Thursday, January 31, 2019

Books: On Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson's birthday was 100 years ago today, January 31, 1919. There are two books that illustrate the remarkable life of man who broke baseball's color barrier for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Jackie Robinson: An Integrated Life by J. Christopher Schutz, and Jackie Robinson In Quotes: The Remarkable Life of Baseball's Most Significant Player by Danny Peary.

Jackie Robinson: An Integrated Life
By J. Christopher Schutz
Rowman & Littlefield; hardcover, $40.00; paperback, $19.95

Jackie Robinson is one of the most consequential, heroic Americans in history, as he broke baseball's color line in 1947.
Robinson’s story is not only a compelling drama of heroism, but also as a template of the African American freedom struggle. A towering athletic talent, Robinson’s greater impact was on preparing the way for the civil rights reform wave following World War II and his story has always been far more complex than the public perception has allowed.
Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey famously told the young Robinson that he was “looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”
J. Christopher Schutz writes that the real Robinson was more defiant and combative than simply the “turn the other cheek” compliant “credit to his race.” The triumph of Robinson’s inclusion in the white Major Leagues, which presaged blacks’ later inclusion in the broader society, also included the slow demise of black-owned commercial enterprise in the Negro Leagues, which likewise presaged the unrecoverable loss of other important black institutions after civil rights gains.
"His success has been trumpeted as 'our success,' a show of just how open America can be to African Americans," writes Schultz. "And Robinson, the story goes, did it the 'right way': his Christlike willingness to bear modestly the sins of white America without striking back won it over and taught us all a lesson in humility and bravery.
"The story, entombed in its comforting simplicity, reassures in just the same way as oversimplified portrayals told of Dr. King (which omit King's challenges to the Vietnam War and unfettered capitalism). This defanged, sunnier depiction of the baseball great serves as white America's antidote to its equally simplistic memory of angry blacks dominating the streets and headlines of the late 1960s.
"The truth is that such a quiet, yielding Robinson might never have made it to the Major Leagues. From his earliest years, he was a determined, feisty, unrepentant young black man unwilling to scrape and bow to reach the top. His path to the Major Leagues might have been cut short in a youth characterized by dalliances with a street gang and tangles with police. The privileges accorded him as a local sports phenomenon saved him on more than one occasion from jail time. Even his athletic teammates could find him prickly and difficult and overly competitive.
"His unwillingness to accept whites' limitations was the very ingredient that allowed him to succeed in the decidedly harsh world he entered alone. He did manage to endure the full brunt of white supremacy without returning it, but this image of the popular black baseball star gave way to his later years in the game as a combative player who rankled - so much so that one notable article's title queried 'Why They Boo Jackie Robinson.'"
Robinson was one of the key figures at the crossroads of baseball and civil rights histories, and Schutz provides a cohesive exploration of the man and the times that made him great.

Jackie Robinson In Quotes: The Remarkable Life of Baseball's Most Significant Player
By Danny Peary 
Page Street Publishing; $19.99

Jackie Robinson in Quotes is written differently than most books, as the story of his life is told in quotes from Robinson and others. The quotes also illuminate fun facts, like that Duke Snider debuted the same day as Robinson, so read carefully.
"I played hard, and always to win," which Robinson said in Baseball Has Done It in 1964, is just one of his many quotes.
The book starts with his formative years, then his time in college as a multi-sport athlete, his experiences in World War II, joining the Dodgers and what he faced, and his years as a social activist.
Perry says of Robinson's activism, "Jackie Robinson was telling people, 'Black Lives Matter,' more than half a century ago. There has never been a book like this honoring one of America's most heroic icons. Everyone has opinions about him; Robinson was a revered and sometimes polarizing figure who had an unparalleled impact on America's social history before, during, and after his baseball playing career.
"As his own quotes make clear, Robinson never stopped speaking, never stopped agitating, never stopped striving for equality and social justice for all Americans. As a result, no player since World War II was more discussed, praised and attacked both verbally and in print."
There are illuminating quotes from Jackie's wife, Rachel Robinson, and the rest of his family; Hank Aaron, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, Yogi Berra, Ralph Branca, Roy Campanella, Carl Erskine, Bob Gibson, Hank Greenberg, Derek Jeter, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Don Newcombe, Walter O'Malley, Pee Wee Reese, Branch Rickey, Paul Robeson, Vin Scully, Duke Snider, Ted Williams, Don Zimmer.
One of the most notable quotes comes from MLB Commissioner Bud Selig during the ceremony retiring Robinson's uniform number 42 at Shea Stadium on April 15, 1997. "No single person is bigger than the game. No single person other than Jackie Robinson. Number 42 belongs to Jackie Robinson for the ages."
Roy Campanella II, son of the three-time National League MVP Roy Campanella, says of the book, "As someone who knew Jackie and practically grew up in the Dodgers' clubhouse at Ebbets Field, I'm genuinely impressed with the masterful way Danny Peary has selected and assembled thousands of quotes by and about him. The book captures both the fascinating historical landscape of a baseball pioneer and the emotional depth of his journey toward social justice."
Peary believes that Robinson was extremely influential during the 15 years after his retirement from baseball in 1956. While he was supported by Democrats and, controversially, Republicans in mainstream politics, Robinson had relationships with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, and other prominent political figures who challenged the status quo, and was consistently a strong voice for racial equality during the Civil Rights Movement.
"He continued to speak and write about all the changes he felt were necessary in a divided America. Many correctly believe Robinson's death at age 53 was due, in part, to the stress he endured as the man who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier. It becomes clear in the pages of the book, that perhaps what wore him down t he most was what he willingly went through as a political activist in the years after his playing career. He refused to be relegated to the sidelines, and in his quest to end discrimination wherever it existed, he never let up as long as he felt it could make a difference. And he did make a big difference," said Perry.
Here is a selection of what was said about Robinson's debut with the Dodgers in 1947:
"Thanks, I'll need it." - Robinson to his Montreal teammates who wished him good luck, April 10, 1947.
"Jackie Robinson, 28-year old infielder, yesterday became the first Negro to achieve major-league baseball status in modern times. His contract was purchased from the Montreal Royals of the International League by the Dodgers and he will be in a Brooklyn uniform at Ebbets Field today, when the Brooks oppose the Yankees in the first of three exhibition games over the weekend." - Louis Effrat, New York Times, April 11, 1947.
"I believed that the single most important aspect of Jack's presence was that it enabled white baseball fans to root for a black man, thus encouraging more whites to realize that all our destinies were inextricably linked." - Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait, 1996.
I felt I needed to be there to witness and share in what was happening to Jack. As we traveled back to MacDonough Street from the ballpark, we discussed the day's events. We vented our anger and frustration and shared the joy and excitement of winning a game or a new supporter. By the time we got home, Jack could enter in relative peace." - Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait, 1996.
"She's been the most important and helpful and encouraging person I've ever known in my life - J.R. (As Jackie Robinson is referred in his quotes), about Rachel Robinson, quoted by Jack Sher, Sport Magazine, 1948.
"You're on the ball club and as far as I'm concerned that makes you one of twenty-five players on my team...I want you to know I don't like it. I want you to know I don't like you." - Eddie Stanky, Dodgers second baseman, to Jackie Robinson, who thanked him for being upfront, April 1947.
"I became the first pitcher to face Jackie Robinson. We knew he was going to play although they hadn't announced it, which may be why there were 6,000 empty seats at Ebbets Field...There were no incidents of mischief during the game, which is why nobody remembers who pitched to Robinson. He played first base and batted second. In his first at-bat in t he first inning, I threw him a long curveball." - Johnny Sain, Boston Braves pitcher, to Dany Peary, We Played the Game, 1984.
"[Robinson's] arrival in Brooklyn was a turning point in the history and character of the game; it may not be stretching things to say it was a turning point in the history of this country. I think I failed to understand, to appreciate really, the burden Robinson was carrying o his shoulders." - Red Smith, New York Times, 1956.
"He was history's man. Nothing less. Though he came to the nation disguised as a mere baseball player, he was, arguably, the single most important American of that first post-war decade...What made him so important was the particular moment when he arrived and the fact that he stood in the exact intersection of two powerful and completely contradictory impulses, one the impulse of darkness and prejudice, the other the impulse of idealism and optimism, the belief in the possibility of true advancement for all Americans in this democratic and meritocratic society." - David Halberstam, author and historian, excerpt from original essay, "History's Man," Jackie Robinson Between the Baselines, edited by Glenn Stout and Dick Johnson, 1997.
"My thoughts are on Jackie Robinson today, my birthday. I was born in Harlem the day after Jackie's first major league game across the river in Brooklyn's Ebbets Field...I have always considered it a gift that I slipped into the world just at that moment." - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, basketball Hall of Famer and author, April 16, 1989.

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