‘Poet of Resentment’

Jackie Robinson

by Arnold Rampersad
Knopf, 512 pp., $27.50

Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy

by Jules Tygiel
Oxford University Press, 413 pp., $14.95 (paper)

I Never Had It Made

by Jackie Robinson
Ecco Press, 275 pp., $24.00

The Jackie Robinson Reader: Perspectives of an American Hero

edited by Jules Tygiel
NAL-Dutton, 278 pp., $23.95 (paper)

Breaking the Line

a television documentary broadcast on ESPN, February 28, 1997
Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson; drawing by David Levine

1.

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…


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