Jackie Robinson and the World Series

This article was written by Steven C. Weiner

This article was published in the Jackie Robinson: Perspectives on 42


No sporting event so decisively enthralls the national consciousness as baseball’s annual October pageant.… There is something heroic about the pitched combat of two teams that are at once survivors and winners, meeting to decide the world championship.” – Donald Honig1

Jackie: Perspectives on 42Even though the nature of postseason baseball has changed dramatically over the past 50 years, the essence of the World Series is as it was 100 years ago, a best-of-seven playoff to determine a champion.2 Over six months of toil in the regular season and now the early rounds of the postseason are boiled down to a final week of intensity like no other competition. Every pitch, every play is under scrutiny and presents an opportunity for heroes, goats, joy, and agony, all at the same time.

The Bronx Bombers versus Dem Bums.3 The Yankees and Dodgers have met more times in the World Series than any other pairing in postseason history.4 Perhaps no World Series rivalry better captures the nature of the combat. Its history is punctuated by riveting games, indelible moments, and striking individual performances, both joyous and painful, that have become a part of baseball history. We remember when the wait finally ended for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, winning their first and only World Series title.5 Don Larsen’s Game Five pitching performance the following year against the Dodgers stands as the only perfect game in World Series history.6 Dodger fans also sympathetically remember Gil Hodges’ 0-for-21 batting slump in the 1952 World Series. In the midst of losing another World Series to the Yankees, they sent him all manner of cards, letters, best wishes, batting tips, prayers, and condolences. “My warmest memory in baseball.” said Hodges years later. “What I’ll never forget is the way fans rallied around rather than dig a ditch for me.”7

One of those moments of timeless memory belongs to Jackie Robinson, a daring steal of home in Game One of the 1955 World Series against the Yankees. The Dodgers were batting in the eighth inning, trailing by two runs. Robinson danced off third to disturb Yankee pitcher Whitey Ford and finally darted toward home. Yogi Berra applied the tag but the safe call by umpire Bill Summers was immediate.8 The call and the meaning of that play are discussed in another essay in this book. And there are many more memorable plays dotting the Dodgers versus Yankees World Series rivalry of the 1940s and 1950s.9

In his 10 seasons with the Dodgers, 1947 through 1956, Jackie Robinson played in six World Series, all against the Yankees. There was no better time for baseball fans of all ages in the New York City area.10 What did Jackie Robinson accomplish on the World Series stage and what did it mean to him?

1947 – YANKEES, DODGERS RESUME WORLD SERIES RIVALRY

Their first meeting, in the 1941 World Series, was now a distant but still agonizing memory for Dodger fans. With two outs in the ninth inning of Game Four and the Dodgers leading 4-3, the Yankees’ Tommy Henrich swung and missed on a full count. The ball eluded Dodgers catcher Mickey Owen and the Yankees rallied to win that game and the 1941 World Series the following day.

The 1947 World Series meant several firsts for baseball. Robinson and pitcher Dan Bankhead11 were the first African-Americans to play in a World Series, which was being televised for the first time, although only in the Eastern part of the United States. Two weeks before the Series, Robinson was named Rookie of the Year by The Sporting News and its editor J.G. Taylor Spink on the basis of “stark baseball values … his hitting, his running, his defensive play, his team value.”12 Spink wrote, “The sociological experiment that Robinson represented, the trail blazing he did, the barriers he broke down did not enter into the decision.”13

Robinson seemed more than ready for his first World Series and displayed no outward sign of the jitters. “Gosh,” he said with a smile, “it can’t be any more nerve-wracking than that St. Louis series. After that, nothing can seem too important.”14 The contempt from various members of opposing teams for Robinson’s role in integrating baseball has been well chronicled. The spiking of Robinson at first base, intentional or otherwise, by the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter on August 20, 1947, at Ebbets Field is just one such example.15

In Game One16 at Yankee Stadium, the Dodgers struck first and Robinson was at the center. In the first inning, he drew a one-out walk. “Then the agile Negro started prancing back and forth off first base and a wave of expectancy swept through the stands.”17 With Frank Shea pitching, Robinson stole second. Moments later he was tagged out between second and third on Pete Reiser’s tap to the mound. Robinson, though, prolonged the rundown sufficiently to allow Reiser to advance to second and subsequently score on Dixie Walker’s single. The first run in the first inning in his first World Series was to some extent of Robinson’s doing, as unrecognizable as it might appear in the box score. It was just the beginning.

The Dodgers would go on to lose the game and, eventually, the Series in seven games, but not before there was another highlight-reel moment to remember. There were two outs in the ninth inning of Game Four and the Yankees’ Bill Bevens was pitching a no-hitter even though he had yielded 10 walks. Pinch-hitter Cookie Lavagetto’s double ended that bid and tied the World Series at two games apiece.18

1949 – YANKEES WIN THE FIRST OF FIVE CONSECUTIVE WORLD SERIES TITLES

It was a banner year for Jackie Robinson even without a World Series title. Robinson, teammates Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe and the Indians’ Larry Doby became the first African-Americans to play in an All-Star Game and the setting was perfect: Ebbets Field. The American League won 11-7 with Robinson contributing a first-inning double and scoring three runs.

In November Robinson was named the National League Most Valuable Player by the Baseball Writers Association of America. He received 12 first-place votes from the 24-member panel, beating out Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter, who finished second and third, respectively, in the voting. It was another first for baseball as integration on the playing field continued, and it was truly deserved. Robinson led the league in batting (.342) and stolen bases (37) and finished second in RBIs (124). What was his reaction? “Well, what do you know,” Jack piped modestly. “I ought to sleep well tonight. This is the nicest thing that could have happened to me.”19 The World Series wasn’t so kind.

After losing to Allie Reynolds and the Yankees 1-0 in Game One, Preacher Roe returned the favor in Game Two and shut out the Yankees 1-0, thanks to Jackie Robinson and Gil Hodges. In the second inning, Robinson doubled off Vic Raschi. In typical fashion, Robinson feinted and danced off second base, thoroughly distracting Raschi, who said later, “Robinson had broken my concentration. I was pitching more to Robinson than I was to Hodges and as a result I threw one up into Gil’s power and he got the base hit that beat me.”20 That was Jackie Robinson on the base-paths. The series was tied 1-1 but the Yankees won the next three games, all at Ebbets Field, and the World Series title. Although he walked four times, Robinson managed only three hits and didn’t steal a base.

1952 – FACING THE YANKEES AGAIN

The prior two seasons had been agonizing for Brooklyn fans. National League pennant races were decided on the last day of the season and the Dodgers came out on the losing end both times as described in detail by SABR authors.21 Now it was time for another “subway series.”22 Author Samuel G. Freedman once put it in simple terms: “Subway series is a synonym for civil war.”23

It was another banner regular season for Robinson, an All-Star for the fourth consecutive season, In addition to his .308 batting average, he led the major leagues in on-base percentage (.440), having walked 106 times and gotten plunked by the baseball another 14 times. Robinson was excited for another shot at the Yankees. “The main thing is to beat the Yankees,” he admitted. “But I’d like to come through with one really good World Series, and I know I’m not going to have many more opportunities.”24

The Yankees frustrated Robinson. After his opening-game homer, the Yankees’ strategy was to pitch him around the knees, mostly with curveballs. It worked. He got only three other hits, one a bunt, one a blooper, and one a lined single.25 The teams traded victories over the first six games but the decisive defensive play of the series ironically came in Game Seven26 at the expense of Robinson.

Robinson came to bat against Bob Kuzava in the bottom of the seventh inning with two outs and the bases loaded. The Dodgers trailed, 4-2. On a 2-and-2 count, Robinson skied a pop fly just to the right of the pitcher’s mound. Second baseman Billy Martin came running in at full speed to make a shoe-top catch. Or as Yankees manager Casey Stengel described it in his inimitable way, “My feller at first (Joe Collins) is asleep and my feller behind the bat – I don’t know what he’s doin’.… If that 130-pound kid don’t make the catch we blow the World Series.”27 And so they won their fourth consecutive World Series.

1953 – “IF WE DON’T WIN IT THIS YEAR, WE’LL NEVER WIN IT.”28

It was a banner season for the Dodgers. In first place since late June, they pulled away to win the National League crown by 13 games over the Milwaukee Braves. They led the major leagues with 208 home runs and the National League in many offensive categories, including batting average (.285). The lineup was stacked with .300 hitters: Gil Hodges (.302), Roy Campanella (.312), Jackie Robinson (.329), Duke Snider (.336), and Carl Furillo (.344). Furillo won the NL batting crown and Campy was named league Most Valuable Player. Throw in Pee Wee Reese and you have Brooklyn’s 1953 All-Star Game contingent. It was time for another shot at the Yankees.

The Yankees won the first two games and the Dodgers took the next two. In the pivotal Game Five at Ebbets Field, Dodgers rookie pitcher Johnny Podres made his inauspicious World Series debut and never made it out of the third inning, losing 11-7. Podres would have to wait two years for redemption. When Billy Martin’s record-setting 12th hit of the Series scored Hank Bauer in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Six, the Yankees were World Series champions for the fifth consecutive time.

Jackie Robinson had his best offensive showing in this World Series, batting .320, including a double, a single, and a steal of third base in Game Six, but he readily shook off any congratulations. “Fine, if we had won, but what good when we lost?”29 The front page of the day’s final edition of the Brooklyn Eagle, draped with a black streamer, expressed the sentiment of Dodgers fans everywhere. The message tucked in the corner read “Please omit the flowers.”30

1955 – FINALLY!

Wait ’til Next Year? The 1955 World Series title meant that next year was finally here. The phrase became a euphemism for a baseball season gone awry and nowhere did it receive greater play than in the 1940s and 1950s with the Brooklyn Dodgers and their long-suffering fans.31

For Robinson, the regular season was the worst statistically of his career. He played in the fewest games of his career (105) and hit for the lowest batting average (.256). His streak of six consecutive All-Star Game appearances was broken. The 36-year-old Robinson’s competitive instincts were as sharp as ever but his physical skills were diminishing. He knew that his peak years as an athlete were behind him.32 Knee and ankle ailments forced him to miss playing time in the middle of the season.

With two outs in the eighth inning of Game One and the Dodgers trailing the Yankees by two runs, Robinson’s steal of home was probably not the best baseball strategy. He well understood that, but “whether it was because of my stealing home or not, the team had a new fire.”33 They lost the game as well as Game Two at Yankee Stadium. The Series shifted to Ebbets Field for the next three games and fans had to hope that there would not be a repeat of what happened in the 1949 World Series. In 1955, they would have to win only two games for the title.

Game Three was entrusted to Johnny Podres to start for the Dodgers, and he delivered a complete-game victory. The Dodgers could certainly celebrate key performances throughout their lineup in Game Three. Jackie Robinson’s outstanding play covered the gamut: a single, a double, two runs scored, opportunistic baserunning in the seventh inning, and seven assists playing the hot corner. They swept the next two games at home before the Yankees tied the series at three games apiece at Yankee Stadium.

The stage was set for the classic Game Seven, of which much has been written.34 Jackie Robinson remained on the bench, having injured his heel in an earlier game. Podres’ stellar pitching, Sandy Amoros’s great catch leading to a double play in the sixth inning, and the final out, Pee Wee Reese to Gil Hodges, on Elston Howard’s groundball are vivid memories sealing the first and only World Series title for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Robinson once said, “It kills me to lose. If I’m a troublemaker – and I don’t think that my temper makes me one – then it’s only because I can’t stand losing. That’s the way I am about winning. All I ever wanted to do was finish first.”35 When the wait finally ended for the Brooklyn Dodgers, “42” was right in the middle of the mob scene just off the pitcher’s mound, celebrating the moment he well understood.36 “It was one of the greatest thrills of my life to be finally on a world series winner.”37

1956 – THE LAST ONE

The Yankees were in first place virtually the entire season, winning the American League crown by nine games over the Cleveland Indians. Meanwhile, the Dodgers won four of their last five games, including Sal Maglie’s no-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies, to edge the Milwaukee Braves by one game.

When the Series opened at Ebbets Field, the Dodgers’ bats were hot for two games, starting off with Jackie Robinson’s second-inning home run in Game One. In the first two games, they scored 19 runs to take a 2-0 lead into Yankee Stadium for the next three games. And then the bats went cold. Six runs in the last five games.38

Of course, 1956 will be forever remembered for Don Larsen’s perfect Game Five, the first in World Series history, but Yankees pitchers threw complete games for the remainder of the Series: Whitey Ford, Tom Sturdivant, Larsen, Bob Turley, and Johnny Kucks. Jackie Robinson was the hero in Game Six as Turley and Clem Labine dueled in a scoreless game. With two outs in the bottom of the 10th and Jim Gilliam on second, Turley intentionally walked Duke Snider to pitch to Robinson. Imagine what Jackie was thinking. Jackie’s walk-off line drive single to left scored Gilliam and tied the Series at three wins each.

Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Kucks limited the Dodgers to three hits in Game Seven, pitching against an ineffective Don Newcombe, and the Yankees won easily, 9-0. The game ended with Kucks striking out Robinson in what turned out to be the last at-bat of his major-league career. Robinson bemoaned the drubbing: “I didn’t mind so much that they beat us, but I hated to be beaten that way. I’d rather it had been close and that we had had a chance.”39

Oh yes, the Dodgers and Yankees would meet again in the World Series after 1956, but it would not be the same. It became transcontinental.

*****

A look at Jackie Robinson’s batting line for those six World Series can tell us only part of the story. Six stolen bases in the same number of attempts provides a hint of speed and daring. For his 10-year career, Robinson stole 197 bases but was caught stealing 76 times. His ability to draw walks with minimal strikeouts is remarkable and foreign to today’s game. Over those 10 years, Robinson walked 740 times and struck out only 291 times. However we might analyze his World Series numbers, even the most cynical of baseball sabermetricians would have to admit there was more to the man than the numbers.

George Will once wrote, “Jackie Robinson was an alloy of fire and ice, a fierce competitor in 1947 who had to leash his pride and smother his resentment, channeling his passion into baseball performance.”40 All he ever wanted to do was finish first and that he did.

STEVEN C. WEINER, a SABR member since 2015, is a retired chemical engineer and a lifelong baseball fan starting with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s. He currently serves as assignments editor for the SABR Games Project with essay contributions in five SABR books.

 

Author’s note

I first saw Jackie Robinson play at Ebbets Field in 1951, thanks to my father and Uncle Joe.41 Subsequent returns to Brooklyn and visits to the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium in the 1950s were joyous occasions. The opportunity to read what others have written about Jackie Robinson, the significance of his presence in the lineup, and his performance on the field have brought those memories back to life. For that I am grateful to many.

 

Sources

The author accessed Baseball-Reference.com statistical information about Jackie Robinson, box scores/play-by-play information for regular season and World Series games and other data.

 

Notes

1 Donald Honig, The October Heroes (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 13.

2 With the introduction of divisional play in each league in 1969, four teams qualified for postseason play. When each league expanded to three divisions in 1995, eight teams qualified for postseason play. The first wild-card games in 2012 introduced an additional team in each league to the postseason.

3 Bronx Bombers is “a nickname for the New York Yankees that first became popular in the 1930s when heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis was known as the Brown Bomber.” (Paul Dickson, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, 3rd Edition [New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009], 137.) Dem Bums is a “traditional affectionate nickname for the Brooklyn Dodgers established and characterized by a bewhiskered, cigar-chomping cartoon tramp drawn by Willard Mullins.” (Dickson, 250.)

4 In 1981 the Dodgers and Yankees met for the 11th time in World Series history. Through the 2019 season, the Yankees and Giants have met seven times in the World Series and the Yankees and Cardinals have met five times.

5 Steven C. Weiner, “October 4, 1955: Brooklyn Dodgers win first World Series as ‘Next Year’ finally arrives,” SABR Baseball Games Project.

6 Charles F. Faber, “October 8, 1956: Don Larsen throws a perfect game in the World Series,” SABR Baseball Games Project.

7 Tom Clavin and Danny Peary, Gil Hodges (New York: New American Library, 2012), 145.

8 “Jackie Robinson Steals Home,” MLB.com, accessed August 9, 2019, mlb.com/video/robinson-steals-home/c-9336883.

9 Two other memorable plays culled from a long list: (1) Brooklyn’s Al Gionfriddo robbed the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio of a three-run home run (Game Six in 1947); (2) The Series-saving catch by Brooklyn’s Sandy Amoros off Yogi Berra (Game Seven in 1955).

10 During 1947-1956, at least one New York team played in every World Series with the exception of 1948, when the Cleveland Indians beat the Boston Braves. The New York Giants played in the 1951 World Series against the Yankees and in the 1954 World Series against the Indians.

11 Dan Bankhead pinch-ran for Bobby Bragan and scored on Pee Wee Reese’s single in the sixth inning of Game Six; it was the only World Series appearance of his career.

12 Associated Press, “Robinson ‘Rookie of Year,’” New York Times, September 13, 1947: 15.

13 Associated Press.

14 Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times,” New York Times, October 1, 1947: 35.

15 Joseph Wancho, “Enos Slaughter,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, sabr.org/bioproj/person/fd6550d9. “With the score tied at two in the top of the 11th inning, Stan Musial was on first base. Slaughter hit a Hugh Casey offering to first base, which was fielded by Jackie Robinson, who looked to second, thought better of it, and ran to first base to record the out. As Robinson turned toward the field of play to ensure that Musial did not take off for third base, Slaughter was coming hard down the line and spiked Robinson’s right ankle, causing Robinson to clutch his ankle in tremendous pain. He was able to remain in the game after receiving treatment. Slaughter’s action was viewed more as dirty than aggressive. Robinson was rightly upset, but commented little about the incident other than to say, ‘All I know is that I had my foot on the inside of the bag. I gave Slaughter plenty of room.’ Slaughter maintained that he had never spiked another player in his life. Unfortunately for Slaughter, because of this incident and rumors of a boycott against Robinson, there were racial undertones directed at him.”

16 Thomas J. Brown Jr., “September 30, 1947: Yankees score 5 in 5th inning to beat Dodgers in World Series,” SABR Baseball Games Project.

17 John Drebinger, “Yanks’ 5 in Fifth Beat Dodgers 5-3, in Series Opener,” New York Times, October 1, 1947: 34.

18 “Lavagetto’s Walk-Off Double,” YouTube, accessed March 28, 2020, youtu.be/oWjpOAy5zCM.

19 Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997), 217.

20 Mary Kay Linge, Jackie Robinson, A Biography (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007), 79.

21 C. Paul Rogers III, “October 1, 1950: Dick Sisler’s 10th-inning home run clinches Phillies’ pennant on the last day of the season,” SABR Baseball Games Project; Scott Ferkovich, “October 3, 1951: The Giants win the pennant!” SABR Baseball Games Project.

22 Dickson, 839: “A World Series in which the opposing clubs could travel between their home fields by using the New York City subway system.”

23 Samuel G. Freedman, “2 Cities in Combat: It’s in New York, Met Charm Stirs Hearts,” New York Times, October 19, 1986: 50.

24 Rampersad, 249.

25 Franklin Lewis, “Highlights – and Low Spots,” Baseball Digest, November 1952: 35.

26 Stew Thornley, “October 7, 1952: Billy Martin Saves the Series,” SABR Baseball Games Project.

27 Arthur Daley, “Martin Made Key Play: Stengel, Baseball Digest, November 1952: 37.

28 Jackie Robinson from Rampersad, 259.

29 Roscoe McGowen, “Vanquished Praise Martin of Victors,” New York Times, October 6, 1953: 36.

30 New York Times, October 6, 1953: 36.

31 Dickson, 918: “A Willard Mullin cartoon (New York World-Telegram, August 9, 1939) depicted a character in a Dodgers uniform claiming that his theme song was ‘Wait ’Till Next Year: A Torch Ballad in One Flat’ with words and music by The Dodgers.”

32 Jackie Robinson, I Never Had It Made (New York: Putnam, 1972), 118.

33 Robinson, 120.

34 Weiner.

35 David Plaut, Speaking of Baseball (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1993), 369.

36 “1955 World Series Dodgers Win,” YouTube, accessed August 15, 2019, https://youtu.be/1Li5QM_cxPg.

37 Robinson, 120.

38 The Dodgers set several dubious batting records for a seven-game World Series including lowest club batting average (.195) and fewest base hits (42). New York Times, October 11, 1956: 54.

39 Roscoe McGowen, “Brooklyn’s Pilot Praises Bombers,” New York Times, October 1, 1956: 55.

40 George F. Will, Bunts (New York: Scribner, 1998), 88.

41 Steven C. Weiner, “June 3, 1951: Don Newcombe strikes out 12 Cubs in Sunday opener at Ebbets Field,” SABR Baseball Games Project; Steven C. Weiner, “June 3, 1951: Preacher Roe, Gene Hermanski lead Dodgers to sweep of Cubs,” SABR Baseball Games Project.

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