what i'm reading: jackie robinson: a biography

I finished reading this fine biography a while ago, but I've been having trouble writing about it. It was very good. If some parts were a bit too detailed for me (which is bound to happen if a biography is comprehensive), parts were thrilling, fascinating, sad, and very moving.

There are many biographies of Jackie Robinson out there, but Jackie Robinson: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad is said to be the most accurate and complete. Rampersad, who has also written celebrated biographies of Langston Hughes and Arthur Ashe, was the first author to have full access to Robinson's letters and personal papers, and to be chosen and authorized by Rachel Robinson. The letters are very significant, as Jackie wrote hundreds of them, to Rachel and many others.

For those who don't know, Jack Roosevelt Robinson was the first African-American to play major league baseball. It is often said that Jackie "broke the color line" — a strange euphemism, as if he broke the tape on a track, or made it through a barrier that no other Black American was good enough or lucky enough to crack.

The truth is that African-Americans were not allowed to play Major League Baseball, and the governance of the sport and almost all the team owners made sure they did not. Jackie Robinson was the first to have the opportunity to do so, and to say he made the most of it is a massive understatement.

Although Robinson's prime athletic years were behind him by the time he was finally allowed into the major leagues, he was named Rookie of the Year (1947) and National League Most Valuable Player (1949), played in six World Series, and helped the Brooklyn Dodgers finally best their hated rivals the New York Yankees in 1955. He was an All-Star in six of his 10 years playing major league baseball.

Robinson was a gifted, dedicated, and hard-working athlete. In high school and college, he excelled at baseball, football, basketball, and track. (His brother Mack was an Olympic athlete who won a silver medal in the 1936 Olympics, finishing second to Jesse Owens!) Robinson was also a straight-laced, religious, conservative man.

Before reading this book, I had no idea that Robinson's outstanding baseball career represents only half of his life's accomplishments. His later career as a civil rights speaker, writer, broadcaster, and fundraiser was equally fascinating. Robinson was the first Black television sports analyst, and the first Black vice president of a major American corporation. He helped establish the Freedom National Bank, an African-American-owned bank based in Harlem. He knew and worked with all the great civil rights leaders, actors, musicians, writers, and other celebrated African-Americans of his era. Although he survived many questionable business decisions, he always used his celebrity status to advance the cause of racial justice.

By all accounts, Robinson was an incredibly caring and compassionate person. When he played himself in the movie The Jackie Robinson Story, cast members remembered this.
On the last day, Jack made it a point to thank in person everyone on the set. Workers inured to the vanity of stars were astonished to see him climb a catwalk to shake hands with an assistant electrician. Then, late for training camp, he hurried to catch a flight to Florida.
Here's an interesting aside. Ruby Dee, playing Rachel
had one lasting regret: she had made Rachel too passive on the screen. "The moment I talked with her," Dee said, "I had the feeling I wasn't doing her justice. She was a much more outgoing person than I was portraying. She was twinkly-eyed, and I remember feeling, Gee, I wish I had known her before I took this part. She was a stronger woman than I portrayed. I had listened to too many directors about not undercutting the star. I hadn't imagined Rachel as she really was."
Two partners, and one of them was a white man

In Robinson's trailblazing and success in professional baseball, he had two partners: his wife and soulmate Rachel Robinson (nee Isum), and Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager and baseball innovator Branch Rickey.

There are far too many Hollywood-type stories of white people liberating people of colour, and I was dreading learning some awful truth about Branch Rickey, perhaps that he was not the hero that I thought him to be. The truth turned out to be even better than I knew.

Robinson understood that if he were to have an opportunity to play major league sports, some white person in a position of power would have to be involved. And Rickey understood that he had to keep his true agenda secret from everyone but Jackie. To the press, to team owners, and above all to Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler, Rickey claimed he had only one mission: to field the best team, that would give the Dodgers their best shot at defeating the rival New York Giants and New York Yankees. But in private, Rickey was very consciously and very purposefully working for justice.

Rickey also understood that for any man to endure what was coming — the onslaught of racism that would descend from baseball players and fans, and the Jim Crow restrictions throughout much of the country — that man would need a steady supply of love and support, and lots of it. Rickey saw that Robinson had that, in Rachel. Part of Robinson and Rickey's deal was that Rachel Robinson would travel with Jackie and stay with him, from spring training in Jim Crow Florida, to his minor league days in beautiful (and accepting) Montreal, to road trips throughout the season and an apartment in Brooklyn the rest of the year. This had never been done before, and it was essential to the success of the men's great experiment.

From their first talks through most of his major league career, Jackie had two partners — Rickey, his father, mentor, and co-conspirator, and Rachel, his rock.

Jackie Robinson: A Biography offers the best description I've ever read of how utterly entrenched bigotry was in baseball, and what Rickey had to do as an owner to successfully fight it. Few white people have worked harder to further the cause of equality and racial justice.

The bigotry in Florida was so intense and unrelenting that Rickey moved Spring Training to the Caribbean — only to learn that Jim Crow was at work there, too! The Dodgers eventually built their own Spring Training facility so all their players could live and work together.

Lies and legend: not the Negro Leagues

I was surprised to learn that almost everything I knew about Jackie Robinson's baseball career was wrong.

I had been under the impression that Robinson's style of play, especially his aggressive basestealing, was commonplace in the Negro Leagues, and what was new and exciting to white spectators was old news to African-American fans.

Well... no. Robinson actually spent very little time in the Negro Leagues, and he generally disliked the experience. The organizations were lax and undisciplined, record-keeping was sporadic and unreliable, and salaries were tiny or nonexistent. Players needed jobs or sponsors, and rarely had the luxury to focus and train.

But beyond all that, Jackie wanted in. He wanted African-Americans to have the same opportunity to excel in professional sports, and in all professions, as white Americans. He didn't want separate. He wanted equal.

Robinson's sojourn in the Negro Leagues was short and not sweet. So where did he develop his aggressive style of play? His playing style was his own, and he developed it first as a high school sports champion, then as a college champion.

Lies and legend: cheek-turning, not so much

Another aspect of Jackie Robinson's story that I thought I knew, but had completely wrong, was why Rickey chose Robinson, out of all the other talented African-American athletes of his era. I thought it was because Jackie was always composed, didn't have a temper, and would be able to not react aggressively in the face of racism.

Robinson and Rickey supposedly agreed that Robinson would never talk back or strike back against players, umpires, or fans, and would never give the press, baseball owners, or fans an opportunity to accuse him of aggression. What's more, I had learned, turning the other cheek and repressing his anger for so many years took such a toll on Robinson that it contributed to his later poor health and early death.

Not only is this false, but during his playing career, Robinson had a reputation for being aggressive and out of control! This was greatly exaggerated in the press and largely undeserved, but the man was not docile.

Rickey chose Robinson because he was an outstanding player, very well spoken, a devout Christian (Rickey was very religious and this was very important to him), married, and lived a very sober life — he didn't curse, smoke, drink, gamble, or sleep around. The two men did have an agreement about Robinson not fighting back — but only for Jackie's first season in the majors.

After his first season, when Robinson won Rookie of the Year and was hailed as a hero by Dodgers fans and celebrated in the sports media, he had had enough of cheek-turning. He spoke up and fought back, enough so that he gained a reputation as a hot-head and a thug. (And thus began a longstanding tradition, ongoing to this day, of players of colour being labelled aggressive and bad-tempered while their white counterparts are called tough and gritty.) That same press compared Robinson unfavourably with his more placid African-American teammate, Roy Campanella. (Even Campy got sick of the cheek-turning, too, and busted out later in his career.) And again, to this day, the mainstream sports media likes its Black athletes docile and uncomplaining.

Here are some interesting excerpts that, although from different contexts, all speak to the same double-standard.
Unquestionably, Jack was becoming more assertive. He had now played three years in the Dodger organization. The idea would surface later, supported by Rickey, that at this point he formally released Jack from his 1945 agreement always to turn the other cheek and avoid fights. Rachel would deny that any special release was granted or sought; Jack had simply grown in stature and felt justified in asserting himself. "The idea that Branch Rickey had kept Jackie Robinson from exploding," Rickey's grandson Branch B. Rickey would say, "is nonsense. Branch Rickey was not on the field when someone spiked or hit Jackie. Jackie was not on a leash. It was Jackie Robinson who kept Jackie Robinson from exploding. He had given a pledge he believed in and he stuck by it — that's all."

In any event, Rickey's response . . . suggests that he now saw Robinson as his own man. "It was a tempest in a teapot," Rickey told the press, in his familiar rhetorical mixture of paternalism, condescension, loyalty to Jack, and a measure of insight into racism. "It's over the hill now and should be forgotten. Jackie's the same high-class boy he was the first year we brought him up. He's entitled to all the rights of any other American citizen. He's a great competitor and resents any violation of those rights. Perhaps he has lost his temper occasionally the same as any white player would do. But he's been sorry for it afterward and has used good judgment. . . . We couldn't have picked a finer boy than Robinson for our experiment of introducing a Negro into organized baseball."

Jack himself knew where blacks stood in the league. Perhaps black ballplayers were no longer seen as freaks, he told a reporter, but "one bad deed by one player right now can set the whole movement back, and I hope the boys coming up will be aware of that".
Of course, breaking in to the league was one thing — being treated fairly within it was another.
Campanella had his run-ins with umpires, but never dreamed of taking these disputes as far as Jack was prepared to go. In 1950, and the years to come, Jack battled with umpires over matters not simply of judgment but of ethics, in his growing belief that the umpires, all white, were abusing their power in order to put him in his place. Perhaps the worst incident of 1950 came during a game on July 2 at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. In the second inning, as Robinson walked testily away after taking a called third strike, the umpire, Jocko Conlan, suddenly piped up: "That strike was right down the middle." When Jack turned to face him, Conlan repeated the remark. Robinson then said something sharp to Conlan, who threw him out of the game. Jack exploded with a firestorm of abuse. Sure that Conlan and others were baiting him, Robinson wanted Ford Frick, the league president, to crack down on them. "Frick has given these guys too much power," he told the press. "Something's going to have to be done about it." [Dodgers Manager Clyde] Sukeforth supported Jack's position. "There is no question in my mind that the umpires are picking on Robinson," he declared. Sure, Jack liked to heckle—but "if Robinson were somebody else, no umpire would pay any attention."
. . . .
For Jack, the scratching and fighting began in the exhibition season. Unfortunately, the enemy was not a baseball team but an umpire — Frank Dascoli of the National League, in a game at Asheville, North Carolina. Called out at first by Dascoli, Robinson lit into him with heated words that continued after Dascoli ejected him. Later, Dascoli accused him of using ethnic slurs — "wop," "dago," and the like — in his tirade. The charge shocked Jack. If Dascoli was seeking to discredit Robinson, he could hardly have picked a more clever way, even as Jack, adamantly supported by the Dodger coach Jake Pitler, denied using such language. "Jackie would never use an ethnic slur, never," [Dodgers pitcher] Carl Erskine said. "And he was not a real umpire-baiter, compared to many other players. He disliked inconsistent umpiring, that was all. He was a superb, complete major leaguer, even when his skills were running down. He was a disciplined and spiritual person who would not have used ethnic slurs, period."
. . . .
Virtually all other players were seen as individuals; somehow, Robinson was always a symbol, both an individual human being and also a figment of America's guilty, shame-filled imagination. He was an exception even among the black players, whose conduct in facing the white world, during this first, tightly watched decade of racial integration, ranged mainly from congeniality, on the one hand, to rank obsequiousness, on the other. Only Jackie Robinson insisted, day in and day out, on challenging America on the matter of race and justice.
. . . .
In the Post, Jimmy Cannon wrote that "the range of Jackie Robinson's hostility appears to have no frontiers. . . . He is a juggler of a sort, flashily keeping feuds in motion like Indian clubs." Robinson had gone "beyond the borders of competition," alienating "even Brooklyn partisans with his undisciplined protests."

This was an extreme view of Robinson, one promulgated in the newspapers by writers who often both exaggerated his aggressiveness and also refused to admit, much less investigate, the pervasive racism he alone seemed willing to fight in baseball. But to Harold Parrott, writing long after Jack's death about a similar assessment of his state of mind, "this was definitely not the Robinson I knew at all, at all. Or that Pee Wee Reese and Ralph Branca and Carl Erskine knew, and will talk about." To Parrott, Jack had no friends among the owners except for Rickey, and few friends, if any, among the umpires; but almost all the players liked and respected him as a man. Certainly, to new Dodgers, black or white, Jack was usually an embracing human presence, a man who lived the Dodger ideal of family unity.
. . . .
Far from being a troublemaker, he was rather "an American who happens to be an American Negro and one who is proud of that heritage." Writing on behalf of black Americans, Jack insisted that "we ask for nothing special. We ask only that we be permitted to live as you live, and as our nation's constitution provides." Concerning segregated hotels, black ballplayers now stayed in "white" hotels in cities such as St. Louis and Cincinnati without these hotels losing trade, much less going out of business. "I wish you could see this as I do," he told Keefe, "but I hold little hope. I wish you could comprehend how unfair and un-American it is for the accident of birth to make such a difference to you."

As for being insolent, "I'll admit I have not been subservient, but would you use the same adjective to describe a white ball player — say Ted Williams, who is, more often than I, involved in controversial matters? Am I insolent, or am I merely insolent for a Negro (who has courage enough to speak against injustices such as yours and people like you)?" "I am happy for you, that you were born white," Robinson concluded. "It would have been extremely difficult for you had it been otherwise." (On August 7, for the third time in three weeks, Williams openly spat at fans at Fenway Park, some of whom had booed and insulted him. His club fined him $5,000, which he never paid, according to a Boston newspaper. The following month the state legislature itself acted: it approved a bill that would fine fans for using profanity.)
So where did I pick up these misconceptions about Robinson? From Ken Burns' epic documentary, Baseball. I loved the series, and generally love Burns' work, so I was sorry to realize he had misinformed me. It makes me wonder what else was inaccurate in that series.

* * * *

This was the first book in my "year of biography". After reading some excellent Wallander mysteries and skimming some new tween fiction, I finally got the Frederick Douglass biography from the library. I can see it will take me much longer than one year to read all the biographies on my list, especially since I need good breaks in between. Onward!

And hey, I wrote this about Major League Baseball's self-congratulatory celebration of Jackie Robinson way back in 2007: #42.

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