These Men Changed Baseball: Jackie Robinson
On Thanksgiving, it seems appropriate for baseball fans to give a bit of thanks for baseball. In particular, Thanksgiving can remind us of the times in which baseball has caused us, to borrow from Lincoln, to reach for “the better angels of our nature.” In light of my post from Sunday, I am starting a series on the players who brought integration to baseball. You will already know some of these players, but some of them will be new to you. Nevertheless, they all changed baseball. For starters, we should start at the beginning. Jackie Robinson is the most famous of the integrators and deservedly so. He broke the trail upon which all others later followed.
Robinson’s story is already well known. He was born in 1919 in Georgia, moved to California in 1920. He was a tremendous all-around athlete, starring on the UCLA baseball, basketball, football, and track teams. He also won tennis tournaments as a teenager. In 1942 he entered the army, becoming an officer in an armored battalion. He never saw combat and was discharged in 1944. In 1945 he joined the Kansas City Monarchs, the premier Negro League team of the time. He was signed by Brooklyn Dodger GM Branch Rickey in late 1945, as Rickey prepared to breach MLB’s color line. Robinson spent a single year in the minor leagues then started the season with the big league club in 1947. That is the basic background story. Now let’s focus on Robinson, the ballplayer.
On April 15, 1947, the world of baseball changed forever. The Brooklyn Dodgers, who had lost the pennant the previous year in a 3-game playoff with St. Louis, played a home game against the Boston Braves, which they won 5-3. During that game, the Dodgers broke in a 28-year-old, rookie first basemen named Jackie Robinson, who went hitless. That April, Jackie Robinson got off to a slow start, hitting only .225. But the promise was there. In May, he hit .282, and in June he jumped to .381. He would conclude the season hitting .297 and leading the National League in stolen bases. After his rookie year, he would win the inaugural Rookie of the Year Award, given to the best rookie in all of baseball. As a rookie playing first base for the first time, Robinson was already the third-best first basemen in the NL, behind only Stan Musial and Johnny Mize. He led the Dodgers to the World Series, which they lost to the Yankees in 7. Robinson had the third highest average on the team, in both the regular season and the World Series. Upon shifting to a more natural second base, in 1948, Robinson instantly became the best in the league. He would win the 1949 MVP. In 10 full seasons, beginning at age 28, Robinson would lead the league in batting average once, OBP once, and stolen bases twice. He won a single MVP but finished in the top 10 three other times. He reached six World Series. His fielding percentages at second base ranged from 5 to 15 points better than the league average, and his range factors were also consistently above league average.
Jackie Robinson changed the face of baseball. His skill shaped the “boys of summer” Brooklyn Dodger teams of the late 40’s and early 50’s. His personal greatness allowed integration to continue. Despite unimaginable amounts of vitriol and hate, Robinson played with grace and skill. His grace is remembered even more than his skill, I think, and that is a little sad. If MLB players peak at age 27, as Tom Tango and others have argued at length, Robinson’s MLB career begins after he should have peaked. His astounding 10 years, then, are the downside of his career. Ability-wise, Robinson was one of the very best second basemen ever to play the game. Character-wise, he was one of the best people ever to step on the diamond. Today, let’s briefly give thanks for Jackie Robinson.