Goodbye, Old Friend

Randy Jackson wasn’t the best player, but he was a fan favorite for some. (via Public Domain)

The New York Times’ obituary last month appropriately took the local angle:

Randy Jackson, a Fence-Clearing Footnote to Baseball History, Dies at 93.” The footnote was that Jackson hit the last home run in Brooklyn Dodgers history, on September 28, 1957. The next season, the Dodgers were in Los Angeles. Jackson, in the waning days of his major league career, was with them there briefly.

My own memories of Ransom “Randy” Jackson, indelibly planted, are of earlier years.

Joe Hoppel, my co-author of a long-ago coffee-table-style book about the Cubs, called my attention to the obit. Through our collaboration, he knew of my boyhood attachment to then-Cub Jackson, and several years ago, when he ran across an address for him, he passed it onto me.

I wrote to Jackson, with some embarrassment. My letter began something like, “Dear Mr. Jackson, I’m too old to be writing fan letters, but… ” In the way kids will, I’d settled on him as my favorite player on the nondescript Cubs team of the time. My mother stenciled his No. 2 on the back of a white t-shirt. I told him about sneaking down to the good seats at Wrigley Field after the ushers went home, about his teammates I remembered.

“My baseball passion is one of the best memories of my childhood,” I wrote. “Maybe it will give you a smile to know that you were a big part of that.”

He sent me an autographed picture. It’s in a cheap frame on a shelf right next to my four-inch-thick Baseball Encyclopedia, which I still have to keep company with my even fatter Random House Dictionary, unabridged. Maybe someday the internet will collapse and they’ll be useful again. You can’t be too careful.

I was gorging on baseball history in Cooperstown three summers ago when I got a call from a man named Gaylon H. White, who had a question: Was I the Joe Distelheim who’d written a letter to Ransom Jackson some years before?

I acknowledged that I was. (How many are there?) He was calling, he said, because my letter was quoted in Jackson’s upcoming autobiography; he was helping with the book, which was about to be published. Would I like a copy?

Handsome Ransom Jackson is a better read than many of its ilk, in large part because Jackson had a remarkable story to tell. His route to the big leagues was rare at the time. It would be impossible today.

He grew up in Depression-era Arkansas. His Little Rock high school had no baseball or football teams; he ran track and played golf. The closest he came to organized team sports was the town’s annual sock ball tournament, which was just what it sounds like: rolled-up, taped-together socks hit with a broomstick. He spent his summers with his cousin Bubba in Helena, Arkansas, a Mississippi River town “straight out of a Mark Twain novel,” hunting and fishing.

Jackson graduated from high school as the nation began to gird for war. He could enlist or take his chances with the draft. His father pointed him to a third way: Enlist in the Navy’s college program, which would train him to be an officer. That took him to Texas Christian University, where he was required to take 21 credit hours. Flunk a class, be shipped overseas.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Nonetheless, he allowed himself to be recruited to the football team by a coach who was understandably far short of able-bodied men. He played offense and defense for a team that went to the Cotton Bowl. The same coach was in charge of the baseball team. Jackson joined, declared himself a third baseman, and led the Southwest Conference in hitting.

The Navy shut its program at TCU and sent Jackson to the University of Texas, where he told football coach Dana X. Bible he didn’t have time for sports. Bible informed him otherwise. He led another team to the Cotton Bowl and won two more conference batting titles.

The war ended. Jackson played some semi-pro baseball and got a tryout with the Cubs, who signed him for $6,000 – for two years. A couple of seasons later, he was in the big leagues, earning two All-Star selections, the nickname “Handsome” Ransom, and the admiration of a small boy. (“The nickname has less to do with looks and more to do with a sportswriter looking for something to rhyme with Ransom,” he wrote in his autobiography).

After it was all over, Jackson told people he should have become a golf pro. That was a game he was really good at.

Jackson lived his post-baseball years in Athens, Georgia, working in the life insurance business. He died there of pneumonia on March 20. White spoke at his memorial service in Athens, where he quoted a writer who likened Jackson to Forrest Gump, “as he always seemed to be around the biggest names and starring in their monumental moments.”

At Texas, he played in the same backfield with Bobby Layne, hailed by Sports Illustrated as “the toughest quarterback ever.” They also were teammates on the Longhorn baseball team.

Jackson was the Cubs’ third baseman in 1953 when Ernie Banks became the first African-American to play for the team. As a National League All-Star, he shared the field with such baseball greats as Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra.

The Dodgers traded for him to be the replacement for aging an Jackie Robinson at third base for the 1956 season. Out of spring training, Robinson beat him out. But with the Dodgers, he played alongside Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and other franchise icons.

He appeared on the popular Ed Sullivan television show with his Dodgers teammates prior to the 1956 World Series. At the opening game, he shook hands with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Just before the start of the second game, he chatted with Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party candidate in the ’56 presidential election.

He roomed with Drysdale, a Hall of Fame pitcher, on the Dodgers’ goodwill tour of Japan in 1956.

“He had a remarkable life,” White said when we spoke the other day. “Ransom never talked about it; he was a very modest man.”

When he died, at 93 years and 10 days, only 27 former major leaguers were older; the oldest is 1940s catcher Tom Jordan, who is approaching his 100th birthday.

Jackson was a good, not great, major league player. He played all or part of 10 seasons, including a brief reprise with the Cubs at the end. His final line: .261/.320/.421 with 103 home runs, 59 of them during his 1953-’55 prime with the Cubs.

Plenty good enough for a lifelong fan.

References and Resources

  • Richard Goldstein, The New York Times, March 20, 2019.
  • Wikipedia
  • Gaylon H. White, remarks at Ransom Jackson’s memorial service
  • Ransom Jackson and Gaylon White, Handsome Ransom Jackson, 2016

Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.
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Subway Alum
5 years ago

Thanks for the heartfelt tribute. I met Ransom two years ago at a Ty Cobb Museum event. He agreed to assist on a SABR biography, and found him to be just as genuine as you did. Readers here might be interested in the bio:

5 years ago

Great read. I admit this is the first I’ve learned of Jackson. I am going to check out the book. Thanks!

5 years ago

I’ve thought about what it would be like to meet your favorite player from childhood as an adult. Last year, I took a trip to Dodger Stadium and saw a few games. My favorite player as a kid was Orel Hershiser, who is part of the Dodgers broadcast team, but he had that series off and was not at the park.

Both on my trip, and since, I’ve had some various twitter exchanges with Joe Davis; Joe reads twitter during his broadcasts, and will often respond (or even read) answers to questions he and Orel were musing about; he’s read a few of mine straight off on the air. I ran into Joe at the hallway when I was there and he was very gracious and said hello. It made me realize that, if I did meet Hershiser, I have no idea how I would say that: “I spent age 7-9 wanting to grow up to be you”? I’m sure he’s heard it before, but it’s a weird thing to say as a 38 year old adult!

Its pretty cool that you got the opportunity to interact with him before he was gone.

Hank G.member
5 years ago

A very nice tribute. It seems that you picked a good man to be your favorite player.