Attempting to capitalize on the opening of baseball season, Hollywood will be unfurling “42” this week.
And while the story of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier remains compelling and dramatic 66 years later, the facts surrounding that story are in danger of being overrun by the mythology.
That’s what happens with iconic figures. At some point, reality gives way to apocryphal, until the story becomes blurred and indistinguishable from fact.
So, while Robinson The Man is a significant figure in American lore, we’ll take a minute to look at Robinson The Ballplayer, because that’s what we do here at the By the Numbers column.
Sure, Jackie Robinson was an important person, but was he an important player? Quick answer: Yes. There’s no question that Robinson was a great player, one of the best in the major leagues for the first eight seasons of his 10-year career, before the effects of diabetes began to diminish his skills.
From 1947-54, Robinson batted .319 and averaged 104 runs, 15 homers, and 77 walks per season. He led the league once in on-base percentage, once in batting, and twice in stolen bases. He was the most disruptive baserunner of his time (perhaps of all-time). He won an MVP award and finished in the Top 10 in the balloting four times.
And he was a spectacular fielder. Bill James, who has developed one of the most sophisticated methods for analyzing fielding, writes that Robinson put up exceptional fielding statistics not only at his primary position of second base, but also at third base and left field: “If it’s a statistical illusion of some sort, it’s an illusion that follows him all over the field.”
With all that, Robinson helped the Dodgers win the National League pennant in 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956, and for several of those he clearly was the team’s best player.
Finally, from 1949-52, Robinson led the National League in Wins Above Replacement three times and finished second once. Or at least he would have, if they had computers to crunch the numbers back in those days.
Because he didn’t reach the major leagues until the age of 28, Robinson’s career totals can’t compare with other greats. But that wasn’t his fault.
Given his range of skills, the kind that would make him successful in any era of baseball history, I rank Robinson third among second basemen I would want on my team — behind Joe Morgan and Eddie Collins. Sure, Rogers Hornsby put up historic batting numbers, but Hornsby was a poor fielder and a pain in the rear.
Yet there is one aspect of Robinson’s story that long has bewildered me. Undoubtedly, there were bigots in the major leagues and the media and the public who couldn’t stomach the thought of a black man in the major leagues. Undoubtedly, the upcoming Hollywood version of Robinson’s story will be rife with depictions of racist acts that he had to overcome.
But following his groundbreaking rookie season, Robinson was selected as the inaugural winner of the Rookie of the Year award, and he finished fifth in the MVP balloting. Clearly, not all the sportswriters of the day were opposed to the breaking of the color line.
All of that adds up to create a portrait of Jackie Robinson The Ballplayer. It’s nearly as interesting as Jackie Robinson The Man.
Question or comment for By the Numbers? You can reach Greg Jayne, Sports editor of The Columbian, at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at email@example.com. To read his blog, go to columbian.com/weblogs/GregJayne