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Celebrating Jackie Robinson

Friday was Jackie Robinson Day, the 58th anniversary of Robinson crossing baseball’s color line, a move which profoundly affected the course of the rest of the century not only with regards to baseball but to civil rights in this country.

The Los Angeles Dodgers paid tribute at Friday night’s game, though they made something of a hash of it. 6-4-2 blogger Rob McMillan has an excellent post on his night at Dodger Stadium, celebrating Jackie but taking the team to task for rather half-assed festivities:

Bill James wrote, “Hero worship for Jackie Robinson is virtually an industry”. He’s broadly right, but there’s more to it than mere commerce; the charged rivers of emotion surrounding him bring it nearly to the level of a priestly order, fueled in part by baseball’s need for a saint among its all-too-clayfooted modern practitioners. Every few years, when baseball reaches back to recollect something good about the game, when it needs a Field of Dreams to atone for the less-than-heroics on the field, it rattles through the dusty attic of its own memory and pulls out Robinson.

Do not cast me into the cynics’ camp. Knowing what he accomplished, the strides he made by putting cleats, sweat, and deeds into the words “all men are created equal”, it’s hard, at times, to avoid breaking into tears. Robinson was bigger than baseball, and Branch Rickey knew it. The platform Jackie had and the herculean self-restraint it required of him (can anyone imagine, say, a Gary Sheffield under those same circumstances?) led to his transformation into a kind of Ghandi figure, a cross between Washington and St. Francis, a man whose moral dimensions leap to the mythic. When Douglas Adams wrote that the ultimate answer to the ultimate question was 42 (Robinson’s now-retired Dodgers number), he was closer to truth than he knew.

…Yet for all its high moments and the concerted effort to remind everyone of history and the Dodgers’ place in it, the video montage on Dodgervision was an inexcusable disappointment. Sure, a few stills and a couple bits of old Jackie footage came on the screen, but… does anybody think Jackie made it possible for Cal Ripken to make it in the majors? Pictures of almost everyone, anyone besides Jack Roosevelt Robinson flashed on the display. During the ceremonies, they mentioned an exciting play Jackie made coming to home plate, barely missing Yogi Berra’s tag; surely they had some archival footage of that? But no, it was one big general baseball-fest, with plenty of modern players — not a few of them white — mixed in with old stills of Jackie. Why not, at least, focus on the Dodgers, and in particular, African-American Dodgers? Jim Gilliam, Johnny Roseboro, Don Newcombe, Tommy Davis, Maury Wills… there’s a good start right there. All those guys were All-Stars in their day; it’s flabbergasting that the Dodgers didn’t create something better than that flabby, slapdash presentation. What could have been a highlight reel moment instead turned as bland as a MasterCard ad.

Ouch. As one 6-4-2 reader points out, the Dodgers even made a mess of the team’s attire for the evening. The players wore replica jerseys that said “Brooklyn” across the front, an anachronism since A) they never wore Brooklyn on their home jersey; and B) they stopped wearing Brooklyn on their road jerseys in 1945, two years before Robinson’s arrival. Oops.

While Robinson’s courage, perseverance and role in changing the course of American history are justifiably celebrated, too often it’s forgotten what an absolute hell of a ballplayer he was. The man hit .311/.409/.474 for his career, with outstanding defense at multiple positions (15 runs above average per 100 games at third base, according to Baseball Prospectus’ numbers), and it’s no coincidence the Dodgers dominated the National League during his career, with six pennants in ten years. Though Robinson didn’t reach the majors until age 28 — missing nearly half a career — the Jaffe WARP Score system (JAWS) shows him at 69.9 WARP, only about 4 wins lower than the 74.1 WARP average for all hitters. That’s because his five consecutive year peak is fantastic 55.0 WARP, a figure good enough for 35th all-time, but within three wins of 20th on a closely-clustered list.

Former teammate Duke Snider said that Robinson was “[T]he greatest competitor I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen him beat a team with his bat, his ball, his glove, his feet and, in a game in Chicago one time, with his mouth.” Rival Ralph Kiner called Robinson”[T]he best athlete ever to play Major League Baseball.” Manager Charlie Dressen exclaimed, “Give me five players like (Jackie) Robinson and a pitcher and I’ll beat any nine-man team in baseball.” GM Branch Rickey declared, “There was never a man in the game who could put mind and muscle together quicker and with better judgment than (Jackie) Robinson.”

Scribe Red Smith remembered him as “[T]he unconquerable doing the impossible.” Wrote Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer, “Robinson could hit and bunt and steal and run. He had intimidating skills, and he burned with a dark fire. He wanted passionately to win… He bore the burden of a pioneer and the weight made him stronger. If one can be certain of anything in baseball, it is that we shall not look upon his like again.”

Perhaps those accolades aren’t as important as the higher-minded ones about the changes he wrought on this country (AL president Dr. Gene Budig: “He led America by example. He reminded our people of what was right and he reminded them of what was wrong. I think it can be safely said today that Jackie Robinson made the United States a better nation.”). But such observations, along with his playing record, are absolutely nothing to sneeze at. They don’t overshadow the magnitude of his accomplishments on and off the field, they complete the picture. As we celebrate Robinson’s arrival and what it meant to baseball and this country, his absolute talent as a ballplayer is well worth remembering.

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