Leading Off

One day, I'll sit down and watch Ken Burns' Baseball from beginning to end for the first time since it originally aired in 1994. It was a big event for me at the time: I didn't miss a minute, VCR at the ready the whole way. I've made great use of those tapes in class over the years, annually playing segments of varying lengths on Ruth's birthday, DiMaggio's, Williams', Robinson's, Mays', and Mantle's, plus a few other clips as the occasion warrants. Triggered by yesterday's HOF inductions, I was think- ing about a long ten-minute section on Robinson's rookie year that I always play, in- cluded in which is the following recollection from Sports Illustrated's Robert Creamer, author of Ruth: The Legend Comes to Life and Stengel: His Life and Times, my two favor- ite baseball biographies. (I went onto YouTube assuming I'd be able to find and embed the actual clip, but, undoubtedly at Burns' request, I couldn't find anything at all from Baseball. So here's a laborious transcription.) I saw him once, he walked--base on balls, got to first base, and he walked down to first base, didn't trot. Got to first base, just turned around with his foot on the base, didn't move--the pitcher looked over at him, looked over at him, Robin- son didn't even move off the base. Pitcher started to throw, Robinson stole second. Got into second base, now the pitcher's looking back like this, looking back, look- ing back. Robinson was taking a lead now, the pitcher kept looking back. He walked the batter. Men on first and second, Robinson still moving back and forth, back and forth. He walked the next batter. Now Robinson's at third base, bases loaded, and he took this tremendous lead--he just walked off the base, 10, 15, 20 feet, and the pitcher was almost panicky. The third baseman came in, he threw over, Robinson got back. Robinson did the same thing, the pitcher looked over. Finally the manager came out, and he motioned to the third baseman: stand on the bag, hold Robinson on the base. I never saw that before, haven't seen it since, where the third baseman held the runner on the base. And the pitcher kept looking over, threw to the next batter, walked him, walked in the run. And Robinson walked home, and he touched the plate, and walked back. He created that run all by himself. If you've seen the film, you'll know how much Creamer's words lose on the page; he's clearly awestruck by the time he finishes. Robinson retired after the '56 season, a few years before I was born and almost 15 years before I watched my first game. But every year when I watch Creamer tell his story, the same thought crosses my mind: I actually did get to see Jackie Robinson play, except his name was Rickey Henderson.

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