The Robinson story: a perfect intersection of man and moment
I sometimes think about a passage in
According to Kahn, two innings later
But I remember the passage and re-read it every so often, not for the history but for the emotion -- it reminds me of just how ferociously Robinson played. I have this theory -- one that I used to talk about sometimes with my old friend
But I do believe that Jackie Robinson was a man who needed the intensity, the clarity of a cause, the fury of the bigots, the deep understanding that he was a player in American history -- needed all of it to crystallize his goals and become the player he became. Remember, Jackie Robinson was more athlete than baseball player when the Dodgers signed him. He was known in the black newspapers -- like the
Also, Robinson was a bit older -- he was 28 when he made it to the big leagues.
Also, you may remember
"If he were a white man," Feller said, "I doubt they would consider him big league material." And whatever this may say to you about Feller, remember, he had seen Robinson play, something few others could say in 1946. If Robinson was clearly a great player at the time, I doubt Feller would have said that.
The simple truth seems to be that Robinson was no sure thing as a baseball player. But he had some fame as an athlete. He had played with white players before and earned their respect. He was smart and focused. He had refused to go to the back of the bus while in the army, a bold step that led to his court-martial, where he was acquitted. As Buck O'Neil would often say, Jackie Robinson wasn't the BEST player. But he was the RIGHT player.
But what does this mean -- the RIGHT player? It seems to me that what has made Jackie Robinson perhaps the most important player in baseball history is not that he was the first African-American to play in the big leagues. Somebody was going to be first. And it was not that he blended dignity and ferocity in equal measure, a hard balance that made him both the underdog and the favorite and the same time.
No, to me, his greatest contribution was simply that he was a GREAT player. He understood that he could not fail --
He did not fail. He scored a run in his first game, got two hits and a home run in his third, got three hits in his fourth. He scored 21 runs through his first 21 games. His batting average dropped to .263 in early June, and he promptly hit in 27 of his next 28 games, raising it to .315 and leaving absolutely no doubt in anybody's mind that, hate him or love him, Jackie Robinson was here to stay.
And I believe that it was a perfect intersection of man and moment; we will never know what kind of baseball player Jackie Robinson would have been had he come up in 1993, when, true, he would not have heard all the slurs and received all the death threats, but he also may not have had a great objective to drive him and the powerful conviction of being right.
That gets us back to Robinson's remarkable ability to get on base. That was at the core of his greatness as a player. His career .409 on-base percentage ranks 23rd among non-active players with 5,000 or more plate appearances. What's more, over a six-year period -- 1949-54 -- Robinson's on-base percentage was a staggeringly good .428. Only a small group of players (Ruth, Gehrig, Hornsby, Cobb, Williams and others from a distant age... Williams, Musial, Mantle and other from the middle ages... McGwire, Bonds, Edgar, Walker, Pujols of more recent vintage) have ever gotten on base like Jackie Robinson did in his prime. It was getting on base so much that allowed Robinson to score all those runs (99 or more in his first seven years) and steal all those bases (he twice led the league) and lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to six World Series.
Robinson got on base through sheer force. He almost never struck out. He walked a lot. He was hit by a lot of pitches for his era -- he finished first, second or third in HBP seven times in his 10-year career. He bunted a lot (he led the league in sacrifice hits twice). He hit the ball hard a lot (hit double-digit home runs every year but one; was among the league leaders in doubles and triples several times). He never stopped playing with fury... as one writer called him, he was a shooting star burning across the sky.
"He was a hard out," was the way
"I don't know any other ballplayer who could have done what he did," Pee Wee Reese told Roger Kahn.
"The greatest competitor I've ever seen,"
A hundred million words have been spilled trying to explain Jackie Robinson and his impact on the game and on America. But I have always liked this bit from the poet