By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

No. 42: Jackie Robinson

The story of Jackie Robinson has been deconstructed a million different ways … let’s try something a little bit different. Let’s try to look at his familiar and well-worn story through a very specific lens. Let’s try to see him not as the great Jackie Robinson, American hero, baseball pioneer, man who changed American sports.

Let’s try to see him, if we can, as one of the craziest baseball stories — one of the craziest sports stories — in American history.

Writers have written more words about Jackie Robinson’s life than any baseball player with the possible exception of Babe Ruth, so you probably know the basics. He was 1-year-old and living in Georgia when his father left the family. His mother, Mallie Robinson, had a deep belief in God. She moved the family to California in search of a better life.

For the first 18 or 20 years of his life, Jack Robinson’s identity was mostly tied up in being the younger brother. Mack Robinson was five years older than Jackie. He was a brilliant track star; he made the 1936 Olympics at 200 meters and won the silver medal; he finished four-tenths of a second behind Jesse Owens’ world-record time. Track and field was a big deal in America then, and Mack Robinson was often in the news for winning NCAA and AAU races. Newspapers in those mostly referred to in the papers as “the younger brother of Mack,” or “Mack’s kid brother.”

Jackie Robinson was, by legend, a good high school baseball player but only in the same way that the great running back Jim Brown was an excellent bowler. He played every sport, played them all brilliantly. The sportswriter Vincent X. Flaherty — who later wrote the screenplay for Jim Thorpe, All American — called Robinson the “Jim Thorpe of his race.”

Football and track were his best sports; he and Kenny Washington (who was the first African American to sign an NFL contract after World War II) made up the most devastating backfield in America at UCLA. Robinson averaged 11 yards per carry in one of his seasons. He signed to play football for the Los Angeles Bulldogs and then the Honolulu Bears after dropping out of UCLA for financial reasons. Robinson left Honolulu two days before Pearl Harbor.

Robinson also won the NCAA long jump — and did so without even trying. If circumstances had been different, Jackie Robinson might have been a great track star. When Robinson signed with UCLA, the news was reported like so by United Press: “UCLA’s faltering track and field hopes were bolstered today by the promised enrollment this week of Jackie Robinson, Pasadena Junior College’s national AAU junior broad-jump champion.” But Robinson decided to quit the long jump after the 1940 Helsinki Olympics were canceled. He went back to the long jump halfheartedly; he still won the NCAA title.

But Robinson wasn’t a pure football or track star any more than Da Vinci was only a painter. Jackie Robinson was an athletic genius. He was a good enough basketball player to twice lead the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring. Sportswriters sometimes called him the “Ebony Luisetti” in the papers (Stanford’s Hank Luisetti innovating the running one-handed shot that led to today’s jump shot). One coach called him “the best basketball player in the United States. Robinson is often overlooked as a basketball player in part because he played for a dreadful team and in part because coaches left him off the first, second and third all-conference teams as a senior. This bit from the Oakland Tribune’s Art Cohn — comparing Robinson to USC’s Ralph Vaughn, who had been on the cover of Life Magazine — more or less sums it up:

“Now that all the picture mags have glorified Ralph Vaughn of USC as ‘America’s No. 1 basketball player’ it is interesting to note that he wasn’t even the best player in Los Angeles. Because Jackie Robinson of UCLA, playing on the Coast’s weakest team with NO support even remotely comparable to that which Vaughn received from a championship team, has just won the Conference individual scoring title.”

His genius did not end with basketball. According to Jules Tygiel’s classic “Baseball’s Great Experiment,” Robinson also won the conference championship in golf. He won swimming championships. He did not only win the conference championship in tennis but also reached the semifinal of the what was then called the National Negro Tennis Tournament. Robinson did not even play much tennis.

It is legend that baseball was his worst sport at UCLA — and for once the legend matches up somewhat with reality. Robinson played one year of baseball at UCLA. He had a miraculous first game at UCLA. Again, to our Oakland sportswriter Art Cohn:

“Jackie Robinson, the No. 1 running back and conference basketball scoring champion, played his first baseball game for UCLA the other day. … Handled five chances at short without an error, figgered in two double plays, clouted four hits (including a home run) and stole three bases. Wonder how he is shootin’ dice?”

That first game is remembered many different ways. Some say he stole four bases. Some stay one of those steals was of home. The UCLA website has him stealing home twice. Cohn is the only source I’ve seen that credits him with a home run. Anyway, we know he had a great first game.

After that game, by all accounts, he went into a death-defying slump. Every source I can find has Robinson hitting .097 for the season, though I cannot make any sense of that. There are only so many mathematical possibilities for an .097 average in a 39-game season.

Possibility 1: He went 2 for his next 58 (6 for 62 total).
Possibility 2: He went 3 for his next 69 (7 for 72 total)
Possibility 3: He went 5 for his next 89 (9 for 93 total)
Possibility 4: He went 6 for his next 99 (10 for 103 total)
Possibility 5: He went 7 for his next 109 (11 for 113 total)
Possibility 6: He went 8 for his next 120 (12 for 124 total)

You can keep going, but remember this was a short season and Robinson was also competing in track. I suspect that if he hit .097, he probably went 6-for-62 or 7-for-72. And that means for six weeks or so, Jackie Robinson — one of the greatest athletes in America and soon to be a Baseball Hall of Famer — could not hit mediocre college pitching AT ALL. That seems utterly impossible to me. How in the world could Jackie Robinson, no matter how raw he might have been, go three for 69 against college pitching? He could have BUNTED .400, for crying out loud. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Also, I discovered a short newspaper story that seems to dismiss the whole thing. On April 5, before the UCLA-St. Mary’s game, there was a preview story. The season was almost a month old. The story read: “Jackie Robinson, football and basketball flash who leads the college league in hitting and base stealing will be be seen in action for the first time at Seals Stadium.”

How could he have been leading the conference in hitting on April 5 and still hit .097? It’s not possible.

Trouble is — the St. Mary’s story is almost certainly fraudulent. In those days, newspapers would print press releases verbatim — especially press releases designed to draw fans to games. Jackie Robinson was a huge star in California. I have little doubt the author had him “lead the college league in hitting” to spur interest.

Anyway, there are other details. According to Jackie Robinson: A Biography, Robinson was so helpless at the plate that some wise guy sportswriter at the school paper referred to a poor-hitting team as “colder than Jackie Robinson’s batting average.” The .097 average has been repeated by many unrelated sources for many decades. It’s likely true

Robinson also tied for the team lead in errors. It wasn’t a good season.

I would love to write about Robinson’s baseball season at UCLA. I don’t think enough has been written about that. My sense is that there is a much larger story here — a story about Jackie Robinson as a man.

The image of Jackie Robinson has been sanitized through the years; in truth he was a tough character. He wrote of himself that if things had gone slightly different for him as a child, “I might have become a full-fledged delinquent.” He had various clashes with the law while growing up in Pasadena. Some of these were relatively innocent (he was taken to jail because he was caught swimming in the city reservoir). Some were a bit less innocent (he was a member of the Pepper Street Gang, which by most accounts kept its illegal activities to petty crime and relatively minor troublemaking).

While he was in junior college, he spent the night in jail after getting into an argument with a police officer. At UCLA, he got into a fight with a racist who had insulted him (not for the first time and not for the last) and was arrested and taken to jail for resisting arrest.

Of course, we look at Robinson (and the times when he lived) through a different prism now. Now we understand him, understand the rage and pride that whirled inside him, understand the unfairness of the world around him. At the time, though, people did not understand or see that. We see the pioneer. They saw the troublemaker, the rebel, the difficult young man. Yasiel Puig critics would have torn him apart.

And that is the only way I can make any sense of the Robinson .097 average at UCLA. There are so few stories that I can find from that season, but the few that survive suggest he was tough to deal with. In one story, Robinson was brought into pitch with his team ahead and darkness descending. “I can’t see the plate,” Robinson reportedly moaned repeatedly and, to prove his point, threw wild pitch after wild pitch until the umpire finally called the game. That story suggests two things. One: Jackie Robinson was going to win. And two: Jackie Robinson did not care much about baseball.

Robinson was drafted into army three months after he finished playing football for the Honolulu Bears. He wanted to play baseball in the army but was not allowed; baseball in the army was segregated. He played some football, but that too was complicated by segregation and he quit — the most significant athletic thing that happened to Jackie Robinson in the army was that he badly hurt his right ankle. It would bother him the rest of his life.

The court-martial of Jackie Robinson is a fascinating story that later became a play. But let’s try to stay focused on the baseball thing — let’s see where we are here. On November 28, 1944, Jackie Robinson was honorable discharged from the army after winning his court-martial case. He was 25 years old, almost 26. He’d played one season of college baseball and had hit .097. He had a bum ankle. He was a very angry person. The army had almost ruined him. And there was an unspoken agreement in baseball that no one would sign a black player.

I think you could say that what followed was the most unlikely series of events in the history of baseball.

* * *

Here’s how it began: Robinson saw a baseball pitcher throwing good curveballs. In the version Robinson told in his autobiography “I Never Had It Made,” he saw a pitcher named Ted Alexander pitching on a field at Camp Breckenridge in Kentucky. In another version, one often told around Kansas City, Robinson actually met the Hall of Famer Hilton Smith, who was famous for his curveball. In either case, the pitcher encouraged Robinson to send a letter to the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues asking for a job.

Robinson sent a letter to Thomas Baird, who was the partner of Kansas City Monarchs founder J.L. Wilkinson. Baird was obviously interested — Robinson was one of the most famous African-American athletes in America. And the Negro Leagues were always in need of players who could bring out the fans; this was particularly true during the war. Robinson and Baird haggled over money in a series of letters, and then a deal was struck. Robinson worked as a physical education teacher in Texas for a couple of months until spring training.

When Robinson showed up for spring training he was — to say the least — underwhelmed. Robinson came to spring training with a healthy distrust of Negro Leagues baseball; he would say that at 17 he had played for a Negro Leagues team and was never paid. Then, there was some hassle of his contract — namely if he even needed one. The Monarchs seemed to believe the letters sent back and forth constituted a binding contract. To Jackie Robinson, it just felt small-time.

And for the rest of his life, he would talk about how miserable that season was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. There were extenuating circumstances. It was during the war so many of the best players were gone. And this was before Jackie had married Rachel; he was lonely. Even so, it has always struck me how Buck O’Neil saw the Negro Leagues and how Jackie Robinson saw them. Buck would often talk about how wonderful the conditions were, how great the games were, how delicious the food and music and nightlife.

And Jackie Robinson wrote this in his autobiography:

“The teams were poorly financed, and their management and promotion left much to be desired. Travel schedules were unbelievably hectic. … This fatiguing travel wouldn’t have been so bad if we could have had decent meals. Finding satisfactory or even passable eating places was almost a daily problem. There was no hotel in many of the places we played. … Some of the crummy eating joints would not serve us at all. You could never sit down to a relaxed hot meal. You were lucky if they magnanimously permitted you to carry out some greasy hamburgers in a paper bag with a container of coffee.”

The different viewpoints, I believe, explain the different men. Buck’s genius was is seeing the good in people and seeing the good in situations. That allowed him to overcome so many disappointments. Jackie Robinson’s genius was different though. His genius was a sense of justice. His genius was fearlessness. And so it really came down to this:

Buck O’Neil saw the Negro Leagues as a beautiful baseball league with wonderful players that was built in defiance of an America that insisted African Americas could not play.

Jackie Robinson saw the Negro Leagues as a second-rate baseball league with some good players that only existed because of the racism of the time.

They were both right, in their own ways. You have perhaps heard Buck O’Neil’s story about Jackie Robinson and the bus. It is the story that led off the movie “42.” The Monarchs were traveling through Oklahoma when they stopped at their usual gas station. While stopped, Robinson headed for the rest room. “Where you going boy?” the gas station owner asked. “You know you can’t go in there.”

To which Robinson replied: “Pull the hose out of the tank.”

Buck loved to imagine what was happening in the owner’s mind. On one side of the brain, there was the part of him that believed in segregation. On the other side, there was the realization that this bus had tanks on both sides and that if he lost the Monarchs business it would take a bite out of his earning and his life.

“OK, go ahead,” the owner told Jackie Robinson. “But make it fast.”

Buck O’Neil would say that in a million years it would never have occurred to him to challenge the owner the way Jackie Robinson did that day. He had been to that very gas station dozens of times, and he liked the owner. The owner was nice to them, didn’t hassle them … “We were conditioned,” Buck would say. “We were conditioned to simply accept what was happening no matter how unfair it was, conditioned to accept that we couldn’t change things. But Jackie wasn’t conditioned like that.”

Jackie Robinson played a few months for the Monarchs and then the story becomes very familiar. Dodgers executive Branch Rickey sends out scouts to see him. Rickey pretends he is starting an all-black team. Rickey meets with Robinson — the famous “I want someone with guts NOT to fight back” meeting. Everything changed.

Jackie Robinson could not wait to leave the Monarchs. He got into a bit of a fight with the club management and he just went home before the season ended. The Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson was outraged when he found out that Robinson had signed with the Dodgers. Rickey had not volunteered to compensate the Monarchs — in fact, Rickey disdainfully refused to even acknowledged that the Negro Leagues existed as a baseball league.

Wilkinson eventually let it go. Some said he let it go because he knew that it was right for black players to play in the Major Leagues — that was always Buck’s taken. Some, though, said he let go under duress; the black press would have attacked him mercilessly if he had tried to get in the way in baseball integration.

* * *

So, one more time, it’s good see where we are: The Dodgers had signed a 27-year-old player with fantastic athletic ability, an unquestioned drive and almost no baseball experience at all. Robinson had hit .345 for the Monarchs, but nobody knew what that meant. Competition during the war was shaky. Robinson’s actual batting average was a mystery even to him — he admitted that he never knew what games counted and what games did not.

Beyond the batting average, there were many different opinions about Robinson’s game. Newt Allen, Robinson’s teammate with the Monarchs, believed that Robinson’s arm was too weak for the left side of the infield. Some pitchers said Robinson could not hit breaking stuff. Bob Feller (who had pitched against Robinson in a barn-storming tour) said that Robinson was too stiff in the shoulders to hit any inside pitch.

And, remember, the guy had hit .097 at UCLA.

Here we should point out of one the least appreciated aspects of the Jackie Robinson story: He was a man of faith. He got that from his mother. I don’t just mean he was religious, though he was — Robinson didn’t drink and was known to lecture teammates he thought were partying too much. He had faith … Faith in himself, faith in God, he was by all accounts deeply faithful and devoted to Rachel. Most of all, though, he had this faith in destiny. His destiny. He believed deeply that he was the one to cross the color line. He believed deeply that God would not have led him down this path to fair.

Jackie Robinson believed that failure was not an option. But it was more than that. Jackie Robinson believed failure was not possible.

His first flight to spring training was a trip through hell. He and Rachel got bumped from their flights in New Orleans. Were sent to a dismal black hotel. Refused food service. Rerouted through Pensacola. Pulled off the flight. Sent on a 16-hour bus trip. During that bus trip, they were moved to the very back seat of the bus even though they were already sitting near the back in the open section. They were efused service again and again until Rachel was in tears and Jackie was on the verge of hitting someone. Not long after they arrived at a home in Sanford, a mob threatened them and they left town. Jackie Robinson had prepared for the worst only to find that his vision of “worst” was nothing close to the terrible reality.

But … destiny. Robinson got into a terrible slump during spring training; even some writers generally supportive of the cause began to believe he simply wasn’t a good enough baseball player. He did not have the arm for shortstop. His somewhat odd-looking swing did not look even minor-league ready. But … destiny. Robinson believed in it. What’s more, Branch Rickey believed in it too.

And slowly people began to see things.

Al Campanis (who later in life would get fired from the Dodgers and shunned nationally for making various uneducated statements on television about African Americans lacking the necessities to be in management) was one of the first to see Robinson’s brilliance. Campanis was Robinson’s teammate in Montreal, and he was a friend. He watched Robinson move to second base for the first time in his life almost instantly learned the details of turning the double play. After a half hour, he looked as natural there as if he had grown up at second. “He was the most adaptable player I ever saw,” Campanis would say.

Others noticed how smart he was about baseball — he had a keen level of anticipation; he seemed to know what was going to happen before it happened. He adjusted at the plate like no one. Robinson did not only learn how to hit the curveball, but he became one of the best breaking ball hitters of his generation. He did not just adjust to inside pitches; he became lethal at turning on the ball. He went to Montreal under the most intense pressure and hit .349, walked 92 times, stole 40 bases, scored 113 runs and played a beautiful second base.

Now … explain that. Imagine a famous 27-year-old former college player and track star showing up today, someone who hit less than .100 his one year in college, did not play any organized baseball for five years and then had a little bit of success in a short season in independent league. What chance would that player have to make the Major Leagues? Not long ago, I asked my youngest daughter what percentage chance there would be that she would order fish at a restaurant. “Minus 1,000 percent,” she said. That is the percentage you would give such a player.

But … destiny. Buck O’Neil often talked about it. If there had been no cause, if Jackie Robinson had come up in a different time, he almost certainly would not have played baseball. He would have run track or played football or maybe even been a star point guard. But Buck believed something even more. He believed Robinson in another time, without the cause, Jackie Robinson COULD NOT have played baseball at that level. He believed that what transformed Jackie Robinson into one of the game’s greatest players was that cause. He devoted himself to the game as few ever have — he devoted his mind, his body and spirit to baseball. He had to be quicker than anyone, had to be smarter than anyone, had to be more driven than anyone. Because … that was his cause. And that was his destiny.

In his first year with the Dodgers, Robinson hit .297, walked 74 times, scored 125 runs, led the league in stolen bases and hit 12 home runs. That made him Major League Rookie of the Year (they did not give on in each league then). In his third season, he hit .342/.432/.528, scored 122 runs, drove in 124 and led the league with 37 stolen base. That won him the MVP.

One thing about Robinson’s career that has puzzled some of the sabermetrics folks is how phenomenal Robinson’s defensive numbers are. Robinson was not viewed as a defensive star when he played. The Dodgers kept moving his position he played second; he played third; he played first; they put him in the outfield for a while. And yet, year after year, his defensive WAR as figured by Baseball Reference, his defensive WAR as figured by Fangraphs, his defensive contribution as figured multiple ways by Bill James, all of them are spectacular.

There are countless possibilities for this; I’ll throw one out there. I don’t think any player in baseball history every cared as much as Jackie Robinson did. There have always been driven players — those driven by demons like Cobb or driven by competitive fury like Rose or driven by a desperate desire to dominate, like Bonds or Clemens.

But Robinson was driven by an ideal. It wasn’t just the ideal that baseball players should be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their baseball character. That was part of it. There was also the ideal that he was chosen for this task. It was his burden, but it was also his honor. Jackie Robinson couldn’t take a play off. Jackie Robinson couldn’t forget how many out there were. Jackie Robinson couldn’t go into any pitch unprepared. He was playing for history.

I think this is a big reason why I so deeply love the Jackie Robinson story. Yes, of course, there’s the big story, the one of men changing America just a little bit through baseball. But I also love the small story — the one of a 27-year-old man with an aching ankle and a quirky swing and a deficient arm and little experience making himself into a great ballplayer because that was what was needed. Human beings really are capable of extraordinary things.

68 Responses to No. 42: Jackie Robinson

  1. Geoff says:

    So mad that I didn’t pick this…I knew it about five minutes after the contest started.

    • NevadaMark says:

      Geoff, in all good fun, as soon as I saw #42 posted I thought about you. I can’t believe nobody picked that. That Posnanski, he is one clever fellow.

      • DM says:


        Just as a FYI…..looks like 19 of the 107 entries in Geoff’s contest picked Jackie Robinson in the #42 slot. Not sure how many picked him in that slot because of the significance of the number, but it was a popular selection. Sorry to say that I wasn’t one of them.

        For the record, the following contestants correctly predicted Jackie as #42:
        Alan Clements
        Bill Ivimey
        Keith Reise
        Patrick Hogue
        Rafael Bellylard
        Sam C.

        Also for the record (and Geoff, I hope you don’t mind me taking the liberty of posting this), there is a new name atop the leaderboard, as Mike Battoglia took over the top spot from AndyL.

        The top few guys on this list have been mostly nailing these picks, with an average “miss” of about 4 to 5 slots per pick so far. The top 10 scores so far (including the “Wisdom of Crowds (WOC)” which wasn’t an official entry, but rather a representation of consensus picks) is listed below:

        Rank – Player – Score
        1 – Mike Battoglia – 964
        2 – AndyL – 961
        3 – DickAllen – 958
        3 – WoC – 958
        5 – Invitro – 957
        6 – MarkR – 948
        6 – Geoff – 948
        8 – Keith Reise – 946
        9 – DM – 942
        10 – Sam C. – 940

        By the way, kudos to whoever wrote the Excel logic that allowed for automatic standings update after each pick. That was pretty damn slick.

        • NevadaMark says:

          DM, thanks. Obviously I didn’t stop to count. Those are pretty impressive lists.

        • It’s fascinating to me that we put together lists of the top 50 players and we were given a “head start” by eliminating 50 players.

          And after all that, I still failed to pick 2 (so far) players that Joe had (Robinson, Berra) AND that means I still have 2 players in my top-41 that won’t even make Joe’s top-100.

          I’m not even sure who those 2 players might be. George Brett? Pete Rose? Kaline? Ripken? Cy Young?

          This is a fun game. Let’s do it for the NFL next!

          • Sadge says:

            I had Robinson at #42 from the get go. Then, on my final edit, I must have added a cell and it pushed him down to 43 and I didn’t catch it. As soon as it was announced by Joe, I knew I had it dead on until I saw my mistake. Shoot.

            The last two picks burned me bad. Pedro and Spahn were both people I had on my list much of the time. I can’t remember now why I took them off or for who. Those were my first two complete misses and it is painful to think that I have at least two more coming at some point.

          • DM says:

            Hi Richie,

            I looked at your entry (I’m assuming you’re “RichieW13”). My guess is that your 45-48 selections (Plank, Jenkins, Palmer, Hubbell) won’t end up being selected by Joe. All fine pitchers, no doubt, and they are all at least reasonable candidates for top 100 status, but I think they have no chance at this point in the list.

            Aside from J. Robinson and Berra, I think the other 2 that you probably omitted are Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston. I think Joe’s fairly certain to include those 2.

        • Zack says:

          DM, how can I access the standings?

          • DM says:


            Did you get the spreadsheet with everyone’s picks from Geoff? There’s a “Scoring” tab where you enter the names as Joe posts them, and then the “Standings” tab displays the updated standings.

  2. schlom says:

    Robinson, in my opinion, is the greatest athlete in American history. Now granted I might be biased as I went to UCLA because that’s where he went.

    • largebill says:

      “Greatest athlete in American history” is a very subjective thing. Most of us tend to have greater knowledge of team sports and dismiss the individual sports. I don’t say that to argue that Robinson was not the “greatest athlete in American history,” but rather to say it is unknowable. Michael Phelps might be the choice of some people. A different track athlete such as Carl Lewis might be someone else’s choice. I lean towards Jim Brown. Brown, like Robinson, was exceptional at everything he attempted. One of the problems with the current trend to focus on only one sport is we aren’t finding out if a LeBron James or Mike Trout might have become “greatest athlete in American history.”

  3. NevadaMark says:

    I agree. Compare him with Thorpe. Thorpe and Robinson were both great at track and football, but Thorpe didn’t play much or any basketball while Robinson was a star, and Robinson was in another league compared to Thorpe when it came to basketball.

    Jim Brown compares favorably, at least when you consider their college careers.

    • NevadaMark says:

      Meant to say “compared to Thorpe when it came to baseball.”

      • Jaunty Rockefeller says:

        You may be right that Robinson ought to be considered a greater athlete than Thorpe, but it’s a little unfair to base that opinion on the fact that Thorpe didn’t play much basketball. Thorpe was born before basketball was even invented, and when he was in his athletic prime—1912 Olympics, say—basketball hadn’t yet really gained a foothold in the national sports scene. The only organized basketball I’m aware of him playing didn’t happen until he was in his 40s or so. Robinson, meanwhile, grew up playing basketball (among other sports, of course).

  4. elcapdan says:

    Great column Joe!

  5. bl says:

    Joe, i wish you would take time away from all of your many other projects and write the screenplay for the movie Jackie deserves. Is story is much more interesting than mainstream entertainment lead us to believe.

    • largebill says:

      With how recent the movie 42 was released it is an undoable idea to make another movie on Robinson so soon. Even if many were disappointed in that movie. Any biographical movie has to pick and choose what parts of a life to give short change to and 42 was no different. It mostly concentrated on his baseball career.

  6. Joe says:

    I find it wonderfully amazing that Jackie won the rookie of the year award. Who voted on the award then? Was it still the writers? I would think that many sportswriters (or owners/gms/managers/players) would have felt the same prejudices that the public felt and not voted for him for the award. I think it speaks to the high regard Jackie was held in as a man, and the remarkable season he had in the face of such adversity.

    • Drew says:

      Joe, great point about the voting body that many (including me) overlook; unfortunately, we assume everyone was prejudiced in that era.

    • There was really only one serious rookie competitor that year. Larry Janson had a fine year going 21-5 3.16 with a 5.0 WAR to Robinsons 3.1. But it is a bit amazing that Robinson beat out a 20 game winner. But obviously Robinson was THE story that year.

  7. George says:

    RE: Joe –

    Not only Jackie winning the ROY, but black players dominated the NL MVP award for over a decade following integration. This suggests that (1) the Negro Leagues were absolutely loaded with great players (as Joe and others have written many times) and (2) the voters didn’t hesitate to give these players the awards they deserved.

    And add me to the list of entrants who are kicking themselves for not nailing this pick. Seems so obvious in hindsight. I think we can all agree this is too low a ranking though. Even if you throw out the significance of breaking the color barrier, Jackie’s bWAR/162 is basically double that of Pete Rose, while easily outpacing Yaz, Ripken, Frank Robinson, Rickey Henderson, etc.

    • Wes (@wcrickards) says:

      If you look at the first few years after integration, this is what the Negro Leagues produced: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Roy Campenella, Satchel Paige….. safe to say that the Negro Leagues were loaded.

    • I don’t know about loaded. There were the super stars like Aaron, Robinson, Mays, Banks, Newcombe, etc. no doubt. But the criticism of the negro leagues was that they were a bit thin in depth. Maybe the teams wanted only the cream of the crop, and the mid level players just never got a chance.

    • Patrick Bohn says:

      I think there comes a point, when discussing players of a certain talent level, where, even if peak > longevity, longevity becomes an asset. I mean, as long as you’re still good, don’t the extra 7,000-8,000 plate appearances have a lot of value?

      To be clear, I’m not advocating Jim Kaat over Sandy Koufax. But I think a lot of the guys we have left had great peaks AND longevity

  8. otistaylor89 says:

    As awful as it sounds, WWII was probably the best thing that ever happened to baseball. If there was no war there would have been no way, due to the state of race relations that existed in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, that Jackie Robinson would have been able to play in 1947. The war integrated the entire country (North, South, East, West) into service, which lead to integration of baseball which lead back to the integration of the arm services.
    BTW, there is a 12 year age difference between Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays (who will probably be #2 on this list), but only a 4 year MLB start date difference, meaning Jackie lost as much as 8 years playing MLB. You think he would have been a little higher on this list if he even had 5 of those years?

    This why I have a hard time with flag waving, USA greatest country in world history people who can’t see how awful this country made it on a large percentage of our own people for so many years.

    • Robinson went to college, so he wouldn’t have been in the majors at 19, like Mays was. And he would still have served in the military during WWII. My best guess is that he lost three years: 1941, 1945, and 1946;

      • otistaylor89 says:

        He went to college during a period when there was no real professional baseball option for him. My guess would be that, because he was that great of an athlete, if he had started with baseball he would have made it at 19 or 20 and would have lost 5-6 years.

      • That’s a little tough to say in that Robinson didn’t even restart his baseball career until 26. A year or two of negro league ball and one year of minor league ball. That’s a pretty fast rise to the big leagues. At most, he lost one year.

    • BozemanKidd says:

      It is fine to criticize our country, and it does make mistakes. But one can still wave the flag for the principles and for what the country has overcome, and the progress it has made and continues to make, and for the good it has done, including in WWII.

      I find from my experience in this country, and living in another, that most people who are not jingoistic are much harder on their own country than they are on others. This is a cognitive error that results from being much more ignorant about all of the horrible things that all of the other countries they don’t live in have done.

      • Dave says:

        This may be true. I would argue the converse is also true: people who are jingoistic tend to almost blindly dismiss their own country’s failings while being all too quick to point them out in others. Which is also a serious cognitive error.

        Given the choice between the two, I would rather be harder on myself (or my country) than on others. But YMMV.

      • largebill says:

        Well said. I’m constantly appalled by the level of historical ignorance displayed online. Usually, the greater the ignorance the more certain some are in passing judgments about the past. There are some in every generation who naively believe their generation is the first to discover the sins of the past and if only their generation had been born sooner things would have been so much better.

        • Ty Sellers says:

          “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” Bertrand Russell said this many years before the advent of the interwebs but it seems much more poignant today now that a click of a button allows us to see the ignorance/fanaticism in the world on a much broader scale. I would like to say that seeing this quote may inspire the trolls to become more informed before they hit submit but I fear it would be lost on most, if not all, of them.

  9. Wes (@wcrickards) says:

    Sweet — I totally nailed the #42 Jackie Robinson pick. That pushes me back into the top 25…. I did have “42” as a tie with Josh Gibson… pity I didn’t nail that double.

  10. DM says:


    Thought I’d continue my “round the diamond” positional update on Joe’s picks, who the WOC predicts is still to come, and other thoughts. For the sake of brevity, I won’t repeat the format explanation here, but if you didn’t catch the initial entry under Pedro Martinez’ entry, you can see it there, or you can go to this address (thanks to Bepd50 for setting up the alternate posting site):

    Since this is Jackie Robinson’s post, here’s the review on second basemen. At this point, Joe has named 9 second basemen, and it’s likely that Joe Morgan, Eddie Collins, and Rogers Hornsby are still to come. If the Wisdom of Crowds (WOC) correctly predicts who is remaining to be named, then second base will be the third most prolific position with 12, putting it behind pitchers (26) and first base (13)

    1. “Poz-to-Date” (Joe’s picks so far at this position)
    Name – Overall – Rank at Position
    Lou Whitaker – 97 – 12
    Craig Biggio – 93 – 11
    Frankie Frisch – 84 – 10
    Roberto Alomar – 82 – 9
    Ryne Sandberg – 78 – 8
    Charlie Gehringer – 63 – 7
    Rod Carew – 54 – 6
    Nap Lajoie – 49 – 5
    Jackie Robinson – 42 – 4

    2. “WOC Crystal Ball” (Predicted picks remaining at position)
    Name – Predicted Overall – Predicted Rank at Position
    Eddie Collins – 31 – 3
    Joe Morgan – 24 – 2
    Rogers Hornsby – 13 – 1

    3. “Close but no Cigar” (Next 5 players that I think could have been considered at the position)
    Bobby Grich
    Joe Gordon
    Chase Utley
    Jeff Kent
    Willie Randolph

    There’s probably only one of those that I think has a real good case for top 100 at this point and that’s Grich, who has certainly been one of the darlings of the sabermetric crowd for decades. He’s probably the best second baseman not currently in the HOF.

    I think Grich was a little better than the lowest-ranked 2B on Joe’s list (Whitaker @ #97). Not a lot better, but a little. If you’re a WAR guy, Grich is #8 at 2B in career WAR, and #10 in peak WAR (at least if you define “peak” using the JAWS definition of top 7 years, regardless of whether they were consecutive). For me, he’s borderline top 100…..and he’d probably be outside the top 100 for me. When Bill James did his most recent top 100 (about 14 years ago), he listed Grich as those that just missed the cut (#107)

    Gordon’s career was a little short (11 years). Like many others, he lost some time to World War II, and then, when he was 36, he became a player-manager in the PCL, and hit 43 HR’s his first year there. Can you imagine what a story that would be if someone did that today? In any case, he offered a great combination of power, batting eye, and stellar defense.

    Utley’s still active, of course, so we don’t have his finished resume yet. I listed him because, when healthy, he’s been awfully good. I think he can still move up, although at 35 years old he’s running out of time. His career totals aren’t real impressive yet (he has fewer than 1,500 hits, for example), as he got going a little late (first full season was at 26), and he’s missed a lot of time due to injury. However, I think his “peak” is probably among the top 10 at the position. He’s having a pretty good year this year, so if can somehow manage to put a few more decent years in the books before he hangs it up (or literally “falls apart”), he can still move up.

    Kent’s not my favorite player, but it’s hard to not at least give an honorable mention to the all-time HR leader at a position, although I kind of like having a second baseman that can actually field 🙂

    4. “Maybe Down the Road” – Among current players, I think there are 3 that are pretty good candidates that will likely demand at least some consideration by the time they’re through. I mentioned Utley above. The other 2 are Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia. All 3, at their best, have been close to MVP-type level players (with Pedroia winning the award once).

    I actually think that Cano has the best chance of the 3 to potentially crack this list. I think Utley’s a little higher than him now, but Cano is 4 years younger and I think his career numbers will end up being more impressive in the end. I would have felt a little better about Cano’s chances if he had stayed with the Yankees, though, because I think he’s going to be out of the limelight in Seattle, and that could hurt him. He’s been an awfully good and consistent player his whole career, and he’s been very durable. He doesn’t offer much speed or much in the way of patience, although he has been drawing more walks in recent years. I think Utley’s been the better “all around” player, but I think Cano may end up with the more impressive career. He’s having another fine year in Seattle right now, and his numbers look pretty normal so far with the exception of HR’s (he only has 1 so far). I know it’s a tough home park, but I assume he should still be able to do better than that. He may not ever crack 30 HR’s again, but I think he should be good for solid double-digit HR’s for the next several years.

    Pedroia’s terrific too…..but I think he’s a longshot to crack the list. I like Utley’s and Cano’s chances better.

    5. “Guilty Pleasure” – Criteria here is someone not in the HOF, not mentioned on Joe’s list or the WOC, probably well short of top 100 status, but someone that I think is generally overlooked in the sweep of history. Grich would probably be the pick here, but I think he’s actually too good for this “category”. I suspect Joe gave strong consideration to him. As mentioned, I think he’s at least the equal of Whitaker, maybe a hair better (personal preference).

    So, instead of Grich, I’ll go with Willie Randolph (who I briefly mentioned under “Close but no Cigar”) as my guilty pleasure. His numbers don’t jump out you, but he’s one of my favorites. Very consistent, he seemed to always end up batting in the .270 – .290 range, with a good enough batting eye and plate discipline to end up with OBP’s typically in the .360-.380 range. True, he didn’t offer much in the way of power, and that hurts him in comparison to other greats, but he was a good, consistent top-of-the order guy on offense.

    In other facets of the game, Randolph was a good base stealer and had a strong defensive reputation, although he was out of luck for any hope of Gold Glove awards as Frank White (along with Whitaker) had a monopoly on the award during Randolph’s best years, Not sure if you’re a proponent of Total Zone Runs as a defensive metric, but, for what it’s worth, Randolph is #3 at the position behind Bill Mazeroski and Frank White, and Randolph is also 3rd in career DP’s turned at 2B behind Mazeroski and Nellie Fox. So, no hardware for Randolph, but I think he was a very good defensive 2B. All in all, one of my favorite “off the wall” second basemen.

    Interested to hear other’s thoughts.


    • Patrick Bohn says:

      One of the things that strikes me about Randolph is how he seemed to miss 15-25 games nearly every season. I look at a Robinson Cano who’s played 159 or more games each of the last seven seasons, and I think that provides some extra value—as long as you’re playing at a high level, beyond just what comes across in WAR or counting stats.

      For example, if you’re always missing games does your team overpay to get a backup who can be more than just a spot starter? Or do they wind up having to overpay the backup in future years because he plays 40-50 games a year instead of 5-10? Does that mean you lose out on the flexibility of a utility player because you’re more focused on finding a career SS/2B/Whatever to be the backup?

      Is the opportunity cost of those missed games greater for some teams rather than others, like if you’re a fringe playoff team?

      Maybe this adds up to nothing but noise, but I’ve wondered if there was a value to it

      • Ross says:

        Thanks DM, good post as usual.
        For me a “guilty pleasure” is Knoblauch. A pretty solid player for a while (#18 2B in WAR7), but to many will be best known for his issues with the Yankees through to 1st.

        • DM says:

          Hi Ross,

          Yeah, Knoblauch is a good choice for that category, maybe even better than Randolph. It’s fascinating to go back in time and see where he as of his final year with Minnesota. He was only 28 years old, and already had accumulated a 38 WAR. He had reached seasonal highs of 62 steals, a .341 batting average, a .448 OBP. He led the league in double once and triples once. He even had a gold glove. He was quite the valuable package. And then, it all went south very quickly.

      • largebill says:

        Good point. Some times advanced statistics can miss the value of being in the lineup every day. A wise man once said a good deal of success is showing up.

    • Brian says:

      I’d take Ross Barnes over any of your “Close but no Cigar” players. He was arguably the best player in his league for several years, something none of those guys can claim.

      • DM says:

        Ah, yes….Ross Barnes, the king of the “Fair-Foul” hit. He might suffer from a slight issue of the whole “level of competition” angle. Hard for me to consider someone who doesn’t even have 500 games to his name.

  11. sb m says:

    Wonderful article. So of course I will nitpick it as is my god-given right. This part (realizing Joe is quoting from another source) seems like bad logic:

    “Because Jackie Robinson of UCLA, playing on the Coast’s weakest team with NO support even remotely comparable to that which Vaughn received from a championship team, has just won the Conference individual scoring title.”

    It’s that exactly the kind of team where the best player leads the league in scoring, whether he’s truly great or not, just because he’s taking all the shots?

  12. One gets the sense that not only was Jackie incredibly physically gifted, but he must also have had an incredible athletic intelligence. It seems rare to see both in the same person. That’s one way to explain him picking up golf and tennis, leading the conference in basketball scoring, being off the charts on the defensive stats, etc.

    JR is on the very short list of players who really had no apparent weakness: Mays, DiMaggio, Aaron. A few others. (Bill James puts Barry Larkin on that list, which I’ll mention since I’m a Reds fan.)

  13. John Dawson says:

    Severe overuse of the word “genius.”

  14. George says:

    RE: bellweather22 –

    By most accounts, only the cream of the crop were taken in by MLB. For many years after the color barrier was broken, teams seemed to limit the number of black players on their roster. Obviously the star players got taken and the mid-level guys were excluded. The end result was black players representing a high percentage of the league leaders in most categories, but a very low percentage of the league overall.

  15. bepd50 says:

    thanks DM, I was wondering exactly that. you have probably covered this already, but here are the first few player-rankcombinations that have the largest consensus,

    rank number-of-people-picking-it player
    01 99 Babe Ruth
    02 63 Willie Mays
    03 31 Barry Bonds
    05 28 Ty Cobb
    04 25 Barry Bonds
    03 23 Willie Mays
    10 21 Stan Musial
    02 21 Barry Bonds
    06 20 Hank Aaron
    42 19 Jackie Robinson
    04 18 Ted Williams
    04 17 Ty Cobb
    08 17 Stan Musial
    07 16 Ty Cobb
    06 16 Ty Cobb
    05 16 Ted Williams
    49 16 Al Kaline
    05 15 Walter Johnson
    09 15 Honus Wagner
    07 14 Ted Williams

    so yeah relatively speaking a lot of people guessed right on the 42 gimmick.

    • DM says:

      Thanks, Bepd50. Interesting that Ty Cobb appeared 4 times, all in the 4-7 slots, fairly evenly distributed.

    • bepd50 says:

      its probably worth noting the way I order the names here. They are ordered first by number of ballots, so for example,

      mean-rank name
      01.14 Babe Ruth
      02.74 Willie Mays
      06.63 Ty Cobb
      06.75 Ted Williams
      07.46 Walter Johnson
      08.73 Honus Wagner
      10.85 Stan Musial
      13.75 Lou Gehrig
      18.17 Cy Young
      24.19 Tom Seaver
      28.97 Christy Mathewson
      36.86 George Brett

      were all mentioned on all 113 ballots, so they are the first 12 names. within that group, they are ordered by mean rank.

      The next group are those mentioned on 112 out of 113 ballots,
      07.34 Hank Aaron
      17.86 Greg Maddux
      24.27 Mike Schmidt

      the next, those mentioned on 111 ballots
      04.68 Barry Bonds
      13.99 Roger Clemens
      16.08 Mickey Mantle
      19.32 Tris Speaker
      36.96 Cal Ripken
      39.16 Roberto Clemente

      and so on.

      so that’s why players like Aaron, Bonds, Oscar Charleston etc fall out of the pattern, they have higher mean rankings then players mentioned on more ballots.

  16. Joe – great article, but you need a proof-reader!

    • Shep says:

      No doubt he’ll have one for the book. Just pretend you’re seeing a pre-release version and it’s charming.

  17. Dave says:

    Reply 42 is retired.

  18. Michael Green says:

    There are so many wonderful stories that explain Jackie Robinson, but I love The Vin’s story of the watermelon. One scorching day in St. Louis, they were coming out to the bus, and somebody had lined up watermelons and was slicing off pieces for the Dodgers. When Robinson got out and the guy handed him the melon, Robinson blew up at him. And then everybody, including Young Scully, started yelling that it was ok, EVERYBODY was having it. But as The Vin said, this reminds you of the pressure, the burden he carried, and how deeply, as Joe suggests, he felt.

  19. Another fantastic post that captures the heart of the story.

    Baseball gets to pat itself on the back celebrating Jackie Robinson, but I’m not sure that Jackie would be that grateful. Jackie Robinson’s mission was about confronting racism in America, not about basking in accolades. In 1972, when Jackie Robinson threw out the first pitch of the World Series, he used the occasion to confront commissioner Bowie Kuhn on national tv, saying “One day I’d like to look over at third base and see a black man managing the ball club.”

    I can’t speak for the man, but I imagine Robinson would have had something to say about the declining participation of blacks in baseball, the lack of major League efforts to promote baseball in inner cities (focusing on foreign born players instead), the whiff of racism in the vilification of Barry Bonds, and the dearth of black baseball executives and owners. I think he would have been much prouder of Magic Johnson’s owning a share of the Dodgers than on having his number retired by every team in baseball (and Jackie would certainly have something to say about the Donald Sterling fiasco). Like Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson could make people very uncomfortable, and would still be speaking out against injustice if he were alive today.

  20. bepd50 says:

    here is what the player-rank heat map looks like if its ordered by average rank

  21. George says:

    RE: bepd50 –

    Are you telling me someone left Hank Aaron off their list altogether?

  22. DM says:

    More fun with the contest….

    Here are the 9 players named so far (in the top 50), along with how the WOC ranked them, the amount of the “miss” (the difference between the WOC rank and Joe’s rank), and the # of ballots the had the pick exactly right.

    Note that a whopping 19 entries nailed Jackie Robinson at #42, which is by far the most on any player to date. Guess a lot of people went with the jersey number significance in placing him at 42.

    The biggest miss to date has been Pujols, who most people had quite a bit higher than Joe.

    Joe # – Player – WOC – Miss – # Exact
    42 – Jackie Robinson – 38 – 4 – 19
    43 – Warren Spahn – 41 – 2 – 2
    44 – Pedro Martinez – 36 – 8 – 6
    45 – Yogi Berra – 47 – 2 – 7
    46 – Sandy Koufax – 48 – 2 – 5
    47 – Albert Pujols – 34 – 13 – 3
    48 – Bob Feller – 49 – 1 – 5
    49 – Nap Lajoie – 39 – 10 – 3
    50 – Al Kaline – 50 – 0 – 4

    More data below. Keep in mind that the “penalty” includes a 50 point deduction if a player is not listed on the ballot that was submitted.

    Note that Bob Feller was only on 64% of the ballots submitted, and Yogi Berra only 78%, leading to their relatively high average “penalties” per ballot.

    Joe # – Player – Avg. Penalty – % Ballots On – % Ballot Off
    42 – Jackie Robinson – 12.0 – 94% – 6%
    43 – Warren Spahn – 11.5 – 93% – 7%
    44 – Pedro Martinez – 14.8 – 95% – 5%
    45 – Yogi Berra – 18.5 – 78% – 22%
    46 – Sandy Koufax – 16.6 – 85% – 15%
    47 – Albert Pujols – 16.8 – 98% – 2%
    48 – Bob Feller – 24.1 – 64% – 36%
    49 – Nap Lajoie – 16.2 – 93% – 7%
    50 – Al Kaline – 17.5 – 93% – 7%

  23. Wasn’t Joe going to write like 10 of these in 11 days? Are they dominican days that take longer or something? Because we’ve been seeing one of these per week. And sorry Joe, I just can’t shake the Pujols thing…

  24. bepd50 says:

    a multi-dimensional scaling plot, consider only entries 42-50,

  25. Joe Kidd says:

    Jackie Robinson is one of my heroes. Having read what he went through and how he handled it all makes him a special man. Wish I could have been there way back then. He died too young. Our country became a better one because of him. His wife, Rachel Robinson, is a real lady and a wonderful ambassador for baseball. Thanks for this!

  26. […] in all team sports across the country. Further reading on Robinson can be found here, here, here, here and […]

  27. Jonathan Doe says:

    Jackie Robinson, as pointed out by a gunning sportswriter who covered the Dodgers named Dick Young, could never just discuss baseball without throwing in the civil rights argument. Unlike, for instance, Roy Campanella. Jackie’s aggression and anger made enemies but he clearly didn’t care who liked him or didn’t like him. The real tragedy of Jackie Robinson, Young wrote, was that after baseball, Jackie could never come close to what he did in baseball.

  28. Typos:
    One coach called him “the best basketball player in the United States. – missing the closing ”

    Rookie of the Year (they did not give on in each league then) – should be “one” not “on”.

    brought into pitch s/b in to pitch

    He played some football, but that too was complicated by segregation and he quit — the most significant athletic thing that happened to Jackie Robinson in the army was that he badly hurt his right ankle. – the dash should be a period.

    honorable discharged s/b honorably

    there was some hassle of his contract – s/b over his contract

    Rickey disdainfully refused to even acknowledged that the Negro Leagues – s/b acknowledge

    in the way in baseball integration – s/b in the way of

    what games counted and what games did not – s/b which games counted and which games did not

    He had faith … Faith in himself, faith in God, – either change the ellipsis to a period, or don’t capitalize Faith

    God would not have led him down this path to fair. – probably you meant fail

    They were efused service again – s/b refused

    He watched Robinson move to second base for the first time in his life almost instantly learned the details of turning the double play – needs something like “where he” before almost, or “and almost instantly learn” to match tenses.

    He adjusted at the plate like no one. – I think it needs the else ending this sentence. In this same paragraph, I think if you are going to use “He did not/but also” repeatedly, you should use it the same way in all three sentences.

    The Dodgers kept moving his position he played second; he played third; he played first; they put him in the outfield for a while. – needs something after position, a period, a dash, a colon, something.

    Jackie Robinson couldn’t forget how many out there were. – s/b outs

    Now for my commentary – I had not heard all these stories, so thank you. You researched this one quite a bit. I believe that part of what gave Jackie his drive was that Los Angeles was a relatively unbiased city for the time, and he could grow up without having his sense of justice beaten out of him by constant repetition, and could survive to get in to college when in many other cities he’d have been in prison or worse for having his drive. We (the Dodgers, baseball, and America) were lucky to have him.

    And again: I don’t bother proofing most internet posts. But I feel it gives back a little to you. Probably my own fantasy – as a professional game designer I make up stories for a living. Probably when your book of the baseball 100 comes out you’d just give it to an editor who’d make the corrections for you, so why would you bother or need my help here. But in my head, I’m helping you write more, for which I am grateful.

    Very respectfully,
    Richard Aronson

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