Jackie Robinson’s underrated final season

Jackie Robinson could have quit baseball last year or this year or next and it would have occasioned no astonishment to those who have known him and were aware of what pride he took in his skill. It seemed altogether reasonable that when he saw those gifts fading, he would walk out. Somehow, the idea of him being traded always seemed outlandish.

–Red Smith, December 18, 1956

By all appearances, Jackie Robinson was declining when the Brooklyn Dodgers traded him to the New York Giants for journeyman pitcher Dick Littlefield and $30,000 in December 1956. A month shy of turning 38, the future Hall of Famer and man who broke baseball’s color barrier had averaged 111 games and a .266 batting clip his past two seasons. So it was no surprise when Robinson refused to report to the Giants and announced his retirement a few weeks later in a piece that Look Magazine paid him $50,000 to write. In fact, Robinson had made his decision before the trade but kept quiet, controversially, because of Look’s publication deadline. He might have been selling himself short.

Most WAR by position player in final season
Rk Player WAR Year
1 Shoeless Joe Jackson 7.6 1920
2 Happy Felsch 5.5 1920
3 Roberto Clemente 4.8 1972
4 Jackie Robinson 4.5 1956
5 Roy Cullenbine 4.3 1947
6 Bill Joyce 4.3 1898
7 Chick Stahl 4.1 1906
8 Will Clark 4.0 2000
9 Phil Tomney 3.9 1890
10 Ray Chapman 3.8 1920

Among all position players since 1871, Robinson had the fourth-most Wins Above Replacement in his final season with 4.5, just shy of All Star level production. And Robinson rates tops for WAR in his final season among position players who quit voluntarily. Of the other nine players on the list at right, three– Clemente, Stahl and Chapman– died during or after their final seasons and two– Jackson and Felsch– were permanently banned from baseball.

Robinson’s 4.5 WAR in 1956 was a credit to his fielding. His 19.1 defensive runs saved that year were the most by a player in his final season. Bill James also noted in his 2001 historical abstract that Robinson’s 5.52 Win Shares per 1,000 innings at third base lifetime, where he played the most near the end of his career, was the best of any player since 1940. James wrote, “I think the record would suggest that Robinson may in fact have been a far better defensive player than most people think he was.”

Robinson wasn’t terrible with the bat either in 1956, hitting .275 with an adjusted rate of offensive production 6 percent better than other players. It was nothing like his peak numbers, but it was more than serviceable for an aging infielder, comparable to how Derek Jeter, Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel hit at 37. I like to think Robinson could have at least made a serviceable bench player for the Giants or another team in 1957. But maybe it wasn’t in his nature to accept a diminished role on a new club or renege on his deal with Look Magazine. Robinson also might not have been physically able to play anymore.

As Roger Kahn wrote in The Boys of Summer, the Giants kept pursuing Robinson through the winter of 1957, improving on their initial offer of $40,000 for the first season and $20,000 for two years thereafter as a part-time scout. Robinson hesitated to return, in part, because of the possibility of having to pay back Look Magazine. Dodger general manager Buzzie Bavasi speculated publicly that Robinson would keep the money and play for the Giants anyhow. This, Kahn wrote, led Robinson to conclude he’d have to stay retired to preserve his integrity. Any lingering thoughts Robinson had of a comeback ended when he woke up the first day of the 1957 season with his right knee so badly swollen he couldn’t get out of bed. His SABR bio also notes speculation that Robinson, a diabetic, may have been dependent on an insulin pump from the middle of his career on.

Instead, Robinson stuck with his new job as vice president for Chock Full O’ Nuts, a coffee company. He worked there until 1964, whereupon he founded the Freedom National Bank in Harlem and, like Bob Feller, sold insurance. One can only wonder how much longer Robinson’s baseball career might have been in an era that allowed him to make the majors sooner or offered him better medical care. His superb play his final season is one more example of everything he overcame.

2 Replies to “Jackie Robinson’s underrated final season”

  1. There are “visible” and “invisible” ways of being excellent at baseball. “Visible” ways include hitting a lot, hitting for power, stealing bases, and making spectacular plays in the field. “Invisible” ways include getting on base (whether by walk or by error), taking extra bases on hits by others, avoiding double plays, and positioning yourself correctly so that you don’t HAVE to make spectacular plays.

    By 1955 and 1956, Jackie Robinson had all but stopped excelling at the “visible” skills. Instead of stealing 25-ish bases, as he had a half-decade before, he was stealing 12. Instead of hitting 15 HR and 35 2B, he was hitting 8-10 HR and 10 2B. Instead of playing 140 games, he was playing 110. Instead of hitting .300, he was hitting .265. It all points to a player who was now merely a shell of his former self.

    HOWEVER, if we look at the “invisible” skills (to the extent that we’re able), we see a different picture. We see that Robinson was as good as ever at taking the extra base on hits by others; we see that he was still avoiding double plays; we see that, as ever, his OBP was about 100 points better than his BA, because he was STILL walking just as much as ever (more, actually than his career average in each of his last five seasons); we see that he was still outstanding in the field, which may have been accounted for as much by being positioned correctly as by being athletic.

    Basically, Jack Roosevelt Robinson lost the skills that get you headlines, but retained many (perhaps most?) of the skills that help win ballgames.* So yeah; for the average fan – hell, for the average man INSIDE BASEBALL – Jackie Robinson was deteriorating. The problem is, a deteriorated Jackie Robinson is still, because of his ability to do all the “little things” right, a damn valuable baseball player.

    *Obviously, the stats that get you headlines ALSO help you win ballgames, but they aren’t the ONLY things that help you win. Jackie lost those, but RETAINED the others.

  2. 38 was pretty darn old for baseball in the mid-50’s. And Jackie as Graham pointed out may have already been dealing with diabetes for some time. If that was true, it is an even greater testament to Jackie’s heart and skills as baseball was not even close to his best sport and he really had little preparation for going into the MLB. He last played baseball in college in 1940. So there’s a span of about 5 years until he plays in 47 games as a shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs. Going from that to one year in the minors and then to the pro’s is amazing under any circumstances, but as we all know Jackie the ante for Jackie was well behind a now 28 year old with a bad ankle trying to make it in the MLB. It’s staggering to think of what that man accomplished, but not so surprising that he left us so long and may have had such a serious illness during his playing days.
    Thanks for this fine article Graham about a man who has amazed me all my life and I’m still finding out things about him, I couldn’t imagine.
    Both Graham and Dr Doom point out how even a Jackie Robinson, seriously ill and a shell of his former athletic self, had the skill, heart and intelligence to still be such a valuable player.
    He’d have been an amazing manager.

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