On the first Saturday of summer in 1986, Bo Jackson gave the NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers a stiff-arm that would’ve made John Heisman proud. In a long-anticipated press conference held in Birmingham, Alabama, Jackson, the former Auburn University running back who six months earlier had won the trophy bearing Heisman’s name and iconic pose, rejected the Buccaneers’ reported five-year, $7.6 million contract offer. Instead, the top pick in the NFL’s 1986 draft would play the sport he loved best: baseball.1
After announcing his decision, Jackson jetted off to Kansas City to sign with the defending World Series champion Royals, who’d selected him in the fourth round of baseball’s amateur draft on June 2. The value of the contract was undisclosed at the time, but Jackson’s agent made clear that money was not why Bo, “the best pure athlete in America,” according to Sports Illustrated,2 chose baseball. “He could have been an instant millionaire and made many, many, many, many times more money by signing his name with Tampa Bay than with what he signed a contract for in Kansas City.”3
As the ink dried on his signature, Jackson took batting practice with borrowed gear; he’d left his own on the private plane that brought him from Alabama. Using Royals first baseman Steve Balboni’s bat, Jackson, hit a ball to the base of the crown-shaped scoreboard at Royals Stadium in dead center field; a blast that Royals manager Dick Howser estimated traveled over 450 feet. “I’ve never seen anyone hit one that far here straightaway,” Howser said.4
Assigned to Memphis Chicks of the Double-A Southern League, the hard-swinging Jackson got off to a rocky 4-for-45 start but rebounded to hit .277 with 25 RBIs over 53 games by the end of August.5 When rosters expanded in early September, the Royals, headed for a third-place finish in the American League West, called up Jackson, unconcerned that he’d fanned 81 times in 212 minor-league plate appearances.
Once with Kansas City, it didn’t take long for Jackson to show off his breathtaking tool-set. He singled in his first at-bat, off future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton after almost homering,6 collected outfield assists in his second and third games, and went 4-for-5 with three infield hits in his fifth game. In his seventh game as a major leaguer, Jackson hit his first home run a distance of 475 feet, the longest to that point in Royals Stadium history.7 He came back to Earth soon after, hitting just .135 with two extra-base hits and 25 strikeouts in his final 52 at-bats.
Jackson’s tendency to avoid fielding practice and rarely take extra batting practice during his call-up left skeptics wondering about his commitment to baseball,8 but his actions in the offseason proved otherwise. First, Jackson spurned a contract option that would’ve allowed him to leave the Royals to play football,9 then he devoted himself to improving his baseball skills. Jackson played instructional ball in Florida, took many hours of batting practice, and chased hundreds of fly balls with the Auburn baseball team while taking classes toward a degree in child psychology.10 He also rose to the preseason challenge of Royals GM John Schuerholz, who said Jackson needed to “have one of the great springs in the history of mankind” to make the Royals’ 1987 Opening Day roster.11 Hitting .290 during spring training, with three home runs and a team-leading 11 RBIs, Jackson did well enough to break camp as the Royals’ starting left fielder.12
A week into the season, Jackson’s ups and downs had sportswriter John McGrath calling the budding star’s adventures “his Amazing Technicolor Roller Coaster.”13 Nonetheless, Jackson was hitting over .400, as was first baseman Kevin Seitzer, the only other rookie on the Royals roster. Seitzer, an 11th-round draft pick in 1983 from NCAA Division II Eastern Illinois, topped the Royals regulars in hitting, while Jackson led the club in RBIs, with six.14
Kansas City began the final series of its season-opening eight-game homestand with a night game on April 14 against the Detroit Tigers, the team that had swept the Royals in the 1984 ALCS, a year before Kansas City won its own World Series championship. The Royals were led by new manager Billy Gardner, who’d replaced the popular Howser, diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor in July 1986.15
Mark Gubicza, 1-2 lifetime with a 4.40 ERA against Detroit, was on the mound for Kansas City, opposed by Dan Petry. Petry had received a no-decision in Detroit’s 1984 ALCS Game Two triumph over the Royals but was 4-7 lifetime with a 3.82 ERA against them in the regular season. Detroit came to Kansas City having won a franchise-record four straight games by six runs or more.
A season-low crowd of 16,023 turned out at Royals Stadium on a drizzly Tuesday night, with temperatures in the low 50s.16 Speedster Willie Wilson scored a first-inning run for Kansas City, leading off with a single and scoring on Seitzer’s triple down the right-field line. Eleven-time All-Star George Brett chased Seitzer home with a sacrifice fly for an early 2-0 lead.
A double by 19-year veteran Darrell Evans, six weeks away from his 40th birthday,17 and a walk to Darnell Coles put two on for Detroit in the second, but the next three batters failed to push a run across. Jackson led off the Royals’ second with a bullet up the middle for a single and advanced to second on a walk to first-year Royal Ed Hearn, but went no farther.
The defensive play of the game came in the top of the third when Willie Wilson robbed Detroit’s four-time All-Star second baseman Lou Whitaker of an extra-base hit with an over-the-shoulder catch in center field.
Petry’s walk to Seitzer and Coles’ error on a potential double-play grounder off the bat of Kansas City’s five-time All-Star second baseman Frank White gave the Royals two on with one out. It appeared Petry might escape the inning unscathed when Danny Tartabull, the son of one-time Kansas City Athletic Jose Tartabull, flied out to center field, but Jackson followed with a three-run home run on a 1-and-2 curveball to deep center field.
“I knew [Petry] was going to come with his breaking pitches,” Jackson said later, “because that’s what he struck me out on three times in spring training.”18 Petry had intended for the ball to be below the strike zone, or land it the dirt, but got it up.19 Jackson acknowledged the appreciative crowd with a curtain call, but he wasn’t done.
Detroit pulled a run closer in the fourth on a two-out RBI single by Tom Brookens. The Royals built their lead back to five in their half of the inning on singles from Ángel Salazar, Seitzer, and White, the last a Texas Leaguer to short center.
After Gubicza retired the Tigers in order in the fifth, Jackson led off the Royals’ next turn at bat with his third hit of the game, a single up the middle. With one out, Jackson stole second, his first stolen base of the year, but was left stranded.
Kansas City broke the game wide open the next inning. A one-out single by Seitzer followed by a walk to Brett brought Tigers manager Sparky Anderson out of the dugout and reliever Nate Snell in from the bullpen. White, the first batter to face Snell, reached on third baseman Coles’ third error of the day (and sixth in seven games) to fill the bases,20 after which Snell fanned Tartabull for the second out of the inning.
With a light shower falling, Jackson drove a 1-and-0 low fastball from Snell over the right-center-field fence for an opposite-field grand slam. Jackson heard the bat crack when he made contact, and so expected the ball to stay in the park. “I thought the guy was going to camp near the wall and catch it,” Jackson said. “It kept going and going.” Jackson’s broken-bat 410-plus-foot slam put the Royals up 10-1 and resulted in his second curtain call of the night.21
Staked to a nine-run lead, Gubicza breezed through the final three innings, allowing a lone single in the eighth and walking Chet Lemon ahead of a game-ending 6-4-3 groundball double play.
In the Royals clubhouse, Gubicza celebrated his first April win in 10 career starts in anonymity, as most reporters flocked to Jackson’s locker. “I just did a slight little part in this game. If this was a hockey game,” said Gubicza, a former youth hockey player, “you’d give Bo the star of the game and Seitzer another star.”22
“That was fun, real fun,” said Jackson,23 whose 4-for-4 performance with two home runs, including a grand slam, and a stolen base, was a stat line last equaled in 1925 by Pittsburgh Pirates infielder George Grantham.24 His seven RBIs also matched the Royals team record, last accomplished in a nine-inning game by Brett in 1983.25
“Everybody doubted Bo, but Bo,” the Royals phenom proclaimed, in the third person vernacular that would become a trademark, “I like to make a liar of people who doubted me. When I set my mind to do something, ninety-nine and three-quarters percent of the time, I get it done.”26
On this night, Jackson certainly did, but his April roller-coaster ride wasn’t over. Two games later he struck out five times in a game, the first Royal to ever do so.
This article was fact-checked by Russ Walsh and copy-edited by Len Levin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Note, the author consulted Norm King’s SABR biography of Bo Jackson and Stephen Katsoulis’s SABR biography of Mark Gubicza. He also examined the Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, and Stathead.com websites for pertinent material and box scores.
Photo credit: Trading Card DB.
1 The Buccaneers likely shot themselves in the foot with Jackson when they flew him to Tampa in owner Hugh Culverhouse’s private jet for a physical exam before the NFL draft. The trip was deemed a rules violation by the NCAA, which suspended Jackson for the second half of his senior baseball season. Jackson felt the Buccaneers’ apparent largess was an intentional effort to derail his baseball career.
2 “Bo’s Not One to Go with the Flow,” July 14, 1986, Sports Illustrated vault website, https://vault.si.com/vault/1986/07/14/bos-not-one-to-go-with-the-flow, accessed August 2, 2023.
3 Gene Wojciechowski, “Bo Takes Outfield Over Backfield,” Los Angeles Times, June 22, 1986: III-1.
4 Dave Anderson, “Bo’s Blast: 450 Feet Plus,” New York Times, June 23, 1986: 35.
5 “Bo Jackson Is Called Up by Royals,” Los Angeles Times, September 1, 1986: III-4.
6 “Bo Jackson’s Debut with Royals Not Much of Hit,” Los Angeles Times, September 3, 1986: III-10.
7 Dennis Dodd, “Jackson Ignites Royals with 475-Foot Shot,” Kansas City Times, September 15, 1986: C1.
8 Bob Gretz, “Jackson Sees Change in Attitude as Springboard for ’87,” Kansas City Star, February 1, 1987: 1-S.
9 Bob Nightengale, “Balboni Says Surgery for Back Injury Unlikely,” Kansas City Times, September 30, 1986: C-2.
10 “Jackson sees Change in Attitude as Springboard for ’87.”
11 Jack Etkin, “Balboni Biggest Mystery in Royals’ Training-Camp Puzzle,” Kansas City Star, February 15, 1987: 2-S.
12 After telling Jackson he’d made the Kansas City roster, Schuerholz added that he hoped Jackson’s talents and efforts would help the Royals win 110 games. “Let’s make it 130” was the confident Jackson’s unsmiling response. Jonathan Rand, “Bo Jackson Should go to Omaha,” Kansas City Times, April 4, 1987: D1; Bob Nightengale, “Royals Will Start Bo Jackson in Left,” Kansas City Star, April 5, 1987: 1-S.
13 After going 0-for-4 on Opening Day, Jackson went 2-for-4 in the next game, 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in the third, then had three consecutive multi-hit games. McGrath’s term for Jackson’s early exploits was a play on the popular musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. John McGrath, “Royal Beginning,” Sacramento Bee, April 13, 1987: C8.
14 Bob Nightengale, “Setizer [sic] and Jackson Put Focus on Present, Not Past, with Their Potent Hitting,” Kansas City Star, April 13, 1987: 1B.
16 The looming April 15 deadline for submitting federal, Missouri, and Kansas tax returns likely kept some fans home as well.
17 In his SABR biography of Evans, author David Fleitz notes that sabermetrician Bill James has called Evans the most underrated player in baseball history. David Fleitz, Darrell Evans SABR biography, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/darrell-evans/.
18 Associated Press, “Bo Jackson Putting Doubts to Rest,” Holyoke (Massachusetts) Transcript-Telegram, April 15, 1987: 28.
19 John Lowe, “Kansas City’s Bo a 10 in 10-1 Rout of Tigers,” Detroit Free Press, April 16, 1987: 4D.
20 During spring training Detroit had planned to move the hard-hitting but defensively challenged Coles to the outfield if they could acquire a better third baseman, which they did not. Moss Klein, “A.L. Beat,” The Sporting News, November 3, 1986: 24.
21 “Jackson’s Two Homers Jolt Tigers.”
22 Bob Nightengale, “Gubicza’s Noteworthy First April Victory Becomes a Note,” Kansas City Star, April 15, 1987: 1B.
23 “Jackson’s Two Homers Jolt Tigers.”
25 In that game, Brett became the first Royals player to twice homer three times in one game. Frank White was the most recent Royal to drive in seven in one game, during an 11-inning contest with the Texas Rangers on August 19, 1986.
26 “Bo Jackson Putting Doubts to Rest.”