No. 42 will always be an iconic number in sports. The number, donned by the most influential athlete ever, Jackie Robinson, is a symbol of how far sports, and baseball in particular, have come.
Robinson’s story will be told in the movie 42, opening today. Early reviews of the movie are promising, and a new generation of sports fans will get the opportunity to learn about Robinson’s journey of struggle, adversity, and ultimately success in breaking baseball’s color barrier.
Robinson remains an inspiration for today’s African-American players, who still hold the man and his accomplishments in complete reverence (Adam Jones is even taking children in Baltimore to see 42 on Monday, which is also Jackie Robinson Day). Most talk about Robinson for his non-baseball accomplishments – affecting change in baseball, but also in society as a whole. And rightfully so, as he was critical in advancing civil rights. But we also need to remember what we oftentimes forget when talking about Robinson.
He was one hell of a baseball player.
It’s difficult enough to succeed in baseball, but to think that Robinson did this with such considerable pressure makes his on-field exploits even more impressive.
There was the obvious pressure to succeed for other African-Americans. Had Robinson failed – and by “fail” I mean being anything less than a star – it would’ve hurt all other talented black players trying to break into the major leagues.
Incredible pressure to perform
There was also the pressure of having to succeed in the face of extreme criticism, anger and racism from white fans and players who didn’t want him there. Imagine trying to hit a 98-mile-per-hour fastball. Then imagine trying to hit that same fastball while the other team is yelling racial slurs at you when you’re in the batter’s box.
In his rookie season in 1947, while he was dodging pitches at his head and trying to ignore death threats, he was also racking up hits and was a terror on the basepaths. He won Rookie of the Year (which is even more impressive when you consider he won it for the whole league; now baseball gives out a National League and American League Rookie of the Year). That year he hit .297 and led the National League in stolen bases with 29, while never getting caught.
Robinson’s breakout year came two seasons later, when he batted .342, stole 37 bases, and had 124 runs batted in. He was the batting champion and again the National League stolen base champion. For fans of advanced analytics, he also fared well in wins above replacement, with a dominant 9.3.
Robinson was a marvel to watch, as Roger Kahn wrote in “The Boys of Summer”:
“Robinson could hit and bunt and steal and run,” Roger Kahn wrote in The Boys of Summer. “He had intimidation skills, and he burned with a dark fire. He wanted passionately to win. He bore the burden of a pioneer and the weight made him stronger. If one can be certain of anything in baseball, it is that we shall not look upon his like again.”
He was selected to six All-Star games in his 10-year career, with a lifetime average of .311 and 197 total stolen bases. He led the Brooklyn Dodgers to six pennants and one World Series title in 1955. He was also selected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1962.
Setting the bar for other black athletes
His play on the field was instrumental in helping other black players – in all sports – get opportunities to play on the biggest stages. As Dave Anderson noted in his obituary of Robinson:
“As the first black player in major-league baseball, he was a pioneer. His skill and accomplishments resulted in the acceptance of blacks in other major sports, notably professional football and professional basketball.”
With 42 opening today, the story of Jackie Robinson will once again be told. It’s a story that needs to continue to be told to celebrate the most important baseball player ever. And while it’s critical we remember Robinson for all that he’s done for African-Americans – both in sports and in life – lets also remember him for being one of the best baseball players ever, too.
Follow Stefen Lovelace on Twitter @StefenLovelace