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Retro Jays Cards: Mystery of the Singing Relief Pitcher

Let’s solve a little mystery.

It revolves around this 1984 Fleer card of Roy Lee Jackson, with his arms awkwardly clasped behind his back, apparently singing the national anthem.

Jackson 1

But maybe we should back up a minute and do a quick overview of Roy Lee Jackson. Signed by the New York Mets as a prospect in 1975, he spent five years mostly in their farm system as they kept trying to turn him into a future cornerstone of their rotation. He was something of a “Four A” type starter showing tremendous promise in AAA, but never being able to translate it into big league success. But as is often the case with failed starters, the bullpen is always there as a safety net (cough, cough, Brett Cecil, cough) and after showing some success as a reliever for the Mets he was shipped to Toronto for Bob Bailor. He had two very solid years for the Jays in 1981 and 1982, before struggles in 1983 and 1984 (ignore the saves, he was just around replacement level) led to his being cut before the 1985 Division Championship season. He’s also apparently in the very first episode of 3-2-1 Contact in 1980.

He was also known for being an incredibly spiritual man and a leader among a certain group of devout Christians on the team. Buck Martinez said of him “ (he) was a rock for many of these young players. Roy Lee was very, very firm in his religious beliefs – maybe a little bit over zealous about it sometimes. His influence on both Tony Fernandez and Jesse Barfield was very, very important and I think they both gained immensely for it.”

However, search his name in Google and you are as likely to quickly come across this card as anything else in his career. In the early 1980’s (thanks to a court ruling against Topps’ monopoly) the baseball card market was flooded with new companies taking aim at Topps for supremacy in a rapidly expanding hobby. Companies like Fleer and Donruss didn’t have the budgets or expertise of Topps and their early years are, well, pretty crappy. But by the mid 80’s they realized that even if they didn’t have the design and production resources, they could certainly get creative with photo choices. Enter the 1984 series with the infamous Glenn Hubbard Snake, Jay Johnstone Budweiser umbrella hat and Roy Lee Jackson looking like a teenager at a school talent show.

So on to the mystery. In April of 2012, The Hardball Times caught notice of the card and asked a very reasonable question, “when, exactly did Roy Lee Jackson sing the national anthem?”

From the Hardball Times article: So we have several questions. On what night of the season did Jackson sing? Who is the Rangers’ catcher, seen in the background? The Rangers’ catchers that season included Jim Sundberg (we know it’s not him) and two obscure players, Bobby Johnson and Donnie Scott. And dare we ask, even though we’ve never inquired about umpires before, who is the home plate arbiter standing next to the Rangers’ catcher?

The idea of identifying a particular moment on a card based solely on the photo seemed like a fun challenge, and while others like author Ron Kaplan certainly tried, they could not quite do it. So I took a shot.

First, the easy stuff. As pointed out by Kaplan the catcher is African American so it can only be Bobby Johnson. As Johnson only started three games behind the plate the choices are already narrowing.
Either May 15, 1982; July 21, 1983; or July 24, 1983.

Kaplan then goes on to focus on the time of the game, as the photo appears to be under the lights.
A bit of a mistake.

The real clue lies in the home plate umpires. In the background we can see the home plate ump and his number is slightly obstructed, but look close enough (I pulled out the magnifying glass on this one) and it is certainly double digits. Ruling out the other two umpire options and leaving only #33 Durwood Merill and making this July 24, 1983. After way too much time looking at photos of umpires, I was feeling pretty confident I had it.

But I needed confirmation. Also, I had other questions, namely “why the heck is a Blue Jays player singing the national anthem in Texas?” Enter the impressive skills of Bluebird Banter’s Minor Leaguer. I put out a call on twitter for some help and within no time he found this piece from the Toronto Star. (check the bottom right).

Roy Lee Jackson, who sang the national anthems before a Blue Jays-Rangers game in Toronto two weeks ago, will repeat the performance tonight at the Rangers’ request.

Date: July 24, 1983. Confirmation. And one truly odd piece of trivia. A team requesting a singing performance by another team’s reliever? Huh. I can’t recall hearing anything like that before.

Jackson must have been pretty decent at it as later in his career he reprised his role of national anthem singer as a member of the Twins before a game with the Royals in 1986. Tom Brokaw threw out the first pitch.

All of this to say… I waste my time on some pretty inconsequential stuff.

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One thought on “Retro Jays Cards: Mystery of the Singing Relief Pitcher

  1. Minor Leaguer Reply

    “All of this to say… I waste my time on some pretty inconsequential stuff.”

    So do I, apparently.

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