With the beginning of every baseball season comes an onslaught of baseball books—biographies of players, managers, executives, histories of long ago seasons, histories of last season, histories of stadiums, travel guides, stat books, prospect books, economic books, books about being a fan. The best ones, though, are those that are about more than baseball (like my favorites, Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment and Joshua Prager’s The Echoing Green).
Any book about Jackie Robinson is going to be about more than baseball and as this year is the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s rookie season, there are of course, more Robinson books. Not like there’s ever been a shortage—just looking in the New York Public Library catalogue, I found 58 titles listed (the Tygiel book would fall in here, btw), including about 20 children’s books. There’s a reason why Robinson’s story is told over and over, though, and that’s because it’s a good story.
Jonathan Eig’s Opening Day takes a different approach to the Robinson story; instead of trying to cover Robinson’s entire life, Eig gives a detailed account of his 1947 rookie year. Of course you get the necessary biographical information, how Robinson was selected by the Dodgers and why, and a post-1947 career summary, but the heart of the book is the highs and lows of Robinson’s season, how he affected his team, the rest of baseball, and America in general, and how his reception off the field evolved along with his play on the field.
Eig works at separating the truth from the myths surrounding Robinson that have sprung up over the years: did the Dodgers start a petition to try to get Robinson off the team during the season and was the effort led by the Dodger’s best hitter, Dixie Walker? (Yes to the petition, Walker says no, he didn’t start it, others say he did, but in the end Walker didn’t treat Robinson any better or worse than anyone else.) Did the St. Louis Cardinals consider boycotting their game against the Dodgers because of Robinson? (There was some grumbling but no real plan for action; rumors in the press blew the whole incident out of proportion to any conversation that might have gone on.) Was Pee-Wee Reese really Robinson’s best friend on the team? (They were friendly later, but again, that first year Reese was no better or worse to Robinson than anyone else on the team.) Did Reese quiet a Cincinnati crowd, hurling racial invective at Robinson, by walking over to him and putting his arm around his shoulder?
This is one of the most repeated stories in the Robinson biography, but Eig points out that there is no real evidence that this happened; no newspaper accounts mentioned it at the time, and Robinson even said that he was treated well in Cincinnati. Years later Robinson wrote about an incident similar to this but he set it in Boston and in 1948. Again, though, no one else made any note of it which makes it rather suspect. Since then, the story’s been reshaped and refined to make a better fable; Cincinnati has settled in as the location, because the Louisville-born Reese’s action would have been seen as more courageous there, and the time assigned to Robinson’s rookie year when it would have more impact. It’s a nice story for teaching kids about being a good friend but an unfortunate one if there is no truth in it. (I pay extra attention to this story because I plead guilty to having contributed my own awful version to the pantheon of dreck. It was for a particularly misbegotten project that had already been a lot of trouble—I had refused to do one topic, argued about others, and things had generally not been going well. I was bothered by the fact that I couldn’t find specific dates for the Reese-Robinson story and that there were so many variations out there, but figured I better quit while I was ahead and just do it. I dug up my manuscript today and found that at least I set it in Boston and did include this art note: “People claim there is a picture of this moment but if there is, I can’t find it anywhere and that seems strange.” As for the actual story itself, well, let’s just say I’m not going to hand it out as a writing sample. Probably the best that can be said about it is that it is the correct word count, hit the required readability score and all the necessary vocab words were used in a relatively unobtrusive way. The whole book was pretty awful, except the Seeing Eye dog story, which is okay. But then again it was a project designed by people who seem to secretly hope that they will be able to make kids hate reading enough that they will need remedial help throughout their school years, thus necessitating the production of more such dull material. Anyway, I do feel guilty for my complicity in perpetuating this myth, particularly in such an uninspired way. I know, I need someone to come and take the parentheses off my keyboard.)
The popular image of Robinson is that of the good soldier, who endured the difficulties of his first season with quiet acceptance. In reality, he was seething inside. He had a temper, a strong sense of injustice, and agonized over not being able to give as good as he had to take. Fortunately, he also was fiercely competitive and was able to channel his feelings into his play, which became more and more aggressive as the season went on. The team needed this, too—the Dodgers were mediocre at best, and didn’t have outstanding talent in any area of the game. Luckily for them, the whole National League was worse and the American League wasn’t much better; the Yankee team that the Dodgers faced in the World Series was itself a peculiar team that was kind of old, kind of young, at the end of one era and the beginning of another. The Series, as recounted by Eig, was not a thing of beauty. It sounds like what you would expect to see if the World Series this year featured the Royals vs. the Nationals (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I’m rather enjoying that image). Robinson was easily one of, if not the best, player on the field during those games. Despite an early season slump, he carried the Dodgers during most of the season and this played a large part in the acceptance of him by the rest of the team because pro athletes want two things—to win and to get paid (not necessarily in that order). Once they realized that the world wasn’t ending because they had a black man on their team, and they saw that he could contribute to winning, the other Dodgers stopped thinking so much about Robinson. However, that didn’t mean they became friends with him; Robinson was often alone, but this worked out because one of Robinson’s great gifts was that he didn’t care if people liked him (this is an important quality for athletes to have—those who worry too much about what the fans think, or teammates think are going to have trouble). As long as he was treated fairly, he could manage and once his skills became apparent, his teammates felt more at ease. If Robinson hadn’t excelled on the field that year, though, history might have been quite different.
Robinson’s story includes two particularly interesting people. One is Wendell Smith. As a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential black newspaper, Smith led the campaign for the integration of baseball, laying the ground as far back as 1938 when he would question players, managers, and owners about the subject. Robinson was one of the athletes Smith and other journalists promoted as the best candidate. When Branch Rickey took the hint and signed Robinson, he also hired Smith as essentially a paid companion for Robinson, so he would have someone to stay with in towns where the hotels and restaurants were firmly segregated. It was somewhat of a curious position for Smith because on one hand he had unlimited access to history as it unfolded, but at the same time he also had an obligation to put a happy, confident face on the situation, to make sure that Robinson was always portrayed in the best light, that negative feelings about his treatment by other teams, managers, or towns didn’t leak out, and that the Robinson story was a success that would make other owners believe they could integrate their teams without disruption to their players or fans. As Eig puts it, Smith helped, “create the illusion of serenity,” around Robinson, and that was necessary for the success of the plan. I always think Smith is an incredibly interesting figure in this story because if you think about it, he really was the one who stage-managed the integration of baseball; you could say he was as much a contributor as Rickey and Robinson.
The other remarkable figure is Rachel Robinson. Imagine, she’s in her early twenties, has a new baby, hasn’t been married that long, has suddenly moved cross-country, thousands of miles from her family and everything she’s ever known, her husband is working through a very public trial by fire that renders him anxious and moody, but he’s on the road half the time anyway, leaving her alone in the strange new town and oh, by the way, no one has really reached out to her in any way. The other players’ wives didn’t invite her anywhere, didn’t offer to help her, didn’t try to make her feel welcome or part of the group. Yet she went through it all with calmness and grace and in fact rather enjoyed having the chance to be part of history. It’s not so much anything in particular that Rachel Robinson did as much as what she didn’t do—complain, become bitter, sink into depression, demand attention. She kept everything simple. Jackie Robinson was lucky to have her and I’m sure she would say she was lucky to have him, and I suppose that’s probably a good way for things to be.
And this is as good a time as any for the story to fall apart. This is where you could find anger, despair, resentment, alcoholism, drugs, affairs, whatever. Because so many times when we read about the true lives of our supposed heroes we find out things that we’d rather not know. That the person was really mean or abusive, that the tough upbringing wasn’t really so tough, that some victory was manipulated, that a loss didn’t have the meaning and lessons that years and mythologizing have placed on them. But I have never found anything like that in the Jackie Robinson story. Was he perfect? Absolutely not; there are things from the story that you’d like to excise, but they are few and minor. In his case you often find that the victories are greater than you thought, that the trials were worse than you had heard, that the truth is better than fiction. Sometimes when you read biographies you can finish them and feel sorry that you read them, disappointed in what you found out and now wish you didn’t know. I have never been disappointed in this story.
And I was not disappointed in Opening Day. It is admirably researched, elegantly written and a fine addition to the multitude of other Robinson material. There aren’t a lot of surprises in this book. But to be honest, this is a case where I’m just as happy not to find any.