Here's to You, Mr. Robinson
Thursday, April 26, 2007
The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season
By Jonathan Eig
Simon & Schuster. 323 pp. $26
In 1944, a full 11 years before the world had heard of Rosa Parks, a young African American Army officer refused to retreat to the back of a military bus in Texas. During his court-martial, Jackie Robinson spoke defiantly of how he would accept no limits on what he could do in this life. He was acquitted. A year later, Robinson was playing baseball with the Kansas City Monarchs, the premier team in the Negro leagues. He wasn't the best player on the team, and baseball wasn't even his best sport. But at the end of the season, Branch Rickey, general manager and part owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, offered him a contract. After a year with the minor-league Montreal Royals, where he led his league in hitting, Robinson was playing first base for the Dodgers on opening day, April 15, 1947. "Jackie is very definitely brunette," Southern-born broadcaster Red Barber remarked as the dark-skinned Robinson took the field for the first time. He ended up scoring the winning run for the Dodgers against the Boston Braves.
In this well-researched account of that momentous season, Jonathan Eig sensitively portrays Robinson's courage as he integrated baseball and opened America's eyes to racial equality. The significance of the moment was apparent from the beginning. "Before he'd even swung a bat in the big leagues," Eig writes, "Robinson was being compared to Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, and Joe Louis."
No official rule mandated segregation, but since the 1890s, professional baseball had been exclusively white. Black players, even those of superior talent, were restricted to sometimes poorly run leagues of their own. By 1943, Rickey, the front-office mastermind who invented the minor-league farm system and pioneered the use of statistics to help determine strategy, was telling the Dodgers' board of directors that he wanted to bring black players to the majors. "First, to win a pennant," he said. "The second reason is . . . it's right!"
Rickey, a pious Methodist and a graduate of the University of Michigan law school, knew his bold experiment would require a man with as much character as athletic skill. He passed over more established players and settled on the college-educated, clean-living but hotheaded Robinson. "Rickey wanted an angry black man," Eig writes. "He wanted someone big enough and strong enough to intimidate, and someone intelligent enough to understand the historic nature of his role."
Robinson was born in Georgia, the grandson of slaves, and was raised by a single mother in a predominantly white neighborhood in Pasadena, Calif. Even in the relative enlightenment of California, Robinson and his family encountered slurs and a lack of opportunity. His older brother, Mack, won a silver medal in the 1936 Olympic Games, placing second to Jesse Owens in the 200-meter dash, but returned to California and went to work as a street sweeper. At UCLA, Robinson became known as "one of the country's finest all-around athletes." He was a star halfback for UCLA's football team, a leading scorer in basketball and, in track and field, a national champion in the long jump. He competed in tennis and swimming and, on his own, picked up golf in just a few outings. Baseball -- in which his career earned him a place in the Hall of Fame -- was only his third or fourth best sport.
During his first season with the Dodgers, Robinson didn't actually come to blows with another player, but he had to endure almost every kind of indignity. In spring training, his own teammates threatened to go on strike until the manager, Leo Durocher, profanely told the rebellious players exactly what they could do with their petition. Robinson was denied service in hotels and restaurants and was subjected to vile epithets from opposing players and fans. The police investigated death threats against him. Off the field, his teammates had little to do with him, prompting sportswriter Jimmy Cannon to call him "the loneliest man I have ever seen in sports."
Yet, in spite of everything, Robinson played brilliantly and was named rookie of the year. (The award now bears his name.) Robinson introduced a daring style of base running to the major leagues, with his speed and distracting feints, and in Brooklyn he became a hero to all. His team set new records for attendance, as Robinson led the Dodgers to the National League pennant. In a dramatic World Series, they lost to the New York Yankees in seven games.
Eig, the author of an excellent biography of Lou Gehrig, examines the 1947 season almost game by game, as he uncovers clues to Robinson's success as a ballplayer and as an early torchbearer for civil rights. Borrowing a technique from Ken Burns's documentaries, Eig interweaves baseball tales with interviews of fans, players, Robinson's widow and others inspired by his example, including Colin Powell, Sidney Poitier and former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder. Eig also recounts how a prisoner in Massachusetts listened to Dodger games on the radio, calculating Robinson's batting average each day. "Jackie Robinson had . . . his most fanatic fan in me," wrote Malcolm Little, who would become better known as Malcolm X.
Over the past 60 years, the courage of a solitary baseball player has taken on a magnitude that Robinson himself, who died at 53 in 1972, may not have foreseen. While he was busy playing baseball during that monumental summer of 1947, he was cited by name in a presidential report on civil rights. The next year, President Harry S. Truman signed an order to abolish racial discrimination in federal hiring and the military. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., Robinson was "a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides."
His story has been told before in three classics of baseball literature, Roger Kahn's "The Boys of Summer," Jules Tygiel's "Baseball's Great Experiment" and Arnold Rampersad's full-length biography, but Eig's detailed study stands proudly with them. He shows how Robinson, with his bat, his glove and his heart, helped build a level playing field.