JACKIE ROBINSON.<i> By Arnold Rampersad</i> .<i> Alfred A. Knopf: 448 pp., $27.50</i>
Sometimes while we are singing “John Brown’s Body” or burbling over Thoreau’s “Walden” or admiring baseball for putting a Jackie Robinson patch on big league shoulders, we forget that we hanged Brown, put Thoreau in jail and gave Robinson a hard time in all the years in which, through baseball and beyond, he fought for the cause of black America.
Arnold Rampersad’s “Jackie Robinson,” stately in pace and voluminous in detail, is an account of a life of continual combat. One may fault the author for giving us so many high school basketball scores, but one must admire him for the breadth of his research, which creates a detailed portrait of a fascinating, irritating, admirable man.
In the last years of his life, when the adder of hate mail sprang often out of his morning post, he wrote, “I am human, I like public approval as well as anyone else. But if I have to be misunderstood and misrepresented because I follow my convictions and speak my mind, then so be it. . . . In the long run, I’m the guy I have to live with. And if I ever become untrue to myself and to the black people from which I came, I wouldn’t like myself very much.”
The book benefits from the fact that it was written with the full cooperation of Rachel Robinson, who made available a lifetime of husband-and-wife correspondence and material from other family members, which makes this much more than a black “Baseball Joe” celebrating the statistic-studded years of Jack’s baseball life. The fullness of Rachel Robinson’s contribution is attested by the fact that she shares the book’s copyright.
How easily Jack might have missed the Hall of Fame and ended up instead in the California Hall of Records as a criminal statistic is a grim reminder of how America wastes the resources of its black youth. Kept out of the town swimming pool and the YMCA, sitting in the inferior segregated space at the movies, naturally a rebellious Robinson engaged in enough petty theft and mischief to be well known to the police, but guidance from older men, black and white, pulled him past his dark crossroads where wrong turns lead so many into the oblivion of despair.
Indeed, by the time he got to Pasadena Junior College, he appeared to fun-loving classmates as somewhat priggish in his refusal to engage in collegiate carousing. The energies of the wild boy had been narrowed, possibly by his strong religious faith, into the channel where crusaders swim. At PJC, he began a campaign that was to continue through his baseball days and split him from the black activists, who saw success in a division from the white community and a solidarity within an exclusive black culture.
It had been a custom for black students to gather in the mezzanine at PJC assemblies, and Robinson began urging them to mingle in the total student population, as later when there were several blacks with the Dodger baseball team, Jack would command “Spread out” as they arrived at road dining rooms. Those who urge the “brothers” to bond often called Robinson an Uncle Tom, which will seem a cruel misnomer to anyone who follows the career of dedication detailed in this book.
My own association with Jack Robinson began in 1947 when as a baseball writer for the newspaper PM in New York, I accompanied the Dodgers to Havana for spring training. The Montreal Royals of the International League with which Jack had had a brilliant year in ’46 accompanied the Dodgers but, to the dismay of many, Jack had not been added to the Brooklyn roster.
Rampersad is properly admiring of Dodger boss Branch Rickey’s pioneering courage in signing what was to be the first black player of the modern era, but he may not have known the immense thoroughness that preceded that first step. Rickey read his way through a library on race relations that included Gunnar Myrdal’s massive “An American Dilemma” and St. Clair Drake’s and Horace R. Cayton’s “Black Metropolis” before he even began scouting. It was because of his research that he chose Montreal because French-Canadians were too busy fighting the English to be hostile to blacks, and for the second tier of black players, chose Nashua, N.H., because there were only 32 black people in a population of 60,000, a number he considered too small to arouse bigotry. It was at this time that Rickey decided that his first candidate should be a college graduate, an army officer, very black and--a test which several candidates sadly failed--not grateful for the opportunity to play with whites.
The Dodgers were mortified to discover that their presence in Havana aroused little excitement because the Cuban League was in the middle of a close pennant fight, and indeed Havana’s only interest in the visitors was in Robinson, playing exhibitions with Montreal.
All the while, executive phones were ringing and Rickey was discovering the depth of anti-black feeling in the league, which was 50 years short of Robinson shoulder patches. The New York Herald Tribune revealed that the St. Louis Cardinals planned to strike against Robinson, and the New York Giants were said to be ready to join the boycott. Jimmy Gallagher, general manager of the Chicago Cubs, told me--saying he would deny it if I printed it--that his players were going to strike until he told them no play, no pay.
As the speculating grew, I went with Rickey to a game between the Royals and the Havana All Stars. Rickey regarded me as a sort of nephew since his daughter and I had done a song number in a college musical, and he said to me, “You writers haven’t been fair to me in this matter of Robinson. Pressures have been brought to bear on me which I am not at liberty to tell you about, but pressures which are considerable.”
My reply is forgotten, but a couple of innings later, as Jack brought off a brilliant play, Rickey said, “See that Robinson. Greatest pair of hands I ever saw.”
It was his way of saying, “Trust me.”
Much has been said of Jack’s combativeness but perhaps not enough about the remarkable fairness that reined in his temper. In the celebrated incident when Enos Slaughter spiked him at first base, a spiking which many believed an act of racism, I learned from colleague Jimmy Cannon that when asked by Georgia’s Hugh Casey if he thought it was deliberate--in which case Casey offered to “stick the ball in his ear"--Jack, bleeding and in pain, said that it had been his own fault for covering too much of the bag with his foot.
Rampersad recalls the time that Jack “lashed out” at Gus Steiger, a reporter who wrote for the Daily Mirror and who had used the word “waddled” in commenting on Jack’s weight after a winter of sports banquets.
I was present at Jack’s outburst in which he said he knew Gus had always been against him. Steiger, a gentle man, was struck dumb. Into that moment of silence came the voice of Pee Wee Reese, who said, “Jack, you’re going too far. Gus has supported you all along, and you owe him an apology.”
Jack went from rage to consideration in a second, then, still annoyed by the “waddled,” handsomely conceded that an apology was in order and gave it.
The baseball portion of this book is thorough and covers a remarkable career, but the most impressive pages are those that cover the post-diamond years in which Robinson, with the purest of motives and the most vigorous of dedication, found himself too often assailed not only by the old enemy, white supremacy, but also by the increasing divergence in approach in the old and new black organizations. The NAACP found him disruptive and abrasive, while the Muslims distrusted his integrationism and his abiding Christian faith and the newer, student-led groups found him old-fashioned.
No one could have blamed Robinson for taking his many awards and retiring into the corporate world that had first beckoned through the efforts of William Black, the Chock Full O’ Nuts chief who made Jack a vice president.
Rampersad’s quotes from the letters between Jack and Rachel show a man aware of his weaknesses, proud of his strengths and--hard to believe in these spongy, poll taking, spin-doctoring days--prepared to sacrifice everything but his family for his principles.
He was, in fact, in a curiously archaic phrase, a man of honor. Weakening illness did not stop him nor the constant betrayal by the politicians to whom he disastrously gave his trust.
Sometimes his straight-arrow outlook was forced to waver, as when glumly he remarked, “I wouldn’t fly the flag on the Fourth of July or any other day. When I see a car with a flag pasted on it, I figure the guy behind the wheel isn’t my friend.”
He had come a long way from the day when he criticized Paul Robeson before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Of course, Jack didn’t agree with Robeson’s politics, but finally Robeson didn’t agree with Stalin’s. Each of these men did all the Horatio Alger, hard work, honest effort things that America is supposed to admire, but each was hurt again and again by an unfairness that cannot be covered by a shoulder patch.
Readers of Rampersad’s “Jackie Robinson” may find Jack to be a kindred spirit to old William Lloyd Garrison, a 19th century fighter for the rights of all, who said, “I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice.”