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Jackie Robinson: What if There Had Been No Color Line?

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Before Martin Luther King, before Rosa Parks, before BLM, there was Jackie Robinson.

(Editor’s note: The following is a reprint of an article published on MLK Day, 2019, but which we republish today to commemorate Jackie Robinson on this day in which MLB teams everywhere honor him and his great contributions to baseball, our nation, and all humanity.)

On this day of national remembrance, we celebrate not only Martin Luther King, but his universal message of opportunity, respect, and love for all people. But before Rosa Parks refused her assigned seat, and before Martin Luther King led the ensuing bus boycott in Montgomery, there was already a freedom warrior in the fight against hatred and ignorance. The main front in his war? The heart and soul of our National Pastime. His unlikely battle ground? Ebbets Field, and every ballpark in the National League. His unlikely weapons? A baseball bat and glove. His name? Jackie Robinson.

As I researched this article I realized that, despite all I have heard about him, I did not fully understand the greatness of Jackie Robinson the man. I tended to see him as a great athlete whom Destiny by chance had chosen for the great and difficult task of integrating baseball. I knew of the horrible taunts and ridicule and humiliations he endured. I knew that he must have had great strength to endure what he endured. But because of his college background and apparent demeanor, I assumed he came from a middle class background, and that pacifism was just a natural part of his character.

Wrong. Jackie Robinson was a fearless warrior, on the field and off. He fought for justice before baseball, and he continued the fight after baseball. Because being a fighter was in his nature. He had always been a fighter. He was no pacifist. But because of the indomitable willpower of his warrior spirit, for a time he went to war with his own fighting instinct, knowing therein was the only path to victory, for himself and for those for whom he fought.

When Brooklyn Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey warned him that for the integration experiment to succeed he could never retaliate against the taunts he would face, Robinson replied, “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied, no, he was looking for a Negro player “with guts enough not to fight back.” This he was, and this he did, or at least, he let the bat and glove do the fighting for him.

It was not always so.

Early Life

Jackie Robinson was born to Georgia sharecroppers in 1919, the youngest of five children. When his father left the family his mother took the children to Pasadena California, where she supported the kids doing odd jobs. She was able to buy a house, but had to overcome opposition from white neighbors, an early example to the young Jackie. Jackie was involved in gang activity as a boy, although that had less severe connotations then than it does now, but he broke those associations.

Robinson attended John Muir High School, where he lettered in four sports, football, basketball, track and baseball. He was also a champion tennis player. (Could Jackie have broken the color line in Tennis, too?) After graduation, he then attended Pasadena Junior College, again excelling in four sports.

An incident at PJC illustrates his combative nature. It is also an early harbinger of the Black Lives Matter movement. Robinson vocally defended a black friend whom he believed was being harassed and unfairly detained by the police. He himself received a two year suspended sentence for his actions, not the only run-in that he had with local police.

UCLA

After junior college Robinson got a scholarship to UCLA. He was their first athlete to letter in four sports, becoming a national star at fullback, and winning the NCAA championship at long jump. Baseball was his worst sport, hitting only .097 in his only season although, as we would say today, it was a small sample size. In his senior year he chose to drop out, taking a job as an assistant athletic director, and then in 1941 he played for the Honolulu Bears semi-professional football team.

World War II

In 1942 Robinson was drafted and assigned to Fort Riley, where he applied to Officer Candidate School. His admission was delayed, probably for racial reasons, but with the help of fellow candidate and friend Joe Louis he was eventually accepted. During the school a training officer called a fellow soldier the N word. Robinson stood up for his comrade, and when the officer directed the same epithet to him, Robinson punched out the officer’s teeth.

Robinson’s punishment was informal. After graduation he was transferred to segregated Texas, to the 761st “Black Panther” Tank Battalion at Fort hood, where his military career took another unfortunate turn. Ten years before Rosa Parks, on a supposedly unsegregated bus on base, the bus driver ordered Robinson to sit in the back. He refused. When Robinson confronted the investigating duty officer about racist questioning concerning the incident, Robinson ended up facing a court martial on trumped up charges. He was acquitted, but never saw action in combat as a result.

After his military discharge, Robinson again played semi-pro football, worked as a basketball coach, and played baseball in the Negro League for the Kansas City Monarchs, making the All Star team in 1945. Because of Robinson’s leadership the team refused to do business with establishments that practiced segregation. This was fifteen years before the first sit-ins.

Before his Major League baseball career, many years before the term Civil Rights Movement had come into wide use, seventy years before Black Lives Matter, Jackie Robinson was already standing up for justice, and not backing down.

Career

This part of the story is familiar: how Branch Rickey chose him to break the color line. How he faced segregation in Florida spring training, games sometimes cancelled because of his presence. How once in the majors many players, even some of his teammates, threatened to boycott. How fans would brutally taunt him with ugly racial epithets, and opposing players would sometimes go out of their way to try to physically hurt him. As teammate Duke Snyder said, “I don’t know how anybody could have taken what he took.”

Robinson did get support from Major League and Dodger management. When informed of an incipient mutiny, manager Leo Durocher told his disgruntled players, “I don’t care if the guy is black or white, or if he has stripes like a fuckin zebra. I’m the manager and I say he plays.”

Because of the color line Jackie could not start in baseball before the age of 28, normally considered about the time a player’s performance has peaked and will soon decline. And yet, in the ten short years of his career Jackie Robinson performed well enough to make the Hall of Fame, not just as an honor, but based on objective performance factors. For example, he has a higher JAWS rating, commonly used to rate Hall of Famers, than 12 other Hall of Fame second basemen. Yet the average career of Hall of Fame second basemen lasted 18 years.

(Below, the song Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball, which “hit” 13th in the pop charts)

What if There Had been no Color Line?

Even with his late entrance into the Major Leagues, Jackie Robinson has remarkably high statistical ratings. Out of 3148 players in the history of baseball who qualify, Robinson has the 108th highest fWAR, 57.2, among position players in the modern era. (bWAR 61.4) His career OPS+ was 132, tied with Joe Morgan for fourth all-time among second basemen.

But how would Robinson rate if he hadn’t had his best years stolen from him? Using bWAR statistics I calculated that if Robinson had been as productive in his early career as the top 21 position players by WAR had been on average in their pre-28 year old seasons, he would have had 100.1 bWAR, which would have made him 19th all-time, just behind Joe Morgan and just ahead of Albert Pujols.*

How did I arrive at that? I added up the career WAR of all the top players, then added up the WAR of those players from the years 28 on. I took the total WAR and divided it by the end of career WAR to get the multiple of how much additional WAR was added to total WAR from the pre-28 years on average. This number was 1.63. In other words the total WAR on average was 1.63 times greater than the post-28 years WAR.

These were the numbers. (2449.7 / 1501.9 = 1.63). 1.63 times Robinson’s bWAR 61.4 = 100.1 career bWAR if Robinson had started his career at the time and played in the manner of the average players on the list. (See chart below)

One might object that by only comparing Robinson to the very best players I have biased the projection in his favor. I have checked that. Robinson’s WAR/650 PA’s was 6.9. For all the other players in their post-28 years it was only 6.6. So game for game Robinson was better than the average player among this elite group in his post-28 seasons compared to theirs. There’s no reason to think he wouldn’t have maintained that edge in the early phase of his career if he had had one.

Top 21 bWAR position players, all-time, career WAR and 28+ year stats

Player career WAR WAR +28 years WAR/650 PA's +28 years OPS+, + 28 years
Player career WAR WAR +28 years WAR/650 PA's +28 years OPS+, + 28 years
Babe Ruth 182.5 111.8 9.8 204
Willie Mays 156.4 105.4 8.1 154
Ty Cobb 151 82 6.9 159
Hank Aaron 143 87 6.5 156
Tris Speaker 134.1 78.4 6.9 153
Honus Wagner 130.8 106.6 7.7 152
Stan Musial 128.2 79.8 6.0 153
Rogers Hornsby 127.0 63.4 8.8 176
Eddie Collins 124 69 5.8 133
Ted Williams 123.1 78 7.9 188
Lou Gehrig 112.4 90 7.6 178
Ricky Henderson 111.2 60.8 4.7 123
Mickey Mantle 110.3 42.3 6.2 171
Mel Ott 107.8 48.7 6.0 154
Nap Lajoie 107.4 76.3 6.9 145
Frank Robinson 107.3 56.4 5.5 159
Mike Schmidt 106.8 70.7 6.8 150
Joe Morgan 100.6 73.6 6.5 138
Albert Pujols 100 45.1 4.3 137
Jimmie Foxx 97 33.6 5 149
Eddie Mathews 96.6 42.9 5.7 134
Jackie Robinson 61.4 61.4 6.9 132

* Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez were left off the chart because their steroid use skews the statistics

But He’s Even Better Than That

  1. Not only did Robinson start late, but compared to most of the best players his career ended a little early at 37. Did the early years playing football take its toll, was it the psychological stress, or just his congenital nature? He aged early and died at 53 of diabetes and a heart condition. By 1955 the effects of diabetes were already taking their toll on Jackie’s performance.
  2. Before joining the Dodgers Jackie Robinson really hadn’t played that much baseball relatively speaking; high school, one season in college, a season in the Negro league, a season at AAA. Ask Tim Tebow or Michael Jordan if mere athleticism without extensive practice and training is good enough to play pro-ball. In Spring training 1949 the Dodgers brought in a special batting coach, Hall of Famer George Sisler, to teach Robinson the basics: how to wait on the pitch, how to hit to right, anticipate the fastball and adjust to the curve, etc. His batting average improved from .296 to .342 with just the kind of coaching a rookie leaguer would get today.
  3. By breaking the color line Robinson not only changed America, he changed baseball. He played Negro League style with a speed and aggression that was unknown in the Major Leagues before him. As one biographer put it, Robinson is “the father of modern base stealing.” The former track star, he would dance around on the bases, forcing errors, taking extra bases, stealing like a burglar, even home, which he did 19 times, including in the World Series. He was called Ty Cobb in technicolor, but some today might call him Ty Cobb on steroids, figuratively speaking of course, because his energy and speed were like Cobb’s, but more.

As Leo Durocher put it, “Ya want a guy that comes to play. This guy didn’t just come to play. He come to beat ya. He come to stuff the goddamn bat right up your ass.”

Ask Enos Slaughter. In Robinson’s rookie season Slaughter intentionally stepped on Robinson’s ankle, leaving a deep slash and blood. Two years later, as Slaughter was sliding into second, Robinson tagged him in the face so hard he broke some of Slaughter’s teeth. Robinson looked down on Slaughter and said, “I never forget.”

Fangraphs rates Robinson the 86th best base runner in modern history out of 3148 players to qualify. And by the way, they have him at 198th best fielder out of 3148 players. That’s the top 2.5% of base runners, the top 5% of fielders and the top 3% in overall WAR in a short career, all in one package.

Civil Rights Activist

After baseball Jackie Robinson worked tirelessly for the advancement of human equality, serving on the boards of the NAACP, and MLK’s SCLC, fighting as a writer, organizer, speaker, and political campaigner. He summarized his approach as “bucks and ballots,” and to assist black people in developing economic self-sufficiency he created the Freedom National Bank and the Jackie Robinson Construction Company to build affordable low income housing.

Although a civil rights activist from his adolescence until his death, Robinson was also an American patriot, and one example of his courage in his latter years was his denunciation of the factions within the Civil Rights movement that he believed were too radical and unpatriotic. For that he had to endure yet another set of ugly epithets reserved for black people, but now from uncomprehending supposed comrades whose freedom to agitate was a direct consequence of the sacrifices and suffering of Jackie Robinson, and other like-minded freedom fighters of his time.

Despite withering and hurtful criticism from his own people, as always, Jackie Robinson never backed down from what he believed was right.

Just days before his fatal heart attack in 1972, Robinson was awarded the honor of throwing out the first pitch at the World Series. He used the opportunity to challenge baseball to start hiring black managers, televised nationally of course. In three years Hall of Famer Frank Robinson became baseball’s first black manager.

Looking back on his own life Robinson`said, “If I had a room jammed full of trophies, awards, and citations, and a child of mine came to me and asked what I had done in defense of black people and decent whites fighting for freedom, if I had to tell that child I had kept quiet, that I had been timid, I would have to be marked a failure in the whole business of living.”

A faithful family man, a scholar, an officer, a businessman, a champion in numerous sports, a man who changed History, and a man who did stay quiet when that was necessary, but only in service of his lifetime fight for the right, Jackie Robinson, I think we can safely say, got passing grades in this business of living.

Maybe I’m just slower than most, but now for the first time I truly understand why baseball honors your life, Jackie Robinson, with a special day every year. You truly deserve it.