Research reveals Bo Jackson’s final Raiders uniform is preserved in Cooperstown
But after being stored away for three decades, it took the detective-like efforts of an intrepid curator to make an important discovery pertaining to a game-used artifact from one of the greatest two-sport stars the country has ever seen.
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“Once it happened, I got up and he got up right behind me. A few seconds later I turned around and he was on the ground again. I thought he was winded or something. I really didn’t think anything about it.”
Initially, Jackson’s hip injury was considered minor, reported at the time to be only a hip pointer, and he was listed as doubtful for the following week’s AFC title game versus the Buffalo Bills. Raiders’ coach Art Shell said that Jackson had a “limp in his giddyup.” But the final prognosis was dire.
The injury in what proved to be Jackson’s final football game was a dislocated and fractured left hip socket. In October, when Jackson failed his Raiders physical, his football career essentially came to an end.
The only player in NFL history to record two runs in excess of 90 yards, Jackson played 38 games in four seasons, only joining the Raiders in October when the baseball season was over. He finished with 515 carries for 2,782 yards, averaging of 5.4 yards per carry.
In March 1991, one of the most recognizable athletes in the world was released by the Royals after the team determined his hip injury would not allow him to play baseball that year.
“It knocked me to the floor when I heard about it,” said Royals legendary third baseman and future Hall of Famer George Brett at the time. “I knew the injury was bad because I’d asked our trainers about Bo’s chance to play this year and they’d said, ‘Slim and none.’”
After Shieber’s dogged research efforts concluded that indeed the Hall of Fame was in possession of the Raiders jersey from his ill-fated last football game, he shared the exciting news with colleagues.
“I disseminated this information to co-workers in the Museum, which is what I do with other discoveries I make once I feel good about something significant,” Shieber said. “There are many discoveries in which we don't need to contact people, but every once in a while you make what I think is a pretty significant discovery about an object in our collection.”
Leila Dunbar, an independent appraiser with an expertise in sports who has worked with the Hall of Fame in the past, said of the surprising Jackson jersey discovery: “This 1991 Raiders Jackson jersey represents the promise of what could have been and how chance plays such a role in sports. We saw Bo's greatness on both the baseball and football fields and in an instant a devastating injury cut short a Hall of Fame career, possibly in both sports. We knew Bo, but wanted to know more.”
Much like such fictional characters as Sam Spade, Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, Shieber loves the detective story part of his job.
“I research baseball artifacts all the time, it's just that most of the time you don't get a really cool story. And I suspect that that's what happens with real life detectives,” he said. “If you don't do it at all, you'll never get those moments. But every once while you find out something different and it really pays off with quite a ‘wow’ moment.
“This isn't just any jersey that Bo Jackson wore; this is the last football jersey he ever wore. That is significant for any football player, but for a football player whose career ended in such a tragic way as Bo’s hits different. It’s 30 years later and people are still talking about Bo Jackson. This jersey allows us to tell his really remarkable story.”
Despite the hip injury, Jackson signed a baseball contract with the Chicago White Sox in April 1991, vowing to return to the ballfield that season.
Beating the long odds, the athlete with a rare gift came back for the final month of the 1991 baseball season and hit .225 with three homers and 14 RBI in 71 at-bats. But the injury only got worse the next spring and he had to undergo a total hip replacement.
After missing the 1992 season rehabbing, he defied logic again and returned to play professional sports with an artificial hip for the White Sox in 1993 and the California Angels in ’94. He retired from the field of play for good after the strike-shortened 1994 baseball season.
In eight injury-plagued big league seasons between 1986 and 1994, Jackson batted .250 with 141 home runs and 415 RBI.
“There's no reason for anyone to feel sorry for what happened to me, or what might have been,” Jackson once said. “I didn't play sports to make it to the Hall of Fame. I just played for the love of sport.
“I can probably say, if I wanted to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, I could have been easily. If I wanted to be in the (Pro) Football Hall of Fame, I could have done that too. But I can say also that I wouldn't go back and change a thing.”
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum