Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 311
This is the grave of Jackie Robinson.
There isn’t much point of doing a biography of Robinson here. He’s so famous and his story is so well-known that I’d just be wasting my time. But a couple of points:
If anything, I feel Robinson is underrated as a player. This makes sense on one level as his story is really more about who he was and the obstacles he overcame than his actual skills. But those skills were incredibly prodigious. Yes, it’s true he only played 10 years, but then he was 28 when he finally got his shot in the majors. He was a fully formed player and of course took the league by storm, leading the NL in stolen bases his rookie year and being named Rookie of the Year, which given what he had to put up with mentally is remarkable. He was a 6-time All-Star and the 1949 NL MVP. His 1949-53 run was probably the most dominant by any second basemen in the modern era except for Joe Morgan in the early 70s, with 3 years in there with a WAR of 8 and 2 of those over 9. By the JAWS measurement, even in those 10 years, he is the 12th best second basemen of all time and with a full career, he probably would have been top 5. He was in fact signed as a shortstop but his defense in the minors was terrible, largely because of an inaccurate arm, and he was moved to first base, where he played his rookie year and then to second, where he turned into an above-average defender. And as Leo Durocher said of him, “Ya want a guy that comes to play. This guy didn’t just come to play. He come to beat ya. He come to stuff the goddamn bat right up your ass.” Not sure Jackie would have put it quite that way, at least publicly, but Durocher didn’t care.
The rest of his athletic career was also ridiculous. He starred in basically all the sports in high school and college, played with Woody Strode among others on the UCLA football team, the most integrated college football at that time with all of 4 African-American players, and could have done anything athletically if only he had the opportunity.
Robinson also did not put up with guff from authority figures. For all his serene calm as a player, which is part of the reason he was the right person to integrate the game and also a bit part of why he is so revered today, he was a very impatient man. He was court-martialed out of the military because he wouldn’t move to the back of a segregated bus in Texas and simply would not back down. He was acquitted because the charges were completely made up, but still, he was very angry. He was furious at the Red Sox when they held a fake workout for black players in 1945 that was closed to the public but where Red Sox management yelled racist stuff at the players! He later refused to play in old-timers games in protest of the lack of black managers and black executives in Major League Baseball.
Robinson also was more than happy to cash in at any opportunity. I don’t say this with any negativity. In an era where even the best players were underpaid, he could make a lot more off the field and he definitely did so. In fact, he came to spring training his second season after gaining 30 pounds in the offseason touring the nation! For that matter, his own retirement was not announced by the Dodgers, but rather by Look magazine because it offered Robinson money two years earlier to break the story whenever it happened. And then there was the Hollywood biopic about him starring himself.
Unfortunately, Robinson got sick almost immediately upon retirement. Diabetes ran in his family and despite being very healthy, he contracted it the same year he retired. The state of medicine wasn’t that advanced at the time and he slowly declined over the years. He still stayed active, worked as an announcer and for corporations, including become a VP at Chock O’Nuts. No anti-capitalist, Robinson believed very much in black capitalism as a means of racial advancement, which of course made him no different than Booker T. Washington or Marcus Garvey or many others. And like many African-Americans, his allegiance to the Republicans lasted a long time. He actively supported Nixon over Kennedy in 1960, but was so disgusted by Barry Goldwater that he walked out of the Republican National Convention and became a Democrat by 1968, when he endorsed Humphrey. Late in life, Robinson became a major figure in the anti-drug movement, after his addicted son died in a car accident.
Robinson’s diabetes slowly got worse and he was nearly blind by the time he died of a heart attack in 1972, only 53 years old. He is buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. I couldn’t find his wife’s grave, which confused me, but it turns out she is still alive at the age of 96!
Let’s watch some Jackie Robinson clips:
If you would like this series to visit more black baseball pioneers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Satchel Paige is in Kansas City and Josh Gibson is in Pittsburgh. You should send me there.