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It is a stunning mix of athletic accomplishments, even without the baseball (which was, after all, his fourth-best sport in college). As Colby Cosh wrote in the National Post in 2007, “Add it all up, and who can present a resume that remotely compares? Bo Jackson? Maybe, if Bo had been a Hall of Fame infielder instead of a mediocre outfielder, and had been capable of playing in the NBA and had been Carl Lewis in his spare time.”
Mythology requires passing over whole swaths of the Hero’s Journey, so you can almost understand why 42 and similar vehicles pass over Robinson’s monstrous and wide-ranging competitive record. (Although it should be noted that his first biopic —1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story, which actually starred Robinson himself—spent a good deal of time on those formative UCLA days.) But a very funny thing has happened along the way to number 42’s canonization: He has become underrated as a baseball player.
When Bill James, the godfather of baseball “sabermetrics” (or “analysis,” if you prefer) created a new statistic called Defensive Win Shares metric a dozen or so years ago, one of his surprising findings was how phenomenal a defender Jackie Robinson was. People generally know that Robinson was the most disruptive baserunner since Ty Cobb, stealing home a record number of times (even in a World Series game!), leading the league in stolen bases, and generally terrorizing pitchers and catchers alike. Indeed, baserunning is his skill most on display in 42. But James found that Robinson played historically high-quality defense at not one but three positions: second base, third base, and left field.
“If it’s a statistical illusion of some kind,” he wrote, “it’s an illusion that chases him all over the diamond. Never underestimate the power of intelligence, particularly when that intelligence is combined with athletic ability, determination, and a formidable competitive instinct.”
Most Hall of Fame players get their start by age 22. Because of discrimination and World War II, Robinson broke into the big leagues at 28, which is even older than the statistical peak years of 26–27. Yet he still managed to win a batting title, lead the National League in on-base percentage, win a Most Valuable Player award, and finish in the top 15 in MVP voting seven seasons in a row while leading the Brooklyn Dodgers to their most celebrated era. His career on-base percentage, the single most important offensive statistic, is 38th all-time. He is without a doubt one of the best five second basemen ever to play major-league baseball.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Robinson’s MVP year, 1949, was the first season that his boss Branch Rickey lifted the rule about turning the other cheek. “From that moment on,” Robinson writes in Baseball Has Done It, “I defended myself against anti-Negro insults with all the force at my command.” As Martin Luther King gave way to Malcolm X, Jackie was no longer so embraced by white audiences. “What’s made you change your attitude, Jackie? I liked you much better when you were less aggressive,” he reports hearing from a (white) umpire in 1954. “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me,” Robinson responded. “All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”
For a half-decade beginning in the liberty year of 1949, Jackie Robinson was not just a great pioneer and an all-star talent, he was the very best player in baseball, according to the newfangled valuation statistic Wins Above Replacement. Finally provided a level playing field where he could vent his emotions just like any other ballplayer, Robinson strode the baseball world during the time of Ted Williams and Stan Musial and Yogi Berra and beat them all at the National Pastime. It wasn’t about showing up; it was about kicking ass.
This is the Jackie Robinson you only catch fleeting glimpses of in the mythological literature. 42 takes place entirely from 1946 to 1947, so we miss even his contentious and telling court martial in 1944, in addition to the glory years when he took off the gloves. As the leftist sports writer Dave Zirin recently pointed out, “Imagine if Spike Lee had chosen to tell the story of Malcolm X by only focusing on 1959–1960 when he was a leader in the Nation of Islam, with no mention of his troubled past or the way his own politics changed later in life.”
If baseball cares as much about Jackie Robinson’s history as it noisily professes, the sport and its fans owe it to both themselves and the subject of their adulation to delve into the whole man and competitor, not just the transitory figure who suffered unholy abuse. And maybe they need to ask themselves why they can still recite passages from The Glory of Their Times by heart but have never heard of Baseball Has Done It.
Nostalgia always tells us something about the era in which it’s produced. The kind so effectively communicated in The Glory of Their Times, inspired by the racist (and also very competitive and complicated) Ty Cobb, came out in a turbulent mid-1960s riven by questions of race. Americans were much more ready to read about the pastoral, bygone good old days than wallow in the contested difficulties of the present. Lawrence Ritter let good-natured old-timers wax about country hayseeds and train-jumpers; Robinson was using his oral history to, among other things, sharply criticize the game’s best player, Willie Mays, for not speaking out about race.
Freezing Jackie Robinson in 1947 amber also lets baseball—and society—off the hook for all the governmental and private racism that was still actively poisoning the country two decades after Branch Rickey’s great experiment. Better to remember that one magical year than dwell on all the different southern minor leagues that were still being integrated well into the 1960s. When your face is unlovely, it’s always more fun to look at old photographs than the bathroom mirror.
Perhaps the most surprising part of Baseball Has Done It is Robinson’s report that during his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1962, “No one mentioned that I was the first Negro in the Hall of Fame, or that another bastion of prejudice had fallen. No one was thinking about such things that day.” He says this as a point of pride, that the quality of his performance—the content of his baseball character—was evaluated on its own merits and found victorious. Maybe one day that can again be true.