Welcome back to my new series for Dodgers Nation, the Dodgers NL MVP Annals! In each installment, I take an in-depth look at every single MVP season by a Dodger and the player who won it. The Dodgers franchise can currently lay claim to 13 National League MVP winners, won by 11 different players. These span from 1913 to 2014, starting in the lean nascent days in Brooklyn to the Guggenheim Era in Los Angeles today.
Some players make their mark on baseball history as a trend-setter, the first of their kind. Other players had a signature moment, perhaps multiple ones, that are forever etched in the collective memory of the sport’s fans. A few esteemed individuals amass lasting legacies outside the realm of the baseball diamond.
Then there are those few who did it all. Jack Roosevelt Robinson, who broke the MLB color barrier 72 years ago today and whose 100th birthday was commemorated on January 31, stands as one of those sacred few. More accurately, he’s not part of a pantheon of greatness; he IS his own pantheon.
— Matteo Zavattoni (@MatteoZeiv) April 15, 2019
From the outset of this article, I have to acknowledge that there’s no way I can do Jackie’s full legacy justice in just one piece. He has been the subject of innumerable books, movies (including one where he played himself), theater productions, and even a whole Ken Burns documentary. His entire story is one of greater complexity than most assume.
As such, it’s a story that has been told time and again, so much that I knew it even before I became a true baseball fanatic. But it bears repeating nonetheless: Born January 31, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia, Jackie Robinson was the youngest of five children in a sharecropper family. His father left the family shortly thereafter, prompting them to move to Pasadena, California in 1920.
Inspired by his older brothers Frank and Mack (the latter a silver medalist at the 1936 Summer Olympics), Jackie decided to dedicate himself to athletics. He excelled in football, tennis, basketball, track, and baseball in high school. He continued to pursue them at Pasadena Junior College (later Pasadena City College) and UCLA, winning the 1940 NCAA championship in the long jump.
After serving in World War II from 1942-1944, baseball came calling for Robinson when the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues sent him an offer to play in early 1945. However, the hectic scheduling and prevalence of gambling in the league soured his outlook, and he quickly sought to move on to Major League Baseball. Of course, the major leagues of professional baseball had officially banned black players since the 1880s, making the likelihood of landing a deal highly unlikely.
After a sham tryout with the Boston Red Sox (ultimately the last MLB team to integrate in 1959), Robinson received a more serious consideration from Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey. The beetle-browed executive had compiled a list of talented black players he felt could withstand the inevitable racist abuse. Robinson agreed to a $600-a-month contract, setting the stage for history. The move wasn’t without controversy, however, as some (admittedly better) Negro Leagues legends like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson felt they deserved the opportunity instead. Nonetheless, Robinson excelled in the minors with the AAA Montreal Royals in 1946, winning International League MVP.
Then came the moment that changed everything. For the Dodgers, for Major League Baseball, and most of all, for race in the United States. On April 15, 1947, he took to first base at Ebbets Field against the Boston Braves. Major League Baseball was finally desegregated, leading a wave of incredible black players shortly thereafter, with Larry Doby integrating the American League the following year. The Dodgers won on the 15th, the first step towards a National League pennant. Robinson won MLB’s first ever Rookie of the Year Award, during the brief time it covered both leagues.
By every possible measure, April 15, 1947 is transcendent enough to clearly stand as Robinson’s finest moment. His greatest performance in a season, though, came two years later in 1949. In that year, he notched an eye-popping .342 average on 203 hits, thus taking the NL batting crown. He racked up 124 RBIs, the only time he reached triple digits in that category in a season. His alacrity on the basepaths went to new heights, stealing an MLB-best 37 bases.
The RBI, SB, hit, and batting average totals would ultimately stand as single-season career highs. Unsurprisingly, he earned his first All-Star selection, joining fellow Dodgers Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella as well as Cleveland’s Larry Doby as the first black MLB All-Stars. Two years after being the first black player in Major League Baseball, Robinson thus became the first to win a league MVP award.
While Robinson put up stellar numbers in 1947 and 1948, the former helping to secure a pennant while facing an onslaught of bigotry, 1949 was truly his coming of age as a player. It was an individual performance so spectacular, it earned an enthusiastic musical tribute from Woodrow Buddy Johnson and Count Basie (complete with name-checking other great black players of the time):
Of course, these were the Brooklyn Dodgers of “Wait ‘Til Next Year” fame. While the team had much to be proud of with a 97-57 record and their fifth NL pennant in franchise history, they met a familiar October fate by succumbing to the New York Yankees in the World Series. In five games, Robinson was thoroughly held in check by Yankees pitching, mustering just .188 and two RBIs at the plate.
While 1949 stands as Jackie’s peak year, the rest of his career wasn’t lackluster by comparison, to say the least. He continued to be named an All-Star every year through 1954. That streak of six straight All-Star appearances ended in 1955, when his numbers declined. But that decline was overshadowed by Brooklyn’s long-sought first World Series title, finally beating the Yankees in the process. Robinson helped by scoring five runs, the most famous coming on a controversial steal of home in game one.
Unfortunately, it would soon be the end of an era for both Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Following a loss to the Yankees in the 1956 World Series, the team elected to move west to Los Angeles in May 1957. Robinson, his physicality wearing down due to diabetes, was traded to the rival New York Giants. Like the previous MVP Annals subject, Dolph Camilli, Robinson chose not to play for Brooklyn’s rivals. Granted, unbeknownst to the team, he had agreed with the coffee company Chock full o’Nuts to retire from baseball become an executive, thus negating any trade.
Following his retirement, Robinson’s stature only continued to grow in tandem with seismic political and cultural shifts for African-Americans. His success on the field, coupled with the integrity with which he attained it, helped set the Civil Rights Movement in motion. He became the first black vice president of a corporation when he assumed the position for Chock full o’Nuts in 1957. He became the first black analyst on a televised baseball broadcast in 1965 for ABC Sports.
Robinson continued to receive honors in the baseball world, starting with election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility. The Dodgers retired his number 42 in June 1972 alongside those of Roy Campanella and Sandy Koufax. Yet he didn’t rest on the laurels of the path he blazed, remaining outspoken about the lack of black managers and front office personnel in baseball. He passed away on October 24, 1972, due to complications from diabetes, just nine days after throwing out a ceremonial first pitch at the World Series in Cincinnati.
While today is an emotional enough day with Yasiel Puig and others returning to Dodger Stadium for the first time, no current happenings on the field should distract from the vitality of Jackie Robinson’s legacy. It’s one whose observance and studying shouldn’t be restricted to a single day. With his number retired across MLB in 1997, it’s a justly omnipresent one every time any team takes the field.
Additionally, take a moment to appreciate #42’s role in lifting the Dodgers to their first run of near-annual postseason play. 70 years later, his 1949 MVP season in particular remains a statistically muscular one even by today’s standards.