Jackie Robinson was traded to the New York Giants on December 13, 1956. Robinson retired soon after. He would rather bow out of the game than play for the hated rival.
Of the countless stories told about Robinson, his reaction to this trade is my favorite. Ralph Branca, his teammate on the Dodgers, remembered his words following the news. “I’m a Dodger. I’m blue,” he said.
Branca said Robinson couldn’t bear the thought of putting on the Giants jersey. He hated the Giants. He was a Brooklyn Dodger. He bled blue.
Robinson is often defined as the first African American baseball player. He broke the color barrier and did so with courage and dignity. He is a hero for all and a legend in American history, not just in baseball’s memory. It is so easy to forget how great Robinson was on the diamond. He was a Hall of Fame ballplayer.
The story of Robinson’s retirement from the game provides some insight into what made him tick. Beneath the layer of quiet courage was a fierce competitor. Despite holding his emotions in and promising not to fight back, Robinson was a fighter. He burned hot with the desire to win. He was a ballplayer.
Robinson could feel the eyes of his opponents on him. He could hear their dismissive laughter and their hateful words. The chip on his shoulder grew. The desire burned hotter. The only way he could earn their respect was on the diamond. He had to be good.
Robinson won the 1947 Rookie of the Year award. He was the 1949 MVP. He led the Dodgers to the 1955 World Series championship. And he was a career .311 hitter.
Despite all his success, Robinson never let his guard down. He had to win at all costs. As his career went on, he showed his emotion on the field. He got into it with opponents and umpires. Baseball was intense. And Robinson lived for that intensity. He got on teammates and wasn’t always nice about it.
“It kills me to lose. If I’m a troublemaker, and I don’t think that my temper makes me one, then it’s because I can’t stand losing,” Robinson said, “That’s the way I am about winning, all I ever wanted to do was finish first.”
His need to win was never higher than when the Giants were the opponent. He had a little extra to prove to the rival team. It was personal.
One game stands out from the rest. It was 1954. Giants’ pitcher Sal Maglie was on the mound. He had a reputation for throwing the ball a little too high and tight. He was at it again in this contest. Robinson stepped to the plate ready to deliver a message. Jackie bunted down the first base line and took off for first. The first baseman fielded it and Davey Williams, the second baseman, covered.
Robinson delivered his message – hard.
“Maglie wouldn’t cover,” Robinson recalled. “Williams got in the way. He had a chance to get out of the way but he just stood there right on the base. It was just too bad, but I knocked him over. He had a Giant uniform on. That’s what happens.”
The matter-of-fact tone tells a lot about Jackie Robinson. It was all about winning. It was simple. The Giant uniform made Williams the enemy. The orange and black brought out the best in Robinson. It was competition.
Today, these collisions rarely happen. Players enjoy pow-wows before the game. They chat it up at first base and second and third. Robinson was old school. He had little to say to the opponent. If he did say anything, it certainly wasn’t going to be a friendly “hello.” His focus on winning was too strong to crack a smile.
“Above anything else, I hate to lose.”
That is Robinson’s legacy. He was a baseball player. And he was great. He deserves more recognition as a great player rather than as a symbol of equality and progress. We all know what he means to the game from a historical perspective. His achievements in the face of racism are incredible. But I’m sure he would just like us all to say his achievements were incredible.
Just under his hatred for losing would have been his hatred for the New York Giants. The orange and black were a terrible combo anyway.
With all this talk of color, it may be best to remember him as a Dodger.
He was True Blue.