An MVP on and Off the Field
“You want a guy that comes to play. But (Robinson) didn't just come to play. He came to beat you. He came to stuff the damn bat right up your ass.” Who wouldn’t want to play baseball with such a fierce competitor? As Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the first ever black player in Major League Baseball, so eloquently described by manager Leo Durocher, stepped into the right-handed batter’s box in Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, he began the most important career in baseball history, shattering the segregation and racism that pervaded and plagued America’s National Pastime. After returning from the Army, having been honorably discharged following an incident where he refused to sit in the back of a bus, Robinson, a multisport athlete at UCLA, joined the Negro Leagues around the same time Brooklyn Dodgers President and Owner Branch Rickey was looking for a talented, black baseball player who wouldn’t cave to racist jeers and could help the Dodgers win their first World Series Championship. However, the Dodgers, a team composed of many close-minded Southern players, would take some convincing in order to accept Robinson as one of their own. Sure, Robinson’s emotional toughness and desire for racial justice certainly inspired him to accept Rickey’s offer, endure horrific prejudice, and, years later, drive him to help others accomplish what he had and be a part of the Civil Rights Movement. But his teammates didn’t care about that during 1947. They weren’t politicians or activists; they were baseball players, and so was Jackie. They wanted to win, and so did he. Jackie Robinson overcame enormous prejudice and thrived on the Dodgers by playing superbly. If Robinson had performed poorly in his first month with the Dodgers, he would have been sent back down to the Minors, regardless of his ability to keep a cool head to racism. Such is baseball. While the Dodgers and the greater baseball world set unfairly high standards upon him, Jackie Robinson’s extraordinary playing ability actually met those high expectations. Additionally, while reactions from the Dodgers to his arrival were mixed, this high level of play led to his acceptance as a fairly normal player, despite his race, by those Dodgers who initially rejected him, in particular Dixie Walker, because they wanted to win, a sentiment already realized by his initial supporters on the team.
While baseball was America’s undisputed pastime, played by many, in the 1940s, it was not reflective of the people who lived there. As many of the players returned to the Major Leagues after World War II, baseball, along with the rest of the United States, returned to a sense of normalcy. However, baseball, like the United States, remained segregated. White players played in the Major Leagues, and black players played in the Negro Leagues, just as white kids went to some schools, and black kids went to others. Incredibly talented black baseball players were barred from playing in the Major Leagues, and no black players had appeared for a Major League Baseball team since Fleet Walker in 1884. Branch Rickey thought that it was time for the color barrier in baseball to be broken, so he began to search for a black athlete who could do just that. Rickey poured through resumes of players from the Negro Leagues and considered many, including future Dodgers Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella. However, Rickey settled on signing Jackie Robinson because of both Robinson’s passion for equality and his stellar repertoire of skills on the baseball diamond. Jackie would be able to both not buckle in an intensely racist environment and also legitimately improve the Dodgers, something that would hopefully justify the highly controversial signing, endear Robinson’s teammates to him, and prove to the world and other baseball teams that black players were just as skilled, if not more skilled, than white players.
When Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson into the Dodgers organization in 1945, Rickey placed an unfair amount of pressure on him due to his race. In order to justify signing Robinson, Rickey had claimed that “I signed him because I knew of no reason I shouldn’t. I want to win baseball games, and baseball is a game played by human beings.” While he had soundly justified Robinson’s signing, Rickey had also indirectly placed enormous pressure on Robinson by making a statement that wouldn’t have been necessary had he signed a white player in a standard situation for the time. Yes, Rickey made it clear he believes any human had the right to play baseball, a view that was not commonplace, or at least seldom expressed, at the time, but he also made it clear that he wanted Jackie Robinson on the Dodgers because he thought he would help them win. By placing this pressure on Jackie, Rickey revealed that if Robinson didn’t perform, Rickey would need to send him back down to the Minors, regardless of the racial barriers he’s breaking. This unfair pressure Rickey placed on Robinson was echoed in the greater baseball world.
When Robinson entered the Dodgers organization and was called up to the Brooklyn team, the general baseball community placed unfair pressure on him, similarly to how Rickey did, but on a much larger scale. Cleveland Indians Owner Ava Bradley remarked that “that’s the only way Negro Boys will ever get into the Major League - by breaking in with minor league teams and proving they have the ability to play major league ball.” Essentially, even if Robinson can withstand the racist taunts and keep a cool head, if he couldn’t hit a baseball, play a decent first base, improve the Dodgers, and be able to enter the big leagues like every other player, he shouldn’t play at all. Similarly, a New York Times article from right before Jackie’s debut in 1947 states that “Robinson almost has to be another DiMaggio in making good from the opening whistle. It’s not fair to him, but nobody can do anything about it but himself.” By asserting that Robinson, who was generally well received by the press, needed to play as well as Joe DiMaggio, arguably the best baseball player on the planet in 1947, to survive in baseball’s racist environment, this article acutely describes the unfair pressure on Robinson. While the author notes the unfairness of these standards being higher for Robinson than for a white rookie on the Dodgers, he states that all Jackie can do to combat them and fit in on the team is play the best baseball he can. As evidenced by both executives and the press, the larger baseball world placed immense pressure on Robinson to play exceptionally well.
Jackie Robinson proved he was a more than capable player during the 1947 season and excelled in the Major Leagues, rising to and somewhat exceeding the high bar set for him. By mid-September, Robinson had maintained a stellar .303 batting average, meaning that he got a hit in almost a third of his at-bats where he didn’t draw a walk or get hit with a pitch. Additionally, by September 20th, when the Dodgers had nearly clinched the National League pennant, he had “scored 120 runs,” a number that even the best athletes today rarely surpass. Moreover, he has been described by baseball researchers as “a dynamo on the basepaths,” and Bobby Bragan, an initial opposer of Robinson, “called him the best he ever saw at getting called safe after being caught in rundown situations.” Since Robinson could both hit and run extraordinarily well, a pitcher could never fully rid his mind of him, causing the pitcher to be distracted and less focused on the other baserunners or batter. Essentially, Robinson proved a menace for opposing pitchers both while he was at bat and after, when they had to contend with his stealing bases and goading them into losing control of the ball. He was good at everything that teammates admired but caused the opposition to crumble. Robinson proved that black men had the ability to play as well as white men and actually played almost as well as DiMaggio did in 1947, helping the Dodgers win many games. His play was so extraordinary that it merited his winning the first ever Rookie of the Year Award to the delight of many. In baseball, distinguished sportswriters traditionally vote on all the most-prominent awards, and they made it clear why they created an award and chose Robinson to be the inaugural winner. According to this committee, “Robinson was rated and examined solely as a freshman player in the big leagues - on the basis of his hitting, his defense play, his team value,” and not “the trailblazing he did, the barriers he broke down.” Jackie Robinson was so good at baseball that in his first year in the Major Leagues, a year in which he was the only and first black player since the 19th century, a year in which he faced enormous prejudice due to this circumstance, an award was created for him based solely on his on-field. That’s how good Jackie Robinson was.
Some of the Brooklyn Dodgers, especially Pee-Wee Reese, had positive initial reactions to Robinson’s signing in 1945 and debut in 1947 because they wanted to win, foreshadowing other revelations that would occur during the season. Before Opening Day in 1947, a “veteran Dodger'' told a reporter, “He’ll be accepted in time. You can be sure of that.” and “I’m for him, if he can win games. That’s the only test I ask.” This anonymous veteran (veterans are more often than not team leaders) immediately chose to welcome Robinson as a member of the team because he wanted to win baseball games, a sentiment that would soon be shared by others. Similarly, Dodgers star and future captain Pee-Wee Reese possessed similar foresight. Reese, upon learning in 1945 that the Dodgers had signed a black player, worried, especially considering Robinson was a natural shortstop, Reese’s established position before he served during World War II. Although he worried about Robinson taking his job, Reese tried to put himself into Robinson’s shoes, wondering what he would feel like were he to be sent to the Negro Leagues as the only white player there. He realized that he would feel scared and lonely. When he probed further into his mind, he realized that “I’m a good shortstop and that’s what I’d want ‘em to seem. Not my color. Just that I can play the game. And that’s how I’ve got to look at Robinson. If he’s man enough to take my job, I’m not gonna like it, but damnit, black or white, he deserves it.” Luckily for Reese, Robinson was moved to first base because of Reese’s occupation of shortstop. However, Reese was nonetheless quickly (certainly more quickly than most of his teammates) able to overcome his Southern ideas about race and contextualize his feelings in the framework of wanting success for the Dodgers, shifting his negative reaction to a positive one. Led by Pee-Wee Reese, some Dodgers reacted positively to Robinson’s joining the team, taking less time than many fellow players to receive Robinson.
Many Dodgers were unhappy with Robinson’s call-up to the Dodgers in 1947. As reported in a 1947 New York Times article, “It is rumored that a number of Dodgers have expressed themselves unhappy at the possibility of having to play with Jackie.” Furthermore, Dixie Walker, a star outfielder for the Dodgers born and bred in the South, was forced to confront his previous notions about Robinson. When Robinson was initially signed, Walker had said that “as long as he isn’t with the Dodgers I’m not worried,” but Robinson had now played his way through the Minor Leagues and was about to join the Brooklyn Dodgers. As opposed to just swallowing his pride and playing baseball, Walker started a petition to not have to play with Robinson during the Major League season. “Walker’s protest was joined by most of the team’s Southern contingent,” many core contributors to the team, who vehemently and proudly opposed Robinson’s joining them. They showed fellow Southerner Pee-Wee Reese the petition and implored him to sign it, but he stayed true to the conclusion about Robinson he had made two years earlier. When this coup was quickly quashed by Branch Rickey, Walker and some other Dodgers requested to be traded from the team. Walker sent a letter to Rickey a few days after Robinson’s call-up stating “I would like to be traded as soon as a deal can be arranged.” While Walker wasn’t traded until after the 1947 season was completed, this letter became historically known as one of the most vocal oppositions to Robinson from a Dodger, and solidified Walker as the ringleader in all Dodger protests to Robinson’s arrival. These strong negative reactions by many teammates displayed an animosity towards Robinson that would only be overcome by his skill on the field.
During the 1947 season, especially as it dwindled, Jackie Robinson played so exceptionally that he began to win over many of his teammates who remained hostile. Late in the season, a reporter describes “numerous instances in which Jackie broke up ball games with his daring on the basepaths.” If Jackie got on the bases, he could nearly win the game or give the Dodgers a crucial run by himself, surely delighting his teammates. Furthermore, “his hot-footing has typed the Dodger play;” his energy on the basepaths had inspired other fleet-footed members of the Dodgers to follow his lead and run wild, aggressively advancing more bases than was standard and stealing often and rambunctiously. If Dodgers were emulating his strategies on the basepaths, the same strategies that won them many games, they thought him a regular teammate, a role-model even. Moreover, Robinson’s stellar performance in a late season series against the rival Cardinals, who were threatening to nab the pennant from the Dodgers, proved the final sticking point for Robinson’s acceptance. It was reported that “The big thaw of some of his frigid colleagues came during the payoff series with the St. Louis Cardinals,” and “whatever resentment some of the Dodgers may have harbored in their hearts was dissipated in St. Louis.” In these games, “Jackie came through with a decisive and sustained attack which made the difference between victory and defeat.” Because the Dodgers desperately needed to beat the Cardinals and Robinson led them to accomplish that, many of his stubborn teammates let go of their prejudice. Furthermore, Robinson, having been described as having “done it all in his first year as a major leaguer,” led the Dodgers to the 1947 National League Pennant and a World Series matchup against the rival New York Yankees. By this time, Robinson was even reported to have arisen to the status of “a major league star” and to have been “accepted by everyone, including himself, as just another ballplayer,” because of this ascension. Robinson helped the Dodgers win by playing hard and well, so his teammates liked him.
Perhaps the most public and important example of a player changing his opinion on Robinson because of his play, as many Dodgers already had, is the aforementioned Dixie Walker. A skilled Dodger player infamous for his Southern heritage, Walker realized that if Robinson could help the team win, he should help Robinson get even better than he already was. Robinson later told the press that while “Dixie was very difficult at the start,” “he was the first guy on the ball club to come to me with advice and help for my hitting.” Robinson then acknowledged that he knew this was because “if I helped the ball club, I put money in his pocket. I knew he didn’t like me any more in those few short months, but he did come forward.” This sort of relationship between the players is the foundation of a baseball team; the idea of a common goal compels them to help each other, regardless of their personal feelings. Walker helping Robinson with his hitting, even if he didn’t like him, demonstrates that Walker, who initially refused to play with Jackie, had relinquished his racism because of his drive to succeed in baseball, not because of Robinson’s stoicism or his progressive ideas. Furthermore, this assertion is buffeted by the report that Robinson’s consistent excellence on the field had “gained him the grudging respect of Dixie Walker.” Additionally, Dixie Walker requested his letter in which he asked to be traded instead of playing with Robinson back from Branch Rickey and stated before the 1947 World Series that “no player on the Brooklyn club had done more to help us win the pennant than Robinson.” Because of both his potential on the field and the superb play he already exhibited, Dixie Walker, Robinson’s final and biggest adversary, had accepted Robinson as a Dodger.
Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier is an incredibly important event in American History and is accordingly well-documented. Countless biographies and articles have been written by historians, reporters, and baseball (and Dodger) fans alike, and they mostly revolve around the bravery that Robinson displayed during his Major League career, especially during the early years. This is most likely the case due to the historical significance of that quality in Robinson; had he not possessed incredible courage, he likely never would have agreed to break the color barrier and would not have withstood the harsh, hostile environment of 1940’s Major League Baseball. However, a less publicized area of Jackie Robinson’s time in Major League Baseball is his extraordinary playing ability and how it led to his acceptance with his teammates. The general public knows that Robinson was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but his statistics are unimpressive compared to many other players in that Hall because Robinson squandered much of his athletic prime trapped in the Negro Leagues, as he did not debut in the Majors until he was 28, nearly a decade after many others at the time. While many people know Robinson was good, fewer know that he was exceptional. Furthermore, even fewer people know that the Dodgers accepted him at various times over that 1947 season because he was so good and helped them win many games. Again, this is likely because most people don’t find it particularly relevant or interesting if they aren’t baseball fans, but it’s actually a crucial piece of his story because it set a precedent and demonstrated a universal truth: no matter the color of one’s skin, everybody is human and deserves equal opportunities. Robinson showed his teammates that he, a black man in an all-white community, had something of value to offer to them, that he was their equal, if not their superior, in their profession. Thus, he earned their respect. This interaction, or lesson, proved a precursor for many ideas in the Civil Rights Movement, as it taught a somewhat hostile group of individuals that a black man was really no different from them through a common skill, passion, and drive to succeed. Jackie Robinson unified the Dodgers through his skill at and love of baseball, utilizing what he knew every single man on that team agreed with him on. Finding these common interests, professions, and passions forces people to humanize each other and see them as equals and motivates them to work together. This study aimed to highlight that portion of Robinson’s time in baseball because it just might be the most relevant aspect in 2020 due to recently increased racial tensions and the Black Lives Matter movement.
While Jackie Robinson likely never would have been picked or wouldn’t have been able to break the color barrier without being incredibly brave, staring adversity dead in the eyes, unfazed by unfairly high expectations, his character was not the main component that compelled his teammates to eventually accept him. That was his unrivaled talent on the field and competitive drive to win baseball games and eventually the World Series. While the Brooklyn Dodgers didn’t win the 1947 World Series, that 1947 team became the foundation for the 1950s Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that won many pennants and eventually the World Series in both 1955 and 1959. More importantly, however, for both America and baseball, they were one of the most integrated teams in baseball during that period, and all of their black players greatly contributed to their victories. Soon after Robinson debuted, pitcher Don Newcombe and catcher Roy Campanella followed, both Most Valuable Players and future Hall of Famers. Soon they were joined by Joe Black, whose relief pitching led the Dodgers to a 1952 World Series appearance. The culture on the team was one described by (white) Dodger pitcher Carl Erskine as “a model the whole country could learn from” and set an example for the rest of baseball. Jackie Robinson went on to win the 1949 National League Most Valuable Player and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, soon to be followed by many other black players. Moreover, superstars of today like David Price, Andrew McCutchen, and Mookie Betts would never have been able to play had Robinson not been so skilled on and off the field. Jackie Robinson not only proved that black players could play to the same ability as white ones, but also persuaded a team with many Southerners to accept him by showing them that he could help them win because of his tremendous competitive drive and skill at Baseball.
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Photo Credit: AP Archives