March 18th, 2014
If Babe Ruth was the first in this projected series of picture portfolios, Jackie Robinson must be the second. Ruth was the game’s greatest player; Robinson was its most important. Both were American heroes whose exploits and character transcended the game. Here’s what Alan Schwarz and I wrote ten years ago, in Total Baseball, about Ruth and Robinson. We wrote a longish entry titled “Baseball’s 100 Most Important People.”
Now, a word about No. 1. It came down to two people—Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson—who ascended above everyone else for reasons about which you soon will read. But choosing between them for the top spot was an excruciating decision, extending beyond baseball to the United States at large. In fact, it was only after recognizing the breadth of the argument that we finally chose Ruth. Babe Ruth, by virtue of his talent and charisma, carried baseball from the depths of the Black Sox scandal into modern eminence; who changed the mindset of the sport from speed to slugging; and who was, lest we forget, baseball’s best all-around talent ever. Jackie Robinson too holds a monumental place in the game’s history, a spectacular player who, by virtue of breaking baseball’s longstanding color barrier and carrying himself with unwavering mettle afterward, receives credit for helping spark the modern civil-rights movement.
We also wrote a capsule biography of Robinson, about whom it might be said that, like Lincoln, we think we have read it all before. But then somebody comes up with some new and surprising facts, some fresh, unique perspective. I suspect we will keep talking about Lincoln and Robinson all our lives, for while heroes are forever, our view of them continually evolves.