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Of Jackie Robinson And Baseball Barriers

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My fellow Blogcritics scribe Casey Michel put it rather eloquently about how baseball is proudly slow to accept change, but when it does, it's almost always for the better.

Jackie Robinson / Getty ImaagesIn the case of Jackie Robinson Day (April 15), the celebrated change was the destruction of institutionalized racism. As the elementary school history blue box goes, Robinson broke baseball's color barrier by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and soon thereafter more black players began trickling into the league.

Robinson won the National League Rookie of the Year in 1947 and the MVP two years later. He was a career .311 hitter, reached base 40.9 percent of the time, and was legendary for stealing home (he is in the top ten all-time in this category too). On numbers alone he is a Hall of Fame player. And that's before doing it in the face of epithets and bigots. It's all why nobody else (after Mariano Rivera retires) will ever wear his jersey number again except on Jackie Robinson Day.

But it makes me wonder. What if he was an ineffective player — would it have set back the cause? Suppose he was instead a .211 hitter who lasted three seasons in the majors before retiring and/or being cut. Back then he was not a certainty to take the world by storm — then again, nothing is, but there were bigger and more legendary players in the Negro Leagues. He was simply the one who took advantage of the opportunity. And this is how we remember him. We won't really remember any of his vital numbers except 42.

The baseball simulation game Baseball Mogul has a feature where you can enter a year into a league option that says "Women Enter Baseball." Basically this is the year that, when you simulate up to it, fictional female players become available in the draft and free agent pool. (The default year is 2020.) Obviously there is no rule banning women. As the consensus argument goes: if and when they're good enough, they'll suit up be on a major league team.

Eri Yoshida / Getty ImagesA lot of publicity has surrounded Eri Yoshida, the 18-year-old pitcher who was signed by the Chico Outlaws of the Golden League. Is she good enough to make the major leagues someday? Maybe. But let's say she's just a decent relief pitcher — a Jason Grimsley without the PEDs — and finishes her short career with an ERA of about 5.00. This wouldn't really break the glass ceiling with authority, but it's enough for other women to follow suit.

Case in point: Yoshida's fellow countryman and another Dodgers Rookie of the Year: Hideo Nomo. He will probably not make the Hall of Fame by numbers alone (his HOF candidacy would be a fantastic debate for another time), but because of his spurts of success, such as his two no-hitters, many other Japanese players immigrated to the States and did quite well (Ichiro). Others did not (Kei Igawa), but the point is they were all signed and were given a chance. All because Nomo was the first to show that he could pitch against the best.

So maybe it doesn't matter that Jackie Robinson was a great player in the sense that simply wearing Dodger Blue was more important. The fact that he did show everyone that he could hit, reach base, steal home, and be a vital part of a World Series is the reason for his own day in baseball.

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  • brad laidman

    The reason that the black color barrier is significant is because it was obvious that black players were good enough and were omitted merely because of racism. There was zero doubt from anyone with a brain that blacks could compete. There were players who were arguably as good as any who played major league baseball and only those whose racism was overwhelmingly blinding would have disputed that.

    That isn’t the case with women. Women aren’t even really comparable to the old bias against European basketball players who had to overcome stereotypes about their game.

    Outside of some steroid based experiment a woman MLB player would be an oddity or publicity stunt at best. You could be Gloria Steinham and you’d still have to admit that.

  • What about Asian players, Matt? That would be an interesting angle.

    Also, I think the time for a woman on a Major League team is coming; however, I wonder when. I used to pose this scenario to my college composition classes (for a writing assignment):

    A young girl comes into the Yankee camp to audition. They laugh and let her pitch. She stikes out Jeter, A-Rod, and Posada. She hands the ball to Joe Torre and asks, “Do I have a job?”

    The students had to write about what happens next. You would be surprised how many said, “No way!” Even the young ladies.

    I guess when it comes to breaking that barrier, we will need one excellent female player to do as Robinson did, and someone like Branch Rickey to say, “Now is the time!”

  • This wasn’t an article the story of Jackie Robinson per se, but rather comparing him to other cultural pioneers in the game and the comparison of their careers. I suppose I could have included the advent of the Latin American player, and the possible advent of Indian players in 10-15 years.

  • Wonderful article, Matt.

    My family has Dodger Blue in its blood (I mean Brooklyn Dodger Blue). My great uncle pitched in the minors for the Dodgers. One of the things I remember him telling me is they would play pick-up games against black teams, and they always would get beaten. He said, “ALL the black players were better than us.”

    In what I have read and heard from my uncle, everyone (in baseball) knew how good black players were. My uncle said it was Robinson’s enormous talent and Branch Rickey’s bold vision that got it done.

    Whatever the case, if you ever get to Citi Field, the Jackie Robinson Rotunda is awesome. A great tribute for a great man and ball player.

  • zingzing

    in that second question of the third p, i don’t mean “minors,” i mean “negro” …which sounds awful, i suppose, but you know what i mean. good god. my correction is worse than my mistake.

  • zingzing

    this article was just revving up when it ended… tell us more about robinson did do, and what other players didn’t, and what other players could, i suppose. i think you have an interesting article so far, but i’d like to see more. you’re good at research, so take it further.

    (and that’s what the comments are for, i guess)

    who were the others that failed?
    was robinson the first one they tried at all, or were there others in the minors?
    did the majors treat the negro leagues like the minors in some respects?

    really, i know jack about how robinson got into the league other than that it HAD to happen. i guess i could go look it up. maybe i will. seems like the day to do so.

    recommend a book or something.

  • Jackie played one season in the Negro Leagues, and did quite well. I would like to believe Satchel Paige would have done better, but it was Robinson who had the courage to try and succeed. Larry Doby might have been as good, if not better, than Jackie on numbers alone.

    Also, it was about timing. Had Josh Gibson played most of his career in MLB, we could’ve seen 400 homers out of him. Unfortunately he died the year Robinson joined the Dodgers.

  • Interesting. The legend as non-experts like me understand it is that he was the creme de la creme of the Negro Leagues and that’s why he was chosen to break the barrier – so that he’d be very likely to excel. I defer, of course, to your vastly superior sports knowledge.