They've put Jackie Robinson on a postage stamp, right up there in the same league with Thomas Jefferson and the woman who founded the Red Cross. The 20¢ Robinson stamp is the first to commemorate an individual ballplayer and was issued Aug. 2 at the Hall of Fame. Now Robby is officially a historic figure, honored and respected, as he should be. People remember that he was the man who broke big league baseball's color bar, that he was a pioneer, in the forefront of what seemed at the time a social revolution, and perhaps was. If the social revolution is still a long way from being over, it took a great step forward when Robinson broke through the barriers and began playing professional baseball on a hitherto all-white team in a hitherto all-white league in the hitherto all-white world of organized baseball.
So treating Robinson as a historic figure is justified. But it's also somehow disheartening for those who remember him as a Brooklyn Dodger to discover that gradually the historic, socially significant Robinson is pushing the ballplaying Robinson farther into the background. Even the musical about Robinson, called The First (SI, Nov. 30, 1981), which did a remarkable job of portraying Robinson's personality and his struggle against virulent racism, barely gave a theatergoer an idea of what he was like on the field, or what it meant to be a baseball fan around New York when he was playing.
Though he was thrust into the role of social revolutionary, Robinson was foremost a ballplayer and a great one. Some younger fans, whose knowledge of Robinson is derived from his statistics, wonder if he was all that good. He had only 10 seasons in the majors—he was 28 when he joined the Dodgers—and in his last three, he didn't play often enough to be eligible for the batting title. His stats are good, but not overwhelming, so that those who never saw Robinson play may be pardoned for concluding he's in the Hall of Fame primarily for his pioneering role.
Certainly that was a big factor, but those who voted Jackie into Cooperstown in 1962, the first year he was eligible, were influenced mostly by the fire he evinced on the field, the threatening figure he was at the plate (his bat cocked high above his head), his line drives, his key hits, his clutch fielding, his astonishing base running. They recalled how he dominated game after game, how he was the central figure on the field, the man his team depended on, the man the other team had to defeat.
The Dodgers finished first six times in his 10 years and lost two more pennants on the last day of the season. The other two years they were second and third. Brooklyn was the best team in the National League and, except for the New York Yankees, the best team in baseball for a decade. The Dodgers had a galaxy of fine players during Robinson's years, from the splendid shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, to the towering pitcher Don Newcombe, but Jackie was the star.
It's difficult to measure with numbers the kind of player Robinson was. As a base runner he was electrifying in a non-stealing era. He wouldn't so much take a lead off first as simply stroll away from the base several feet—too many feet, it seemed to those of us accustomed to the timid action of that period—toward second, just walking in his hip-rolling, pigeon-toed, almost knock-kneed way. It was daring, arrogant, contemptuous, upsetting.
In one game against the New York Giants he got the Dodgers a run without swinging a bat and hardly running at all. The Giants' pitcher was a sturdy fellow named Steve Ridzik, who had been in the league five years. He gave Robinson a base on balls. Robinson tossed his bat aside and walked down to first base, didn't jog a step. He did his patented stroll off first base and came to a stop, hands on hips, and just stood there watching Ridzik. There were throws to first, which Robinson anticipated and beat back to the bag without apparent effort. Ridzik kept glancing over and threw ball one, ball two to the hitter. On the third pitch, Robinson stole second easily. Ridzik walked the batter. Robinson then ambled many feet off second base. He made a couple of false starts toward third, and Ridzik, repeatedly looking over his shoulder at Robinson, walked the next hitter to fill the bases.
Jackie walked leisurely to third, turned and, as Ridzik came to the set position, went 10 or 15 feet down the line toward home. Ridzik tried to scare him back with quick glances, but whenever Ridzik turned toward the batter, Robinson would move daringly far down the line again. Ridzik was obviously distressed by this, and finally Bill Rigney, who was managing the Giants, ordered his third baseman to hold Robinson on the bag in the same way a first baseman would. It didn't do much good. Ridzik, still darting glances at third, walked the next batter, too, forcing in the run. Robinson strolled to home plate, touched it with one foot and unhurriedly walked back to the Dodger dugout.
He was a presence, something to see, something to be aware of. People liked to watch him, and not just because he was a novelty, the black ballplayer. He was far more than just a symbol. Leo Durocher, when he was managing the Giants in their unforgettable duels with the Dodgers, focused his ferocious bench-jockeying tongue on Robinson. Durocher was well known for his rough language, but Robinson gave as good as he got. Durocher has a lot of unattractive traits, but bigotry isn't one of them, and the startlingly foul colloquies he and Jackie engaged in were based on professional antipathy, not race, which was somehow gratifying. In any case, it seemed as though Robinson almost relished the man-to-man back-and-forth.
Though Robinson was not as easy to like as the Dodgers' other Hall of Fame black star of that era, the amiable Roy Campanella, he was a positive force in the dugout and the clubhouse, as well as on the field. The lasting impression he gave was of tremendous pent-up energy waiting to explode. Perhaps that was the secret of his base running, his hitting, his very presence—the threat or promise of something about to happen. You knew he was capable of accomplishing almost anything.
Even in his last World Series, in 1956, a few months before he suddenly retired from baseball, he was a force. He had played sparingly that season and not very well, but in the Series, Dodger Manager Walter Alston, whom Robinson didn't like, had Robinson in the lineup at third base, batting fourth, playing every inning of every game. He had five hits in the first four games, including a home run, and scored five runs. The fifth game of that Series was Don Larsen's perfect game, so no Dodger got to first base, but Robinson came close. In the second inning he hit a powerful line drive off the glove of Third Baseman Andy Carey. The ball ricocheted to Shortstop Gil McDougald, whose throw to first base just caught Robinson for the out. In the fifth inning he hit a loud foul to leftfield and then hit another of Larsen's pitches deep to right for a long out.
Larsen's victory put the Yankees ahead three games to two, and the Dodgers had to win the next day to stay alive. They were shut out through nine innings again, but Brooklyn's Clem Labine also pitched shutout ball to send the game into the bottom of the 10th tied 0-0. With two out and a man on second, the Yankees walked Duke Snider intentionally to pitch to Robinson, a righthanded batter facing the righthanded Bob Turley. Jackie responded by clouting a line drive over the leftfielder's head to drive in the winning run.
The Dodgers were shut out again the next day and lost the Series. The run Robinson drove in, the last RBI and the last hit of his career, was the only run Brooklyn was able to score in the final three games. No one realized it at the time, but that was the Dodgers' G√∂tterd√§mmerung, the end of an era. Jackie was traded to the Giants in December and retired in January; the Dodgers finished third the next year and moved to Los Angeles the year after that. All that was left were memories. And now a postage stamp.