In his "Grand Experiment," Branch Rickey was looking for a player who was a supremely talented catalyst. As usual, he did his homework.But what if this "can't-miss" prospect went the way of so many other phenoms destined for stardom? What if Jackie Robinson failed on the field, or achieved only journeyman status? How would baseball's next half-century have played out?
This much is known: Jackie Robinson was a great baseball player, apart from his special role in the history of the game.
Those who saw him play--and his generation raved about him--also talked about intangibles. They marveled at his speed, how he "drove the pitchers nuts" on the basepaths. He was ahead of his time as a baserunner, taking two and three bases when almost everyone else settled for one.
He was regarded as an intelligent player and no less an authority than Willie Mays shares that view.
"Jack was the smartest player I ever saw," Mays has said.
Robinson was Brooklyn's most fiery, most inspirational player even though the team captain's role fell to the more subdued Pee Wee Reese. Robinson's game face in the locker room is said to be a legendary visage.
"He burned with fire," said Roger Kahn, a baseball writer who covered Robinson and befriended him.
"He was an absolutely fearless player," says ex-Phillies star Richie Ashburn. "There was no way you could intimidate him."
Intangibles, intangibles. But there were also tangibles.
Some facts are well known. Robinson hit .311 over 10 seasons, batting better than .325 five times. He was National League rookie of the year in 1947 and the league's top hitter and most valuable player two years later. He led the league twice in stolen bases and he's rightfully famous for stealing home--he did it 19 times. He led the National League three times in fielding percentage. Brooklyn won six pennants and its only World Series championship in Robinson's decade on the team.
Some facts cited less often are even more compelling. Robinson isn't thought of as a power hitter but he reached double figures in home runs in all but one season. He drove in 125 runs one year and 95 in another, both times while he played second base and Brooklyn had others to fill the power roles. Robinson's career on-base percentage was an astounding .410, owing in part to 734 career walks.
Robinson was remarkably consistent: He hit .314 at home and .309 on the road (.295 at Wrigley Field); .317 versus left-handers and .309 against righties; .317 by day and .301 by night.
Robinson did not have a weakness as a baseball player.
His first-ballot Hall of Fame selection in 1962 was a formality. Only three other Hall of Famers played as few as 10 seasons.
With all that, there's circumstantial evidence to suggest Robinson may have been an even better player than his numbers indicate. He played with two liabilities unrelated to the unique pressures he had to face.
In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James rates Robinson behind only the more powerful Joe Morgan as an offensive threat among second basemen. But unlike most superstars, Robinson played the position for which he is best known only about half his career. He played every game of his tumultuous rookie season at first base, moved to second the following year, then moved to third base late in his career. He was Brooklyn's regular left-fielder for a time and played every position except pitcher and catcher.
Then there's the fact he was 28 years old when he played his first major-league game. How much he could have accomplished had he come up as a 21- or 22-year-old, as most of his contemporaries did, is another unanswerable question. The evidence suggests he was no late bloomer: He hit .345 for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945, his only season in the Negro leagues. A year later, he batted .349 and stole 40 bases for Montreal of the International League.
How good was Jackie Robinson?
"Give me five players like him and a pitcher and I'll beat any nine-man team," said Charlie Dressen, one of his managers.
Five Jackie Robinsons? Sports fans should feel blessed to have been able to see one.