Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The way Jackie Robinson played the game

Another anniversary, the 65th, of Jackie Robinson's debut in the major leagues has come and gone. Attention has rightly been paid to his historic importance, and his courage in facing the trials he endured. Jackie's ordeals happened mostly behind the scenes; we learned the details in accounts written after the fact. What I can add here is what we saw with our own eyes at Ebbets Field and on television, a Brooklyn kid's-eye-view of how Jackie played the game, day after day, from 1947 to 1956. Shown above is my favorite photo of Jackie, tormenting the pitcher by dashing down the third-base line. It's my favorite because it encapsulates his style of play, which revolutionized major-league baseball.

Robinson was the most fiercely intense competitor I've ever seen in any sport, and the best baserunner I've ever seen in baseball. As a 28-year-old rookie in 1947, he'd lost much of the sprinter's speed from his track-and-field days at UCLA, but he still had the instincts and agility of an all-American halfback (which he was), the all-round athleticism of an outstanding basketball player (which he was), and the calculated aggressiveness of a high-stakes poker player.

His baserunning was electric. He did things on the basepaths we'd never seen before. Whenever he reached base, which was often (how does a lifetime on-base percentage of .409 sound to you?), the ballpark buzzed with excitement and anticipation. Even when he wasn't stealing bases, his dancing off the bag -- just the threat of a steal -- had an unnerving effect on opposing pitchers.

More than a few times I saw him escape safely from rundowns, a practically impossible feat requiring lightning-fast reflexes and agility. Try playing Running Bases and see how often you can do it. Barring a bad throw or a dropped ball, my guess is never. But that was the point: Jackie's aggressiveness and baserunning instincts forced errors like bad throws and dropped balls.

More than once I saw him advance two bases on a sacrifice bunt. The first time was in his rookie season. We're sitting in the upper deck behind third. Jackie's on first and somebody lays down a bunt to the third baseman. The routine putout is made at first, but Jackie doesn't stop at second; he doesn't even slide. In fielding the bunt the third-baseman has left the bag uncovered, so without missing a stride Jackie runs to third uncontested. The stage direction would read: "Slack-jawed amazement from all in attendance, followed by delirious cheers."

Jackie had a baserunning ploy for which there was no defense. He's on first base and somebody lines a single to left. A no-brainer: with the ball hit ahead of him, the baserunner advances one base, right? Not necessarily. Jackie would round second and go almost halfway to third, as if by mistake, his eyes fixed all the while on the left-fielder. If the left-fielder throws to third, Jackie simply retreats to second; but if the left-fielder takes the bait and throws to second, Jackie easily advances to third. He pulled this off on numerous occasions, the most memorable of which was in a World Series game against the Yankees. The unfortunate left-fielder was Elston Howard (playing out of position). I can still see it: Jackie on first, line single to left; Robinson rounds second, heads for third and stops. Thinking he's got Robinson trapped, Howard throws behind him, to second base, and Jackie does not run to third base -- he saunters to third base with that unforgettable pigeon-toed trot of his. I'd never before heard the sound of 34,000 people laughing and cheering at the same time.

To me the most daring, electrifying play in sports, and one of the rarest, is the steal of home -- not as part of a double steal with runners at first and third, but the pure steal of home. Today the play is nearly extinct because pitchers use the stretch, i.e. they come to a full stop, with a runner on third. In the 1940s and 50s, pitchers still used the full wind-up with a runner on third, making the steal of home possible, though still immensely difficult. We've seen countless reruns of Jackie's steal of home off Whitey Ford in the 1955 World Series, hotly disputed by Yogi Berra:

What most fans don't know -- because there are no film clips or kinescopes -- is that Jackie stole home nineteen times in his career.

Stealing home against the Cubs, 1952. The batter is Preacher Roe.

Baserunning was just one aspect of Robinson's game. I could also rhapsodize about his defensive abilities, but Bill James, the guru of Sabermetric statistics, has already done that. At the beginning of his rookie season, with no advance notice, Robinson, a natural middle infielder, was handed a first-baseman's glove and told, "You're now our first-baseman." (Eddie Stanky was holding down second base at the time.) After doing a creditable job at first in 1947, Robinson was the league's best defensive second-baseman from 1948 to 1952. In 1953 when Jim Gilliam broke in, Robinson was shifted to third base. According to Bill James, wherever Robinson played defensively, "he's off the charts. Nobody else (post-1940) is even in the same zone." Later in his career, Robinson played some left field. Even there, in James' book, "he rates as sensational."

"Robinson may in fact have been a far better defensive player than most people think he was," writes James. "If it's a statistical illusion of some kind, 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."

I have one final, corrective note to add. Everyone loves Jackie Robinson -- now. In his time he was loved by many, but considered a royal pain in the butt by many others, and not just by bigots or opposing teams or partisans of opposing teams. Jackie was combative, always pushing, always impatient for racial progress, never satisfied. When more black players arrived in the major leagues, he wanted to know why there weren't any black coaches or managers. When blacks started entering the managerial ranks, he wanted to know why there weren't any black owners. Barely-concealed resentment of Robinson flowed regularly from the baseball establishment and The Sporting News. A certain Hall of Fame pitcher in the American League called him an ingrate, unappreciative of all that baseball had done for him. Certain sportswriters for New York tabloids hated his "pushy" attitude. They are all forgotten now. Jackie Robinson is remembered.

1 comment:

  1. Dominic Schiavo29 April 2012 at 07:50

    What a great article and tribute, David. Well done!