The debate will rage on for an eternity – who is the greatest player to ever step onto the baseball diamond?
The Golden Age of sports offered the Bambino, Babe Ruth, and the ruthless Ty Cobb, a man so dastardly that it is rumored he filed the spikes on his baseball cleats so they would make a clean cut on the arm of any infielder who attempted to tag him out on the base paths.
However, their feats have to be a bit diminished because they never played against the great black, Dominican and Latin players.
Can you imagine a modern era minus Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente and hometown hero Albert Pujols?
While it might be impossible to ever select the game’s greatest player, no one will ever make more of an impact on a sport, or a nation, than Jackie Robinson.
Was he the best?
Other players had better numbers, but other players were not carrying the weight of millions and millions of black Americans who saw Robinson integrate baseball in 1947 – praying that the Brooklyn Dodgers and Branch Rickey had selected the right man.
“Jackie was the right man, the only man for the job,” the late Buck O’Neil once told me, as I served as a host for his Negro League Baseball lunches for three years back in the mid 2000s. “There might have been better players – but you had to pick the right man, with the right temperament for the job.
“Jackie was a fighter, no one wanted to win more than Jackie Robinson. But he had to hold his temper and ignore the boos, the insults from opponents and even some of his teammates, if the experiment was going to work.”
Jackie Robinson made the experiment work. He won the 1947 Rookie of the Year Award, was the National League MVP in 1949, a World Series champion in 1955 and earned a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
I will argue that not only was Jackie Robinson the most important player in the history of professional sports, his impact on the game in the late 1940s paved the way for a real focus on integration.
I believe that today our country is as divided as it has ever been – racially, politically, internationally – but I shudder to think of what our country might like had we not had Jackie Robinson go where no black man had ever gone – into the ranks of the major leagues.
• On Monday, the Kansas City Royals honored Robinson’s memory by wearing his No. 42 in a 2-0 victory over the visiting Los Angeles Angels.
It is a way to remember a man who made a difference in the lives of every black youngster who dreamed of being a big league player, and every black adult who could say, “I didn’t get my chance, but Jackie made sure other black Americans will have their opportunity to show what they can do in the major leagues.”
I never met Jackie Robinson, but I received a letter from him when I was senior at Truman High School. I read in a newspaper that he was in the hospital battling diabetes, and I sent him a card with a get-well message.
Much to my surprise, I received a letter from Robinson a few weeks later. He thanked me for my note, expressed appreciation for my concern and said he was feeling better and expected to be out of the hospital any day.
Less than a week after I received that letter Jackie Robinson passed away.
I showed my letter to Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, when she visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at 18th and Vine in downtown Kansas City, and she smiled.
It was sad smile, but a smile, nonetheless.
“I can’t tell you how many hours I saw my father sit at his desk at night, answering every letter that was sent him over the years,” Sharon said, “but I had no idea he answered the letters sent to him in the hospital. Thank you for sharing that with me.”
The letter still evokes the memories of a man who made a lasting impact on an entire generation, including a kid in Independence who sent him a card in hopes that it would brighten his day.
I guess it did.
• The Royals’ 2-0 win over the Angels was just their third win the last 20 games. Ironically, all three wins have been shutouts: June 9 at Oakland (2-0) and Friday at Houston (1-0). It was Kansas City’s sixth shutout of the season, which accounts for 25 percent of their season win total (24), while matching the number of shutouts they had in all of 2017.
• I received a special email Monday from Kansas City Mavericks president and general manager Brent Thiessen, asking if I would be a part of a committee that will select a former player who will have his number retired and return for a game during the team’s upcoming 10th anniversary season. Andrew Courtney, Sebastien Thinel, Charlie Effinger, Josh Robinson and Colt King are all worthy of such an honor. This is going to be fun.
I hope the Mavericks also honor Scott Hillman, the team’s first coach, who took a rookie by the hand and led him through his first season of covering professional hockey. He could have thrown me under the bus on countless occasions, and never did. Instead, he became a great friend.
I vote for the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame and helped write the by-laws for the Grain Valley High School Hall of Fame, so I can’t wait for the opportunity to meet with committee members to see who will be a part of the Class of 2018. Thanks Brent, for this opportunity.
• It has been so much fun visiting with Eastern Jackson County’s newest professional baseball players Tyler McKay from Blue Springs South (Philadelphia), Colton Pogue (Washington) and Caleb Marquez (Milwaukee) after they joined their respective rookie league teams. I have been a sports writer and columnist at The Examiner 36 years and can count of two hands the number of prep stars who have gone on and signed pro contracts. They truly are living a dream, and through their availability, allowing us to be a small part of the journey.
• The Examiner’s track and field and baseball All-Area teams will be announced in the very near future. There are no surprises in the girls track selection, but the competition for the boys track performer of the year and the top baseball player was fierce! Stay tuned.
– Bill Althaus is a sports writer and columnist for The Examiner. Reach him at email@example.com or 816-350-6333. Follow him on Twitter: @AlthausEJC