Jackie Robinson was a legend as a player, as well as a pioneer
Jackie Robinson's place as a pivotal figure in both baseball history and the history of the United States of America in general is clear and uncontested, but Jackie Robinson the pioneer stands so tall that he has long since obscured our view of Jackie Robinson the ballplayer. Certainly there is an iconic image of Robinson on the field -- strong, fast, determined -- and a key player on one of the game's best teams, the 1947 to 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers, who won six pennants in 10 years and brought Brooklyn its only championship in 1955. However, the arc of Robinson's career, the character of his production at the plate, and his changing roles in the field, are far less familiar. Let's remedy that.
To begin with, Jackie Robinson was 28 years old when he broke baseball's color line on April 15, 1947, one year older than a typical ballplayer's peak age. Robinson's late start was obviously a product of the sport's segregation, but he played precious little professional baseball prior to signing with the Dodgers' organization on Aug. 28, 1945. A college student at Pasadena Junior College and UCLA until the age of 22 in 1941, Robinson played semi-pro football in Hawaii after leaving school, then was drafted into the army in 1942, where he served until November 1944. After being discharged, he returned to Los Angeles to play football, then took a job as athletic director and basketball coach for Sam Huston College in Austin, Texas. It wasn't until the spring of 1945, at the age of 26, that Jackie Robinson first took the field as a professional baseball player, doing so for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League, at which point it had been half a decade since he last played, poorly, for UCLA.
It was during that 1945 season that Robinson had his infamous tryout for the Red Sox at Fenway Park, and it was later that same year that the Dodgers' Branch Rickey identified Robinson, who had excelled for Kansas City, as the man to carry out Rickey's "noble experiment." Signed by the Dodgers, Robinson spent 1946, his age-27 season with the Triple-A Montreal Royals, where he again proved his value on the field, hitting .349/.468/.462 while playing a slick second base and stealing 40 bases in 124 games. That outstanding performance, which culminated in an International League championship for Montreal, earned him the respect and admiration of the Royals' players, coaches and fans, and set the stage for history.
While, as mentioned above, it can be hard to separate Jackie Robinson the ballplayer from Jackie Robinson the pioneer, it is not always appropriate to do so when evaluating his major league career. To be sure, given the weight on his shoulders in his rookie season of 1947, one cannot take his performance at face value. In his 1972 autobiography
In addition to bearing the weight of history and hatred, Robinson also was dealing with an unexpected position change in early 1947 and the sudden departure of a supportive manager. The latter happened when Dodger skipper Leo Durocher was suspended less than a week before Opening Day by commissioner Happy Chandler for associating with gamblers (and getting in a feud with powerful Yankee general manager Larry MacPhail). The former was simply Rickey's attempt to use Robinson where he was most needed, which in 1947 was first base given that incumbent second baseman Eddie Stanky had led the league with a .436 on-base percentage.
The importance of on-base percentage was not lost on Rickey even then, thanks to his relationship with statistician Allan Roth, whom Rickey had first met several years earlier and who became officially employed by the Dodgers that April. Indeed, on-base percentage was a key component of Robinson's on-field value, particularly during that first season, which he spent exclusively at first base. Despite his muscular build and his homer-friendly home ballpark, Robinson had only modest power. He never hit 20 home runs in a major league season and slugged a mere .427 in 1947, a weak mark for a first baseman, particularly in Ebbets Field. However, he reached base at a .409 clip over his career, including a .383 mark in 1947, a season in which he primarily hit second, behind Stanky.
Despite the adversity he faced (and this is a rare case in which the word "adversity" is appropriate in the context of professional sports), Robinson hit .297/.383/.427 with a league-leading 29 stolen bases and 125 runs scored in 1947, helping Brooklyn to the pennant. He won not only
Robinson unwittingly reported to camp 25 pounds overweight in 1948, the result of the Southern hospitality he was greeted with during an offseason speaking tour, but largely repeated his rookie performance in 1948, a season in which he was able to return to his natural position of second base following the trade of Stanky to the Braves that March. In his first two years combined, Robinson hit .296/.375/.440 (115 OPS+) while averaging 116 runs and 26 stolen bases.
That performance proved he belonged in the major leagues, but it wasn't truly representative of his talent. It wasn't until 1949 that the major leagues got the fullest sense of what Robinson could do on a baseball field.
Though the burden of his role in history and the scourge of racism would never fully disappear, by '49 Robinson had begun to enjoy a general feeling of acceptance in the game, a sense that he was, in the words of a newspaper headline that meant a great deal to Robinson, "just another guy." What's more, prior to the 1949 season, Rickey told Robinson that he no longer had to turn the other cheek to the various slights and epithets directed his way. In Robinson's words:
Having learned his lesson the previous year, Robinson reported to camp in shape and ready to finally play uninhibited by Rickey's edict not to fight back. By year's end, he had helped the Dodgers to yet another pennant by winning the batting title and the league's Most Valuable Player award for a season in which he hit .342/.432/.528 (152 OPS+) with 203 hits, 122 runs scored, 12 triples and 37 stolen bases, a performance that, combined with his outstanding defense at the keystone, translated to a league-leading 9.6 wins above replacement.
Starting in 1949, Robinson went on a six-season run in which he hit a combined .327/.428/.505 (145 OPS+) while averaging 20 steals, 100 runs scored and 7.6 wins above replacement, an MVP-level of performance, per season. Indeed, using Baseball-Reference.com's calculations, Robinson led the National League in WAR three out of four years from '49 to '52 (he finished second to then-New York Giant Stanky in 1950) and led all major leaguers from 1949 to 1953, his age-30 to -34 seasons, just out-pacing Stan Musial over that span and nearly lapping the rest of the field.
Robinson only remained at second base through the 1952 season, however. In 1953, he was pushed off the position by the arrival of 24-year-old Jim "Junior" Gilliam, who won that year's Rookie of the Year award and would be an institution in the Dodgers infield through 1966. Gilliam's arrival resulted in Robinson splitting most of his remaining days in the major leagues between third base and leftfield while serving as something of an everyday utility player for the Dodgers, ultimately making starts at every position except centerfield, pitcher and catcher. Indeed, when Robinson made his fifth and final All-Star game start in 1954, he did it in leftfield. Ultimately, Robinson spent just five of his 10 major league seasons as the Dodgers' primary second baseman.
Having been usurped at his primary position, Robinson also began to see his playing time erode. Though his performance at the plate didn't waver in 1953 and 1954, minor injuries limited him to a career-low 136 games in '53 and a mere 124 in '54, a season in which he butted heads with new manager Walter Alston.
The big drop-off, however, happened in 1955. Then 36, Robinson was no longer able to produce at an elite level and found himself on the bench with increasing frequency. Robinson hit just .256/.378/.363 that season and played in only 105 games as Brooklyn won its first World Series almost despite Robinson, who did pull off his famous steal of home in Game 1 against the Yankees, but hit a mere .182 in six Series starts, all at third base. (Even in his best seasons, Robinson never did hit much in the World Series outside of a fairly empty .320 average in the 1953 Fall Classic. Across 160 plate appearances in six World Series, he hit a mere .234/.335/.343.)
Robinson's regular-season production and playing time perked up slightly in 1956, as his career-worst '55 season was partially due to poor luck on balls in play. His power, though, which had suffered a steep drop-off the year before, was still lacking, and it was clear that the 37-year-old's best days were behind him. Robinson made the final out of the World Series that year, striking out in the bottom of the ninth inning of a Game 7 in which he went 0-for-3 as Brooklyn lost 9-0 to the Yankees. That was his final major league at-bat. That December, the Dodgers traded Robinson to the cross-town Giants for journeyman lefthander Dick Littlefield and $30,000, but Robinson had already set in motion his retirement, which, upon becoming official, voided the trade.
Robinson's career started late and, like his life, ended early, but only four second basemen in history had more spectacular peaks. Joe Morgan was the only one of those four to have played since Robinson integrated the sport (Nap Lajoie, Eddie Collins and Rogers Hornsby are the others). Over a five-year span from 1949 to 1953, Robinson was the best player in baseball, regardless of his color or place in history. Per Jay Jaffe's JAWS system, Robinson's combined peak and career performances put him right around average for a Hall of Fame second baseman, comfortably above the JAWS score of recent inductee Roberto Alomar.
Not that there was ever any doubt that Robinson was a Hall of Famer. Given his place in history, Robinson could have been half the player he was and still earned induction. Nevertheless, he'd have been worthy even if he had truly been "just another guy," precisely because, even if he did eventually blend in in the clubhouse, he would have stood out on the field no matter when or where he played.