Robinson was much more than a trail blazer -- he was a great player
Everyone in baseball will wear number 42 on Thursday for Jackie Robinson Day
Robinson's iconic status has come to overshadow his on-field accomplishments
He was a Hall of Famer and the definitive example of a five-tool player
The formal segregation of the major leagues is usually pegged to 1887, when Cap Anson, player-manager of the White Sox, refused to take the field in an exhibition game unless black players were barred. It ended 60 years later. Another way to say this is that baseball's color line lasted for less time than has passed since Jackie Robinson broke it in 1947.
In honor of this anniversary, every player, coach and umpire in baseball will wear the famous number 42 on Thursday for Jackie Robinson Day, and every home team will hold special ceremonies. This pious observance will have two effects: It will celebrate the most consequential event ever to occur on a baseball field, and it will continue the process by which a great man has been turned into a plaster saint.
The second effect may be the price of the first, but no ballplayer has ever less deserved to be yawned at by 9-year-olds, with their natural and healthy suspicion of solemn occasions, than Robinson. It wasn't, after all, just stepping on the field that made him an icon of social justice and a hero. It was what he did there.
To get an idea of how good Robinson was, you have to realize that he didn't start playing baseball seriously until he was 26. At an age when most players are about as good as they'll ever be, he was taking up what had been his fourth sport at UCLA. Two years after that he was playing for the Dodgers; two years after that he was hitting .342 and winning a wholly deserved MVP award.
This shouldn't have been possible. Imagine John Wall finishing out his degree, serving a stint in the Army, coaching basketball, deciding in 2017 to play baseball, and then spending the next decade as a perennial MVP candidate. That's essentially what Robinson did. And what made it more incredible was his style. He wasn't just getting by on talent; he mastered all the intricacies of the game.
Robinson was the definitive example of a five-tool player. He hit for average and power (and also drew tons of walks), was a devastating runner, and had range and a great arm in the field. So far as you can parse old defensive statistics, he appears to have been in a class with someone like Chase Utley as a second baseman. At the plate, he was even better.
Over his career, Robinson hit for a .311 batting average, a .409 on-base average and a .474 slugging average. According to Baseball-Reference.com, an average hitter playing his home games in Ebbets Field would have hit .273/.347/.416. Expressed as ratios relative to the average, then, his career line would be 1.14/1.18/1.14. Among active second basemen, third basemen and shortstops, the most closely comparable players are, fittingly, New Yorkers and standup guys Derek Jeter and David Wright. Jeter's ratios are 1.16/1.15/1.06; Wright's, 1.16/1.15/1.21.
Just as a hitter, then, Robinson was basically Jeter with a bit more patience and power, or Wright with a bit less power but a bit more patience and speed. And he was a much better defensive player than either of them. He was also a leader of great teams, and a vicious competitor who could be relied on to lay down a bunt, or steal home, or knock a man down as the lead runner, and a marvelous quote for the newspapers. There may have been players as complete in major league history; Joe Morgan comes to mind. There wasn't anyone, ever, who was more so.
Based strictly on what he did on the field in the majors, Robinson had a career value comparable to Ernie Banks, Willie McCovey or Ozzie Smith. If you draw a line backward to credit him for what he might have done had there been neither a color line nor a war, he probably rates as one of the two dozen or so best ever. If you think about what he might have done had he gone into professional baseball right out of high school, it's hard not to end up rating him even better than that. None of this, again, has anything at all to do with the color line, or with Robinson's refusal to quit even when he had it so bad that he flatly told his sister he was going to do just that. It has strictly to do with what he achieved as an athlete.
If I could have baseball do one thing differently on Jackie Robinson Day, I would have the solemn ceremonies, the very special credit card advertisements and all the rest focus a lot less on the idea of Robinson as a man who overcame something -- a victim, implicitly -- and a lot more on the idea of him as Derek Jeter with more pop and a better glove. 1947 is impossibly remote. What took place that year happened before many young fans' grandparents were even born, and there's no real way for many of them to imagine it. Offer Robinson up as a better David Wright, and those young fans might begin to understand the weight of what he did.
Aside from the purely functional, this would probably be truer to what Robinson meant. Now that he's defined more by his merely playing the game than by his mastery of it, we forget, but he was a source of such enormous pride to so many millions of people, not just because he stood in against the bigots, but because he proved that they were fools. He was Jack, slaying dragons.
Baseball is a ruthless sport, and had Robinson been a .220 hitter he would have been admired, perhaps cherished, for his pluck, but he would never have inspired a Count Basie number, or been cast as the central figure in the game's historical narrative, or revered as one of the two or three truly transcendent American athletes of the 20th century. He was, though, no .220 hitter. He hit .311 and did a lot more besides. As much as anything else he did, we ought to remember that.
Tim Marchman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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