‘Golden Boy’ Jackie Jensen had a full life before he became a Northern Nevada celebrity
Very few athletes in the history of American sport have ever compiled a resume as imposing, unbelievable, eclectic and brimming with wonder and awe as Jackie Jensen.
Bernard Malamud’s Roy Hobbs of The Natural used Wonderboy for his feats of glory. Jackie Jensen simply was the Golden Boy.
Keep in mind that one man accomplished all these things in a life cut short at the age of 55:
Jensen became the first player in California Golden Bears history to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season (1,080 in 1948);
He played in a Rose Bowl and scored a touchdown on a 67-yard run;
He turned down an offer from the mighty New York Yankees after his junior year in college to sign with the Triple-A Oakland Oaks;
As a freshman in college Jensen was a member of the first College World Series champions in 1947 as Cal beat Yale and future President George H. W. Bush;
He fought for the United States at the end of World War II in 1945, was a college football and baseball star a year later and a professional baseball player by 1949;
Jensen married Olympic medalist diver Zoe Ann Olsen in 1949 and the couple became known as “the sweethearts of sports”;
He played in the same major league outfields with Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams;
He played in the 1950 World Series for the New York Yankees;
He was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1958;
He led the American League in RBI three times, was named an All Star three times and led the league in triples and stolen bases and was awarded a Gold Glove;
Jensen became the head coach of two Division I college baseball programs (Nevada and California), the first sports director of KTVN-TV in Reno, was a national college football announcer for ABC television and served as the State of Nevada’s Deputy Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity;
No other athlete has played in the College World Series, the Rose Bowl, a major league World Series and a major league All Star game;
He is a member of the Boston Red Sox, the San Francisco Bay Area, the college football and University of California halls of fame;
At the age of 29 he starred as himself in “The Jackie Jensen Story” on national television.
Jackie Jensen, handsome, muscular, athletic, personable and talented, was the Golden Boy long before Paul Hornung and Oscar De La Hoya. When he married 18-year-old Olympic diver Zoe Ann Olsen he invented the celebrity sports marriage.
Jackie Jensen lived a life as full, accomplished and complicated as Captain America, Thor, Superman, Spiderman, Captain Marvel, Batman and Roy Hobbs put together. Only he had to do it in the real world. And the real world doesn’t always provide a happy ending.
Jensen graduated from Oakland (Calif.) High in January 1945 and immediately enlisted in the Navy. World War II ended eight months later so Jensen started his college career at Cal in the fall of 1946.
The first time Jensen touched the ball in a college game he went 56 yards for a touchdown on a punt return in a 28-7 loss to Wisconsin. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Jensen only rushed for 189 yards and two touchdowns in 1946, but he was named to the West team (with Nevada quarterback Bill Mackrides) in the prestigious East-West Shrine Game at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium (Jensen played briefly in the 13-7 win) after the season.
By the spring of 1947 Jensen was helping the Golden Bears win the first College World Series as a pitcher and outfielder. Cal beat Denver (3-1) and Texas (8-7) to win the West tournament at Denver. Jensen out-pitched Texas’ star Bobby Layne (who would become a NFL star) in the West title game. The Bears then beat Yale and future president George H.W. Bush in the World Series finals (best two-of-three) in Kalamazoo, Mich., 17-8 and 8-7. Jensen had a pinch-hit RBI single in the seventh inning of the first game and started the second game on the mound (he lasted four innings) and went 1-for-1 at the plate.
By the summer of 1947, Jensen was already becoming known nationally.
“He’s going places, not only with the Cal Bears as a halfback but also in baseball,” the Pasadena (Calif.) Star-News wrote in August 1949. “No less than four major league teams (Cincinnati, Brooklyn, Boston and Cleveland) are after his services.”
A few months later Jensen denied he was quitting school to sign with the Cleveland Indians or Pittsburgh Pirates. “There’s nothing to it,” Jensen said. “I intend to graduate with my class in 1950.”
In the fall of 1947 Jensen was in jeopardy of missing the start of the football season because of academic troubles. The Cal athletic department, though, cleared him to play the entire season just days before the first game.
“We can’t say the news surprised us,” the San Francisco Examiner wrote. “Football players of Jensen’s skill generally manage to muddle through somehow.”
The Golden Boy’s skill was about to erupt.
Jensen rushed for 534 yards in 1947 and also intercepted seven passes on defense and was the Bears’ starting punter (37.4 average). The Golden Bears with their Golden Boy went 9-1 for new coach Pappy Waldorf and finished No. 15 in the nation.
Jensen‘s academic struggles returned after the 1947 football season when he missed the 1948 baseball season because of grades. But he somehow muddled through to restore his eligibility for the 1948 football season.
And that’s when the entire nation discovered Cal’s Golden Boy. He rushed for 1,080 yards in 1948, a Cal record that wouldn’t be broken until Chuck Muncie ran for 1,460 yards in 1975.
“Jensen is the kind of player who only plays at his best when the chips are down,” Waldorf told the San Francisco Examiner in 1948. “And that’s exactly the kind of player any coach would give his eye teeth for.”
Jensen was named a football All American as the Bears went 10-1 and were ranked No. 4 in the nation. He also finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting (Nevada quarterback Stan Heath was fifth) behind winner Doak Walker of SMU. Jensen also scored on a 67-yard run in a 20-14 loss to Northwestern in the Rose Bowl. That run is still the longest run by a Golden Bears player in a bowl game.
The 1948 football season would be Jensen’s last at Cal though he would finish his college career as a baseball All American in the spring of 1949.
“Sure, Jensen will turn pro,” Pittsburgh Pirates scout Babe Herman told the Sacramento Bee in May 1949. “He can’t afford not to.”
Jensen signed a $25,000-a-year, three-year contract with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League in the fall of 1949, turning down an offer (for slightly less) from the New York Yankees.
“I was operating in a dreamland where there were bubbles that would never burst,” Jensen told the Los Angeles Times in 1974. “There was a money tree in my backyard. Why shouldn’t I pluck off the dollars when I wanted to?”
Jensen chose baseball over football because of that money and his love for the game.
“Frankie Albert (quarterback) was the highest paid player the (San Francisco) 49ers had at the time and he was making $18,000,” Jensen said in 1974. “But football was always just something to do in the fall. I always knew I’d play baseball.”
Jensen then married Olympic diver Zoe Ann Olsen, who had just graduated from Oakland high school, in October 1949.
“The sweethearts of sports were married yesterday,” an Associated Press story reported.
The 5-foot-4, 118-pound Olsen won a silver medal in springboard diving in the London Olympics in 1948 and would win bronze in Helsinki in 1952.
“Zoe Ann Olsen, pretty and 18, and big blond Jackie Jensen, 22, former football star for the University of California and now a bonus player, were wed in Oakland at First Presbyterian Church,” the wire story reported.
Jensen hit .261 in 125 games (467 at-bats) for Oaks’ manager Charlie Dressen in 1949 with nine homers, 77 RBI. Teammate Billy Martin hit .286 with 12 homers and 92 RBI in 172 games (the Oaks were 104-83 on the year).
Jensen hit fourth in his first start for the Oaks and three hits. “Holy Cow, you have me hitting fourth,” Jensen told Dressen in the dugout before the game. Dressen replied, “Sure, you can do it.”
The Oaks then sold Jensen and Martin to the Yankees after the season. Jensen would spend parts of three seasons (1950-52) with the Yankees, playing at times in the outfield alongside Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.
At one point Jensen was expected to take over center field for DiMaggio, who retired after the 1951 season. Jensen actually beat out Mantle for the starting center field job in the spring of 1952. Mantle started in right field.
“Somebody has to play center field and I figure it might as well be me,” Jensen told the New York Daily News in March 1952.
Jensen was cocky and confident in the spring of 1952. “I think I’ll beat him (Mantle) out for the job,” he said. “I feel I’m the better hitter. I throw better and run the bases better and I’m superior in fly catching.”
Jensen, though, went 2-for-19 over seven games to start the year and the Yankees traded the 25-year-old in early May to the Washington Senators. Jensen played in 108 games with the Yankees (1950-52) with nine homers and 32 RBI over 257 at-bats. He also made a brief appearance in the 1950 World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies as a pinch-runner.
He would play just two seasons (1952-53) with the Senators but used those two seasons to establish himself as a productive major leaguer. Jensen hit 20 homers and drove in 164 runs on a .276 average for the Senators in two seasons combined and made the 1952 American League All Star team. The Senators, though, then unloaded the young power hitter to the Boston Red Sox in December 1953 where Jensen became a teammate of Ted Williams.
It was with the Red Sox, taking aim at Fenway Park’s inviting left field wall, that the right-handed hitting Jensen became a star. He would hit 170 home runs and drive in 733 runs and play in two more (1955, 1958) All Star games with the Red Sox.
He led the American League in steals (22) in 1954 and in triples (11) in 1956 and won the American League Most Valuable Player award in 1958 when he drove in 122 runs and hit 35 homers on a .286 average.
A photo of Jensen with Zoe Ann, his son Jon and daughter Jan at their Lake Tahoe home the night of the MVP announcement appeared in newspapers across the nation.
“This is the biggest thrill I’ve ever had out of any athletic contest,” Jensen said. “It means you are at the top of your profession. When a fellow becomes a pro baseball player it seems so far out of reach, yet he hopes to attain it. And I tried my darnedest.”
The Nevada State Journal named Jensen the Sierra Nevada Athlete of the Year in January 1959, despite the fact he simply lived near Lake Tahoe in Crystal Bay (since 1955).
The Yankees and Mantle were busy winning World Series after World Series in the 1950s while the Golden Boy was becoming a star in Boston. The Red Sox outfield of Jensen, Ted Williams and Jimmy Piersall was considered the best in baseball when the three played together from 1954-58. In the fall of 1957 Jensen starred in a television movie based on his life, “The Jackie Jensen Story.” In late June 1958 he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In 1959 he won a Gold Glove for his work in right field.
Also, after the 1959 season, Jensen took part in the classic television show, Home Run Derby, competing against the likes of Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Eddie Mathews, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson and Duke Snider. Jensen was 2-2 on the show, beating Ernie Banks and Rocky Colavito and losing to Mantle twice, 13-10 and 9-8. He hit 29 total homers on the show, more than everyone except Mantle (44), Mays (35) and Aaron (34). His 14 home runs against Ernie Banks were a show record. He also hit a record five homers in a row at one point in the final episode against Mantle.
It was during his time in Boston, however, that Jensen became known for something other than his ability to dent the Green Monster at Fenway. His fear of flying, which he had ever since the Cal baseball team flew to Denver in 1947 for the West tournament, became national news.
After the 1954 season Jensen flew to Japan as part of a touring major league All Star team. One of his teammates on that All Star team was former Oakland Oaks and New York Yankees teammate Billy Martin.
“We were two hours into the flight when we got into a storm,” said the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle in 1995. “We all knew that Jackie was afraid to fly and he was up in the front of the plane kind of in a stupor. He seemed about half asleep.
“Billy Martin was in the back of the plane and he just got up and put on a life vest and when he got to Jackie’s seat he put on the oxygen mask and then he started yelling, ‘Jackie, Jackie, get up. We’re going down.’ The plane was bouncing up and down and from side to side because we’re in a storm so Jackie jumped up and started to get his life vest. But he looked around and saw that nobody else was doing anything and he realized Billy was just having some fun.”
For Jensen, though, the fear of flying was never a laughing matter. It ended up changing his life.
“I was worried the plane was going to crash every single time I went up,” Jensen told the Boston Globe in 1980. “A stewardess would explain to me all of the movements and noises the plane was going to make but not even that helped. After we’d get up in the air and everyone else would fall asleep I’d just stare out the window looking at the engines the whole flight, as if something bad was going to happen if I took my eyes off them.
“Then, after we landed, all I’d be thinking about was how many days it would be until we had to fly again. It was just an awful time.”
That fear of flying, in addition to troubles at home with his marriage to Zoe Ann, was the reason Jensen quit the Red Sox after the 1959 season. He sat out the entire 1960 season and only returned to the Red Sox in 1961 after seeing a hypnotist to help control his fear of flying.
Jensen, though, started off the 1961 season in a slump (6-for-46 with no homers, one RBI) and abruptly left the team again in late April.
“I’ve had it,” Jensen told a reporter in Kansas City. “My reflexes are gone. I can’t hit anymore. I can’t run. I can’t throw. It’s hard to understand how a fellow like me, who always kept himself in shape, could suddenly lose his reflexes. But I have.”
Jensen took a train from Kansas City to Reno in early May. Photos of his tearful reunion with Zoe Ann in their car outside the Reno train station after he arrived were published in newspapers across the country.
“I’ll take him in a dark corner and talk him into returning, if that’s what it takes,” Zoe Ann told the Boston Globe in early May 1961.
Jensen did return to the Red Sox after 10 days away and hit a home run in his first game back. But, it seems, his reflexes never did return to form. He ended up hitting .263 with 13 homers with 66 RBI in 137 games in 1961 and never played professionally again. His last game was Oct. 1, 1961 when he popped out to short in a pinch-hitting appearance in the eighth inning of a 1-0 loss to the Yankees. That same game New York’s Roger Maris hit his record 61st home run of the year off Tracy Stallard in the fourth inning, breaking Babe Ruth’s record.
The fear of flying ended Jensen’s career at 199 homers, 929 RBI, a .279 average and 1,463 hits over 1,438 games. He also stole 143 bases and hit 259 doubles and 45 triples and scored 810 runs. He never got as much as two per cent of the Hall of Fame vote from 1967-72.
“I went back (to the Red Sox in 1961) but the last few plane trips were the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Jensen said in 1974. “If it wasn’t for that (his fear of flying) I would have had four or five more productive years in the major leagues.”
Jensen then embarked on a rollercoaster life until his death of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of 55. He divorced Zoe Ann twice in 1963 and 1968 and tried his hand at numerous business ventures in Northern California and Nevada.
After the second divorce in 1968, Zoe Ann worked as a blackjack dealer at the Cal-Neva Lodge to help make ends meet.
“He was broke,” Zoe Ann told the Des Moines Register in 1978 when she was named to the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame (she was born and raised in Iowa). “He had no money for alimony. So I went to work as a blackjack dealer.”
Jensen, who was the Grand Marshall of the Truckee Fourth of July parade in 1962, was a member of Harrah’s public relations staff (at Lake Tahoe and Reno) in 1963, got involved in the construction business near Lake Tahoe and also was part owner of the Ponderosa Golf Course near Truckee.
In the 1960s Jensen became a Northern Nevada celebrity. By the mid-1960s he was a broadcaster in Northern Nevada, doing six shows a day on KCBN-AM. He also was the first sports director of KTVN-TV and was named the head of the Sierra Nevada Sportswriters and Broadcasters Association in 1967.
In 1964 he helped organize the Holiday Hotel Mug Hunt golf tournament at Hidden Valley Country Club and Washoe Golf Course that featured a field that included such legends as Joe DiMaggio, Dizzy Dean, Ralph Kiner, Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, Ernie Nevers, Eddie LeBaron, Tony Trabert and Carl Hubbell.
The University of Nevada then entered Jensen’s life in 1968, naming him as an assistant coach on Jerry Scattini’s baseball team. Among the Wolf Pack players in 1968 were Craig Congdon, Mike Sala, Tom Reed and Don Weir, whose name now appears on the field at the Wolf Pack’s Peccole Park.
By July 1968, just 10 years after being named the American League MVP, Jensen was named the Wolf Pack head baseball coach, replacing Scattini. Scattini, also a former Cal star halfback, would later coach Pack football from 1969-75.
Jensen didn’t win any championships in his three seasons (1969-71) as Pack head coach. The Pack, though, was 8-5 to start the 1969 season when Jensen, by then smoking heavily, suffered a heart attack at practice.
“It felt like a horse standing on my breast bone,” Jensen told the Reno Evening Gazette during his stay in the hospital. “My arm was getting numb and I had pain in my jaw. It scared the hell out of me.”
Jensen, now married to KTVN producer Katherine Cortezi, stayed just 10 days in the hospital. The Pack finished 16-19 overall in 1969 and 7-13 in the Far West Conference. But the Pack could hit like a certain right-handed power hitter at Fenway Park in the 1950s. Steve Cryer hit .387, Craig Congdon hit .358, John Small hit .353, Jeff Satterlee hit .373 and Bob Uhalde hit .367.
The sub-.500 season, though, didn’t make Jensen happy.
“I would hate to think they were leaning on me that much,” said Jensen, referring to the heart attack that curtailed his involvement with his team the final two months of the season. “There were a lot of seniors. They know how to play. But I’m afraid the attitude was lost someplace.”
Jensen’s no-nonsense style, though, rubbed off on Gary Powers.
“He was really coaching out of the goodness of his heart more than anything,” Powers said in 1982 when Jensen passed away. “I’d sit in the dugout or in his office and constantly pick his brain. He knew so much about baseball it was unbelievable. He was a closed-up kind of guy and he’d never talk about his experiences unless you’d ask him. But he had a great influence on me and helped me make the decision to go into coaching.”
Jensen, now 42, enrolled in classes at Nevada in January 1970 in order to finally complete the bachelor’s degree in speech that he left hanging at Cal in 1949.
“As long as I’m here I might as well take advantage of it,” Jensen said in 1970.
The Wolf Pack had another disappointing season in 1970, finishing 17-22 overall. Jensen then coached the Boston Red Sox’s New York-Penn League team in Jamestown, N.Y., in the summer of 1970. The New York-Penn League had only bus travel. Jensen’s Jamestown Jaguars started 5-11, improved to 26-26 and finished a disappointing 30-40.
He came back to the Pack for the 1971 season and won just 3-of-21 games in the West Coast Athletic Conference, eight-of-31 overall.
“He’d get so frustrated watching us practice,” Powers said in 1994. “He’d just grab a bat and go hit line drives all over the place. We’d stand there with our mouths open but after he was done we didn’t know anything more about hitting.
“I knew then that coaching was more than just knowing the game. You have to be a leader. Coach Jensen never said much to us.”
Jensen, though, had a distinct impact on Powers’ career.
“I idolized him,” said Powers, who would coach Jensen’s son Jay at Incline High in 1975. “I was just a kid from Gardnerville and here was this big leaguer coaching me.”
Jensen, now armed with a bachelor’s degree, left coaching after the 1971 season and took a job as the Nevada State Deputy Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity at $11,600 a year.
“I went to (Nevada Governor) Mike O’Callaghan and I told him I didn’t care what I did, that I needed something,” Jensen said in 1974. “I’ll be forever grateful to him.”
Jensen settled into a peaceful life in Northern Nevada, skiing, playing golf, serving as the master of ceremonies at events and going on frequent hikes in the mountains with his wife Katherine.
“It’s a different life but we love it,” Jensen said in 1973.
By May 1973 he was the new head coach of the California Golden Bears baseball team. The Golden Boy was going back home.
Jensen, though, discovered that the atmosphere at Cal in 1974 was quite a bit different than it was when he played there in the late 1940s.
“In 1949 college athletics was everything,” Jensen said in 1974. “There were no big league teams in the area (the San Francisco Giants came in 1958, a decade ahead of the Oakland A’s). We packed the place when I played. The community revolved around the college teams. That was the place to be. Now we get a couple hundred fans if we’re lucky. When I tell my players about the crowds we’d get they look at me like I’m crazy.”
The Golden Bears went 25-24, 22-24, 33-20 and 29-27 in Jensen’s four years as head coach. They also struggled in the Pac-10, going 8-10, 7-9, 9-14 and 5-13.
Jensen’s distant coaching style also wore on his players, just like at Nevada. During the 1976 season a petition was signed by 22 of the 25 Cal players saying that Jensen had “poor communication, an inattention to detail and a poor attitude.”
“When I was at Nevada I got used to doing everything,” Jensen said in 1977. “I pitched batting practice, I hit fungoes, I lined the field before the game. You name it. When I got here (at Cal) I had a full-time assistant, a pitching coach and a junior varsity coach and I guess I delegated too much.”
Jensen was fired after the 1977 season, ending his baseball and sports career. He would die after another heart attack on July 14, 1982 in Charlottesville, Va., where he owned a Christmas tree farm.
“He just might have been the best all-around athlete I ever covered,” said long-time Red Sox and NBC announcer Curt Gowdy in 1983.
At the time of his death Jensen was working out and getting ready for the inaugural Cracker Jack Old Timers Game in Washington, D.C., five days later. The game featured Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Ernie Banks, Bob Feller and Luke Appling among other greats. Just a few weeks earlier Jensen played at another Old Timers game at Fenway Park and impressed everyone.
“He was a player that could do it all,” said Jimmy Pearsall, a former Red Sox teammate of Jensen’s who played with him in the Old Timer’s game at Fenway on May 1, 1982. “He the one player who could do it all.
“He could hit, hit for power, run, field and throw. I used to love watching him run around the bases from first to third, taking those running back strides.”
Just like a true Golden Boy hero.