Jackie Robinson is an icon for a good reason. He’s arguably the most important player in MLB history, outside of maybe Babe Ruth. However, Jackie is known more for his courage and conviction than his accomplishments on the field. Jackie’s career was short as he didn’t make his major-league debut until he was 28, and his last All-Star season came when he was 35. Thus, he couldn’t generate the counting stats to put him atop the leaderboards with other all-time greats. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t an excellent player. Robinson was an extraordinary athlete who dominated over the first eight years of his ten-year MLB career.
This article aims to celebrate Jackie Robinson, the baseball player. We’ll highlight his career between the lines to bring attention to his myriad of accomplishments. He was a truly special player in addition to being a truly special person. Let’s begin with a brief snapshot of his athletic achievements before he broke the color barrier.
Jackie enrolled at UCLA in 1939 after an illustrious athletic career at Muir High School and Pasadena Junior College in Southern California. Robinson became the first player in the school’s history to earn varsity letters in four sports: football, basketball, baseball, and track. Ironically, baseball was probably Jackie’s worst sport at UCLA. On the gridiron, Robinson set a school record for yards per carry and led the NCAA in punt return average twice. On the basketball court, he led the league in scoring as a junior and a senior. On the track, Jackie won the NCAA long-jump title in 1940.
After UCLA, Robinson began a football career, playing for integrated semi-pro teams in Honolulu and Los Angeles. In 1942, Jackie was drafted but never saw combat as his Army tenure was short. He was honorably discharged two years later after refusing to move to the back of a bus in Fort Hood, Texas. This defiance may have helped Dodgers’ GM Branch Rickey target Jackie as a man who could stand up for himself.
Robinson began his baseball career after being discharged from the Army. In 1945, he joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. Jackie hit .375 in his one season with the Monarchs and led the league with 13 doubles and four HRs in 34 games. Rickey had been scouting Robinson and signed him to a minor league contract with the Dodgers-affiliated Montreal Royals in October. In his one year in the minors, Robinson was the International League MVP, won a batting title, and led the Royals to the “Little World Series” championship. He was ready for The Show.
Just Getting Started: 1947-1948
During his rookie season, Jackie endured taunts, racial slurs, death threats, high spikes, beanballs, and even tension in his own dugout. He responded by turning the other cheek and winning the BBWAA’s inaugural Rookie of the Year award. Robinson slashed .297/.383/.427 in 1947 and struck out in only 5.1% of his plate appearances. His greatest asset was his speed. Robinson led the league with 29 stolen bases and scored 125 runs. He was a table setter for the Dodgers, usually batting second, and as a result, also led the league in sacrifice bunts.
With Eddie Stanky entrenched at second base and Pee Wee Reese at shortstop, Jackie also had to learn a new position. The opening was at first base, so that’s where he lined up in the 151 games he played. It wasn’t ideal for Robinson, who committed 16 errors, but his bat more than compensated. His subpar defense hurt his WAR numbers during his rookie season. His Fangraphs WAR (fWAR) was 3.5, and his Baseball-Reference WAR (bWAR) was 4.1. Jackie’s WAR wouldn’t be that low again until late in his career.
The addition of Robinson to the lineup propelled the Dodgers to the NL Pennant, but they fell to the Yankees 4-3 in the World Series. Jackie had two doubles, three RBI, two SBs, and three runs scored in the series but hit only .259. He firmly established himself, though, and it was clear he would be a big part of Brooklyn’s future. In the offseason, the Dodgers doubled down on their commitment to Robinson by trading Stanky to the Braves, which opened up second base.
Offensively, Jackie’s sophomore statistics were remarkably similar to his rookie year. He hit .296/.367/.453 with an identical 12 HRs, 108 runs, 85 RBI, and 22 stolen bases. The 85 RBI far surpassed the 48 runs he drove in the year before as Robinson was moved down in the lineup. On defense, Jackie excelled, ranking seventh in BR’s defensive WAR rating among NL position players. The improved defensive ratings led to a bump in fWAR to 4.8 and bWAR to 5.3, putting him near the top of the league. Despite these impressive numbers, the best was yet to come.
Prime Time: 1949-1953
From 1949 through 1953, Jackie Robinson was arguably the best player in baseball. His fWAR over this span was neck-and-neck with Stan Musial for the highest in the game. He kicked off this run with his MVP season. In 1949, Robinson won the batting title with a .342 average and accumulated a league-leading 37 stolen bases. His 9.3 bWAR and 9.6 fWAR also led the National League. Adding to these totals, Jackie scored 122 runs, drove in 85, and slugged 38 doubles, 12 triples, and 16 home runs. He walked 86 times while only striking out 27. In addition, Robinson played excellent defense, posting a top-ten defensive WAR rating, and made his first All-Star team. Jackie was the best player on a star-studded Dodgers lineup that took the pennant in 1949, only to fall again to the Yankees in the World Series.
Robinson was nearly as good in 1950 and 1951. He was among the WAR leaders in 1950 and again led the league in 1951. He slashed .328/.423/.500 in 1950 and .338/.429/.527 in ’51. Jackie returned to the midsummer classic both seasons and would continue to represent the Dodgers at the game through 1954. His best defensive season came in 1951, when Robinson led all second basemen in putouts, assists, double plays, and defensive WAR. The Dodgers missed the playoffs by one game in 1950 and forced a playoff with the Giants in 1951, largely due to Jackie. The last game of the regular season against the Phillies went to extra innings, and in the top of the 14th, Jackie’s home run off Robin Roberts proved to be the difference. The subsequent three-game series against New York ended with Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” which sent the Giants to the World Series.
The following two seasons, 1952 and 1953, were also productive for Robinson. In ’52, Jackie led the league with a .440 OBP after drawing 106 walks and tied his career high (set in 1951) with 19 home runs. He also led MLB in fWAR and bWAR among position players. The Dodgers returned to the World Series that season with the same result: a seven-game defeat to the hated Yankees. In 1953, Robinson agreed to move off of second base, despite his defensive excellence at the keystone, to make way for Jim Gilliam, a young black player. Jackie played multiple positions that year, primarily third base and left field. His offense didn’t suffer from the change as Robinson slashed .329/.425/.502, scored 109 runs and drove in 95. History repeated itself in the fall, as the Dodgers fell to the Yankees in six World Series games. Robinson, who had struggled in prior series, performed well, slashing .320/.346/.400 in the losing effort.
Winding Down: 1954-1956
Jackie played well in 1954 but was limited to 124 games due to various injuries. He only stole seven bases that season but slugged 15 HRs and batted .311/.413/.505. Robinson played in his last All-Star game that summer and was beginning to show his age. He was only 35, but playing multiple sports throughout his youth and shouldering the mental burden of being a civil rights leader was taking its toll. 1955 proved to be Jackie’s worst statistically but ended with his only World Championship. He played in only 105 games and hit .256/.378/.363. His numbers were alright by most standards but far below his usual output. That fall, Brooklyn finally defeated the Yankees in the World Series, taking them down in seven games. Jackie didn’t hit well in the series but scored five runs and stole home in Game 1. The victory was bittersweet for Robinson, who sat out Game 7 as manager Walter Alston opted to start Don Hoak at third base.
In the final season of his career, at the age of 37, Jackie Robinson hit .275/.382/.412 in 117 games with 61 runs, 43 RBI, ten HRs, and 12 stolen bases. The Dodgers advanced to the World Series and again faced the Yankees, losing in seven games. Jackie hit only .250 but scored five runs and slugged a homer. Robinson struck out in the final at-bat of his career but had to be thrown out at first when Yogi Berra dropped the pitch. After the season, the Dodgers traded Jackie to the New York Giants, but the deal was never consummated. Robinson was ready to retire from baseball and was already making other plans.
After retirement, Robinson kept busy. He joined the Chock Full o’Nuts coffee company, was chairman of the board for Freedom National Bank, wrote books and a weekly newspaper column, and hosted a radio show. Most importantly, he remained an unofficial advocate for civil rights.
Despite counting stats that fell below typical Hall of Fame standards, Jackie was inducted in 1962 during his first year of eligibility. Given his impact on the game, this was a no-brainer decision for the voters, but Robinson deserved induction solely based on his baseball accomplishments. Though his career was short, Robinson’s fWAR over his ten-year MLB career ranked third among all players. In the decade Robinson played, he led baseball in stolen bases and ranked in the top ten in hits, doubles, runs, batting average, and defensive WAR.
After his career, Jackie acknowledged that he suffered from diabetes. It was rumored that the disease affected him during his playing days, though Robinson never admitted it. If so, his accomplishments on the field are even more impressive. In 1972, the Dodgers retired Jackie’s #42. A few months later, he suffered a heart attack and passed away.
Further honors were bestowed on Robinson by MLB over time. The Rookie-of-the-Year Award was renamed the “Jackie Robinson Award” in 1987, and #42 was retired by every team in 1997. In 2007, at Ken Griffey Jr.’s suggestion, MLB permitted all players to wear #42 on April 15, otherwise known as “Jackie Robinson Day.”