Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson and the 1946 Pennant
I’m currently in the middle of reading a handful of Jackie Robinson/Branch Rickey/Brooklyn Dodger themed books. The reason being is that I am pumped to see the movie “42” next month. After watching this trailer, how could you not get excited?
Recently, one of the books went through Robinson’s 1946 season with the Montreal Royals and how he absolutely dominated the International League where he had a .349/.468/.462 slash line. On top of that, he stole 40 bases, and led the league in runs with 113. But what is most impressive was his 92/27 BB/K ratio. This was all accomplished in just his second year of Professional Baseball (played for KC Monarchs in ’45).
But it was Montreal’s parent club that got me thinking. After 154 games, the ’46 Dodgers finished in a tie with the Cardinals, which led to the first tiebreaker in Modern Baseball. At the time, the National League rules stated that a best of 3 game series would decide the Pennant. But as you can see from the graph, Brooklyn lost in 2 games and would never have more than a 54% chance of winning the series.
My initial thought was “Could the Dodgers have won Pennant, had they brought up Robinson in 1946”? I decided to dig a little deeper.
The first question is, what position would Jackie play in Brooklyn? In college and in the Negro Leagues, he served mostly as a Shortstop. In Montreal, he was the Royals primary Second Basemen. But Pee Wee Reese and Eddie Stanky had those positions locked down for the Dodgers (both were 5+ win players in ’46).
Third Base was a possibility, where the veteran Cookie Lavagetto was getting most of the playing time down the stretch. “Cookie” had a fine first half slash line of .287/.405/.396 and the Flatbush faithful would have been in an uproar to see him relegated to the bench.
That leaves First Base as the only real possibility, where Jackie would go on to play in 151 games the following season. Down the stretch, Manager Leo Durocher was platooning Howie Schultz (vsL) and Big Ed Stevens (vsR). Neither were established stars, nor did they have a ton of potential be stars.
The problem was that by 1946, Robinson had never played the position. In fact, he didn’t even own a First Basemen’s glove until the following spring. But suppose Branch Rickey had Robinson play the position in Montreal to prepare him for a late-season call-up. Could Jackie have been the difference between the Pennant and a second place finish?
Brooklyn was in first place for the majority of the season, but they were overtaken by St. Louis in August. By September, they were 2.5 games back. With the Cardinals surging, the Dodgers would have very little room for error. In fact, they didn’t error much by going 21-8 in the final month.
In September, Schultz and Stevens combined for a .250/.313/.379 slash line. This is nothing spectacular, especially at First Base. For Robinson in AAA, he would record a .323 Batting Average in September for Montreal in 102 at bats, with just 1 extra base hit. Also, Robinson’s first month in the big leagues the following season would produce a .225/.354/.325 line. September ’46 and April ’47 are different environments for sure, but it shows how he struggled in his first taste of the big leagues.
What I have failed to mention to this point is the biggest factor of all, which is the impact of breaking the color barrier during a pennant race instead of on Opening Day. It would have helped that the Dodgers played 22 of their final 29 games in Brooklyn, where Robinson received less abuse than on the road. But how would his teammates have reacted to his call-up mid-season? For the same players who signed petition refusing to play, would they have done so in a pennant race? We’ll never know for sure, but let’s “assume” he would encounter the same environment that he actually did in the following season.
So could Robinson have made a difference in the 1946 National League Pennant Race? My guess is probably not. There are too many assumptions and unknown variables to ever know for sure. But the 1946 Dodgers were already playing very well down the stretch, and an improvement on a .724 September winning percentage would have required a big difference.
For further reading on Jackie’s 1946 season with the Montreal Royals, MiLB.com has a game log with day-by-day accounts.