The price of being one of the few true, real-world heroes we've ever had is that nobody's very interested in remembering the things you did that, no matter how well you did them, were merely human. Our collective memory of Jackie Robinson rightly focuses on what he endured, how he carried himself, and what the things he did meant in the larger societal sense. The Jackie Robinson story is always a baseball story, of course, but the baseball tends to be no more than an exotic setting for all the other, weightier stuff.
When Jackie as a player comes up at all, the focus tends to be on his flash, his measured mayhem on the basepaths, his flair for the dramatic, the things that enhance his personal story and move the plot along. If all you knew about Jackie Robinson was what you'd learned from the movies or history books, you'd come away without much of an idea of what kind of player he was; you'd know he was fast and fun to watch, and that's about it. That would probably be okay if he had been simply a very good baseball player, a Bobby Doerr or Red Schoendienst, the kind who checks in near the lower limits of the Hall of Fame. He could be just as celebrated for his societal contributions, with the same curt nod toward his still-considerable skills on the field, and we wouldn't really be missing much of anything.
The thing is, though, that Jackie Robinson was a wonderful baseball player, a perfectly legitimate Hall of Famer on his on-the-field accomplishments alone and the kind that, if he'd had the opportunity to enjoy a longer big-league career, could have gone down as one of the best the game has ever seen.
Robinson didn't enter the big leagues until age 28, the middle of his prime, and was a regular second baseman for only five years, his age 29 through 33 seasons. In those seasons, he put up more wins above replacement than any other second baseman across the same five-year range ever has with the exceptions of Joe Morgan and Rogers Hornsby, probably the consensus two greatest second basemen in history (arguably a third, Eddie Collins, was more than 11 wins below Robinson across that particular age range). Robinson didn't burn out quickly after moving off of second base, either, continuing his solidly above-average play (albeit in reduced playing time) for four more seasons split mostly between the outfield and third base. When he retired at 37 (to focus on business ventures, not, as is often reported, to avoid having to play for the hated Giants). Given two or three more healthy and effective seasons at the end of his career and four or five more (including two or three peak-level years) at the beginning, Robinson would probably have been an inner-circle player based on his statistics alone.
On a season-by-season basis, Robinson was even more astounding. After getting his feet wet with excellent seasons in 1947 and ‘48, Robinson led the league in batting average and stolen bases (and, oddly, sacrifice bunts) in 1949. He added in 124 RBI (second in the NL), and won the NL MVP award, nabbing 12 of the 24 first-place votes. He finished second in on-base percentage, third in slugging percentage and first in WAR (by about half a win over Stan Musial and more than one over everyone else), but of course no one would've known or cared about those things then.
Robinson never won another MVP award, and in fact never finished higher than sixth, garnering only one other first-place vote (in 1951) despite continuing to be arguably the best player in the league for each of the next three seasons. He finished second among position players in WAR in 1950 (by half a win to his predecessor Dodger second baseman, Eddie Stanky), first in both 1951 and ‘52 (by about half a win over Musial both times). and fifth in 1953 (more than two wins behind teammate Duke Snider). One could make a convincing case, with or without using WAR, that Jackie deserved to win four MVPs in a row, from 1949 through '52. (I think I could make an argument for him in ‘53 too, but it wouldn't be a terribly strong one, if only because he shifted primarily to left field while Snider patrolled center.)Barry Bonds (Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE)
It's tempting, no doubt, to ascribe his failure to win any one of those other three awards to, if not racism, Robinson's outspokenness. Robinson implied as much in his post-playing days, saying, "Many times I have been told that I should just let things work themselves out without involving myself in them. If I did so, many honors and awards would come my way." There was also a tendency -- far less malicious but nonetheless annoying -- to resist rewarding a player who had already won. Mickey Mantle won his first MVP award in 1956, and had a justifiable MVP case in each of the next six seasons after that, actually winning in only ‘57 (when he batted .365 and basically demanded it) and ‘62 (probably his weakest year -- he played only 123 games -- but there were no other terribly appealing candidates). Similarly, Barry Bonds won three out of four awards from 1990 to 1993 and had a good argument that he was the league's best position player in all but one of the next seven seasons, but didn't win another until he got all otherworldly in 2001 and took the choice away.
It could have been a combination of the two; you can imagine a voter (or many) not wanting to reward Robinson more than once to keep him from getting an attitude or a big head or some such nonsense, based on those voters' views of the nature of his race. While I don't doubt that all those things played a part in getting him fewer votes, though (and there's no doubt race kept him from some votes regardless; it's crazy that he got only half the votes in 1949), Roy Campenella seems to put the lie to all of it, as a black player who won the award in 1951, ‘53 and ‘55.
I think the real explanation is more mundane and (to a sabermetrics nerd living in 2013) more familiar: Robinson just wasn't great in the kinds of ways that voters tend to notice. While his batting averages stayed great until 1955, he never led the league again (settling for four consecutive top-ten finishes). He never had 100 RBI again, he remained in the cleanup spot for most of his career so didn't score as many runs as you might think either, and he never again led the league in any category the voters of the time would've considered to be important (the 1952 on-base percentage title is the only remaining black ink on his Baseball-Reference page). He never hit as many as 20 homers (he got to 19 twice).
I have no doubt that the voters and fans in Robinson's peak knew they were watching something special, but they just didn't look at a line-drive hitting second baseman who hits for high averages and runs the bases well and say to themselves, "That guy right there is the single best player in the National League." He was the best, but he didn't announce himself as such using the language of the time. Campanella topped 30 homers and 100 RBI in each of his three MVP-winning seasons; Hank Sauer led the league in both categories when he won it in 1951, and 1954 MVP Willie Mays had 41 and 110. Reliever Jim Konstanty, the 1950 MVP, is a bit more of a head-scratcher, but his Phillies beat the Dodgers for the pennant, and Konstanty did have a pretty eye-popping sort of standard-statistics season, with 16 victories and 22 saves amassed in an astounding 152 relief-only innings.
So Robinson was plagued (among other things, no doubt) by the same sorts of pro-power-hitter, pro-baseball-card-stat biases that made Andre Dawson an "MVP" in 1987 and Justin Morneau one in 2006. If he had had the same seasons in the rapidly-evolving conditions of 2009-'13 rather than 1949-'53, he would have had a better chance of winning the award more than once.
Regardless, it's good to remember now and then that for all the many (and far more important) things he was, Jackie Robinson was also a really, really great ballplayer. If the legendary career that began 66 years ago today had been permitted to kick off just three or four years earlier, he would have been remembered as one of the greats of the game before one gets to any considerations that aren't wholly contained between the foul lines.