September 21, 2020

Jackie Jensen: The Golden Boy

March 13, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

There wasn’t much Jackie Jensen COULDN’T do. He hit the longest home run in the history of Cal-Berkeley baseball–over 525 feet. In his first college football game, he ran back a punt 56 yards for a touchdown while breaking numerous tackles. He could shoot a basketball superbly, out-jump his college’s high jumpers, and even beat the pants off of anyone at the frat house who challenged him to a game of ping pong. No discussion of tremendous athletes of the 20th century should occur without mentioning the man whose athletic exploits have often been overlooked due to his short career and quiet nature.

Jackie Jensen was an All-American in both baseball and football at the University of California in the late 1940s–the epitome of a man who could truly “do it all.” On the baseball diamond, his excellence knew no bounds; the blond-haired phenom both pitched and played the outfield to lead his team to the 1947 NCAA baseball title–defeating a Yale team that had a young guy named George Bush playing first base. On the gridiron, he was swift, he was elusive, he was a natural–once rushing for 189 yards vs. Santa Clara. He threw, kicked, blocked, and ran better than anyone on his team–and led his squad to a 1949 appearance in the Rose Bowl. In short, his fierce competitiveness on the field was unmatched–and he was just as quiet off of it.

Having a huge desire to protect his strong, chiseled body, he chose baseball over football and found himself competing with a young man named Mantle for an outfield position with the N.Y. Yankees in 1951. No, Jackie wouldn’t win that battle and, after a stint with Washington in ’52 and ’53, wound up in Boston in 1954. It was in “Beantown” that Jensen would blossom–showing all the skills that had once made him a “can’t miss” prospect. He did OK off the field, too–marrying the beautiful Olympic diver Zoe Ann Olson–who’d won 14 national diving titles and a silver medal at the 1948 Olympics. The “Golden Boy” (a nickname he shared with football’s Paul Hornung) won the American League MVP Award in 1958 and drove in more runs than ANY major leaguer from 1954-1959; he also stole bases and, although a slugger, struck out relatively little. In addition, he became the only person to play alongside both Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. And yes, he was a helluva nice guy, too. The perfect life, right? No, not quite.

Jackie Jensen developed an intense fear of flying in the early ‘50s (some attributed it to having experienced abandonment during his childhood)–so bad, in fact, that he’d wake up in the middle of the night shaking and trembling. His teeth would chatter on flights–and he occasionally needed pills or booze just to BOARD a plane. Coupled with a family that was growing faster than Jackie’s legend, Jensen knew his baseball days wouldn’t last too long. He spoke the following words during spring training in 1959: “Well, no matter how lucrative my career may get from here on, I can tell you it won’t last one day longer than necessary. Nobody’s going to have to rip the uniform off my back. I can hardly wait for the time when I’ll be in a position to do that myself.” Little did anyone know that Jackie would call it quits after that ’59 campaign; the fear of flying and increased family responsibilities had almost consumed him. However, he did return to Boston as a part-timer in 1961 (skipping various road trips) before finally hanging up the spikes for good. Sadly, Jensen went virtually unnoticed in his last big league game. Few remember that his final appearance came as a pinch-hitter during an historic tilt–one in which one Roger Maris hit his 61st home run off Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Shortly after retiring, Jackie and Zoe Ann divorced in ’63, remarried, then divorced for good; it was common knowledge that they were always far from compatible and most likely only shared sports mastery as a common bond. Financial and health problems plagued Jackie in retirement, but he appeared to find genuine happiness when he married a gal named Katherine in 1968 who seemed to be his true soul mate. Although suffering his first heart attack in ’69, he would coach baseball in Nevada, return to Berkeley in ’74 to coach his old team (winning over 100 games), and continue to enjoy life with a wife who even introduced him to art appreciation (not surprisingly, Jackie Jensen–the man who failed at very little–became a decent artist). In May of 1982, Jensen was invited to play in a Red Sox old-timers game–while sharing with those closest to him that his fear of flying was now somewhat alleviated. Jackie Jensen would die of a second heart attack two months later at the age of 55–at a time when he was finally able to savor life and put a fairly difficult past behind him.

In his relatively short baseball career, Jackie Jensen was a three-time All-Star, drove in close to 1,000 runs, and led the American League in RBIs three times. He is the only man to play in the Rose Bowl, the East-West football game, a major league All-Star game, and a World Series. Yes, he was a superstar—albeit a quiet and reserved one–but no one who observed his athletic prowess will ever forget the charismatic blond boy with the dazzling blue eyes. Frank Brunk, a fraternity brother and three-year teammate of Jensen’s at California who’s seen his share of athletes, relayed the following words in 1999 to The Daily Californian: “It was always difficult to compare the past with the present, but I believe that I am right in saying that Jack Jensen was the greatest athlete I have ever seen.”

Without question, America has seen very few athletes with the versatility of one Jackie Jensen; the other “Golden Boy,” Paul Hornung, would be one that immediately comes to mind. Jensen’s life and whirlwind story have been fairly under-publicized over the years–perhaps due to his unassuming personality and the way he shunned the limelight during an accomplished baseball career. The hope here is that this remembrance will shed some light on a former athlete whose impressive feats are simply too huge to dismiss. The luckiest people in this story are individuals like the aforementioned Frank Brunk–people who were fortunate to experience the friendship of Jackie Jensen while witnessing the well-roundedness of one superb American athlete.

Bob Lazzari is an award-winning sports columnist for both Connecticut’s Valley Times and NY Sports Day, where his “Sports Roundup” column is featured weekly. He is a member of the Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance and host of “Monday Night Sports Talk,” a cable television show on CTV/Channel 14 in Connecticut.


3 Responses to “Jackie Jensen: The Golden Boy”
  1. Ron says:

    Keep these stories coming. Very good.

  2. Bob says:

    Appreciate it, Ron…

  3. James says:

    His story is a movie

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