When I saw Jackie Jensen, he was at the very pinnacle of his baseball talent. A legitimate five tool player who, to demonstrate his athletic prowess, had appeared in a Rose Bowl Game, a World Series and a baseball All Star Game. He truly was “The Golden Boy,” a nickname from his college football days.
Jensen was born in 1927, in San Francisco, and eventually, after stellar high school career and some navy service, joined The Golden Bears of the University of California. Jensen was a baseball and football standout with Cal and, foregoing his senior year, signed with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League.
Jensen’s contract was sold to the New York Yankees, who envisioned him as a replacement for a fellow named Joe DiMaggio. Jensen, who was now married to swimming star Zoe Ann Olsen, had very limited success in New York and was traded to the Washington Senators, and then to the Boston Red Sox.
In his first season in Boston Jensen lead the American League in steals while going .276/25/117. The combination of speed and power were quite evident and eventually led to an MVP Award in 1958. In 1959 Jensen led the league in RBI – just as he had the previous season. Jensen also hammered out twenty-eight home runs while hitting .277. And then he quit at age 32. Why?
Jensen had anxiety issues his entire athletic career. Self doubt had often led him to the brink of retiring or returning to football or pursuing other career options. Then came his fear of flying. Jensen, at the urging of Olsen, had even tried hypnotism. In 1961 he returned to the Red Sox, but the skills were eroding and after a .263/13/66 season he packed it in.
Jensen’s post baseball career was, at times, a struggle. Jensen’s marriage collapsed, some investments soured and he suffered a heart attack at age 41 while coaching baseball at the University of Nevada-Reno. Jensen later became head baseball coach at the University of California, remarried and did some broadcast time on network college football coverage. Eventually he moved to Virginia, where he died of a heart attack at age 55.
My own recollections are just how dangerous Jensen could be at Fenway Park. His right handed power resulted in three RBI titles. His speed, underutilized by the traditionally plodding Red Sox, resulted in one stolen base title and also leading the league in triples on one occasion. The downside in Jensen’s hitting was the fact he was his era’s Jim Rice, leading the league in GDP three times. Jensen was also an excellent outfielder with a strong and accurate arm from his usual right field position. Jensen managed to win a Gold Glove in 1959. With Jim Piersall in center the Red Sox had quite a defensive set-up.
There was a game show in the 1950′s that often had one athlete pitted against another in skills associated with their sport. I have no idea of the name, nor could Google research locate it, but in baseball the skills would be running the bases, hitting and throwing. I remember Jensen’s appearance on the show and who he was matched up against, a player whose skills closely matched his – Willie Mays. Jensen also appeared on the original run of Home Run Derby and won several series. Jensen’s life story appeared on a national TV show.
Jensen had his demons; especially self doubt, anxiety and tension. Just how productive would have Jensen been with a more stable personality is one of conjecture. But as a high school player growing up in the late 1950′s, I could, even at that age, recognize exceptional talent. The Golden Boy, Jackie Jensen, had that talent.