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Re-thinking Jackie Robinson

February 14, 2011

It’s mid-February, and that means two things; pitchers-and-catchers, and Black History Month. Well, February means a lot more than that, but this site is about baseball, and this post is about the integration thereof.

A few disclaimers first, as my personality is embedded in my thinking and my writing. I am not black. I have never really thought of myself as “white” either, as I have “olive”-y skin and tan nicely. Yet when my grandfather came to Toronto 90-odd years ago, he was prone to the same treatment and stereotyping. I’m Jewish. I can talk about how Christie Pits changed things for folk like me, but this post is not about me. I just need to preface this post by pointing out that Black History Month has never been very prevalent in my mind.

Earlier this winter, I was reading Joe Posnanski’s wonderful The Soul of Baseball, waltzing with Buck O’Neill through the Negro League experience. Last week, ready to take on a new baseball book from my to-be-read pile, I picked up Satchel, by Larry Tye, not thinking of the coincidence of my timing. I’m not here to write book reports, but more than 2/3 of the way in it is a great read, both informative and entertaining, providing illumination on both Satchel Paige’s life as well as the context of his times. One essential component of that context is the build-up to, and the eventual integration of Major League baseball, signalled when Branch Rickey famously signed Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. What Satchel points out, in a way I had not yet been exposed to, was that many within the Negro League community, while elated at the opening of the gates into White-ball, were at least somewhat perturbed that the man chosen to lead the charge was Jackie Robinson.

In many ways, it is almost sacrosanct to say anything negative about Jackie Robinson. He is to black baseball what Anne Frank is to European Jewry. In much the same way that a literary discussion of The Diary of Anne Frank would be sacrilegious, so, too, it seems, would be a discussion of Jackie Robinson purely as a baseball player. We cannot discuss his abilities or performance without mentioning the context in which it occurred.

Now, I am not here to say that Jackie Robinson was not a great player, as he surely was. His career OPS+ (on base percentage, plus slugging percentage, adjusted for league context and home park) of 131 (31% better than average) is tied with fellow Hall of Famer Rod Carew, and ahead of other no-doubt Hall of Famers Carl Yastrzemski, Eddie Murray and Roberto Clemente (among others). Yet that mark is only tied for 155th all time. Some recent players who finished ahead of Jackie in that stat (remember – OPS+ already makes adjustments for home park and league scoring context) include John Kruk, Jose Canseco and Danny Tartabull and a slew of others not held in the same high regard as Robinson.

On the defensive side of the ball, while he also played extensively at 3B, 1B and LF, he was most known as a second baseman. Looking at his fielding numbers on baseball-reference.com, we see a player who was very sure-handed at 2B, with a career fielding percentage at the position of .983, compared with the league-wide (in that time-frame) 2B mark of .974. However, looking at his numbers for range (the number of plays he makes), Robinson was well below the league mark, making 5.25 plays per 9 innings, compared to the league average of 5.53 per 9. There is a lot of context that needs to be added to those numbers, but a lack of range was one of the criticisms Tye points to in his chapter on the beginnings of integration. Quoting Negro-League great Newt Allen, himself a long-time second baseman, “”I told them he was a good ballplayer. A smart ballplayer… but he can’t play short.” (Tye, p. 199). Hilton Smith, a star Negro League pitcher since inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, called Robinson “an average fielder.” (ibid). Finally, Tye quotes another Hall of Fame Negro Leaguer, slugger Buck Leonard, who said that there were, “a whole lot better ballplayers than Jackie.” (ibid) In short, while no one was quoted as saying that Jackie Robinson was not a very good ballplayer, there was no shortage of his peers who had already identified flaws in his game. While Tye does not draw out the parallel, considering Branch Rickey’s well-renowned Christian faith, I would be shocked if Rickey was not thinking about the Jews in their desert period between Egyptian slavery and entering the Land of Milk and Honey forty years later as he went about choosing the subject for his great experiment. As the story goes, the Jews could not enter Israel until each and every last person who lived as a slave had died in the desert, such that Israel would be a land of Free Jews, instead of Freed Slaves. Similarly, the Major Leagues could only be integrated by a player whose life was not steeped in the degradations of the Negro Leagues, so that Black Major Leaguers would be real ball players and not those with the chip of Jim Crow on their shoulders.

It is not news to say that Robinson was selected by Rickey as the torch bearer for a combination of his playing ability as well as personality, carrying with him numerous positive personality traits, including great work ethic, heightened intelligence and the unceasing ability to turn the other cheek to the slurs and insults that inevitably were hurled his way with regularity, particularly during the early days of integration. From the mouth of Larry Doby, who did for the AL what Robinson did for the game as a whole, “Jack and I wouldn’t tell jokes. We weren’t humourists. We tried to show that we were intelligent, and that’s not what most white people expect from blacks. Satch gave whites what they wanted from blacks – joy.” (Tye, pg. 200). Assuming that Branch Rickey wanted to win, we must believe that Jackie Robinson was good enough as a player in addition to being good enough as a black ballplayer to make it a lasting success.

That last remark requires a little bit of explaining. As a long-time participant in the wonderful Hall of Merit project, I have come to learn a fair bit about the interpretation of stats in the Negro Leagues. Without rehashing the studies of some of that venerable institution’s most scholarly members, I will merely summarize by pointing out the Negro Leagues had an upper echelon of players that were (at minimum) the equal of the stars of Whiteball. However, the lesser-talented Negro Leaguers were often not quite the standard of their white would-be peers. As such, the cream of the Negro League crop would often put up numbers that would practically guarantee MVP awards in Whiteball, while not having the same gravitas as similar numbers put up in MLB. For example, the previously quoted Buck Leonard, according to Jules Tygiel’s Shades of Glory, finished the 1939 season with an astounding .417 batting average. That figure would be 10th all-time in Major League baseball, and the top mark since 1924. Is it possible he would have done the same in Whiteball? Possible, sure, but not very likely. In discussing his candidacy for the Hall of Merit, Chris Cobb posited that the aforementioned .417 Negro League average was the equivalent of .337 in the National League of the same period. Still an awesome season by any measure, but not quite historic.

Going back to Jackie Robinson, I agree that he was likely the most appropriate Blackball participant to integrate the majors, while also agreeing with the sentiment that he was not the best player in the Negro Leagues at that time. Near contemporaries including the aforementioned Doby, Willie Mays, Roy Campanella and others would go on to enjoy on-field MLB success equal to, or even greater than that of Robinson. In any event, Robinson was pretty damn good at baseball. If I had to pick a modern player to compare him to, the most likely candidate would be Derek Jeter. Very good hitter, whose numbers look especially tasty coming from a middle infielder. A sure-handed fielder with some questions about his range. A very heady ballplayer who could win with his smarts. Derek Jeter will also one day join Robinson in Cooperstown. Both players were their league’s top rookies upon debuting and both regularly picked up MVP votes, Robinson winning the award in 1949 and twice more finishing in his league’s top ten. Jeter never won the award but has (so far) four top-ten finishes in the voting, placing as high as second (2006). According to baseball-reference.com’s wins above replacement metric (WAR – measuring a player’s value in wins, compared to what could be expected of a AAA journeyman), Robinson was the best player on the Dodgers in each of his first five years, before falling behind Duke Snider. Similarly, Jeter has been the most valuable on-field Yankee four times in his career (albeit more sporadically). Not a bad comparison once we leave longevity out of the picture.

Is that how most people think of Robinson, the Ballplayer (as opposed to Robinson, the Pioneer)? Do most of you think of him as better than, worse than or roughly equal to Jeter? Is it even possible to discuss Jackie Robinsons, Ballplayer, or must we always resort to Jackie Robinson, Pioneer?

All that having now been written, I am glad for the chance to look at the immortal #42, a number now retired across the sport. Only one man is currently allowed to don that famous number, grandfathered in when the ruling took effect in 1997. Fittingly, that man is another all-time great and future shoo-in Hall of Famer, Mariano Rivera. More fittingly, that man is scheduled to be reporting to Spring Training in Tampa tomorrow, as he and all of us in one way or another, embark on another baseball season. God, it really feels good to write that.

Happy baseball, everyone.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Yuko Bilinski permalink
    March 24, 2011 1:24 am

    Awesome, I ended up at your site via a search on google and this article is 100% what i was searching for. Once i have the time i’ll definitely check a few more updates on this site. Does this site have an RSS feed? I prefer to add sites worth reading to my feed reader, this way i don’t miss a single update… I’ve been looking for the RSS icon but cannot find it…

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