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When Jackie got caught stealing

There was something in 42 that rankled me.

Actually, there were a number of things in 42 that rankled me, but that's because I know too much and anyway those things didn't keep me from enjoying the movie quite a lot (see sidebar). One of those things came toward the end of the movie (and the 1947 season), when Dodgers radio man Red Barber says on the air that Jackie Robinson "has stolen 27 bases this season and yet to be thrown out attempting."

Which, as I wrote here last week, just isn't true. Jackie wound up stealing 29 bases in his rookie season ... and was caught 11 times.

I've seen those numbers before, and yet still I'm surprised by them. Those 29 steals are somewhat surprising; after all, reading the memories of those who were around in 1947, you might guess that Jackie was just running absolutely wild on the bases; instead, he averaged one steal every five games, which doesn't really seem so wild at all.

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?

Actually, what's really surprising is this combination. If he'd been running all the time, I would understand him getting caught with some frequency because he wouldn't have surprise on his side. But considering that he attempted only 40 steals, we might guess that he was picking his spots, and going only when he thought he could make it. And he was doing both more than anybody else in the league. Which was relatively wild.

Still, was there something different about stealing bases in Jackie Robinson's era?

Undoubtedly. However, I can't help noticing Sam Jethroe. In 1950, Jethroe was 33 years old when he joined the Boston Braves. In his first three seasons, he stole 98 bases with an 82-percent success rate. In Jackie Robinson's first three seasons, he stole 88 bases with a 68-percent success rate.

Going back to 1947, while Robinson led the National League with 29 steals and was caught 11 times, Bob Dillinger led the American League with 34 steals and was caught 13 times. In 1949, while Robinson led the N.L. with 37 steals and was caught 16 times, Dillinger led the A.L. with 20 steals and was caught 14 times. I left out 1948 because that wasn't a good year at all for Jackie, stolen-base wise. But looking at those three seasons, the most prolific for both players, Robinson (as I noted already) stole 88 bases in 129 attempts, and hit 25 triples; Dillinger stole 82 bases in 120 attempts and hit 29 triples. Based purely on these numbers -- and I'm not saying we should base anything purely on these numbers -- Bob Dillinger was just as fast as Jackie Robinson. Which seems preposterous, since 99.8 percent of baseball fans have never heard of Bob Dillinger.

In his quickie autobiography, published in 1948, Robinson (via ghostwriter Wendell Smith) wrote that his greatest honor in 1947 was being named Rookie of the Year by both The Sporting News and the Baseball Writers' Association of America. And I should note that The Sporting News had not been a friend to integration, or optimistic about Robinson's abilities before the season. So they deserved some credit for acknowledging reality when it was obvious. Anyway, here's what TSN wrote about their choice:

In selecting the outstanding rookie of 1947, the Sporting News sifted and weighed only stark baseball values.

That Jack Roosevelt Robinson might have had more obstacles than his first-year competitors, and that he perhaps had a harder fight to gain even Major League recognition, was no concern of this publication. The sociological experiment that Robinson represented, the trail-blazing that he did, the barriers he broke down, did not enter into the decision. He was rated and examined solely as a freshman player in the Big Leagues -- on the basis of his hitting, his running, his defensive play, his team value.

Dixie Walker summed it up in a few words the other day when he said: "No other ball player on this club, with the possible exception of Bruce Edwards, has done more to put the Dodgers up in the race than Robinson has. He is everything Branch Rickey said he was when he came up from Montreal."

The record shows that Robinson has laid down 42 successful bunts up to September 9. Fourteen of these were beaten out for hits and 28 were sacrifices. He failed only four times.

Robinson has been a demon on the bases. So far he has stolen second 19 times, third three times, home three times (on Ostermueller, Pollett, and Beggs), and has been thrown out only nine times. He has stolen against every club in the League...

One might reasonably wonder why TSN didn't wait until the end of the season to choose a Rookie of the Year. The Giants' Larry Jansen went 4-0 with a 1.88 ERA after September 9, and finished the season 21-5 with a 3.12 ERA. Of course, many of the BBWAA's Rookie of the Year voters ignored that, too. But one of the dirty little secrets of the 1947 season is that Jackie Robinson might not have been the best rookie in the league.

Granted, Robinson received then and continues to receive a great deal of credit for doing some things that didn't show up in the box score. Robinson, it's said, unnerved pitchers to the point that they regularly committed balks and threw fat pitches. I've read thousands and thousands and thousands of words about Jackie Robinson, and if there's one thing about which those words agree, it's that Jackie Robinson was a terrible pest. Just reading those words, or watching the new movie, you might reasonably guess that Jackie drove so many pitchers wild that they committed ... oh, I don't know, maybe a dozen balks per season because of his antics?

I checked in with Retrosheet's David Smith, who knows more about Dodger statistics than anyone else alive. Turns out the number of balks with Jackie on the bases was eight.

Not eight per season. Eight, period. Eight balks in Jackie's 10-year career. Two of those happened in 1947, and one of those happened with the bases loaded, Jackie on second base (when the pitcher probably wasn't paying much attention to him). There were whole seasons -- 1951, 1952, 1954, and 1956 -- without any balks at all.

Back in 1980, David Smith analyzed the impact of Maury Wills' baserunning on the Dodgers' run production. Smith found a significant impact, above and beyond Wills' prodigious stealing. I have little doubt that Jackie Robinson, despite stealing many fewer bases than Wills, also helped the Dodgers in some ways that aren't obvious from our current distance.

For a long time, though, it's been assumed that Jackie Robinson's aggressiveness on the bases, all by itself, led to a huge number of "extra" runs for the Dodgers. It's unlikely that the assumptions have been exactly accurate. It's possible that Robinson's running was worth even more than everyone says. It's possible his running was worth somewhat less than everyone says.

You can probably guess what I think.