Thursday, April 23, 2009

This Day in Baseball History (Jackie Robinson Terrorizes Pirates on the Basepaths)

April 23, 1954—Jackie Robinson put on a virtuoso display of daring, stealing second, third—and, in the final indignity, home—all in the same inning, helping the Brooklyn Dodgers edge the Pittsburgh Pirates, 6-5.

I was inspired to deal with this particular game by a New York Times article this past week about one of the Hall of Famer’s great specialties: stealing home. In the course of the piece, New York Mets speedster Jose Reyes expressed a desire to pull off this feat that Robinson had accomplished successfully 19 out of 31 times. 

For all his great athleticism, I don’t believe Reyes—at least from what he’s shown in his career to date—has the kind of smarts within the diamond to do this.

Yes, Robinson could certainly hit—that .311 lifetime batting average, including six straight .300 seasons, proves that. But his greatest assets were his legs and his cunning. In contrast, Reyes might have the first but not the second. 

Robinson could change the course of a game by positively unnerving a pitcher, as he did with the Pirates’ Bob Friend. Just watching him dance off first or second was bad enough. But to watch him do it off of third—knowing that the throw to the plate should be the shortest distance of all, and the hardest base for a runner to steal—was too much for any pitcher to abide. 

Though he continued to contribute key moments to the Dodgers’ great pennant runs in 1955 and 1956, 1954 was the last great year for the lionhearted Dodger. 

He was traded to the crosstown rival New York Giants after the 1956 season when Dodger management concluded he was on the decline. Robinson’s decision not to join his new team was based at least partly on the recognition that the legs that had carried him to greatness were on their way out. 

The two players I admire the most in baseball history were Lou Gehrig and Robinson, partly for all they accomplished on the field, but most of all for their courage—“grace under pressure,” in Ernest Hemingway’s words. 

Gehrig’s was displayed as he coped with the devastating disease that now bears his name; Robinson’s was evidenced, of course, as he braved countless indignities and even death threats to break baseball’s color line. 

I believe there were only two everyday players who utterly transformed the game. One was Babe Ruth, who almost single-handedly introduced the power game into the sport with his home runs. (Often during his career, Ruth would have more homers in a single season than entire teams would.) 

The other player was Robinson, whose speed revive the aggressive style of play that Giants manager John J. McGraw much preferred to Ruth’s power game.

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