The Robinson story: a perfect intersection of man and moment
Robinson was a man who needed the intensity, the clarity of a cause
He was a superb athlete but baseball was famously his worst sport at UCLA
Duke Snider called Robinson, "The greatest competitor I've ever seen."
Jackie Robinson could really get on base. You might not hear much about that, even Thursday on Jackie Robinson Day because, um, it seems to me that he accomplished something other than getting on base that was fairly important. Even when people talk about Jackie Robinson, the player, they will likely concentrate on Robinson's audacious nature as a base runner -- how he would purposely get caught in rundowns, how he would steal home and so on -- or his pure and naked hunger to win.
I sometimes think about a passage in Roger Kahn's illustrious The Boys of Summer. This comes from April of 1955, when the Giants' Sal Maglie was overwhelming the Dodgers. Brooklyn shortstop Pee Wee Reese told Robinson he had to do something.
The bat boy overheard the whispered conversation, and just before Jack stepped in to hit, he said in a voice of anxiety, 'Don't you do it. Let one of the others do it. You do enough.'
Robinson took his stance, bat high. He felt a certain relief. Let someone else do it, for a change.
"Come on Jack," Reese's voice carried from the dugout. "We're counting on you."
Robinson took a deep breath. Somebody else? What somebody else? Hodges? Snider? Damn, there WASN'T anybody else.
The bunt carried accurately toward first baseman Whitey Lockman, who scooped the ball and looked to throw. That is the play. Bunt and make the pitcher cover first. Then run him down. But Maglie lingered in the safety of the mound. He would not move, and a second baseman named Davey Williams took his place. Lockman's throw reached Williams at first base. Then Robinson struck. A knee crashed into Williams' lower spine and Williams spun into the air, twisting grotesquely, and when he fell he lay in an awkward sprawl, as people do when they are seriously injured. He was carried from the field.
According to Kahn, two innings later Alvin Dark sought the Giants' revenge by hitting a double to left and then refusing to stop, going to third where he could take on Robinson -- and according to the story Robinson dropped the ball trying to smash a tag into Dark's head.
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 Buck O'Neil -- that Jackie Robinson was the type of player and the type of man who needed a purpose to bring out his greatness. We often hear about the opposite -- players who drive in meaningless runs or only seem to pitch well when the game is out of hand. People will talk all the time about how there are certain baseball players who can handle the pressure of playing in New York (and even have that pressure lift their game) and certain players who cannot handle it at all. I don't know how much I buy into it; but I've always thought there is a worthwhile study to be done on the subject.
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 Kansas City Call and Chicago Defender -- as "UCLA football ace Jackie Robinson" or "famous track star Jackie Robinson." Baseball was famously his worst sport at UCLA (he hit about .100 in his one year) and he only played one year for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro leagues. He made the East-West All Star game (he went 0 for 5) but the general perception at the time was that Robinson was not the best big league prospect on the Monarchs -- not with Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith on the team and Willard Brown coming back from the war and so on.
Also, Robinson was a bit older -- he was 28 when he made it to the big leagues.
Also, you may remember Bob Feller's scouting report on Robinson after seeing him play -- too tight in the shoulders, cannot hit an inside pitch, isn't skilled enough.
"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 -- Robinson took a deep breath. Somebody else? What somebody else? Damn, there WASN'T anybody else -- that he was carrying the weight of the world and the moon and the stars on his shoulders, and that failure was too awful and too calamitous to even think about. If he failed, the bigots were right. If he failed, the cause was stalled. If he failed... well, 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 Yogi Berra said it.
"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," Duke Snider said at his Hall of Fame induction.
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 Langston Hughes. He used to write a column in the Chicago Defender revolving around a conversation with a character called Simple. In one especially memorable column, headlined "Matter for a Book," Simple announced that he went to see Jackie Robinson play ball the day before.
"But to get back to Jackie -- I did not mean to holler so loud when he stole them two bases yesterday, but I just could not help myself. I were so proud he were black, I couldn't keep my mouth shut. And as long as Jackie stays colored, I am going to holler when he's up to bat."
"Well, holler. Nobody's stopping you," I said. "But if Jackie were not good you would stop hollering, I bet you that."
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