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Robinson made impact on field, too
04/13/2007 10:00 AM ET
LOS ANGELES -- The 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's coming to the Major Leagues is Sunday. But often obscured in the politics of that arrival was his stature as a Hall of Fame player and an even better athlete.

Robinson also excelled at UCLA in football, basketball and track. But it was his prowess as a baseball player that led Branch Rickey to sign him, placing Robinson on track to shatter Major League Baseball's 58-year-old color barrier on April 15, 1947.

"Among other things, he was probably the most 'incendiary' player who ever played the game," said Vin Scully, the legendary Dodgers announcer, who began his career in 1950 and watched Robinson play seven of his 10 seasons with Brooklyn. "I mean that in the full sense of the word. He not only lit a fire under his ballclub, but he was the one person who was probably better angry. When he was angry, he was a one-man force."

Robinson was a fully mature player of 26 years old on Oct. 23, 1945, when Rickey secretly signed him, defying the other baseball owners who had voted 15-1 against integrating the big leagues. By then, Robinson had played in college, had played in the Negro Leagues and was undoubtedly ready to step on a Major League field.

But to test Robinson's will and his ability to ignore the inevitable constant patter of racial slurs, Rickey sent him to Montreal for a season, where he was embraced as a member of the Royals. Only after Robinson's second Spring Training with the Dodgers did Rickey make the decision to elevate him out-of-position as Brooklyn's first baseman.

As baseball celebrates the 60th anniversary of that move on Sunday with the focal point of those ceremonies at Dodger Stadium, it has been hailed by Commissioner Bud Selig, among many, as not only "the most powerful moment in baseball history, but as one of the most powerful moments in 20th century American history."

The 8 p.m. ET ceremony and game will be carried live on ESPN, ESPN HD, ESPN Radio, ESPN Deportes, and on XM Satellite Radio.

It will be preceded by a 90-minute pre-game show on MLB.TV and The BaseballChannel.TV, beginning at 6:30 p.m. The pre-game will be hosted by Seth Everett in New York with live feature reports from Dodger Stadium generated by Billy Sample and Ed Randall, who will also bring in special guests.

Rickey, as the shrewd baseball man he was, had a pretty good idea that it would work out for the Dodgers on the field, as well.

After going 0-for-4 that first day against the Boston Braves, Robinson's 1947 season unfolded nicely for both the player and the team. He hit .297, stole 29 bases, had 175 hits, 14 homers, 48 RBIs, scored 125 runs and was named National League Rookie of the Year. The Dodgers won only their third NL pennant and were vanquished by the Yankees in seven World Series games, which become a pattern during Robinson's career.

It would begin an influx of African American players that had a phenomenal and unparalleled effect on the play of New York's two NL teams. Both would thrive with the coming of Robinson, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Joe Black and Junior Gilliam to the Dodgers, and Willie Mays and Monte Irvin to the Giants. By integrating their rosters quickly, those two teams would win eight of the 10 NL pennants from 1947 to 1956, the year of Robinson's retirement and a year before both teams fled New York for the west coast.

The Giants swept the Indians in 1954 to win their last World Series and the Dodgers finally defeated the Yankees in 1955 after five tries.

"It never ceases to amaze me that I played a part in this whole process," said Newcombe, now 80 and a member of the Dodgers' community relations department, who will be present for Sunday's ceremonies. "And then to consider what we did in the 10 years we were with the Dodgers. My God, we won five MVP Awards and two Rookie of the Year Awards. That's how good we were and that's how determined we were."

Robinson's stamp was forever placed on the Major Leagues. The steal of home became his signature, an art form that may have perished forever. Of his 203 regular and postseason steals, 19 were of home, including his mad scamper to the plate in the 1955 World Series. The 19 steals of home are the most by any player since World War II.

Scully, who has watched the game evolve during his 57-year career in the booth, said Robinson was fearless.

"I asked Maury Wills once why he never tried to steal home and he said, 'a fear of failure,'" said Scully, referring to a Dodger who stole 104 bases alone in 1962. "Jackie never feared and that was part of his charisma. If the challenge was there he didn't back down from it in any way, shape or form."

Aside from the Rookie of the Year, Robinson was named NL MVP in 1949 and was an NL All-Star six times. He single-handedly kept the Dodgers in the race for the 1951 pennant when his key defensive play at second base in the 12th inning and homer in the 14th won the final game of the regular season at Philadelphia, forcing a three-game playoff with the Giants.

After Bobby Thomson's "Miracle of Coogan's Bluff" homer sunk the Dodgers in the last at bat of Game 3 at the Polo Grounds on Oct. 3, 1951, Robinson stood in short center field amid the growing tumult with his hands on hips, watching just to make sure Thomson touched all the bases.

"That's how much of a competitor Robinson was," Scully said.

Robinson had agreed with Rickey that he would subjugate all of his anger in his first years with the Dodgers as white players assailed his color and race. Instead, he used that pent up anger to fuel his own play.

His career batting average was .311 and that was tempered by the fact that his advancing age, plus injuries to his feet and legs, led to an offensive downturn after the 1954 season.

Robinson hit .256 and stole only 12 bases in 1955, his worst season in the Major Leagues. At age 37, he missed 49 games. He didn't play in Game 7 of the 1955 World Series -- a 2-0 win behind 19-year-old Johnny Podres that locked up Brooklyn's only title. By then, Robinson had been shifted to third base to make room for Gilliam. No matter, he still had his impact.

"Jackie was a [fantastic] a player and great team guy," Podres recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "You'd see him go 0-for-4 a couple of days in a row. He'd shake your hand and say, 'Maybe I'll help tomorrow,' and he'd go out and win four games in a row all by himself."

A year later, his career was over. Walter O'Malley, who had bought out Rickey in an ownership dispute, tried to dispatch Robinson to the Giants. The deal was for Dick Littlefield -- ultimately a 33-54 pitcher in his nine-year career -- and $30,000. Robinson declined, going to work instead as an executive vice president for Chock Full O' Nuts, a major coffee company at the time that supported Robinson heavily in his fight for civil rights.

He played his last game on Oct. 10, 1956, at Ebbets Field, Game 7 of the World Series. It was a sad epitaph to a career that came around full circle. The Yankees won, 9-0, and Robinson went 0-for-3.

On Jan. 5, 1957, a cold, dank day in Flatbush, Robinson cleaned out his locker at Ebbets Field, retiring from baseball almost nine months before the Dodgers would abandon the old yard for good on a late September day when only 6,702 were in the rickety old stands.

Five years later, Robinson became the first African American elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. His name appeared on only 77.5 percent of the ballots -- 124 of 160.

In the end, it was evidently impossible for some to separate Robinson, the player, from Robinson, the symbol.

"He was larger than life in his role," Scully said. "And he filled that role. That made him very, very special."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.