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|
|1||Shoeless Joe Jackson||7.6||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.