Editor’s note: To read Joe Posnanski’s take on this piece, go here.
What he did: Robinson is an all-time hero for breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947, though I’ve noticed something talking to people about him. I’ve heard it suggested Robinson wouldn’t have made the Hall of Fame without being baseball’s first black player in 83 years. Certainly, he was enshrined with minimal service time, 10 seasons, and dozens of non-inducted players have more hits than Robinson with 1,518. But to say Robinson wasn’t Hall of Fame-caliber seems misguided, if not racist.
First off, I think Robinson did enough as a player to justify enshrinement, from hitting .311 lifetime to compiling 63.2 WAR to having six consecutive seasons with an OPS above .900. Just imagine what Robinson could have done with a full career. If he’d played at any other point since 1947, Robinson’s statistical case for the Hall of Fame would be ironclad. In the right circumstances, he might even still be a first ballot selection.
Era he might have thrived in: With the “Big Red Machine” Cincinnati Reds in the 1970s
Why: I look at Joe Morgan, a first ballot Hall of Fame selection in 1990 and the Reds second baseman during their heyday, and I see what Robinson might have accomplished had segregation not kept him from baseball until age 28. Only Robinson would offer greater power and a competitive streak to rival Pete Rose.
Let’s assume Robinson still attends UCLA out of high school, signs with the Reds following graduation in say, 1964, spends the obligatory year or two in the minors, and arrives in the majors around 1966 at 24 (since this is fantasy, I’m not having Robinson toil his first few years in Houston as Morgan did.) This would give Robinson maybe 17 seasons in the show. I’m guessing he easily surpasses Morgan’s 2,517 hits, maybe even gets close to 3,000; and since Robinson compiled 63.2 WAR in 10 seasons, I think he could also best Morgan’s 103.5 WAR with a full career.
In real life, Robinson quit at 37, though I’m assuming he’d play longer in my scenario. First, near the end of his career when the Big Red Machine would be dismantling, Robinson could join the American League to DH, perhaps with the California Angels near where he grew up in Pasadena. The designated hitter position would be a perfect final job for a player whose all-or-nothing style of play would have taxed him in any era. The advent of free agency in the 1970s would also give Robinson greater incentive to play longer.
In any event, Robinson would play his prime years for a team to rival his own. What the Brooklyn Dodgers were to the late 1940s and 1950s, the Cincinnati Reds were to the 1970s: A star-studded club usually in contention. Robinson would have fit in with greats like Rose, Johnny Bench, George Foster, and Tony Perez, perhaps a better supporting cast than Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, and Roy Campanella. It’d be a treat to see Rose and Robinson as teammates. If Rose doesn’t break Ray Fosse’s collarbone in the 1970 All Star game, Robinson would. Perhaps they could form a tag team.
The Reds would benefit too, since Robinson’s career slugging percentage of .474 trounces Morgan’s .427. Robinson also averaged nearly 20 more RBI per 162 games. I don’t know how Morgan and Robinson stack up defensively, though it’s worth noting that Morgan has negative defensive WAR for his career.
Some might say the Reds would miss Morgan on the base paths. Morgan stole three times as many bases lifetime as Robinson, but Robinson did his stealing years before it became popular. Consider that in 1949, Robinson’s career-high 37 steals represented 10.2 percent of all stolen bases in the National League, while Morgan’s career-high 67 in 1975 were just 5.7 percent of the NL total. I’m guessing that with the Big Red Machine, Robinson would have some 50-70 steal seasons.
Perhaps all this would be enough to delay the exodus that commenced in Cincinnati not long after the Reds won the 1976 World Series. In a perfect world, Robinson even keeps Morgan out of the ESPN commentator booth.
Any player/Any era looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.