were usually the quarterbacks. Let me say, it was a trip to be in a mini-huddle, calling a play involving somebody who pitched in the major leagues.
I think Alvin and Larry were in the game on Nov. 22, 1963, when the fiancée of one of the players came running across the parking lot and delivered the terrible news. We all just went home.
By 1964 Alvin was a club elder:
"Wonderful gentleman," Bill Wakefield, a very useful pitcher on that squad, wrote to me in an e-mail. "He was very nice to me. Treated me (a rookie) like I was a veteran of the original Mets vintage. Great smile and laugh! Good pitcher. Not overpowering stuff, but knew how to pitch. Good guy."
Jackson pitched one of the most masterful games of that first Mets era on the final Friday of the season, in St. Louis: He shut out the Cardinals, who were fighting for the pennant, by a 1-0 score, bringing the chill of winter into the city, but the Cardinals survived on the final day.
As Alvin’s career dwindled, he moved on, and then he was a pitching instructor for various organizations, including the Mets in later years. When we ran into each other, he was cordial; not all ball players remember your face. Once in a while, I would see him and make the motion of a quarterback throwing long, and he would give his whooping laugh, not needing to add, “as if you could.”
He stayed on Long Island a long time. I never knew that his wife, Nadine, a lovely presence, was the chairwoman of a business department in a Suffolk high school. I just knew they were a dignified couple -- a university man and woman.
Alvin Jackson brought dignity and discipline that rubbed off on teammates, on reporters in the locker room, and even on fans who could tell, from a distance, that he was indeed a very nice guy.
8/20/2019 12:33:50 am
When I learned of Al Jackson’s death, I knew that you (George) would write about him and that I’d learn something interesting. You did, and I did. Nice flag-football story. A pity that he came so close to appearing in two World Series (‘67 and ‘69). How great it would have been for this original Met to have gone from 20 losses in ‘62 to the World Series title in 1969. He would have been a major story line heading into the games against the Orioles. Did you talk to him much over the years about what Stengel was like?
8/20/2019 08:38:59 am
Hillel, thanks for the nice words. I can't say we were in touch...it was more a matter of running into each other in Port St. Lucie, or Mets in Queens, or some function or other. It made me feel good to see him, memories of early Mets, but particularly his games, that masterpiece in St. Louis in 64, and his very decent persona, ongoing. GV
8/20/2019 09:33:32 am
Indeed, that was something else of importance that I learned. Imagine a guy on a last-place team throwing a 1-0 gem to beat the ultimate World Series-winning team when the latter was in a fight for its life on the penultimate day of the season. For Jackson and for the Mets, that strikes me as the highest level of professionalism.
8/20/2019 10:43:45 am
Hillel: I was there. Alvin shut down the entire city. Bill Wakefield, who was in the bullpen that evening, said Jesse Gonder was enjoying watching his pal throttle the Cardinals, and made a comment that the Reds, playing the Phillies in Cincinnati that night, were now going to the World Series. The boys in the bullpen told Jesse to cool it, or they'd jinx Alvin and the bullpen would have to get active, but Alvin had this one, nine innings and out. A masterpiece. GV
8/20/2019 07:58:26 am
8/20/2019 08:40:40 am
Randolph: thanks for prodding me to get back to the keyboard and write about Alvin. Everybody needs an Assignment Editor. GV
8/20/2019 09:01:20 am
Such a wonderful piece, George, especially your MLK and touch football memories. I can still hear Bob Murphy's affectionate "Little Al Jackson" as he read the lineup card.
8/20/2019 12:32:22 pm
I loved everything about this essay, George but best of all your confession that it was "a trip" to call plays for a major leaguer. I've always felt that anyone who makes the trip from worshipful boyhood fan to discerning big league reporter never completely sheds that early idolatry — not to feel awed or obligated but as a reminder of why the writer is asking the questions..
8/21/2019 09:49:52 am
Ed, because you know sports, you know the amount of skill and poise it takes just to be there. I hear fans calling major-leaguers (or college players) "losers" and I think, they have already succeeded, just to be there. Many athletes and coaches have a sense of pride and teamwork and leadership that I wish could be extended to "other fields." Alvin could start and win games. Larry saved a lot of games. They were athletes and University Men, too. So, yes, I thought it was a trip to tell them to go 10 yards and buttonhook, or whatever.
8/21/2019 01:14:26 am
8/21/2019 09:56:46 am
Bruce, HBP -- that's what Hunt did. Actually, more after he left Mets.
8/21/2019 10:02:37 am
8/21/2019 04:43:30 pm
Brusque young man, saw him on TV the other day, same guy.
8/21/2019 05:00:22 pm
Ron Swoboda, via George Vecsey
8/21/2019 04:37:41 pm
(Here is an email about Alvin Jackson, from Ron Swoboda, who said I could share it)
8/22/2019 08:41:30 pm
A lovely piece, George. Thanks.
8/22/2019 08:52:29 pm
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“I don’t think people understand how Covid affects older Americans,” Mr. Caretti said with frustration. “In 2020, there was this all-in-this-together vibe, and it’s been annihilated. People just need to care about other people, man. That’s my soapbox.”
---Vic Caretti, 47, whose father recently died of Covid at 85.
---From an article by Paula Span, who covers old age for the NYT, which currently has 2646 comments, the majority criticizing the American public – and public officials – for acting as if the pandemic is “over.”
Classic wishful thinking, at a lethal level.