With a little less than a week before the release of the film 42 and the 63rd anniversary of his arrival in Brooklyn, it seemed like a fitting time to look back at the career of Jackie Robinson to determine where he ranks and where he could have ranked in baseball history, similar to the Bo Jackson article that I wrote in December.
My dad was five when Robinson retired from baseball, so needless to say, I never had an opportunity to see him play, outside of some old videos and Ken Burns‘ fantastic baseball documentary. Luckily, his statistics from his time with the Brooklyn Dodgers still remain. While you can link directly to his statistics through the hyperlink attached to his name, here they are for the lazier of the readers:
|162 Game Avg.||162||680||572||111||178||32||6||16||86||23||87||34||.311||.409||.474||.883|
Pretty incredible overall statistics, especially considering the fact that Robinson didn’t get his career started until he was 28 years old. Certainly, the fact that he broke the color-barrier is the ultimate achievement in his professional career, which doesn’t measure up to his character and mental toughness, needed to overcome the bigotry and hatred from fans, the opposition, and his own teammates; however, he was just as valuable to the game for his abilities as he was to the game for his social impact.
Based on Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Jackie Robinson is the 15th most valuable second baseman in the history of baseball. Those above him include Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie, Charlie Gehringer, Frankie Frisch, Joe Morgan, Roberto Alomar, Joe Gordon, and Ryne Sandberg, all Hall of Famers. A few others also rank ahead of Robinson in WAR, but Robinson’s 5,802 plate appearances are far fewer than the others greats on the list of immortalized second basemen.
After looking at Robinson’s career in MLB, the only other statistics that exist for Robinson are one season in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs and one season playing for the Montreal Royals in the International League (Triple-A).
Robinson was involved in the military and was the Athletic Director at Sam Huston College prior to accepting his contract to play baseball with the Kansas City Monarchs and the Brooklyn Dodgers. While Robinson posted impressive numbers in his two seasons within the Negro Leagues and the minors, the numbers didn’t carry over…at least not immediately…to Brooklyn.
Robinson’s rookie season, 1947, was the worst of his first eight seasons, only outdone by his 1955 season, his age-36 season, which was normal regression in the pre-performance-enhancing drug era of baseball.
So, if Robinson posted a 3.1 WAR for five seasons, 1942 through 1946, would Robinson have been a top five second baseman in baseball history? Adding a 15.5 WAR to his 61.4 WAR from above would have left Robinson at 76.9, behind only Hornsby, Collins, LaJoie, Morgan, and Gehringer. But who is to say that his earlier experience wouldn’t have allowed him to thrive earlier in his “pretend career”?
Robinson’s WAR increased 74 percent from his first season to his second season and another 77 percent from his second to his third. Of course, there were slight regressions overall in his career, but considering Robinson averaged a 7.2 WAR over his first seven seasons, it is easy to suggest that Robinson could have ended up as one of the top three second basemen in baseball history had he started his career earlier.
While we can’t go back and change history, we don’t have to. Jackie Robinson was, statistically, one of the greatest players to ever play baseball. His athleticism, which led to his 19 steals of home, was unmatched, and when you consider that 87 players struck out 100 times or more in 2012 and it took Robinson his first three seasons (1947 through 1949) to strikeout exactly 100 times in his career, you can appreciate the skills that allowed Robinson to post a career .409 on-base percentage.
Jackie Robinson was so much more than someone who paved the way for people of all different skin pigmentation to reach the highest ranks of professional baseball. Robinson’s actual statistics seem to be overlooked, at times, in the presentation of his story. Robinson was just as gifted athletically as he was mentally, and as people continue to learn his incredible triumph over hatred with this Friday’s release of 42, I hope that people also realize that Robinson was so much more to the game of baseball than a color.