Vincent “Bo” Jackson was by far the greatest athlete to ever walk the face of the Earth. He was a Heisman trophy winner, a Major League Baseball All-Star and a Pro Bowler. Jackson did the practically impossible, he played two sports and did so equally well. His career had many twists and turns though due to his hip injury and of course his worth as a Hall-of-Famer before his hip injury that ended his athletic promise and the glory of being enshrined in both Canton, Ohio or Cooperstown New York. So today we are going to look at one of the most important sports debates in the last century. Was Bo Jackson a better football player or baseball player in his brief time in each league? After all, the number do not lie.
Born in Bessemer, Alabama, Bo Jackson played any sport that he could and used natural talent in order to become a successful high school football player. In his senior year alone, he rushed for 1,175 yards which still remains the record at McAdory High School. His years at Auburn where more of the same. He was being compared to the recent SEC rushing champion Herschel Walker. Walker had won a National Championship and rushed for 5,259 yards in his 3 years at Georgia. Auburn was completely different. Georgia was a powerhouse and had been since the formation of the SEC. Georgia was also a rival of Auburn which made the comparison more personal. Jackson was originally favored to go to Alabama but as he put it, Paul “Bear” Bryant put a bad taste in his mouth upon speaking to him about going to Alabama. He chose Auburn out of spite and because he wanted to stay in state. Auburn gave Bo Jackson a chance at success. His freshman campaign was extraordinary when he compiled a total of 829 yards which is rare for a freshman to eclipse the 500 yard mark. Jackson’s only bad year at Auburn was 1984 and that was due to injuries. Despite this, he would still average 5.5 yards per carry. Auburn was never a National Championship contender but Jackson was the clear best player on the team both offensively and defensively.
The NFL was expected to be the next step and Jackson coming off of his 1985 season in which he won the Heisman Trophy. Jackson was the expected #1 pick and was correct in his assumption. Bo had made comments that he was actually tired of football and preferred baseball in some respects. Well, in his senior year Bo was recruited by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who promised Bo that their recruiting of him would not impact him playing baseball at Auburn that season. Well, this was an NCAA violation as their was no oversight and as a result Jackson was forced to resign from baseball at Auburn. From then on, he has had a beef with the Buccaneers for obvious reasons. It took a year of Bo Jackson playing baseball for him to consider playing football again in 1987. Jackson was drafted in the 7th round by the Los Angeles Raiders. Al Davis, the Raiders owner agreed to let Bo play both sports which peaked his interest in joining the Raiders. In his rookie season Jackson played alongside Marcus Allen, also a Heisman Trophy winner. Allen was the premier back for the Raiders and had won a Super Bowl for them. Jackson was initially an afterthought and used often in short yardage situations. As a rookie he rushed for 554 yards and had 136 yards receiving, 6 touchdowns. He also ran for a season record 91 yard touchdown. Jackson was no longer an afterthought and note he did all of this while appearing in only 7 games that year. He would have 1,000 yards rushing easily if he had kept up that pace playing all 16 games. In his years in the NFL, he never had a 1,000 yard rushing season and never played a full season due to injuries. The closest he ever came was 950 yards in 1989. This was his best season statistically and it was his lone Pro-Bowl appearance. Furthermore, Jackson was a great back-up plan. Despite never reaching a true potential he had almost 3,000 yards in his 4 NFL seasons. He received the ball 515 times, averaged 5.4 yards per carry. Not to mention, he started only 23 of his 38 game appearances which makes the stats more impressive because he was not even the starter. For a running back he also was a pretty decent receiver as he finished with a total of 352 yards on 40 receptions. Furthermore, 3 of his four seasons he had the longest rush attempt that year and the guy never scored 20 touchdowns. For being a limited time option Bo Jackson had a pretty successful career as an NFL player, he was above average for spending less than 5 seasons there. However, Bo Jackson’s career came to and end during the 1990 playoffs. Jackson was running for a huge gain and suddenly as he was being tackled his hip joint popped out of place. This caused severe pain of course but Jackson somehow managed to put the joint back into place himself. This did more damage than good though as he would find later.
Jackson is more popular for his football exploits but his baseball exploits are insane as well. In high school, he was scouted by the New York Yankees and as the story goes a scout arrived at McAdory and asked Bo to do some quick batting practice. Jackson did as instructed and with one swing he the ball so hard that the netting in the cage came down upon him. That year, he decided to not go with the Yankees which angered owner George Steinbrenner. Jackson’s year instead was spent at McAdory and he hit 20 home runs in 25 games. He was found to be a talent due to his speed in the outfield and his ability to cover ground faster than anyone in the state. Not to mention that as a result he also competed in the decathlon at McAdory. Jackson’s skill set was perfect for a left fielder as he had the ability to get to the warning track or close into the infield faster than anyone had ever seen. Jackson was recruited by Auburn to play football as Pat Dye believed Bo would be the savior of Auburn football. This prevented Bo Jackson from also playing baseball as well as he did not play on scholarship for baseball. Jackson though had not nearly the amount of experience in baseball as he did in track or football. Scout even held this against him despite his athletic prowess. Jackson was eventually allowed to play baseball at Auburn as well. His baseball career at Auburn was not exactly draft worthy though. He played in a total of 90 games in his four years, 1984 he did not play at al and was injured. He hit a total of 28 home runs, 70 RBI’s, stole 19 bases and was walked 66 times. The only impressive stat line that he had was that he struck out 105 times. The greats are not usually strike out machines but Bo Jackson was an aggressive hitter and this caused him not to go into the heavy part of the count. Despite this Jackson’s junior year was by far his best. He struck out 41 times that year but had an on-base-percentage of .500 which is exceptional. A slugging percentage of .864 and a batting average of .401. This year might have saved him and allowed scouts to see his true potential.
Jackson’s professional ambitions in baseball were a lot more difficult than in football. The 1986 NFL draft screwed him despite being the #1 pick. The Buccaneers wasted their pick on Jackson because of his resentment towards them for running his senior season at Auburn. Instead Jackson decided that if he still wanted to be a professional athlete baseball was his best option. Jackson opted for the MLB draft in 1986 and the defending champion Kansas City Royals picked him up immediately in the fourth round. His contract was 3 years, $1 million dollars which was later considered steep considering his production. He played 53 minor league games before being called up to the Major Leagues in September 1986. He became an official member of the Royals in 1987 when he was given left-field. Jackson’s first full season with the Royals was awesome. He played in 116 of 162 games and had 93 hits that season. There were 22 home runs and a .235 batting average which is not at all bad for a rookie. He did though have 158 strikeout which was a concern due to his previous records of striking out. All though he traveled the bases 46 times that year which accounts for a total of 180 total bases which is pretty impressive as well. His highlight year, just like with the Raiders, was 1989. He played in 135 games that season which was the most in his career, scored 86 runs, also most in his career. He earned an All-Star appearance that year. He also set the American League season record tat year with 172 strikeouts. His fielding was even better; his fielding percentage was a whopping .967 which is All-Star level and he was voted MVP in 1989. He traveled across 255 bases and scored 86 runs for the Royals which sadly did not help as they would go onto a playoff drought of their own. The 1990s as we all know where not kind of Bo Jackson after his injury to his hip. He played in the White Sox system in 1991 after Royals dumped him. As a result his production went down. He played 23 games in 1991 which was the least of his career and no longer participated as an outfielder. His value as a result of the 1991 season dropped off so much that the White Sox dropped him down to the minors for the 1992 season all together. He came back in 1993 and was traded to the Angels in 1994. Jackson ended his career in baseball with 341 runs, 598 hits, 694 games, 141 HR’s, and struck out 841 times, He maintained a .250 average despite missing a majority of his games in his final three professional seasons. His Wins Against Replacement (WAR) is one of the highest for a non-Hall of Famer ever with 8.3.
So it was clear that Bo Jackson was a dynamo in both football and baseball. His stats do not lie because in the few times he appeared on the field in either sport something special always happened. Unfortunately, the story of Bo Jackson is more of a “what if” than a success story. Nevertheless, he is arguably the most perplexing athlete to ever play professional sports because of his natural talent. The arguments that have come out of this debate are; he played baseball longer so he was a better baseball player, he played football as a “hobby” so he was clearly a better football player. It truly is unclear though based on the differences in the sports which sport Bo Jackson was a better athlete at. It is only appropriate that I do not extend my opinion in this debate because in fact I may even be wrong. Therefore, it is up to you to decide Bo Jackson’s better sport. To help you decide we have dropped a video from Youtube which presents the ultimate highlight reel.