Too big to fail

History made Jackie Robinson a great baseball player

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Ken Burns’ magnificent documentary on Jackie Robinson tells so many important stories. It takes Robinson out of the realm of mythology and makes him flesh and blood — driven, angry, courageous, unforgiving, a force of will. It discussion the Pee Wee Reese story — Reese, it is often told, put his arm around Robinson to publicly demonstrate his acceptance and love — and why it became so legendary, and suggests that it never happened. It dives into the less-told portion of Robinson’s life, the years after he integrated baseball, when he stopped turning the other cheek and was berated and crticized by so many of the people who had initially applauded him.

Most important of all, the documentary reminds us of the sheer wonder of Rachel Robinson, a pioneer and an American hero.

But there’s something the documentary does not do, something that no one seems able to do. It does not explain how the heck Jack Roosevelt Robinson became such a great baseball player.

Now, Burns’ documentary is not about baseball. It is a story of America. Still, it does what so many do: It assumes that Robinson was an unquestionably great baseball player whose greatest challenge was to play well under the extraordinary pressure of being the first. But the BASEBALL story of Jackie Robinson is miraculous.

You probably know that baseball was, at best, Robinson’s fourth-best sport at UCLA. He was an exceptionally talented baseball player as a young man, someone the scouts had their eye on, but he went a different direction. His best sport at UCLA was football — he was a Gale Sayers-type of runner. To this day, he still has one of the highest punt-return averages in the history of college football. Enduring film clips show a runner who was impossible for one man to tackle. He juked and feinted and stopped and started and if he had been born a decade later, he probably would have become an NFL superstar.

Basketball was probably his second-best sport. Robinson twice led his conference in scoring, The Bruins had a terrible basketball team — this was a decade before John Wooden arrived — and that was part of the reason that Robinson was overlooked as a basketball player. Another part was pure racism; some coaches simply refused to put him on the all-conference team. The conference darling was a fine USC player named Ralph Vaughn. He was put on the cover of Life Magazine. Here is what the Oakland Tribune’s Art Cohn had to say about that:

“Now that all the picture mags have glorified Ralph Vaughn of USC  as ‘America’s No. 1 basketball player’ it is interesting to note that he wasn’t even the best player in Los Angeles. Because Jackie Robinson of UCLA, playing on the Coast’s weakest with NO support even remotely comparable to that which Vaughn received from a championship team, has just won the Conference individual scoring title.”

Track and field would have been Robinson’s No. 1 sport, but after the cancelation of the 1940 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, he backed off. His brother Mack famously finished second to Jesse Owens in the 200-meters at the 1936 Games (and was ignored after he returned home; he got a job as a street cleaner and could sometimes be seen outside wearing his Olympic jacket). Jackie said that without the Olympics to motivate him, he saw no real point in competing in college track. His own coach would question his dedication. But when it came to it, he decided to halfheartedly compete in the broad jump. He won the NCAA championships.

Then — only then — there was baseball. In his only season at UCLA, he hit .097. There were reports of him playing good defense, but he still led his team in errors. His team was disastrously bad and the most enduring memory of the season was when Robinson took the mound in an effort to get the umpire to call the game because of darkness. “I can’t see the plate!” Robinson reportedly whined, and he purposely threw wild pitches to underline the point. The umpire did call the game. It was a rare UCLA victory.

He did not letter in any other sports — four was plenty — but Robinson did make it to the semifinal of the National Negro Tennis Tournament. He reportedly won several swimming events. It has been reported that Robinson unofficially won the conference golf tournament as well, though that could just be some unnecessary folklore building.

Robinson cared so little about baseball that the next year he did not even play. He was sick of school and ready for something new in his life. He was reportedly offered a chance to join several professional football teams, a professional basketball team in America and a Mexican baseball team. He turned those down. He took a job at the National Youth Administration in the hopes of working in college athletic departments. “The thought of working with youngsters in the field of sport excited me,” he said.

It didn’t last. He played one football game for the Los Angeles Bulldogs. He got hurt. He signed to play football with the Honolulu Bears, though mainly it was a construction job. The Bears were terrible and Robinson badly injured his ankle. He left Hawaii two days before Pearl Harbor was bombed. He worked as a truck driver. He was drafted in March of 1942. He was 23. He worried that his ankle would not hold up under basic training.

Robinson famously wanted to play baseball at Fort Riley, but the officer in charge refused to allow any black players on his team. A woman named Ruth Danenhower Wilson wrote a study of race relations in the Army called “Jim Crow Signs Up,” and specifically mentioned Robinson a couple of times. Both times he was referred to as a football player. “At Fort Riley,” she wrote, “the faculty of the Officer Candidates School felt that the Negro all-American Football player Jack Robinson had been better liked than any other Candidate at the school.”

Robinson’s court-martial and acquittal is well known … but the point remains: He was honorably discharged in late 1944. He was almost 26.

Robinson had not played competitive baseball in almost five years — and he had hit .097 in college. On the advice of a former Negro Leagues pitcher named Ted Alexander (or Hilton Smith — it has been disputed who gave Robinson the advice) he wrote to the Kansas City Monarchs in the hopes of landing a job. The talent of the Negro Leagues had been drained by the war. Robinson, after being such a great college athlete and then winning against the U.S. Army, was a hero of the African-American community. The Monarchs’ Thomas Baird offered him a deal for $400 a month.

Robinson utterly despised his one year with the Kansas City Monarchs. He hated the bus rides. He hated the black hotels. He hated the umpiring. He hated the condition of the fields. He felt like the players drank too much and had no discipline. He thought the whole league was unprofessional.

It is difficult to tell how well Robinson played his one year in the Negro Leagues. He played well enough to play in the East-West All-Star Game, and enduring statistics show him with a .345 average. But the talent in the leagues was significantly down because of the war — this list of Negro Leaguers who served in World War II is very long and includes many of the best players. Also, Robinson was a celebrity, which made him an All-Star certainty. Numerous players around the league said Robinson’s arm was weak and he had holes in his swing. Bob Feller among others would say that Robinson was too musclebound for baseball and couldn’t hit the inside fastball. Maybe there were ulterior motives for such criticism, but the reality is that Robinson was signed by Branch Rickey based on his great athletic ability and one partial season playing war-torn baseball in the Negro Leagues.

He was 27 years old when he made his debut in Montreal.

I simply cannot think of a comparable situation. I suppose from a pure baseball perspective it might be like Tim Tebow having a pretty good winter baseball season in the Dominican and getting signed to play and sent directly to Triple-A. Of course, you would also have to heap the mounds and mounds of pressure on him along with the burden of history and the vicious taunts of the racists and a million other things like that. But, again, talking pure baseball it seems almost impossible to imagine an athlete, no matter how great, giving up baseball, not playing for five years, then returning to the game under extreme duress and becoming one of the greatest players in baseball history.

How did he do it? Buck O’Neil always had a theory that the burden of history, rather than haunting Jackie Robinson, inspired him to greatness. He could not fail. The consequences for failure were too staggering to imagine. Everyone who knew Robinson — fans and critics alike — always sensed that he felt destined to change America. He would not back down from challenges. He would not stand silent against injustice. He would not move to the back of the bus. He would not, could not, fail as the first black baseball player.

In this way, his story is one of immovable resolve. He went to Montreal and hit .349, stole 40 bases and led the Royals to the championship. He went to Brooklyn and, after a sluggish start, hit .297, led the league in stolen bases and sacrifice hits, scored 125 runs, tied for the team lead in home runs and helped Brooklyn to the World Series. The next year, he added some brilliant defense to his sensational hitting. The next year, he led the league with a .342 average and won the MVP award.

Over the years, it has become easy to take for granted the inevitability of all this. Buck O’Neil used to say, “Jackie wasn’t the BEST player. But he was the RIGHT player.” Jackie Robinson inspired in so many different ways, but this way often gets overlooked. He became a great baseball player because that’s what the time demanded.