RIP

RIP Murray Olderman

Murray Olderman, longtime sports columnist and cartoonist, passed away yesterday at age 98. I’m aware of him because—in addition to his decades’ worth of stellar work—he was involved in a barely believable confrontation with Reggie Jackson during the 1974 World Series. The showdown was entirely on Jackson, who was upset about a feature Olderman had written about him for Sport magazine (an accurate portrayal), but Olderman held his own, in the process providing a great example of how not to be intimidated by a blowhard athlete.

I wrote about it in Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic. Here’s the excerpt:

As the Series moved to Oakland, Monday’s workout day at the Coliseum was supposed to be a low-key affair, a chance to get loose in the sunshine and give the national media access to players. The A’s, of course, had a poor history with workout days. The one in Los Angeles put Rollie Fingers in the hospital and Blue Moon Odom on crutches. A year earlier, the one in New York featured insurgent players wearing Mike Andrews’s uniform number on their sleeves. The one in Cincinnati the year before that was all about the reaction to Campy Campaneris’s bat toss in Detroit. It wouldn’t take long for this one to join the litany.

The drama’s genesis occurred back in mid-September, when Sport magazine published a cover story for which Reggie Jackson posed while wearing military regalia from the movie Patton. He had been interviewed for the issue by the film’s star, George C. Scott, and found the resulting copy to be entirely bland. He couldn’t say the same, however, for the second feature about him in the same issue. That one was by Murray Olderman, a Bay Area–based 52-year-old syndicated writer and cartoonist who had been desperate to schedule an interview with Reggie for his quick-turnaround piece. After doing a five-hour photo shoot for the cover, however, Jackson was in no mood to talk. He agreed only to let the writer informally hang out for a while at his condo in the exclusive Hiller Highlands neighborhood of Berkeley.

When Jackson saw the ensuing feature, he was miffed. Olderman described Jackson as “utterly charming or maddeningly harsh, depending on the situation,” and said that he “has more than a little ego, more than a limited belief in his own glorious destiny.” He spent close to a third of the space recounting Jackson’s fights with Epstein, Williams, and North.

For Reggie, though, the crux came in two parts. One was Olderman’s description of a Bible set next to a handgun atop the television, juxtaposed with copies of Penthouse and Playboy strewn around the apartment. In the player’s mind, this insinuated that holiness was subjugated by the baser aspects of his life. The other part was the depiction of former A’s ball girl Mary Barry, who was described as wearing a green bikini and spending hours in the apartment. (It did not explicitly say that the two were dating, but the notion was strongly implied.) Barry’s teenage employment with the team lent negative connotations to the description, but she’d graduated from high school by the time the story came out and was no longer in Finley’s employ. Both she and Jackson were single. “I don’t expect everyone to write nice things about me,” Reggie said after the piece was published, “but I don’t want a sarcastic treatment that makes me look like something I’m not. I’m not a hypocrite, but his story suggests it.”

Reggie’s teammates, some of them, anyway, were aware of his anger. He spoke openly of revenge fantasies, the most prominent of which involved telling Olderman off amid his journalist colleagues, returning some of the embarrassment Jackson felt. The reality, of course, was that Reggie was keenly aware of his public image and what such a plan would do to it. His teammates were somewhat less concerned.

As the A’s worked out, Blue saw Olderman on the field, pointing out various members of the A’s to his 16-year-old son, and got an idea. Grabbing the writer by the hand, he said, “Come with me, there’s someone who wants to see you,” and led him to Jackson. Reggie had decided weeks earlier that it was not in his best interests to pursue a confrontation, but with it thrust upon him, he reversed course. It was the only way to save face in front of teammates who had heard him talk repeatedly about what kind of trouble Olderman would be in the next time they met.

So Reggie began to yell. He profanely told Olderman what he thought of the article, and what he thought of the man who wrote it. And the more he yelled the angrier he became. What started as show became genuine hostility.

The scenario was just how Reggie pictured it. The field was littered with newsmen from across the country, and the moment he began to shout they gathered like pigeons to bread crumbs. Jackson was dressed for battle—batting helmet, batting gloves, dark glasses, windbreaker over his uniform—making him all the more intimidating. He screamed that Olderman was “a horseshit writer who had written a horseshit story,” told him that he didn’t want to see him again, and threatened to “punch him in his fucking mouth.” It was as if Reggie was trying to taunt the scribe into a physical altercation. Olderman did not bite.

“You better never get around me alone, that’s all I can say,” Jackson finally hollered, pointing his finger. “If you do, you’ll be in trouble.”

Olderman, wearing thick-framed glasses and a blazer, was an Army veteran and about the same size as Jackson. He was hardly cowed.

“Are you threatening me?” he asked coolly. Vida stood next to them, gazing sheepishly at the ground.

Jackson clenched his fists and told the writer he was not welcome in the Oakland clubhouse.

“Are you going to keep me out?” Olderman asked.

“Yeah,” Reggie said.

That was when Joe Reichler, MLB’s director of public relations, raced over to separate the men. “Walk away with me,” he sternly ordered Jackson. When Reggie refused, Reichler laid down the law right there: “Threaten him again, or lay a hand on him, and you won’t play the rest of the series.” Jackson backed down.

Things were quiet until the next day, when, prior to Game 3, Reichler approached Reggie as he warmed up in front of the A’s dugout. The Commissioner, he said, was “very disturbed” over Jackson’s behavior. If it happened again, Reichler said, “there’s going to be a problem, a very serious problem, and I think you know what I mean by that.”

Reggie smiled. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “everything is over.”

It was too early for everything to be over, of course. The A’s had already sent two players to the hospital, were still trying to make sense of their best pitcher’s claims that he would soon be playing elsewhere, had to fend off rumors of moving, tried to deflect questions about a lawsuit filed against their owner by one of their own, and lived down one of the most embarrassing pickoffs in big league history. Now they were also dealing with their star player verbally assaulting a member of the gathered media.

In passing, it seemed, the Series was tied, 1–1. It was easy to miss, but there was still some baseball to be played.

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