Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy
I Never Had It Made
The Jackie Robinson Reader: Perspectives of an American Hero
Breaking the Line
In the preface of his ghostwritten autobiography, I Never Had It Made, published in 1972 two days after he died at the age of fifty-three, enfeebled by diabetes and nearly blind, Jackie Robinson wrote, “Money is America’s God, and business people can dig black power if it coincides with green power.” Twenty-five years after his death, fifty years after he broke major league baseball’s color bar against black players in 1947, honored in this anniversary year of that event from one end of the country to the other, his Brooklyn Dodger uniform number 42 retired by order of the baseball commissioner’s office, never to be issued to another major leaguer (the twelve players currently wearing it—many black, in honor of Robinson—may keep it until the end of their careers), Jackie Robinson has been embraced by green power.
During Robinson’s ten-year big league career, from 1947 to 1956, player salaries were so low that most major leaguers, except for those on the highest pay scale, worked during the off-season to supplement their incomes. Baseball’s reserve clause kept players tied to their franchises, as if they were plantation labor, to be sold or dealt away as their owners saw fit. With no free agency, there were no agents, and players were forced to deal directly with owners whose sole negotiating tactic was take it or leave it. Robinson’s highest salary was $42,500, less than half that earned by Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio. Sports marketing, except for cigarette advertising, was in its infancy. Players with a little money to invest usually plowed it into modest retail establishments, such as a liquor store (Robinson’s teammate Roy Campanella had one in Harlem) or a bar and grill, often fronting these enterprises for the kind of dicey partners who attach themselves like limpets to professional athletes, sucking funds from the unwary and inexperienced. The economic muscle flexed by such one-name black superstars as Michael (Jordan), Junior (Ken Griffey, Jr.), and Tiger (Woods) was still in the faraway.
It is doubtful that Jackie Robinson could ever have imagined that in his fiftieth anniversary year he would rival Michael, Junior, and Tiger as America’s top-drawing sports marketing personality; Michael and Junior were children when he died, Tiger not even born. Handling the merchandising and advertising deals for Robinson’s widow, Rachel, and the rest of his family is an agency that specializes in marketing dead personalities in and out of sports (Joe Louis, Babe Ruth, Secretariat, Oscar Wilde). Coca-Cola has put out commemorative Robinson bottles, Wheaties uses his picture on three different cereal boxes, McDonald’s his likeness on tray liners. Nike and Apple feature him in television commercials, and there are Robinson bats, computer games, key chains, jerseys, medallions, plaques, mugs, T-shirts, and 12-inch Robinson busts ($29.99). On the Internet, suppliers list e-mail addresses where vendors can order Robinson memorabilia in bulk.
Even the United States Mint hopped on the bandwagon, designing 100,000 gold coins to celebrate Robinson’s accomplishments on and off the field ($200 each), and 200,000 silver coins ($35 each), a portion of the proceeds going to the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which supports educational and leadership programs for minority youth. And although Princeton professor Arnold Rampersad says he maintained editorial control over his encyclopedic new biography, Jackie Robinson, Rachel Robinson retains what Professor Rampersad calls “a piece of the action.”1
It is interesting to conjecture what Jackie Robinson might have thought of the more vulgar displays of green power (Professor Rampersad calls them “regrettable”), and especially the connection of his name to Nike, whose chairman, Philip Knight, collects docile superstar athletes the way a big-game hunter collects trophies. That Nike’s sneakers and other athletic products are largely manufactured in third-world sweatshops by poorly paid people of color, often children, is a development about which Michael, Junior, and Tiger, each a superstar of color with a long-term multimillion-dollar Nike contract, have maintained what might most charitably be called a discreet silence. One does not have to read very far in Rampersad’s biography to guess how Robinson would have reacted to Philip Knight’s child labor sweatshops. He had the nature of a common scold, he was a world-class injustice collector, and his inability to keep his mouth shut even when it might better serve his interest was legendary. In the end, his interest would always be something other than a Nike contract, and Philip Knight’s beneficence.
His name was Jack, not Jackie, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the youngest of five children born in 1919 to an illiterate, philandering Georgia sharecropper and his wife. Mallie Robinson, Jack’s mother, had a sixth-grade education, a considerable achievement for a black girl in turn-of-the-century rural Georgia, and the good sense to leave her husband Jerry in 1920 for southern California, where she had relatives in Pasadena. The star athlete in the family was Robinson’s older brother, Mack, who won a silver medal to Jesse Owens’s gold in the 200-yard dash at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. After the Olympics, Mack Robinson returned to Pasadena, where he could only get a job as a night-shift street sweeper, a task he performed while provocatively wearing his USA Olympic jacket.
Such attitude ran in the family. Jack Robinson was a middling student who had a problem with authority; on his elementary school grade transcript, an official noted his likely future occupation as “Gardener.” His passport away from gardening was athletics. Football, basketball, baseball, track, tennis—whatever the sport, Robinson excelled, and as he progressed from high school to Pasadena Junior College to UCLA, his fame grew, usually referenced on the sports pages by his color. Jack became “Jackie,” the “dusky flash,” a “dark-hued phantom of the gridiron,” “a soft-spoken, dark-skinned kid with a flash of illuminating white teeth.” At UCLA, track was his best sport (he won an NCAA broad jump title), basketball his second best (he twice led the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring), football his third (as a wingback he averaged 11.4 yards a carry); baseball was his poorest (his batting average was .097).
Trouble did not avoid him, nor did he go out of his way to avoid it. As an undergraduate he twice had altercations with Pasadena police officers that he thought racially instigated, and each time he spent a night in jail, escaping serious penalty because he was an athlete. “He would flash angry in a heartbeat,” a black UCLA football teammate said of him, and the reputation stuck. His rough edges were somewhat smoothed by Rachel Isum, a UCLA student he married in 1945 after a five-year courtship. Trained as a nurse, Rachel Robinson was as steely in her quiet way as her husband; if he took no prisoners, she took no grief, either from him or from Jim Crow. She once broke their engagement when he ordered her to quit the Nurse Cadet Corps, and after they were married she would intentionally drink at White Only water fountains in the South and use White Only rest rooms.
Robinson was drafted early in 1942, and took basic training at Ft. Riley, Kansas, where he became close friends with heavyweight champion Joe Louis. They were an oddly matched pair. Louis was unlettered, a white man’s idea of a good black man, and an inveterate womanizer; Robinson was college-educated (always on the verge of flunking out of UCLA, from which he never graduated), his antennae delicately tuned to pick up any racial slight real or imagined, and he was something of a prig (although during one hiatus in his engagement to Rachel he managed, according to his service record, to pick up a dose of the clap). “I’m sure if it wasn’t for Joe Louis,” Robinson would later say, “the color line in baseball would not have been broken for another ten years.”
In the army there was also a color line that Robinson and other black applicants to officer candidate school found difficult to cross. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, the prototype of WASP rectitude, stated his objections bluntly: “Leadership is not imbedded in the negro race yet and to try to make commissioned officers to lead men into battle—colored men—is only to work a disaster to both.” The war’s pressing manpower demands ultimately forced the lowering of the bar, and Robinson was accepted at OCS, even though a chronically arthritic right ankle limited his duty options. Commissioned a second lieutenant, he was transferred to Camp Hood, Texas, where in the summer of 1944 he was again involved in a racial fracas. Ordered to move to the rear of a bus at Hood, Robinson refused, as local Jim Crow laws did not apply on a military post. Voices were raised, expletives bandied, MPs called, the word “nigger” used or not used depending on the source. Skittish higher commanders saw the case as “full of dynamite,” but Robinson was still charged with insubordination and failure to obey an order from a superior officer. Brought before a court-martial, he was acquitted on both counts. Four months later, one suspects to the army’s enormous relief, his arthritic ankle won him an honorable discharge “by reason of physical disqualification.”
He had few prospects, beyond a tentative $300-a-month offer from the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro National League. It had been five years since Robinson last played baseball, that season he batted .097 at UCLA, but he managed to make the 1945 Monarch team, even hitting .345 if the Negro League’s notoriously unreliable statistics are to be believed. But he had little in common with his hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-loving Monarch teammates. He “seemed to be from another world,” Rampersad writes, “a world of colleges, California, and a troubling familiarity with white people.”
Were it not for Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey would be remembered, if at all, as a Bible-thumping midwestern Methodist windbag who neither played baseball on Sundays when he was a mediocre catcher for the St. Louis Browns and the New York Highlanders, nor attended games on the Sabbath as a baseball executive. As general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, he established a model minor league farm system, but ignored racism; St. Louis was Jim Crow country, where blacks were not even permitted in the grandstand at Sportsman’s Park. Then, in 1942, Rickey moved to the Brooklyn Dodgers as general manager and part owner, and quietly began looking for a Negro player to integrate the major leagues.
Rickey’s motives were both pragmatic and idealistic: here was a situation in which it might be possible to both make money and do the right thing, “to intervene,” as Rampersad somewhat extravagantly writes, “in the moral history of the nation.” Needing a cover story that would allow him to scout the Negro Leagues without arousing suspicion among the more overtly racist owners, Rickey said he wanted to put together a black team, the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, to play in Ebbets Field when the Dodgers were on the road, and give the franchise a new revenue source. After the fact, not everyone would give Rickey full marks for seeing the moment and seizing it, in part because he could be so insufferably superior. “I knew him for what he was,” Walter O’Malley, Rickey’s former Dodger partner, would later tell the journalist Roger Kahn. “Rickey’s Brooklyn contract called for salary plus a percentage of the take, and during World War II the take fell off. It was then Rickey mentioned signing a Negro. He had a fiscal interest.”2
If there was some truth in O’Malley’s mean-spirited remark, the fact remains that Rickey did what no else was willing to do. Other owners made excuses: Negroes were happier in their own league, none were qualified to play in the majors, white players would revolt. However shrewd a judge of talent Rickey was, Robinson seemed an unusual choice as his trailblazer. He was not the best player in the Negro League, or even on the Monarchs. He had a weak arm, an arthritic ankle, and little power (in the bandbox ballparks of his era, he never hit more than nineteen home runs, while his Dodger teammates regularly hit thirty or forty). He was also old for a first-year player—twenty- seven—and most importantly he had never suffered racial indignity without lashing back.
What Rickey intuited, however, was that Robinson of all the black players, many more skilled than he, had both the character and the historical vision to understand what it meant to be first, and what the cost of failure would be. It was prescience of a high order. Rickey laid out every possible racist scenario, from beanballs, to spikings, to the ugliest epithets, and told Robinson that to retaliate was to lose, and jeopardize the future for other black players. In his autobiography, Robinson remembered Rickey saying, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with the guts not to fight back.” Robinson accepted the terms, and signed a contract with the Dodgers’ Montreal farm club. The reaction of white players, Rampersad notes, was summed up by Bob Feller, the Cleveland pitching ace. Robinson, Feller said, was a football player “tied up in the shoulders [who] couldn’t hit an inside pitch to save his neck. If he were a white man, I doubt they would consider him as big league material.” Ironically, Feller and Robinson were both elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in the same year, 1962.
In Montreal, Robinson quickly became the “Colored Comet.” There were incidents—he was called “nigger” and “snowflake” and once an opposing player threw a black cat onto the field, shouting, “Here’s your cousin”—but he deflected every insult, avoided every argument. With all the racial distractions, he still won the International League’s batting title with a .349 average; Brooklyn was the necessary next stop.
Around the National League, however, a rebellion was simmering, one far more extensive than previously thought, according to the ESPN documentary, “Breaking the Line,” produced to mark the legacy of Robinson’s career in the fiftieth anniversary year of his joining the Dodgers. In Robinson’s own clubhouse, a claque of Southern teammates petitioned the front office to keep him off the club, a mutiny put down in a middle-of-the-night tirade by the manager, Leo Durocher. But elderly contemporaries of Robinson told ESPN that other clubs were ready to strike; they were waiting only for word from the Dodger insurgents. Economic self-preservation scuttled the conspiracy; baseball players in 1947 were working stiffs, not all that much better paid than the rest of the population, and they could not risk possible suspension and loss of a salary.
For his first two years with the Dodgers, Robinson followed Rickey’s injunction, keeping both his tongue and his cool in the presence of unrelenting pressure and abuse, both verbal and physical. It was a nastier game fifty years ago than it is today; pitchers knocked batters down as a matter of course and baserunners slid with high spikes; Robinson’s color only made him a more frequent and opportunistic target. His game was built on speed and quickness, talents less valued in baseball once Babe Ruth made the home run the ultimate weapon, and it baffled and infuriated opponents. He could drop a bunt on a dime, and drive pitchers to distraction with his baserunning harassment. His skills finally won a grudging respect; he could play, and that was a quality even more admired by his teammates and opponents than his willed Gandhian self-control.
By 1949, there were only five blacks in the major leagues, and only three teams (the Dodgers, the New York Giants, and the Cleveland Indians) were “integrated,” but there was no turning back, even though scouting reports would still read (about Red Sox pitching prospect Earl Wilson): “a well-mannered colored boy, not too black, pleasant to talk to, well-educated, very good appearance.”3 That year, Robinson’s natural ability was finally allowed to fuse with his natural competitiveness and hostility, and he won both the National League batting title and the league’s Most Valuable Player award. But perhaps the most significant event of his season was an invitation to appear as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
What prompted the invitation was a comment at a peace conference in Paris by Paul Robeson, who said it was “unthinkable,” considering America’s racist history, to expect that Negroes would fight for their country against a Communist enemy. For HUAC, Robeson’s longstanding flirtation with left-wing causes made him the ideal bad black, and Robinson, playing a white man’s game, the ideal good one. Robinson was uneasy about the invitation to testify, but in the end it was an offer he could ill refuse; he was, as Rampersad says, “firmly anticommunist,” and he had honorably served as a commissioned officer “whose patriotism had survived his court-martial.”
In a statement carefully drafted by the executive director of the Urban League, Robinson said Robeson’s contention seemed “silly,” but he never denied Robeson’s central allegation that American racism was pervasive. Blacks were “stirred up” before communism arrived, he said, and would be “stirred up long after the party has disappeared—unless Jim Crow has disappeared by then as well.” For many blacks, Robinson’s appearance before HUAC made him seem like a “handkerchief head,” but white America was unequivocal in its praise. “Quite a man, this Jackie Robinson,” the New York Daily News editorialized, unwittingly making him seem, like Earl Wilson, “a well-mannered colored boy.” He was fêted by, among others, the Catholic War Veterans, the Rotary Club, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Freedoms Foundation. Robinson had become an icon.
It is the icon rather than the ballplayer who has been remembered this anniversary year, along with tales that embellish the iconography. No account is complete without mention of Robinson’s relationship with Pee Wee Reese, the white Kentucky-born shortstop who would not join the boycott of his new teammate that was proposed by other Dodger Southerners. In these tales, Reese is always Huck to Robinson’s Jim. During one game, when Robinson was the object of particularly vicious racist abuse from the other club, Reese walked over from shortstop and put his hand on his teammate’s shoulder, a gesture that tacitly sent a message to the league that Robinson now and forever was a Dodger.
That story has become part of the Robinson canon. Its problem, as Rampersad astutely points out, is that no one, including Robinson, who did not even mention it in a quickie 1948 autobiography (Jackie Robinson: My Own Story), can remember where or when it happened, and what actually took place. Was it in Cincinnati or Boston? 1947 or 1948? Did Reese touch Robinson or just talk to him? In some variation, the incident did occur, but as memories falter and eyewitnesses depart the living, it is the most ennobling version that is carved into lore, to be repeated as gospel by those not present and perhaps not even born at the time. “When the legend becomes fact,” as a character says in the John Ford film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “print the legend.”
For the baseball addict, the best Robinson statistics are found not in the literature about him but on the Internet. The Brooklyn Dodger Web page chronologically lists every time Robinson stole home (in what inning and against what pitcher), and also every time he got caught stealing home (twelve times versus nineteen successful attempts; other sources say he stole home twenty-two times). On the Web, one can find Robinson’s lifetime batting average against every other National League team, both at Ebbets Field and on the road (over the course of a ten-year career, he hit best at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, .342, with an on-base percentage of .438).
Robinson appears almost indifferent to his baseball accomplishments. In I Never Had It Made, his years with the Dodgers take up only sixty-two pages of a 275-page book, and seem largely cribbed from the clips. Only occasionally is there any sense that without baseball, and the fires it stoked, there would have been no icon. Freed from Branch Rickey’s strictures, Robinson became what Stanley Crouch calls a “poet of resentment,” in much the same way that Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were. Robinson was the first black athlete outside boxing who could publicly display his acrimony toward the white world. But where Joe Louis was advised never to smile when he knocked out a white opponent, Robinson reveled in rubbing it in. “This guy didn’t just come to play,” Leo Durocher said of him. “He come to beat you. He come to cram the goddamn bat right up your ass.”4
As a ballplayer, Robinson had more in common with the surly and volatile Chicago White Sox superstar Albert Belle than the burnishers of his memory are willing to admit. He played like a black Ty Cobb, give no quarter, take none. Rage fueled him; he needed adversaries the way most people need friends. Even Rickey was not spared his tongue; he complained that Rickey conducted contract negotiations in a way that was “pure plantation.” Robinson was a vicious bench jockey, not above speculating about an opponent’s sexual inadequacy. In Milwaukee, warming up before a game, he suddenly fired the ball into the Braves dugout at pitcher Lew Burdette, who he claimed was baiting him. Later, far from apologizing, he said, “I wanted to hit him right between the eyes.”
At Ebbets Field, after Giants pitcher Sal Maglie knocked him and a teammate down, Robinson deliberately bunted toward first base, trying to entice Maglie to cover the bag so he could run over him. Maglie wisely let his second baseman Davey Williams cover, and Robinson crushed him with a shoulder block; on film, it looked like a freeway accident, the 200-pound Robinson knocking the 160-pound Williams flat. Robinson made no excuses; Williams should have got out of the way, he told reporters, and anyway he was trying to hit Maglie.5 In a similar incident forty years later, when Belle, playing payback the way Robinson might have, dropped a Milwaukee infielder with an elbow after getting hit by a pitch, he was fined by the league and vilified by the sporting press.
Robinson saw racism in every brushback pitch and every umpire’s call that went against him. Walter O’Malley was a particular villain, because of the power play he had used to force Rickey out as a Dodger co-owner. “I was one of those ‘uppity niggers’ in O’Malley’s book,” Robinson wrote in I Never Had It Made, when O’Malley’s real sin was that he was not as solicitous of Robinson as Rickey had been. Nor did Robinson mask his disdain for the new Dodger manager, Walter Alston, who had to deal with the reality that Robinson’s career was running down. More and more he was seen as a pop-off, using his fading athletic eminence as a pulpit to speak out on black issues. He criticized the Yankees for not having a black player, and owners for not challenging Jim Crow laws at Florida spring training camps.
A number of white reporters (and a few blacks) complained that he was becoming a “crusader,” “a soapbox orator,” a “rabble-rouser,” “an enemy of his race” who was not showing proper gratitude for the chance he had been given. For Robinson, that kind of gratitude was for Stepin Fetchit. He had moved his family into a lily-white neighborhood in Stamford, Connecticut, and was condescending toward his black teammates, who were not that crazy about him either. They were “really nice,” he wrote to Rachel Robinson, “but I don’t believe they would make an evening very entertaining.”
No professional athlete likes to admit that he has played too long. There is too much money involved, rarely enough saved, and there is the eternal hope that age has not withered skills. The sad fact was that by the end of the 1956 season, Robinson was old, overweight, and over the hill. By effort of memory and will, he was still occasionally the Man, but he had, in his last two seasons, missed eighty-six games and batted in only seventy-nine runs. No sentimentalist, O’Malley traded him to the Giants for a small amount of cash and an undistinguished left-handed relief pitcher. Robinson, however, had the last laugh; he retired, and sold Look magazine exclusive rights to the story for $50,000, or $7,500 more than his highest Dodger salary.
Retirement is purgatory for the former sports star. The world outside organized sports is unforgiving. Robinson had an exploitable name, and if he was, as Rampersad writes, “a loose cannon,” he was also, in the words of Martin Luther King, “a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.” There was never a want of promoters hoping to capitalize on his fame, but his business ventures were generally underfinanced and badly managed—a Harlem clothing store, several different fast-food investments, an insurance company, a real estate development scheme for low-income housing. When Chock Full o’Nuts, a chain of inexpensive New York coffee shops, hired Robinson as vice-president for personnel at a salary of $30,000 a year, it turned out to be a figurehead job for which he had minimal qualifications; most of the company’s employees were black, and it was the hope of the firm’s president that Robinson’s management presence would slow down any effort to unionize.
Which, in fact, it did. Nominally Robinson was a Republican, but the only issue that really engaged him was civil rights. Off and on in his retirement, he signed his name to a ghosted newspaper column that allowed him to comment on the issues, and as usual he did not hesitate to speak his mind. He became a kind of national nag, forever firing off letters and telegrams and pronouncements to the White House and to lesser politicians, who listened earnestly even if they did not heed his advice. “A true friend is one who speaks the truth,” Hubert Humphrey responded after Robinson had taken him to task for some malfeasance, “and I always look upon Jackie Robinson as a true friend.”
This was the kind of nonsense politicians can spout in their sleep, and the trusting Robinson usually took them at their word. The politicians knew his value: Jackie Robinson was a perfect photo opportunity. Richard Nixon curried his favor early, and to the dismay of many blacks, Robinson backed him in 1960 against John Kennedy. The Kennedy campaign responded to his attacks with a Sal Maglie-type political beanball; Robinson, Robert Kennedy declared in a radio interview, “used his race to defeat a union shop” at Chock Full o’Nuts. Over the years, Robinson’s enthusiasm for Nixon would waver (“I do not consider my decision…in 1960 one of my finer ones,” he wrote in his autobiography) but in one high period, after receiving a plaque signed by the Nixons, Robinson responded by dispatching them twenty-four pounds of Chock Full o’Nuts coffee.
He lived the restless life of the retired jock. There were awards and dinners and celebrity golf tournaments and holidays on the cuff, and too many planes and too many cities, in his case usually connected with civil rights fundraisers, protest marches, sit-ins, and visiting the sites of bombed-out black churches and other outrages. By the mid-Sixties, however, Robinson’s health was failing. His hair had gone almost snow-white, and diabetes was slowly crippling him. As Robinson had supplanted Joe Louis as the defining black American, so he was now being supplanted by a younger generation of more militant blacks. Increasingly he was becoming, if not irrelevant, then behind the curve of black thinking, something of an Uncle Tom to younger agitators.
“Old Black Joe, Jackie Must Go,” was a refrain now heard on the streets of Harlem. Malcolm X mocked him for toadying to white mentors—first Branch Rickey, then Richard Nixon, then Nelson Rockefeller (Robinson had enlisted in Rockefeller’s gubernatorial campaign). For Robinson, the great integrator, black separatism was incomprehensible. The revolution “now demanded a new image,” Rampersad writes. “Gone was the ideal of patient suffering; gone, too, was the underlying ideal of an integrated America…. Power was the great goal; and justice demanded an element of retribution, or revenge.”
Retribution was foreign to Robinson’s thinking. Nor did he understand why Martin Luther King made Vietnam almost as much an issue for blacks as racial injustice. Robinson supported the war in Vietnam on the grounds that America with its faults was still his country, and his country was at war. But he also supported Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted. When Ali said, “No Viet Cong ever called me ‘nigger,”‘ this was a sentiment Robinson could understand. Ali, he wrote, “has won a battle by standing up for his principle.” He also defended the black American medal winners at the Mexico City Olympics who gave a black power salute when the national anthem was played, for which they were stripped of their medals.
Such independence did not go unnoticed by J. Edgar Hoover, whose FBI regularly checked up on Robinson after Rickey signed him in 1945, mainly because he was mentioned approvingly in the Daily Worker and other left-wing journals; the FBI file was updated even at the height of his Republicanism. After Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, John Ehrlichman ordered an FBI check after Robinson supported the right of the Black Panthers to speak out, although he vigorously disagreed with their agenda.6 Attacked by blacks, he was also attacked by whites. “It is surely time to put an end to the mischievous national habit of taking seriously this pompous moralizer,” William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote after Robinson had criticized Nixon’s 1968 Southern strategy, “who whines his way through life as though all America were at Ebbets Field cheering him on against the big bad racist St. Louis Cardinals.”
At home in Stamford (a community Mr. Buckley also called home), there was a problem. His oldest son, Jackie Jr., suffered in the glare of his father’s fame. Silence and recrimination marked their relationship. Uninterested in athletics or academic study, Jackie Jr. joined the army and shipped out to Vietnam, leaving a pregnant girlfriend he chose not to marry; their daughter was Jack and Rachel Robinson’s first grandchild. Jackie Jr. returned from Asia a junkie. Growing up in a white environment left him feeling neither white nor black. In the most heartbreaking moment of Professor Rampersad’s book, Jackie Jr. tells Rachel Robinson, as she recalls in her unpublished papers, that his younger brother David could not be a faux whitey as he tried to be, that he must learn to talk the black talk, dance the black dance.
Jackie Jr.’s rehab failed; there were more drug-related arrests, more rehab. The turmoil of the Sixties tormented Robinson in the same way it tormented other men of his generation. He understood neither his child nor why his wife insisted on working (Rachel was a psychiatric nurse and an assistant professor at Yale’s School of Nursing) nor his own place in a mutable world. In 1971, Jackie Jr. died in an automobile accident; his brother David took his advice and lives on a farm in Tanzania. Sixteen months after his son’s death, nine days after he was honored by major league baseball at the 1972 World Series, Jack Roosevelt Robinson died of a heart attack and complications from diabetes.
Professor Rampersad, in Jackie Robinson, leans toward the hagiographical. He seems to have read everything written (or ghostwritten) by and about Robinson, and he is protective, nonjudgmental. Although his is not an official biography, Rachel Robinson appears in its pages as very much the keeper of her husband’s flame. However filtered, it is a great story, and a sad one. Unlike Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, Jackie Robinson never tried to convert himself into an acceptable black man. Seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, before Rosa Parks, before Martin Luther King, he accomplished what was thought unthinkable—the integration of major league baseball. It would not have succeeded if Webbo Clarke, who integrated the Washington Senators in 1955, had been first; or Bob Trice, the first black on the Philadelphia Athletics; or Bill Greason, the first on the Cardinals.
A chronic complainer, sensitive as a carbuncle, Robinson, one feels, might have been a trial to know or team with. In the making of a national myth, however, his complications have been revised into virtues; even the banal is seen as uplifting. Robinson, Rampersad tells us, liked to settle in “a cozy club chair where he read his beloved newspapers and magazines.” We similarly learn that he cooked breakfast on weekends, “with waffles and pancakes his specialties.” This celebration of the ordinary only diminishes Robinson. He was a literary creation as much as an athletic or political one: granted an opportunity for greatness, he did not blink, but in the anniversary year of that opportunity, it is the familiar litany of the hero’s uncomplicated righteousness that prevails on the websites and in the newspaper special editions. The inscription on Robinson’s gravestone reads: “A Life Is Not Important Except In The Impact It Has On Other Lives.” Greeting card sentiment. A more appropriate inscription is found in his preface to I Never Had It Made: “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world.”
The Washington Post, April 4, 1997, and the Washington Post website, www.washingtonpost.com. ↩
Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer (1972; reprinted by HarperCollins, 1987), p. 426. ↩
Quoted in “Breaking the Line,” ESPN. ↩
Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer, p. 393. ↩
The New York Times, New York Herald-Tribune, and Sunday News, April 24, 1955. ↩
“Breaking the Line,” ESPN. ↩