Baseball Star, Nation-Changer, Ardent Advocate of Civil Rights

GREAT TIME COMING: THE LIFE OF JACKIE ROBINSON, FROM BASEBALL TO BIRMINGHAM By David Falkner; Simon & Schuster 382 pp., $25.

THE most surprising thing about David Falkner's excellent new book, ``Great Time Coming: The Life of Jackie Robinson, From Baseball to Birmingham,'' is that it is the first full-fledged biography of the man who integrated the modern major leagues.

Robinson wrote four autobiographies during his short, momentous life, and there have been several books devoted to the integration of baseball, but this is the first book to treat at length Robinson's whole life, from his birth in rural Georgia in 1919 to his death in Stamford, Conn., 53 years later.

It's about time. In the world of professional sports, where the term ``hero'' is tossed around more freely than a football on third-and-long, none can lay greater claim to that title than Jack Roosevelt Robinson. Few athletes lived a life more worthy of book-length documentation.

He was the most historically significant baseball player in the history of the game. The announcement that a black man was signing a contract with a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945 electrified the nation. For his first few years in professional baseball, he endured intense pressure, a relentless barrage of verbal abuse from spectators and opposing teams, death threats, poor accommodations on the road, and countless indignities to break the 50-year-old color barrier to the majors and open the door for future generations of black athletes.

He survived those first years turning the other cheek with a restraint and dignity that, today, seems almost unearthly. This from a man famous for his hair-trigger temper, who is considered one of the most fiery competitors ever to step on a playing field.

Robinson made history and, in the process, became the most exciting player of his day. His aggressive, heads-up base-running skills in an era of home-run hitters thrilled fans, black and white. As Falkner puts it: ``For a period of five years, beginning in 1949, he was not just a star player but an incandescent one.... Robinson not only revolutionized what fans saw on the base paths, he was a reminder, even a herald, of everything that baseball could be.''

Falkner has put together a well-researched and highly readable account of Robinson's life, drawing on interviews with relatives, friends, and associates, as well as new research and previously published material.

While other books have treated the integration of baseball in more detail, Falkner more than does justice to this critical and extraordinarily complicated chapter in his subject's life. The author manages to shed new light on some of the more familiar parts of Robinson's life.

For instance, his Army court-martial on trumped-up charges after he refused to move to the back of a bus is well known. Falkner reveals that Robinson's honorable discharge, issued soon after he was acquitted of all charges, was not so honorable after all: Among other things, it excluded veteran's benefits. It seems the United States Army had a special type of discharge, neither honorable nor dishonorable, reserved for troublemakers it wanted to get rid of.

Falkner's greatest contribution to the legacy of Jackie Robinson is the space he devotes - nearly one-third of the book - to Robinson's life after he retired from baseball. By 1955, at the age of 38, he had become the most widely admired African-American in recent memory, and he used his celebrity to launch a career as a tireless campaigner for civil rights.

Working also as the vice president of personnel at Chock Full o'Nuts, his new employer gave him ample time off to pursue work with the NAACP, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and similar pursuits. Robinson was at the vanguard of the civil rights movement for many years. In Falkner's words, ``He was the figure who made civil rights a popular issue before anyone took to the streets or talked about programs, bills, or social action. Robinson was a link, and a crucial one, between despair and a movement. He is a far more important figure than he is given credit for in this country's civil rights movement.''

By the late 1960s, Robinson had been pushed to the rear guard by the emergence of a new, more radical generation of black leaders and by what many considered political missteps, including backing Richard Nixon for president in 1960. But he never slowed his efforts to bring about social change, even when his influence was greatly diminished and his health failing.

Falkner has written a very balanced account neither muckraking nor fawning - of a fascinating and complex figure, one whose importance and interest reaches well beyond his exploits as an athlete. As baseball historian Tom Gallagher summarized it: ``Babe Ruth changed baseball; Jackie Robinson changed America.''

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