As co-blogger David Post points out, Jackie Robinson's 90th birthday is an appropriate time to pay tribute to his impressive achievements. Baseball would probably have desegregated even without Robinson. If the Brooklyn Dodgers had not acted brought in Robinson when they did, other teams would likely have signed black players in the late 1940s, most notably the Cleveland Indians (who signed Larry Doby, the first black player to play in the American League a few months after Robinson first played for the Dodgers). What Robinson accomplished was to ensure that the desegregation of baseball went smoothly, with as little violence and turmoil as possible. The incredible self-control he exercised in not responding to the many racist taunts he got in that first year is difficult to imagine. Through the force of his example, Robinson also played a key role in creating a positive public image for black athletes. At a time when African-American baseball players were perhaps the most publicly visible blacks in the country and racial prejudice was far more prevalent than today, that was a very important contribution to racial progress.
With all the understandable hoopla surrounding his status as a racial pioneer, many people forget how great a player Robinson actually was. His offensive numbers show that he was probably one of the five or six best offensive second basemen of all time. He had a career .311 batting average and 883 OPS (32% better than league average, while playing a position then usually occupied by light-hitting defensive specialists). Sabermetrics pioneer Bill James has shown that Robinson was probably one of the the top defensive second basemen of all time as well. These stats understate his true abilities, however. Thanks to the combination of racial segregation and World War II, Robinson didn't reach the major leagues until he was 28. Baseball players tend to peak between the ages of 24 and 28, so Robinson probably lost most of his best seasons to segregation and war. Had he been able to play those extra 4-5 years and avoided serious injury, Robinson might have become the greatest second baseman ever. As it was, he left an even more memorable historical legacy by breaking down racial barriers.