Former Expos reliever Grant Jackson passes away from COVID-19

By Kevin Glew

Cooperstowners in Canada

Former Montreal Expos reliever Grant Jackson passed away on Tuesday from complications from COVID-19 at the age of 78.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, the team Jackson spent parts of six big league seasons with, made the announcement on Twitter just after noon E.T. on Tuesday. They shared that Jackson died at a hospital in Canonsburg, Pa.

Jackson made 10 of his 692 big league appearances with the Expos down the stretch in 1981 and helped the club clinch their first and only postseason appearance.

Born in Fostoria, Ohio, Jackson was a multi-sport star in high school, lettering in football, track and baseball. His arm impressed famed Philadelphia Phillies scout Tony Lucadello and the Phillies signed the young left-hander in 1962.

Canadian baseball legend Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, Ont.) was signed by the Phillies the same year. Jackson and Jenkins would pitch together on two minor league clubs before making their major league debuts with the Phillies in 1965.

It wasn’t until 1969, however, that Jackson joined the Phillies’ starting rotation. In that campaign, the 6-foot, 180-pound southpaw made 35 starts and finished with a 14-18 record and a 3.32 ERA, while striking out 180 in 253 innings. He also threw 13 complete games, tossed four shutouts and represented the Phils in the All-Star game.

After struggling in 1970, Jackson was dealt to the Baltimore Orioles where he would evolve into one of the most reliable relievers of the decade. He toed the rubber for the O’s in the postseason three times and enjoyed his finest big league campaign with the club in 1973 when he went 8-0 with a 1.90 ERA in 80 1/3 innings in 45 relief appearances.

After struggling to a 5.12 ERA in 13 games to begin 1976, he was traded to the New York Yankees along with Doyle Alexander as part of a blockbuster deal on June 15 and he became one of Billy Martin’s most trusted relievers down the stretch. In 21 appearances, spanning 58 2/3 innings with the Bronx Bombers, he posted a 6-0 record and a 1.69 ERA to help them win the American League pennant.

Following that season, Jackson was selected by the Seattle Mariners in the expansion draft but was quickly flipped to the Pirates for prospects Craig Reynolds and Jimmy Sexton. In Steeltown, Jackson became a key member of what was considered the National League’s best bullpen for the next three seasons.

The 1979 campaign was the most memorable of Jackson’s career. In that season, he finished with an 8-5 record and a 2.96 ERA with 14 saves in 72 games, and he was even better in six scoreless appearances in the postseason for the World Champion “We Are Family” Pirates. Jackson often said the highlight of his career was being the winning pitcher in Game 7 of that year’s Fall Classic against the Baltimore Orioles.

After parts of two more seasons with the Bucs, Jackson, about to turn 39, was sold to the Expos on September 1, 1981 for $50,000. The veteran lefty told reporters that he was excited to join the Expos.

“I’ve played against the Expos and their nine regulars could play anywhere, go to the World Series,” Jackson told the Montreal Gazette when he first arrived with the Expos. “But maybe they need some pitchers in the bullpen, some older heads. Guys with a certain poise who know how to kill. If I can help, I will.

“I hope we win it this year, but looking around, I see a lot of young players and pitchers, and you know this is going to be the team of the 80s.”

Jackson joined two other lefties – Woodie Fryman and Bill Lee – in the Expos’ bullpen, along with right-handers Jeff Reardon, Stan Bahnsen and Elias Sosa. Because he was not acquired until September 1, Jackson was not eligible for the postseason, but that didn’t stop him from giving everything he had left in his 39-year-old arm to help his new team get there.

Unfortunately, Jackson was hit hard with the Expos, posting a 7.59 ERA in 10 appearances, but he did pitch two perfect innings to secure a win in the Expos’ crucial 3-2 come-from-behind win over the Pirates at Olympic Stadium on September 23 – a game in which Jerry White hit a walkoff, pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the ninth. Following that contest, Jackson was asked if beating his former team gave him any extra satisfaction.

“I’m only interested in helping the Expos win. I know how it feels to win,” Jackson told the Montreal Gazette. “These guys are starting to get a little taste of it now. We certainly have the players to do it.”

More than anything else, Jackson provided wisdom and leadership for the Expos down the stretch. And when the Expos did clinch the second-half division title, Jackson, even though he wasn’t eligible for the postseason, was in the middle of the clubhouse celebration.

After Jackson watched his teammates lose the National League Championship Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers in heartbreaking fashion, he was traded to the Kansas City Royals for Ken Phelps on January 19, 1982.

The durable lefty would split his final season between the Royals and the Pirates. In all, in parts of 18 big league campaigns, he posted an 86-75 record and a 3.46 ERA in 692 appearances.

After he hung up his playing spikes, Jackson became the Bucs’ bullpen coach in 1983 and would serve in that role for three seasons. In the following two decades, he made several different stops as a minor league pitching coach and was also employed as the bullpen coach of the Cincinnati Reds in 1994 and 1995.

He retired from coaching in 2002.

“If someone asks me what my stats were, I tell them to talk to my wife, She knows all of that stuff much better than I do,” Jackson once said in an interview. “All I know is, I signed my contract in 1962 and I retired in 2002. I had a lot of fun in between and it was all because of baseball.”

In recent years, Jackson settled in Upper St. Clair, Penn., and was active in the Pirates’ alumni association.

He is survived by his wife, Millie and his children, Debra, Yolanda and Grant Jr. He also had 10 grandchildren.

There will be a private funeral service on Saturday.

Published by cooperstownersincanada

Kevin Glew is a professional writer based in London, Ontario. His work has been featured on CBC Sports, Sportsnet.ca, MLB.com and Sympatico.ca. He has also written articles for Baseball Digest, Baseball America, The Hockey News, Sports Market Report and the Canadian Baseball Network. He has been involved with the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame for more than 16 years, including a two-year stint as the museum's acting curator.

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