Every April 15th, every player and coach who takes the field for a Major League Baseball game wears the same number. While the gesture of a team all wearing the same number is normally reserved for tragedy, this day it’s a sign of respect and celebration. On April 15th, every player honors Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player to play in the major leagues.
I’m not going to wax poetical about Jackie’s ground-breaking career, or his incredible social and civil work after he left the league, or even the lives he touched after his death. Those stories are everywhere and they deserve your attention, but they are not my stories to tell. Instead, I’d like to focus on something that tends to get shoved in the dark in favor of other things.
I want to talk about Jackie Robinson’s stats.
We all know about Jackie’s life and career, but how many of us have taken a look at his numbers. Was Jackie Robinson as mythic a player as he was a person? Yes, absolutely. One THOUSAND PERCENT. But I’m not here to talk about Jackie’s home run totals, or his BABIP. I want to look at two of the lesser-known stats that paint a fuller picture of the Brooklyn Dodger legend.
Sacrifice Hits: 28 in 1947
In 1947, Jackie Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball. We’ve all heard the stories of Branch Rickey‘s determination to bring Jackie to Brooklyn and the hardships Robinson would face throughout his first season.
The amount of strain put on Jackie’s shoulders as he put on that Dodger uniform must have been unfathomable. The chance of a lifetime was at his fingertips, and it represented so much for the future of the game and for the future of black athletes everywhere. Jackie and his wife Rachel put their life on the line to break the color barrier, but sacrificing everything to get ahead in this world was nothing new to the Robinson’s.
“If Mr. Rickey hadn’t signed me, I wouldn’t have played another year in the black league,” Jackie once said. “It was too difficult. The travel was brutal. Financially, there was no reward. It took everything you make to live off.”
The Negro leagues were nothing like the major leagues, not even close. With lodging accommodations that were mainly “the bus to the next game”, and games were you were paid to lose to white teams, players like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson fought for the legitimacy of their talents. Every day was a constant struggle for your right to humanity both in the world and in the game.
It must be hell to be sacrificing a piece of your soul to do the one thing that makes you feel whole. So when Jackie puts on that uniform, he’s carrying the names of thousands of other ballplayers who never got the chance to play in the big leagues. Including his friend Josh Gibson, the legendary Negro League catcher and eventual Hall of Fame inductee, who passed away a few months before Jackie’s debut.
That kind of thing doesn’t get taken lightly by men of Jackie’s caliber. And you can see that each and every time Jackie took the field.
Even years after he left the game, Jackie stood up for the rights of black ballplayers. When Curt Flood fought Major League Baseball’s reserve clause, many players refused to support the Cardinals outfield and testify in support. One man who did was Jackie Robinson.
“Curt wore No. 21. Half of 42,” Flood’s wife Judy Pace, recounted. “Jackie was Curt’s hero from childhood. Curt wore 42 in the minor leagues. But 42 wasn’t available when he got to the Cardinals. So he took 21. The moment that Jackie and Rachel walked into the courtroom for Curt’s trial—well, that was one of the high points of Curt’s life. To have Jackie Robinson tell him, “Young man, I respect you. What you’re doing is right. You have the courage to stand up. I am here for you.”
In 1947, his rookie season, Jackie Robinson led the entire league in sacrifice hits. With 28 selfless acts, Jackie forfeited his at-bat for the good of his teammates. If the team needed to move runners, Jackie could do that. Would a deep fly ball score the man at third? Jackie could do that. Do the Dodgers need to execute a suicide squeeze in the later innings in order to secure a victory? There’s a trend here, folks.
Because Jackie understood the sacrifices that men like him made in order to get ahead in life and get ahead in the game they loved.
197 Career Stolen Bases
Jackie Robinson played 10 seasons in the major leagues, retiring at the age of 37. In those 10 seasons in Brooklyn, Jackie Robinson won the Rookie of the Year in 1947, the MVP in 1949 and a World Series in 1955. Jackie’s career is special every way you look at it. Like a sparkling diamond, every time you turn it a different piece of light catches your eye. You can’t look away from the absolute perfection. It’s incredible.
One of those pieces of light in the diamond-like career is Jackie’s penchant for stealing bases, and there’s one base in particular that always caught his eye.
Home. Jackie Robinson LOVED stealing home.
Jackie Robinson’s most well-known play came in the first game of the 1955 World Series. With Whitey Ford on the mound and Yogi Berra behind the plate, Jackie danced off the bag at third. In a flash he was gone, racing the 90 feet to glory, speeding toward Berra who was awaiting the throw from Ford. And if one swift motion Jackie slides, avoiding the tag, and steals home in the World Series.
It’s incredible. A perfect baseball moment. The tenacity and skill of Jackie’s game immaculately blended in the high intensity of the moment on display. It’s artistic, heavenly and downright absurd.
Even more absurd is that Jackie Robinson stole home 19 other times in his career. Since Jackie’s retirement in 1956, only one other player has stolen home more than 15 times: fellow Hall of Famer Rod Carew. Even more so, over Jackie stole home an average of 1.9 times a season, a number that is only bested by another Hall of Famer, Ty Cobb, who swiped the plate 2.25 times a season throughout his career.
Baseball is full of quiet moments if you look hard enough. There’s the very obvious moment right as the pitch crosses the plate, where you can almost hear a pin drop. That moment is fueled by anticipation, by desire, and by hope.
Stealing home is a rare gem. One that finds its quiet from the rarity of the air you’re breathing seeing the moment live. By the belief that any sound might alter the course of events. Or that by creating any disturbance in the atmosphere you’ll be the cause of a man’s futile efforts in sprinting 90 feet as the pitch hurtles towards the object of his desire.
Stealing home is a personal act, it doesn’t involve any other player on the team, it’s just the runner. It’s a moment of public solitude, where a player holds their destiny and desires in their own hands. The act itself requires pinpoint focus, lightning speed and a fire in the heart.
It is a moment where time stands still.
Sorry, I promised I wouldn’t wax poetic about Jackie Robinson, but it’s hard to hold back. Jackie Robinson perfectly encapsulates the game of baseball played at its best. It’s a style of play that leaves no doubt, that goes hard for what is yours, and one that changes the game for the better. Jackie’s game was equal parts strength and skill and heart and ferocity.
Jackie Robinson stepped out onto that baseball diamond for ten years and carried players like Josh Gibson who never got the chance to play in the Majors. And for 10 years, he played with the same fire that they did.