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Was Jackie Robinson as feared a base runner as everyone thinks?

Apr 26, 2013, 12:30 PM EDT

Image (1) jackie%20robinson%20sliding.jpg for post 5280

Rob Neyer wrote a whole book once fact-checking and, in many cases, debunking long-told tales of Major League Baseball. You really should own it, even if you don’t care much about the particular baseball legends he debunks.  The process of doing it — of taking on baseball’s exceptionally weighty folklore — is worth it in its own right. Some may say part of baseball’s charm is that it lends itself to myth-making and tale-telling, but it’s also the reason why there is so much damn misinformation and misunderstanding floating around.

Today Rob takes a look at “42” and at Jackie Robinson in general and asks whether the facts on the ground about Robinson’s base running match his reputation as a speedy, disruptive terror on the base paths. Short answer: nope. Not particularly.

Go read it to see why that it is.  And why — and this one may ruffle more feathers than merely taking on Robinson’s base running might — go see why Neyer thinks it’s entirely possible that Robinson — purely on the baseball merits — may not have been the most deserving candidate for Rookie of the Year in 1947.

Taking on stuff like this doesn’t make Rob too many friends. That would bother me if I thought he cared all that much about such things. But regardless of how that all breaks out, stuff like this is among my favorite kind of baseball writing.

  1. historiophiliac - Apr 26, 2013 at 12:48 PM

    Was it called “Lies My Coaches Told Me”?

    • historiophiliac - Apr 26, 2013 at 1:46 PM

      ^^^ historian joke


      • yahmule - Apr 26, 2013 at 1:52 PM

        Have you read anything else by James Loewen? I liked Lies, but the format of the book became redundant to me after a while. I have Sundown Towns, but haven’t started it yet.

      • historiophiliac - Apr 26, 2013 at 2:07 PM

        I haven’t read anything else of his. Sundown Towns might be too retread for me.

  2. cur68 - Apr 26, 2013 at 12:48 PM

    How dare anyone write a balance and accurate account of an iconic figure? How dare, you I say! Slather our heroes in hyperbole. Paint it all in black and white. No one cares about the subtleties, the warts, or the fact that Our Hero might have had clay feet in certain situations.

    So yeah, I’ll read Nyer’s version LONG before I go see “42”.

    • stex52 - Apr 26, 2013 at 12:55 PM

      I’m with you, Cur. I’m a Robinson fan. But there is way too much magical thinking in this society. Dole me out the facts. I will figure out how to fit them into my worldview. But my world view does not stop them from being facts.

      • cur68 - Apr 26, 2013 at 1:48 PM

        Its the “Magical” thing that bugs me most of all. There’s nothing magical about being an above average base stealer. The most feared base stealer in my time was probably Ricky Henderson. There’s nothing wrong with showing that Robinson needed to pick his spots better and, by association, Henderson was head and shoulders better than Robinson. So what? It doesn’t lesson Robinson in any way. In fact, I like him more for knowing it.

      • jwbiii - Apr 26, 2013 at 2:21 PM

        Not being as good a base stealer as Maury Wills is hardly damning.

    • historiophiliac - Apr 26, 2013 at 1:01 PM

      This is totally cheesy but…

      When I was a kid and saw Rocky, at the end I told my dad: “I don’t understand. He didn’t win. What’s to celebrate?” And, my dad said: “Sometimes you win just by finishing.” I guess that’s a lesson lost. If it’s not perfection, it doesn’t matter.

      • cur68 - Apr 26, 2013 at 1:48 PM

        Yep. THAT was good entertainment.

    • conjecture101 - Apr 26, 2013 at 1:38 PM

      I don’t think you understand the concept of entertainment.

      • cur68 - Apr 26, 2013 at 1:44 PM

        For me and some other black folks like me, its not entertainment. Its our history and public example of our own personal struggles, with some of those struggles being against ourselves and our own shortcomings. Some of us don’t need that to be coated with saccharine or depicted as some sort of Ultimate Us v Them fight. Some of us understand context, layers of meaning, and appreciate a subtle story that manages to convey a deeper understanding than what you usually get with this sort of movie. After all, what’s the point of our history if you don’t put it in context and allow your human figures to be human?

      • conjecture101 - Apr 26, 2013 at 1:49 PM

        Great point

      • yahmule - Apr 26, 2013 at 2:01 PM

        Cur, whatever insight your perspective as a black man lends you in judging the veracity or authenticity of the characters in 42 is washed away by your refusal to view it.

      • cur68 - Apr 26, 2013 at 2:16 PM

        So I don’t want to see a movie which by all accounts is pretty good, not great, sort of glosses over some facts, has some really good baseball moments, some really average non-baseball ones, and is done in a style which might be called “revisionist”? Gee. There must be something wrong with me. I don’t want to see another one of those.

        If that movie had been about marathon charity running, done about Terry Fox, and in the same style I wouldn’t want to see it, either.

        When I choose to delve into the life of historical figures, and especially people that I admire, I’d rather view that stuff through a realistic lens, and see an account that is more in keeping with the real person as opposed to the “magical” person you often see depicted in these things.

        Since I’m not a movie reviewer, and just some random person on a blog, I don’t see what onus there is on me to see something which doesn’t move me at all.

      • yahmule - Apr 26, 2013 at 2:40 PM

        I just figure you might want to form your own opinion about something instead of cherry picking the most negative commentary to suit a preconceived viewpoint.

      • cur68 - Apr 26, 2013 at 2:47 PM

        If someone, anyone really, had said “That movie had some really funny stuff in it. In fact, was nearly Major League funny, I might want to see it. But nothing, NOTHING, said about it moves me to want to see it. I like funny baseball movies. I get enough real life angst every time I walk out the door and I don’t need to have the realities of that sugar coated.

      • historiophiliac - Apr 26, 2013 at 3:08 PM

        I don’t go see many historical movies for similar reasons. A lot of times you just know going in it’s not worth the risk.

        BTW, cur, I spared you a little of that angst I experienced this week. Although, you and I differ on how to handle that. Rage!

      • yahmule - Apr 26, 2013 at 3:19 PM

        Your reasons for not seeing 42 are your own and really none of my business. I’m just pointing out you’re in no position to make declarative statements about the contents of the movie unless you’ve seen it.

    • indaburg - Apr 26, 2013 at 4:48 PM

      Yahmule has a point, cur. Your basing your opinion without having seen the movie. That’s unfair.

      For the record, you can be interested in both Nyers’ account and the movie. One thing you’re not getting is the following. Hollywood doesn’t like to make many movies with black people or about black people, unless the lead is Will Smith. This is a quality film about a great man, with flaws like all men. The movie could have done more to depict those flaws, but I want to send a message that yes, I am interested in a movie about black people that doesn’t insult my intelligence or have them dress up like women in fat suits. Is the movie perfect? No. But it’s pretty darn good, and I was proud to give it my hard earned money.

      • cur68 - Apr 26, 2013 at 4:58 PM

        Was it funny? I like funny baseball movies. If no one says “it made me laugh” I am just not interested. Conversely, I wouldn’t mind a robot, kung fu, laser-sword fight, baseball movie. With Jessica Alba in something skimpy. I’d totally go see that, too.

    • indaburg - Apr 26, 2013 at 4:49 PM

      *you’re basing your…

    • indaburg - Apr 26, 2013 at 5:34 PM

      It wasn’t a comedy but it had some surprisingly humorous (and very much welcome) moments. As for eye candy, the girl playing Rachel was quite comely. My sister was totally crushing on her.

  3. stoutfiles - Apr 26, 2013 at 1:00 PM

    A feared runner would be Ty Cobb. Tagging him out was risking getting hit with sharpened cleats.

  4. yahmule - Apr 26, 2013 at 1:08 PM

    It wouldn’t kill Neyer to apply a little common sense for context.

    “But what’s really surprising is that Jackie was caught 11 times. Often described as the best and fastest baserunner in the game, Jackie Robinson was successful in just 72.5 percent of his steal attempts?”

    I’m sure none of those old white umpires called Robinson out on close plays, right?

    In fact, the movie even quickly addresses this additional piece of bias Robinson faced when they show him called out at first when he was clearly safe.

    Of course, when you go into a movie believing you “know too much” and lack a basic understanding of story telling, you’re liable to make these kinds of assertions. Especially when you fancy yourself as some kind of myth slayer.

    Robinson stole hole 19 times in regular season games and was caught 12 times. Why didn’t Neyer take the time to diminish that accomplishment, too?

  5. chew1985 - Apr 26, 2013 at 1:08 PM

    Robinson was a very SMART baserunner and basestealer. There have been multitudes since who stole many bases but weren’t so smart about it, such as Vince Coleman.

    And Jackie got the Rookie of the Year Award by acclamation for what he accomplished for humanity and all those that would follow him, black and white alike. His first hour in the Major Leagues was Baseball’s finest hour ever. It was also the greatest contribution ANY sport has ever made to civilized society.

    God rest his soul.

    • historiophiliac - Apr 26, 2013 at 1:45 PM

      Greatest contribution ANY sport has ever made to civilized society????? Really? You know, Jesse Owens, Jim Thorpe, and Billy Jean King might disagree with you on that. (Just off the top of my head.)

    • addictedzone - Apr 26, 2013 at 1:45 PM

      Excellent example of a flowery version of hyperbole.

  6. randygnyc - Apr 26, 2013 at 1:18 PM

    Feared? Respected, yes, in retrospect. Feared, no, that’s cobb’s territory. Henderson, well, A,B,C,D and all of the above.

  7. randygnyc - Apr 26, 2013 at 2:39 PM

    Cur- you’re the exception rather than the rule (and that’s a compliment)

  8. randygnyc - Apr 26, 2013 at 3:17 PM

    I had similar misgivings about going to see Lincoln. That it was a Spielberg film that starred Daniel day Lewis were the deciding factors, after careful consideration, to take my 11 year old to her first adult movie. 42 was next up for us because she was really motivated to see it. My wife and I were very concerned about the language. I even briefly discussed here on HBT. Ultimately, we decided that we weren’t comfortable in having her see it. She’s been learning about the civil rights struggle, but hasn’t been exposed to such explosive, hateful and unbridled racist language that we’ve determined isn’t age appropriate for her, yet.

    • historiophiliac - Apr 26, 2013 at 3:44 PM

      Well, I hope you went back and talked to her about the problems w/ that movie then.

  9. louhudson23 - Apr 27, 2013 at 6:48 AM

    So a man writes a book,quantifies some numbers and now Jackie Robinson wasn’t “all that”? Robinson scared the shit out of pitchers and was a constant threat to steal home when standing on third base… which he had an effect on pitch selection and fielders positioning . and everything that resulted is not quantifiable….hit teammates loved him and opponents feared him….the rest is just opinion…

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