Like all good preachers, Jesse L. Jackson has a way of turning his past into fables, which he uses to explain the evolution of his character. One of his favorites is about baseball, talent and racism, and his version of it has been printed repeatedly.
The story is that in the summer after their senior years in high school, the two best athletes in Greenville, S.C., were scouted by the San Francisco Giants. One was Dickie Dietz, the slugging catcher for the city's all-white Greenville High. The other was the star pitcher for all-black Sterling High, Jesse Jackson. In Jackson's version of events, he pitched to Dietz and whiffed him three times, firmly establishing his superior talent. But when the day was done Dietz had secured a $95,000 signing bonus while Jackson was offered $6,000 and college tuition. Jackson's family wanted him to sign, but he refused, enraged that the only reason he got less than Dietz was the color of his skin.
Dick Dietz eventually made the major leagues, excelled briefly behind the plate for the Giants, then became a journeyman. He lives today on Pawley's Island off the Carolina coast. Dietz has heard "The Story of the Three Whiffs" directly from Jackson, who told it to him when Dietz was playing for the Atlanta Braves and Hank Aaron reacquainted the two men.
"I sympathized with the guy; I know what Greenville was like then," Dietz said in a recent interview. "But the story the way he tells it never happened. Back then there were 16 major league teams, and they all were vying for my services. What happened was there was a scout with the Chicago White Sox who called me late one night and said they were going to have a tryout camp in Greenville the next day. He said some coaches and scouts were coming down and wanted to look at me.
"So I get to the tryout camp and it's a zoo. There are a few hundred kids running around. I remember that I hit and caught, then caught and hit, and I hit the ball pretty good. I remember there was a black pitcher pitching against me. I don't remember whether it was Jesse. I knew who Jesse was, but I don't remember whether it was him. Anyway, this black guy winds up and hits me in the back. Hard.
"After that I stormed over to the scout and said, 'Look, you've got my schedule, I'm playing tomorrow. If you want these guys to look at me, see me then. I'm going home. I'm not going to get killed.' In a few days the teams got into a bidding war, they all wanted catchers that year, and I ended up with big money. But Jesse striking me out three times? No way. I can't remember anybody ever striking me out three times. I take that back. One guy did. Nolan Ryan."
Asked about Dietz's version of the story last week, Jackson did not dispute it. "I don't think he got a hit off me, but when I left the mound, I saw him knock two or three out" out of the ballpark.