Robinson played in his last game well over 50 years ago, and died over 40 years ago. Thus many baseball fans never saw Robinson play, and have only read about him or seen old footage of his playing days. Over time, not surprisingly, the story of Jackie Robinson, has surpassed the memory of Jackie Robinson as a player. Robinson was, however, a great player, and an unusual one. Looking more closely at what Jackie Robinson did on the field helps fill in the picture of who he was.
The arguments against Williams are clear. He was not great defensively, was never one of the best hitters in the game, was surrounded by better players and did not play much past his prime. The arguments in favor of Williams candidacy are less obvious, but also very powerful. Williams was a very good hitter who had a very long prime. Between 1995-2002, a period of eight years, he hit .321/.406/.531, good for an OPS+ of 142. He did this while playing a key defensive position decently. Although he retired at age 37, thus truncating the decline phase of his career, he remained a useful player until the end hitting .281/.332/.436 during his last year with the Yankees.
The tail end of the period when Mays, Mantle and Snider dominated baseball and center field, saw the rise of another four players who would all play the same position for over a decade and all rank among the greatest ever at that position. Between 1956 and 1970, Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline and Frank Robinson all starred in right field and were among the best players in the game. Aaraon and Robinson are among the five greatest right fielders ever, while Clemente and Kaline are probably still among the top ten.
Henry Aaron turned 77 on Saturday. Somehow it seemed appropriate that Aaron’s birthday, as might be expected, was overshadowed by the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth. Aaron’s birthday receiving almost no attention demonstrates how the he remains bewilderingly underrated in his retirement, just as he was during his career. Aaron retired as the all time leader in home runs and RBIs and among the top three in hits. His career numbers of .305/.374/.555 were good for a career OPS+ of 155 which, while not in the same ballpark as Babe Ruth or Ted Williams, are still very good. These numbers are even more impressive because Aaron accumulated them over 23 seasons and 13,940 plate appearances. This latter number is the third most ever, but was good enough for first at the time Aaron retired. However, Aaron, who was overshadowed by Willie Mays for most of his career, is still oddly underrated by most casual students of baseball’s past.
The questions of how the core four of the New York Yankees compare to other groups of four players who played together for ten or more years, which was discussed here last week, raises the question of what was the greatest threesome of all time to have played together for ten or more years. There are four serious contenders for the best group of three players as well as one group, Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr, who are not eligible because they all missed time due to military service.