The Jackie Robinson Reader: Perspectives on an american hero
Edited by Jules Tygiel
Dutton, 278 pp., $23.95
A half century after he helped to change his country by the simple act of playing baseball, Jackie Robinson's niche in history is secure. He stands alongside the titans of the Civil Rights movement - W.E.B. Dubois, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and others - as a man who prompted America finally, if reluctantly, to acknowledge and address the stain of its segregation and racism.
Yet, ironically, while Robinson will be the subject of television specials, feature films, newspaper supplements, magazine articles, and ceremonies in all 28 major-league ball parks on this 50th anniversary of his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he still awaits his Boswell.
There are books on Robinson. But the best of them - Jules Tygiel's "Baseball's Great Experiment," Roger Kahn's "The Boys of Summer" - are not biographies, and the biographies that are on the shelves fall well short of capturing Robinson's life and legacy.
Princeton historian Arnold Rampersad is now at work on an authorized biography that has given him exclusive access to the archives of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, but his work will not be ready this year.
"The Jackie Robinson Reader," a biographical collection of essays edited by Jules Tygiel, makes no grand claims but is a most engaging and revealing collection of writing, and serves as a diverting and serviceable substitute for the life story that Robinson deserves.
It is an eclectic collection by journalists, historians, colleagues, and friends recounting the familiar story of Robinson's life: the impoverished Pasadena childhood, the storybook four-sport heroics at UCLA, the Army court martial, the integration of baseball and the Hall of Fame career that followed it, and finally the post-baseball forays into business, politics, and civil rights.
The writings include excerpts from books by Roger Kahn and Red Barber. The book reprints news stories from Wendall Smith and Sam Lacy, writers from the great African-American newspapers, whose writing not only chronicled the Jackie Robinson story, but whose advocacy helped to bring it about.
It includes some of Tygiel's own writing, and a pair of heretofore unpublished documents that give new understanding to the care that Dodgers' president Branch Rickey took in selecting and signing Robinson, and to the opposition he faced from fellow owners in his plan to integrate the game.
It had not been Rickey's intention to sign Robinson alone; his original plans called for the simultaneous signing of several Negro League stars.
An unpublished magazine manuscript by Arthur Mann tells that Don Newcombe, who would later pitch for the Dodgers, and Sam Jethroe, who would later star for the Braves, were to come into the Dodgers fold at the same time as Robinson.
But political pressures forced Rickey's hand, pushing him to announce the Robinson signing alone (and also scuttled Mann's magazine piece, which had been prepared with Rickey's full cooperation).
The book's most dramatic moment, however, comes in a never-before-published report of the 1946 Major League Baseball Steering Committee on Race. The document shows naked, if veiled, contempt for Rickey's signing of Robinson.
"The individual action of any one Club may exert tremendous pressures upon the whole structure of professional baseball," it read. "A situation might be presented, if Negroes participated in Major League games, in which the preponderance of Negro attendance in parks such as the Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds and Comiskey Park could conceivably threaten the value of the Major League franchises owned by these Clubs."
Chilling words, even when read from the distance of a half century. They remind us afresh of what a singular human being Jackie Robinson was. They should prompt us to applaud with special vigor this summer, as baseball celebrates the career of the man they did not want - and might not have survived without.
* Charles Fountain is associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass.