A number of spectators at the Ail-Star Game in Baltimore on July 8 may be surprised—when they get the mustard off their sleeves and look up to see who is stationed where—to discover that right field for the American League is occupied by a bull-necked young man in the white flannel uniform of the Red Sox.
"My goodness," they will say. "Jackie Jensen. What in the world is he doing out there?"
The truth of the matter is that Jackie Jensen will be there because he belongs there. Everything considered, he is the best right fielder in the American League, and he has probably been the best right fielder for quite some time. The trouble with Jackie Jensen is that along about six years ago he quit making headlines and began to make himself into a ballplayer. The results, while amply appreciated in New England, have managed to escape the notice of the rest of the world. Playing on a team which includes a super star like Ted Williams and in the same league with Mickey Mantle, a ballplayer who does not hit .350 or bash home runs in enormous quantities—nor even engage in running fights with sports-writers or kick holes in water coolers—does not find himself in the headlines very often.
There was a time, however, when the situation was quite something else. When Jensen arrived on the big league scene eight years ago, as property of the New York Yankees, he was an All-America fullback, a $75,000 bonus baby and heir apparent to Joe DiMaggio's job in center field. He came equipped with a convertible Cadillac, curly blond hair and a somewhat puckish face, a dazzling collection of California sports clothes and a glamorous Olympic star for a wife. They said he was a cocky kid, which he perhaps had every reason to be, and a pop-off, which he never really was. Today both teammates and opponents, umpires and sportswriters and the fans who watch him from the stands in Fenway Park know him only as a friendly, pleasant, gentlemanly sort of guy, a devoted family man and a real hard-working, steady ballplayer who does just about as good a job as anyone could ask, whether it be to run or field or hit or throw. If the phrase hadn't been a bit overworked in describing others who merited it less, Jackie Jensen might even be called an old pro. Anyway, that's exactly what he is.
In the last four years, for example, he has driven in far more runs than Detroit's Al Kaline, the tremendously gifted but erratic youngster who is generally considered the league's No. 1 right fielder. As far as that is concerned, in the same period of time Jensen has driven in more runs than Mantle, too. In fact, he has batted in more runs than anyone else in the entire American League.
RBI totals, which can sometimes make dull reading, are nevertheless the lifeblood of baseball. Jensen's are like Jensen: sensational in a quiet way. He drove in 117 runs in 1954, 116 in '55 (tie for the championship with Ray Boone), 97 in '56 (which Jackie considers his best year since he also hit .315) and 103 last year. It is true that the incomparable Williams is often on base ahead of him, but there have also been long periods of time when Williams wasn't even around—yet Jackie still drove in runs.
He also has excellent speed and one year stole 22 bases to lead the league. A Yankee scout once compared Jensen's arm to that of famed Bob Meusel. And although his pursuit of fly balls sometimes borders upon the erratic, at other times Jensen makes catches that bring a nod of approval even from Jim Piersall, that acknowledged master of the trade who works in the adjoining field.
This year Jensen has been slamming home runs and batting in runs—and winning games—at a terrific clip. He has closed in fast on Bob Cerv's commanding early lead to rank a close second in both home runs and runs batted in. With the help of Dick Gernert and Frank Malzone, he has taken up a great deal of the slack caused by a subpar Ted Williams. Although no one has been able to detect anything resembling a pennant race in the American League, the favorable position of the Red Sox among the seven also-rans is largely a credit to the account of Jackie Jensen.
If there is any secret involved in his performance this year, Jackie doesn't know what it is. "I think it's just experience," he says. "A hitter should continue to improve up into his middle 30s, just as long as he stays in good physical condition." Then he unbuttons a size 44 uniform shirt from around a size 17 neck, and as he walks to the shower the muscles ripple across the broad back and shoulders and in the powerful legs. There is marked unconcern in the Red Sox dressing room over Jackie Jensen's physical condition.
Since Jensen, like any other professional, wants to do his best and help his ball club, the good start and the nice words and the attention have helped to make this a pleasant season. Quite naturally, he would like to play in the All-Star Game, his previous efforts in that direction having been limited to one inning in the field in 1952 and a couple of swings as a pinch hitter in 1955 (he popped out). And though he is paid one of baseball's good salaries, in the vicinity of $30,000, he is in no wise immune to the charm of more money. But Jensen has learned that glory is an overrated commodity and frankly he would rather be home with his family up in the beautiful country bordering Lake Tahoe than playing for the Red Sox. And that is exactly where he is going as soon as he can.