Outfielder Lou Jackson, once described as a “wrist hitter with extraordinary pull ability,” appeared in 34 games for the Chicago Cubs and Baltimore Orioles between 1958 and 1964.1 In his dozen years in professional ball, the lefty swinger went deep as many as 31 times in a single Triple-A season, and twice ranked among the Japan Central League’s top five home run hitters. He was only 33 when he fell ill and died in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Louis “Lou” Clarence Jackson was born on July 26, 1935 in Riverton, Louisiana, to Ezell and Emma (Johnson) Jackson.2 Lou spent his early years living along Highway 165 in the Bayou State’s Caldwell Parish, about 250 miles northwest of New Orleans. His father was a farmer according to the 1940 census, in which Lou is referred to as “LC”, not to be confused with his seven-year-old brother “LV” (Louis V.). Their sister Lodie was two at the time. Later, Emma delivered another son, Radell.3 When Lou was an infant, his father told him, “Baby, someday you’re going to be a big shot.”4 The nickname “Big Shot,” sometimes shortened to “Shot,” stuck with him for the rest of his life.
By his teens, Lou had moved to the larger city of Monroe, 25 miles north, where he played baseball for the West Monroe Warriors. Jackson attended Carroll High School, which later produced standouts like NFL quarterback James Harris and NBA center Benoit Benjamin. At Carroll, Jackson was named the Bulldogs’ baseball MVP and noted, “We were state champ[s] for four years,” on an early-career questionnaire.5 As integration in Louisiana remained years away, Jackson was referring to the state’s Negro High School championships. He also suited up for Carroll’s football team. By the time of his 1955 graduation, he had married Joan Getret and became a father when their daughter Gwendolyn was born. Jackson worked at Clover Leaf Dairy when he was not in school or playing ball.6
At Grambling College, Jackson continued to play both sports.7 Eddie Robinson, a 1997 College Football Hall of Fame inductee, called the plays on the gridiron. The baseball coach was the school’s president, Ralph Waldo Emerson “Prez” Jones, who had pitched in Louisiana semipro leagues as a younger man. After one year at Grambling, Jackson signed a professional contract with the Chicago Cubs for 1957 through Buck O’Neil.8 “Buck O’Neil scouted the black schools during that time,” recalled Willard Ellis, then a Grambling student who went on to coach the Tigers for more than a quarter-century after assisting Jones for 17 years9
Jackson started his pro career in the Class C Pioneer League with the Magic Valley (ID) Cowboys. In 112 games, the 5-foot-10, 168-pounder led the club with 24 doubles and 17 stolen bases, and his .310 batting average topped the regulars. “He looks great,” raved Cubs manager Bob Scheffing at the team’s special minicamp for rookies in Mesa, Arizona in March 1958.10 “He could be another Mickey] Mantle,” Chicago Vice President John Holland predicted. “He could be the answer to our centerfield problem. He is lightning fast, and is a good ballhawk, has a strong right arm and, right now it looks like he can hit.”11
With the Single-A Pueblo (CO) Bruins in 1958, Jackson did nothing to dissuade that impression. His .320 average in 111 games included 22 homers, a 27-game hitting streak and a Western League-leading 14 triples.12 He was leading the circuit in RBIs when the Cubs summoned him to the majors on July 22. To make room, reserve catcher El Tappe became a bullpen coach. “Jackson would have been my centerfielder if we hadn’t picked up Bobby] Thomson this season,” Scheffing told the Chicago Daily Tribune.13
On July 23 at Crosley Field, Jackson debuted as a ninth-inning pinch-runner for Johnny Goryl. He raced home from second base to score the tying run on Tony Taylor’s single, but the Cubs lost the game in 10. In his first at-bat the following evening, Jackson pinch-hit against Cincinnati’s Tom Acker and made the final out of a one-run defeat. Six nights later in Pittsburgh, Jackson started in left field against Red Witt and led off the contest with his first hit. On the final day of Chicago’s two-week road trip, Jackson pinch-hit a two-run homer off Ray Semproch in Philadelphia. After a month in the majors, Jackson returned to Pueblo for the last week of August but rejoined the Cubs in September. His only hit that month was a bases-loaded triple to break open a close game in San Francisco. Overall, he appeared in 24 games as a rookie and hit .171 in 36 at-bats.
On October 31, Jackson injured his left shoulder in a collision with one of his Elefantes de Cienfuegos teammates in the Cuban winter league.14 The birth of his first son, Chris, over the offseason gave Lou and his wife one more mouth to feed, joining daughters Gwendolyn, Donna and Carmen.15 While Jackson’s ’58 Pueblo teammate, George Altman, earned the Cubs’ Opening Day centerfield job, Lou opened the 1959 season with the Fort Worth (TX) Cats of the Triple-A American Association. After he batted only .148 in his first 10 games, however, Jackson was reassigned to the Single-A Lancaster (PA) Red Roses before the end of April. Though his bum shoulder limited him to seven home runs, Jackson hit .339 to win the Eastern League batting title and paced the Red Roses with 35 doubles 94 and runs scored. The Cubs called him up again in September, but he saw action in only six games as a pinch-hitter and pinch-runner. On December 6, Chicago traded Jackson to the Cincinnati Reds with outfielder Lee Walls and lefty reliever Bill Henry for three-time All-Star Frank Thomas.
Jackson started 1960 with Cincinnati’s Triple-A Havana Sugar Kings club, but the club relocated and became the Jersey City Jerseys in July because of Cuba’s unsettled political situation.16 Though Jackson legged out an International League-leading 12 triples, he ran into a wall in the Garden State and reinjured his shoulder.17 He finished the year batting .280 with a dozen doubles and 10 homers in 118 games.
In the early 1960’s, Jackson divorced Joan and moved to Florida, where he worked winters in the kitchen at the Tampa Yacht and Country Club. He married Sylvia Morgan, the daughter of one of the country club’s waitresses.18
Just before the 1961 season opened, Jersey City sold Jackson to another IL team for $15,000, the unaffiliated Toronto Maple Leafs.19 On May 21, Jackson crashed into the concrete right-field wall at Maple Leaf Stadium chasing a foul fly. He knocked himself unconscious and left the field on a stretcher. Though his chin needed five stitches, his shoulder was spared further damage.20 Jackson batted only .268 with nine home runs, but he came back to play in 143 games, second on the club to similarly named Lou Johnson.
Like Jackson, Johnson was a 5-foot-11, dark-skinned African American outfielder in his mid-20s who had previously played for the Cubs. While Jackson was a lefty swinger, Johnson batted right-handed. When both players returned to Toronto in 1962, new skipper Charlie Dressen struggled to tell them apart when punishing curfew violations, as described by the Toronto Daily Star. “That Jackson,” Dressen said. “Been out all night dancin’ again. I mean Johnson. No, it was Johnson last time. Or was it Jackson? Maybe I’ll fine both of ‘em.” Years later, Jackson recalled, “[Johnson] was always getting caught. Dressen only got me once. Bunch of us went to a spot in Richmond. We’re dancin’ into the early hours when in walks [player-coach] Tim Thompson. We know Dressen sent him.”21
In July 1962, the Maple Leafs –who had become a Braves’ farm club– resolved the problem by optioning Jackson to the Angels’ Hawaii Islanders affiliate in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Johnson moved up to the majors a few weeks later. By season’s end, Jackson’s combined average was only .253, but his 16 homers in 118 total games were his best total in four years. He played winter ball for the Indios del Boer in Nicaragua. Jackson’s walk-off home run won the playoff opener in Managua on Christmas Day, and Boer went on to win its first championship.22
Jackson returned to Toronto in 1963 and got off to a great start. On May 31, the Maple Leafs trailed the Atlanta Crackers by a run. With two on and two outs in the ninth inning at Ponce de Leon Park, he ripped his second three-run homer of the evening, denting the Atlanta Constitution sign high above a bank in right-centerfield.23 By July 18, however, Jackson’s poor June had convinced the 40-55 Maple Leafs to agree to trade him.24 He was to go to the Richmond Virginians for Tom Umphlett, but the 32-year-old former Red Sox and Senators outfielder refused to report to Toronto because his wife was a schoolteacher in Richmond.25
Stuck with Jackson, the Maple Leafs soon discovered why the best deals are sometimes the ones that are not made. Over the final 55 games, Jackson batted .375 with 21 homers and 52 RBIs as Toronto climbed back over .500 and reached the post-season.26 “No doubt about it, Lou was the one most responsible for us making the playoffs,” said Maple Leafs GM Frank Pollock.27
After a career year in which he batted .315 with 31 homers, Jackson was named Toronto’s MVP and most popular player.28 The only IL player that bashed more longballs in 1963 was Dick Allen, a 21-year-old who debuted with the Phillies in September. Still, Jackson had little opportunity to crack the Braves. In addition to the righthanded-hitting Hank Aaron, Milwaukee’s outfielders included lefty swingers Lee Maye, Ty Cline, Mack Jones, Len Gabrielson and Don Dillard. Jackson’s best chance to return to the majors would come in the Rule 5 Draft. Angels scout Joe Gordon came to observe him in Richmond, and George Staller and Frank McGowan of the Orioles had watched Jackson for a full week.29
After scout Jim Russo and Darrell Johnson, manager of Baltimore’s Triple-A Rochester affiliate, also talked him up, the Orioles drafted Jackson for $25,000 at the winter meetings in San Diego. “He came highly recommended as a real hustler, a 100-percent ballplayer and a real good hitter,” remarked farm director Harry Dalton.30 Rochester GM George Sisler, Jr. added, “He’s only an average outfielder with an average arm, but he’s very fast, hustles, and is a good hitter with real power. I think he was the best left-handed hitting outfielder available.”31 Orioles president Lee MacPhail explained that Jackson was drafted in case his team was unable to trade for a lefty-hitting outfielder. Even after Baltimore dealt for Cleveland’s Willie Kirkland 48 hours later, MacPhail said Jackson still had a good chance to make the club.32
Long before spring training started, however, Jackson found himself in trouble. On January 6, 1964, the Baltimore Sun published a story headlined, “Alleged Misconduct Costs Birds’ Jackson Latin Ban.” The article described how Jackson had been suspended for the remainder of the Nicaraguan League season plus three more years for wearing his bedroom slippers into the outfield for Boer’s Christmas Day contest. Rafael Chavez, the circuit’s president, justified the harsh penalty by alleging that, according to his office’s investigation, Jackson had been drunk.33
“Never really happened at all,” Jackson said later. He explained that he and the other American players had been forced to play the night of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22. Because of that, some of them insisted that they receive Christmas day off. “We thought it had been granted,” Jackson said. “Christmas day, we’re in the lobby of the hotel, playin’ some cards, drinkin’ some beer. There’s me, Tony Washington –he used to play for Toronto– an’ Choo-Choo Coleman. The owners’ son arrives and says we’re to go to the ballpark right away. We may have to pinch-hit.” Jackson, still wearing his shower shoes, listened to his wife, and hustled to the stadium with Washington. Boer’s manager, Joe Hicks, told them to have a seat in the dugout, where they remained all game. After the contest, some fans accused them of being benched for drunkenness, but they were never in the lineup. “Next day, the paper says the umpire wrestled me off the field. Then the league president called. Says he’s got to suspend me,” Jackson said. “I know what it’s all about. They’re payin’ me $2,500 a month. The goin’ rate is only $700. They’re tryin’ to unload me.”34
Less than a week before Opening Day 1964, the Jackson-Johnson confusion resurfaced. Dodgers executive VP Buzzie Bavasi sold veteran reliever Larry Sherry to the Tigers and demanded a player as well. Detroit offered Lou Johnson. “Oh no, the Dodgers don’t want guys who play the outfield in their bedroom slippers,” replied Bavasi. “That was Jackson? Not Johnson? Okay, then I’ll accept Johnson.”35 According to one account, Bavasi said, “What’s the difference?”36 He found out a year later after Los Angeles left-fielder Tommy Davis broke his ankle. Lou Johnson came up from Triple-A and manned the position for consecutive Dodgers pennant winners. In 1964, only Jackson played in the big leagues.
He did not play much, though. After Jackson’s first pinch-hitting appearance for the Orioles on April 23, he did not make another appearance for two weeks. On May 10, he started in left field in Detroit and went 3-for-5, singling against three different Tigers pitchers in Baltimore’s 7-1 victory. When he struck out as a ninth-inning pinch-hitter in Washington the following night, however, it was the last at-bat of his major-league career. Normally, a Rule 5 draftee could not be sent to the minors without first being offered back to his original team. As part of the Rochester Red Wings December trade of Ozzie Virgil to Toronto for Ted Kazanski, however, the Maple Leafs promised not to exercise their right to reclaim Jackson.37 Shortly after the Lou arrived at Triple-A Rochester with his wife Sylvia, their daughter Gloria was born.
Retaining Jackson appeared to be a shrewd move when Baltimore’s Boog Powell injured his wrist running into Fenway Park’s left-field wall in August. Fearing that it was broken, the Orioles summoned Jackson to join them in Chicago. By the time he arrived, however, Powell’s injury had been diagnosed as less serious and Jackson was sent straight back to the Red Wings.38 He finished 1964 batting .262 with 23 home runs in 127 games as Rochester won the International League championship. In winter ball, Jackson hit .283 for the San Juan Senators in the Puerto Rican League.39
Jackson turned 30 in 1965 and his production for the Red Wings slipped to .248 with 18 homers in 111 games. In January, Rochester sold his contract to the Tokyo-based Sankei Atoms for $3.6 million yen, about $10,000 at the time. “Birds Sell ‘Soft Shoe’ to Japan” read the headline in the Baltimore Sun.40
Atoms was the new name of the team that had played as the Kokutetsu Swallows for its first 15 seasons of existence before the Sankei Shimbun newspaper bought the club and made it the Sankei Swallows in 1965. No former major-leaguer had ever played for the franchise until Jackson and Roman Mejias suited up in 1966. Mejias appeared in only 30 contests. Jackson, on the other hand, played 97 games and homered 20 times in 346 at-bats to rank fifth in the Japan Central League behind 26-year-old Sadaharu Oh, who clubbed 48. “One thing I find strange in Japan is that each team has its own cheerleaders, like you see at a high school or college football game in the States,” Jackson told the Los Angeles Times. “All the fans rooting for one specific team sit in the same section, and the other team’s followers sit in another.”41
Jackson’s numbers for the Atoms improved in 1967. In 117 games, he batted .296 with 28 homers, tied for fourth in the circuit with his new teammate, Dave Roberts. When Jackson’s wife visited relatives in Canada in June, she told the Toronto Daily Star that Jackson had endorsement deals and was featured in Japanese commercials.42 With players like former NL All Star Dick Stuart making an impact in the Far East, ABC recorded the Japanese All-Star Game at Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo that summer to air on its Saturday afternoon showcase Wide World of Sports.43 Jackson played in the game and signed a five-year contract to remain with the Atoms. The deal reportedly guaranteed him $30,000 annually, with the chance to reach $50,000 with bonuses.44 At the time, the average annual major-league salary was about $19,000.45
In 1968, however, Jackson was not the same player. Though he hit 20 home runs, his average declined to a career-worst .219 with an unacceptable .269 on-base percentage. In 115 games, he struck out 97 times, more than ever before. When the 1969 season started, he was not on the field at all. On April 26, Jackson checked into Tokyo’s Jikei University Hospital for surgery.46 On May 21, a Toronto newspaper reported that his wife had called from Tampa to say her husband was critically ill.47
Jackson was only 33 when he died on May 27, 1969 from acute pancreatic necrosis.48 In 1984, Toronto’s Globe and Mail reported that his alcoholism was the cause.49 Passport problems prevented Jackson’s wife from being with him, but his mother-in-law was at his side when he passed.50 The Sankei Atoms held a memorial for him the next day at a Christian church in Tokyo. In addition to team owner Naomi Matsuona, former major-leaguers Joe Gaines, Carl Boles and Roberts (all of whom were playing in Japan) were among the approximately 50 attendees.51
After Jackson’s remains returned to the United States, his Florida friends and family remembered him at the Wilson Funeral Home Chapel on May 31. On June 3, following a service at Zion Traveler Baptist Church, Lou Jackson was buried at Monroe, Louisiana’s City Cemetery. In addition to his parents, siblings, widow and ex-wife, Jackson was survived by seven children: daughters Gwendolyn (aka Gale), Donna, Carmen, Melody, Daisy and Gloria; and son, Christopher.52
The author would like to thank Willard Ellis, Grambling State University’s baseball coach from 1978-2003, and assistant coach from 1960-1977 (telephone interview with Malcolm Allen, January 22, 2021).
The author is also grateful for the research assistance of Nicole Good from the Ouachita Parish Library’s Genealogy/Special Collections Department and Pamela Tucker from the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library.
This biography was reviewed by Gregory Wolf and Bruce Harris and checked for accuracy by SABR’s fact-checking team.
1 “Wings Lou Jackson Sold Outright to Japanese League,” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), January 7, 1966: 39.
2 “Jackson Funeral is Held Today,” Monroe (Louisiana) News Star, June 3, 1969: 6A.
3 “Funeral Notices: Jackson, Louis (Lou) Clarence,” Tampa Tribune, May 31, 1969.
4 “Wings Lou Jackson Sold Outright to Japanese League.”
5 Lou Jackson, Publicity Questionnaire for William J. Weiss, April 14, 1959.
6 Lou Jackson, Publicity Questionnaire for William J. Weiss, May 16, 1957.
7 The school’s name changed to Grambling State University in 1974.
8 Jackson, Publicity Questionnaire (1957).
9 Willard Ellis, telephone interview with Malcolm Allen, January 22, 2021.
10 “Cub Brass is High on Rookie Lou Jackson,” Afro-American (Baltimore, Maryland), March 8, 1958: 15.
11 “Cubs Brass High on Lou Jackson,” Philadelphia Tribune, March 1, 1958: 13.
12 Neil MacCarl, “Lou’s Hit Streak Now at 17 Games,” Toronto Daily Star, July 18, 1961: 11.
13 Richard Dozer, “Cubs Rained Out; Obtain Outfielder,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 23, 1958: B2.
14 Ruben Rodriguez, “Cuban Capers,” The Sporting News, November 12, 1958: 24.
15 Jackson, Publicity Questionnaire (1959).
16 Cy Kritzer, “Sugar Kings’ Home Contests Transferred to U.S. Cities,” The Sporting News, July 13, 1960: 44.
17 Neil MacCarl, “Big League Scouts on Trail of Lou Jackson,” Toronto Daily Star, September 4, 1963: 12.
18 Hayward Brady, “Around the Town,” Florida Sentinel Bulletin, May 31, 1969.
19 “Leafs Get Outfielder and Belted by Wings,” Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 17, 1961: 20.
20 Al Nickleson, “Leafs Win 2 of 3; Jackson Hurt,” Globe and Mail, May 22, 1961: 18.
21 Milt Dunnell, “No Confusion. It’s Jackson,” Toronto Daily Star, November 10, 1967: 18.
22 “Boer Defeats Oriental, 4-2,” Washington Post, December 27, 1962: D2.
23 Charlie Roberts, “Jackson HR in 9th Rips Crackers, 8-6,” Atlanta Constitution, June 1, 1963: 12.
24 “Lou Jackson Hikes Average Over .300,” Philadelphia Tribune, August 27, 1963: 11.
25 Louis Cauz, “Unmade Deal Biggest Factor in Toronto Reaching Playoffs,” Globe and Mail, September 4, 1963: 14.
26 MacCarl, “Big League Scouts on Trail of Lou Jackson.”
27 Cauz, “Unmade Deal Biggest Factor in Toronto Reaching Playoffs.”
28 Cauz, “Unmade Deal Biggest Factor in Toronto Reaching Playoffs.”
29 MacCarl, “Big League Scouts on Trail of Lou Jackson.”
30 Jim Elliot, “Alleged Misconduct Costs Birds’ Jackson Latin Ban,” Baltimore Sun, January 6, 1964: S21.
31 Doug Brown, “Kirkland and Jackson Provide Orioles with New Lefty Look,” The Sporting News, December 14, 1963: 20.
32 Brown, “Kirkland and Jackson Provide Orioles with New Lefty Look,”
33 Elliot, “Alleged Misconduct Costs Birds’ Jackson Latin Ban.”
34 Milt Dunnell, “No Confusion. It’s Jackson.”
35 Dunnell, “No Confusion. It’s Jackson.”
36 Arthur Daley, “Bragan Says Dodgers Started a ‘New’ Trend,” Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania), October 21, 1965: 55.
37 Bill Vanderschmidt, “Lou Jackson Headed for Red Wings?” Democrat and Chronicle, January 25, 1964: 24.
38 Lou Hatter, “Birds Sell ‘Soft Shoe’ to Japan,” Baltimore Sun, January 7, 1966: C1.
39 “Wings Welcome Lou Jackson,” Democrat and Chronicle, March 18, 1965: 43.
40 Hatter, “Birds Sell ‘Soft Shoe’ to Japan.”
41 “Baseball No. 1 in Land of Rising Sun,” Los Angeles Times, September 3, 1968: E6.
42 Milt Dunnell, “First Ace In,” Toronto Daily Star, June 14, 1967: 20.
43 “Japan’s All-Star Game Airs on ABC,” Hartford (Connecticut) Courant, August 20, 1967: 12H.
44 “Baseball Not Dead Say Japanese Fans,” Democrat and Chronicle, August 18, 1968: 63.
45 Kurt Badenhausen, “Average Baseball Salary Up 20,700% Since First CBA in 1968,” Forbes, April 7, 2016, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2016/04/07/average-baseball-salary-up-20700-since-first-cba-in-1968/?sh=17cd75c53e48 (last accessed January 23, 2021).
46 “Former Cub Lou Jackson Dies in Japan,” Chicago Tribune, May 27, 1969: C3.
47 “Ex-Leaf Critically Ill,” Toronto Daily Star, May 21, 1969: B16.
48 “Former Cub Lou Jackson Dies in Japan.”
49 Paul Patton, “Where Are They Now? Lou Johnson,” Globe and Mail, July 28, 1984: S10.
50 Brady, “Around the Town.”
51 “Lou Jackson, Ex-Major League Outfielder Dies,” Daily Home News (New Brunswick, New Jersey), May 28, 1969: 20.
52 “Jackson Funeral is Held Today.”