Bearing the Glory: The Tragedy of Jackie Robinson’s 1949 MVP Award

Imagine working toward a goal every day of your life since childhood. Day after day, year after year. Working, working, working. There are others with more talent, with greater gifts, but none with a greater capacity for work, none with a desire that burns as bright.

You continue to plug away, to chip at the rock. You catch a break here and there. You begin to have some success. Some recognition comes your way. You get that promotion, a bigger office. Another promotion, an even bigger office. After twenty years of singular focus, twenty years of getting knocked down and picking yourself up, twenty years of eating shit, twenty years of crawling over broken glass, twenty years of getting on a crowded bus to brave that goddamned commute, twenty years of bearing it, you are finally and publicly acknowledged as the very best in your chosen profession.
 
You’ve MADE it. You’ve reached the goal you’ve been chasing every day for the last twenty years. It should be the very best day of your professional life.
 
But all you’re thinking about, because of the way you’ve been treated along the way, all you’re thinking about is getting out. Leaving it behind. All you’re thinking is “I can’t take it anymore. This is going to kill me.”
 
Imagine having the best day of your professional life taken from you like that.


Here’s a story about Jackie Robinson that you may not have heard. It seems a small thing, a footnote in this man’s monumental life and legacy. But it’s telling, so it’s worth telling.
 
It’s November 18, 1949 and Robinson has just been informed of his selection as the National League’s Most Valuable Player. The pioneering Robinson, who over three seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers had established himself as the game’s most exciting star — and the biggest gate attraction since Babe Ruth — was now acknowledged as its best player.
 
Robinson, of course, was the first African-American player to be afforded the game’s highest single-season honor — and he accomplished the feat under circumstances now familiar to all, but unimaginable to most. After devoting a lifetime to his craft — with little hope, remember, of even getting the opportunity to play at the highest level — the 30-year old Robinson was now recognized as the very best in his profession. He was the most famous player in the game, among the most famous handful of men in the country (and, as the newspapers of the day pointed out, was now in line for a handsome raise from the Dodgers).
 
Asked how he felt about the honor, how he felt on this, the greatest day of his professional life, Robinson said: “The sooner I can get out of baseball, the better.” It was a rare crack in the stoic resolve he had shown since entering the league. “My wife and I have talked this over for a long time,” he said. “She agrees with me about quitting quickly. The strain of the last three or four years has done something to me.”
 
Of course it did something to him. It would do something to any thinking, feeling person. Of course he thought about quitting — probably every day of every season he spent in the league. An MVP trophy wasn’t going to change that.

Robinson openly pondered his options to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Well, I want to work with kids. There’s no money in that, of course, so I’ll have to get something in addition. Right now I’ve got a line on something that sounds real good — manager of a housing development. If that turns out ok, I wouldn’t be surprised if next year is my last.”[1]
 
As you know, Robinson didn’t quit. It’s our great fortune that he had a change of heart, our great fortune that he decided to bear it for another seven years — years spent, more often than not, performing at an MVP level. What he achieved in his time, against the acid drip of racism, the constant threat of violence, the perpetual worry for his family, seems impossible.[2]
 
 And what if Robinson had quit after three seasons? The story of the franchise, the mythology of the game, certainly changes. There’s no “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” in 1951 — the Dodgers, without Robinson, don’t keep pace with the Giants; Branca doesn’t deliver that pitch to Thompson. There are no pennants flying in Brooklyn in 1952 (they won by two games with Robinson) or 1956 (they captured the flag by one game in this, his final season). Without Robinson, there might not be a 1955 World Series title. “Dem Bums” never become “the Boys of Summer.”
 
But these seem minor considerations, whimsical “what ifs?” when one considers the deeper implications Robinson’s planned retirement might have had on the broader history of the game — the history of this country, really. We can’t know how things would be different if he had quit after three seasons; we do know the toll his decision to play eventually took on his health, the toll it took on his family. Robinson bore it, and decades after his passing all we can offer in return is our gratitude.

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Jeremy Lehrman is the author of Baseball’s Most Baffling MVP Ballots.

NOTES:
 [1] Lest one think Robinson would never really consider leaving the glamorous lifestyle of a major leaguer to run a housing complex, consider he was paid $21,000 for the 1949 campaign — a handsome sum compared to the average wage of the time, but as perhaps the most famous man in America, Robinson had options beyond baseball. Things changed for the better on the financial front after his MVP effort netted him a raise to $36,000 in 1950, making him the highest paid player in Dodgers’ history — though he was still grossly underpaid. For comparison’s sake, Joe DiMaggio was paid $100,000 in 1950; Ted Williams $90,000. Ralph Kiner topped the NL in salary at $65,000. Rickey cited Robinson’s matchless drawing power as the reason he was paid as well as he was (all but admitting Robinson was an enormous bargain at any price).

[2] Remember Robinson every time you hear a player or coach congratulate themselves for “overcoming adversity,” which in today’s parlance means coming from behind to win a game or series, or having to answer questions from the media about boorish, inappropriate, or illegal behavior. Getting trolled on Instagram isn’t “adversity.”
 
 ​Photo: Bob Sandberg, Look photographer. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsc.00047. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1191159