Every year, on April 15, the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s Major League debut, we reflect on the life and legacy of an American icon. This year, with the truncated season necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, Major League Baseball’s on-field commemoration is happening on Aug. 28, the anniversary of his meeting in 1945 with Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey where they first discussed Robinson joining the team.
Talk of Jackie Robinson often focuses on his role as a courageous pioneer who broke baseball’s color barrier, and for good reason. But in addition to being a monumental figure in history, it shouldn’t get lost that Robinson was a spectacular ballplayer who more than earned his place in the Hall of Fame with his feats on the field, despite everything he had to overcome.
With that in mind, here are five notes that help illustrate No. 42’s greatness between the lines:
• Robinson burst into the Majors as a 28-year-old in 1947. Despite the tremendous burden he carried and the obstacles he faced, Robinson wasted little time lifting the Dodgers with his play. He was the first official Rookie of the Year Award winner — when there was only one award, covering both leagues — and he took the National League MVP Award two years later.
Through 1953, Robinson produced a whopping 50.9 wins above replacement (WAR), according to Baseball Reference, which is tied with Willie Mays for the sixth most for a position player’s first seven seasons, trailing only Ted Williams, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, Mickey Mantle and Wade Boggs. Additionally, Robinson’s 41.6 WAR between 1949-53 led the Majors, with Stan Musial (40.3) the only other player at 30 or higher.
• Since Robinson entered the league, he owns two of the seven most valuable seasons produced by a second baseman. His 9.7 WAR in 1951 trails only Joe Morgan’s 1975 campaign, and his 9.3 WAR two years earlier is tied with two other Morgan seasons for fifth. That makes Robinson and Morgan the only second basemen since ’30 to have multiple seasons of at least 9.0 WAR (Craig Biggio and Chase Utley both did it once).
• During that peak period from 1949-53, Robinson hit a stellar .329/.430/.505 and averaged 32 doubles, seven triples, 16 home runs, 93 RBIs and 108 runs scored. His park and league-adjusted 146 OPS+ over that span ranked fifth among all big leaguers with at least 2,000 plate appearances, but it was an especially impressive number given his position.
While Robinson was stationed at first base as a rookie and later spent time at third and in left field, he still played the majority of his games at second. His 146 OPS+ from 1949-53 was 27 points higher than any other primary second baseman, and his 132 career mark ties Morgan for first since ’47 (minimum 5,000 plate appearances).
• Part of Robinson’s greatness at the plate was based on his eye and knack for contact. In 10 Major League seasons, he never struck out more than 40 times, and he drew at least twice as many walks as he had strikeouts eight times — with a 425-to-148 ratio from 1949-53. Overall, Robinson’s rate of 2.54 walks per strikeout is third highest among those with at least 5,000 plate appearances since ’47, behind only Nellie Fox and Williams.
• Of course, Robinson’s aggressiveness and talent on the basepaths was another big part of his success. And while his raw stolen-base totals don’t stand out, he played in an era where that simply wasn’t a big part of the game. When Robinson stole 29 bases as a rookie, nobody else in the NL had more than 14; when he led the Majors with 37 two years later, teammate Pee Wee Reese ranked second with 26, and only one other player reached 20. Over Robinson’s first seven seasons, he led MLB with 166 steals, with only two others cracking the 100 mark.
Robinson’s career total of 197 includes 19 swipes of home — 13 of them coming over his first three seasons. Robinson, who also famously stole home in the 1955 World Series, pulled off the feat at least three times each year from 1947-49, when no other player had even one such season.