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Jackie Robinson: A Biography by Arnold…

Jackie Robinson: A Biography

by Arnold Rampersad

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The movie 42 has rekindled interest in the life of Jackie Robinson, who broke major league baseball’s color line in 1947, but many critics have charged the film with coming up short in terms of a realistic portrayal of his experience. The review in my local alternative weekly newspaper is typical: “Jackie Robinson was a nice, college-educated man who loved his wife. One day, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey called him up to the bigs. Most white players didn’t like him, spending so much time snarling racial slurs they didn’t realize he was both nice and good at baseball. Then everyone realized he was good at baseball. Then they were friends.” [1] Fortunately, for those who wish to know more, Arnold Rampersad’s definitive biography is available to fill in more of the “real” story.

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born in 1919 in a sharecropper’s cabin near Cairo, Georgia, a few miles north of the Florida state line. When his father abandoned the family the following year, Jack’s mother moved him and his four siblings to Pasadena, California, where her half-brother already lived. Working as a maid in a white household, in only two years she was able to put down money for a house of her own. While life in California was preferable to life in the Jim Crow South, it was not perfect, either: blacks in Pasadena endured their share of discrimination and, in the case of young black men in particular, extra attention from the police and the criminal justice system. And Jack was not spared this attention despite his increasing prominence as a four-sport athlete (football, basketball, baseball, and track), first in the integrated Pasadena public schools, then at Pasadena Junior College, and finally at UCLA, where he starred in football. (He was not the only gifted athlete in the family, by the way: his older brother Mack competed alongside Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.) In 1941, with his college eligibility exhausted and just short of earning his degree, he left UCLA to go to work to help support his mother. That ended with his induction into the Army the following year. In July 1944, riding a bus from Fort Hood to Temple, Texas, he refused the driver’s order to comply with local Jim Crow regulations, an act for which he was court martialed but acquitted. Honorably discharged from the Army later that year, he began playing baseball in the Negro Leagues and came to the attention of Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

At this point, of course, begins the story that, as one reviewer observed, “is well known if not always known well,” [2] and I will not repeat it here. Presumably that is the reason a reader would be drawn to the book, for the “real” story in place of the simplifications and distortions already noted. But what is perhaps not as well known, and worth some discussion, is Rickey’s role in the story.

Branch Rickey had done his homework; his first meeting with Jackie Robinson on August 28, 1945, was the culmination of months, even years, of preparation which had begun before he ever heard of Robinson. (Rampersad’s account of that meeting [pp. 125–28], by the way, is worth reading even if you don’t read the rest of the book.) He tried to anticipate everything. His selection of Daytona Beach as the site of the Dodgers’ training camp in 1946 came after a secret understanding with the town’s mayor that Robinson would be present. (It was secret because Robinson had not signed a contract and the Dodgers’ solicitation of him was not yet publicly known.) When Robinson and his wife Rachel arrived, they were met by two black journalists selected by Rickey to liaison with the local African American community to help shepherd the Robinsons through the vagaries of Jim Crow Florida. Robinson’s assignment that season to the Dodgers’ minor league affiliate in Montreal was partly due to Rickey’s presumption (correct, as it turned out) that he would encounter less hostility in Canada than in the United States.

And then there is the understanding between Rickey and Robinson that Robinson would be required to endure the inevitable abuse that would come his way without defending himself or fighting back. That there was such an understanding is clear. (If you heeded my advice to read about their initial meeting, you know this.) What is not so clear is whether the agreement was ever intended or understood to be absolute and unending. What is absolutely clear is that, in practice, it was neither, and given Robinson’s fiercely competitive nature and his absolute unwillingness throughout his life to accept injustice of any kind, it never could have been. The myth of the perpetually stoic Jackie Robinson, who endured abuse and injustice from both opponents and teammates for the greater good of his race, does a disservice to the man and to the truth. This is not to say that he wasn’t singled out for special attention: to cite only one example, in Robinson’s first thirty-seven games with the Dodgers in 1947, he was hit by pitches six times; the year before, no National League player had been hit more than six times during the entire season. But his way was made easier by the early and consistent support of managers and teammates such as Leo Durocher and Pee Wee Reese. And, as always, the reason for taking the field each day was not to conduct a social experiment, it was to earn a “W” while avoiding an “L”—and as Yogi Berra observed many years later, Jackie Robinson “could beat you in a lot of ways.”

Robinson’s relationship with the Dodgers’ front office, however, had deteriorated since the departure of Branch Rickey in 1950, and when they traded him to the rival New York Giants at the end of the 1956 season, he elected instead to retire from baseball. In the following years he attempted, not always successfully, to balance his need to continue to earn a comfortable living for his family with his desire to use his celebrity to advance the cause of civil rights. He acquired something of a reputation as a loose cannon, and in the 1960s both the rising conservatism of the Republican party and the splintering of the national civil rights movement led to his increasing disillusionment with public life. Nor was he spared personal tragedy: his oldest son struggled with drug addiction and was killed in a traffic accident in 1971. By this time Robinson had been diagnosed with diabetes and his health was declining seriously and rapidly. On October 15, 1972, knowing that he might not have long to live, baseball hastily arranged a tribute at the World Series in Cincinnati. It was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Robinson’s debut as a Brooklyn Dodger and the tenth anniversary of his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Nine days later, on October 24, Jackie Robinson died at the age of 53.

As one would expect, Rampersad availed himself of the substantial journalistic record of Robinson’s career, and he was the first biographer of Robinson to have access to Jack’s and Rachel’s papers. The book is also based on customary scholarly archival research and on several dozen interviews with family, friends, and teammates. Well documented, it will surely be the definitive biography of Robinson for some time to come. Highly recommended.


[1] Willamette Week (Portland, Ore.), April 24, 2013.
[2] New York Times, October 19, 1997.
  danharness | Aug 25, 2013 |
Jackie Robinson has been a longtime hero of mine for his heroic pride and stoicism as he became the first black man in the major leagues (this century, at least. The 19th century had black players in the majors). But this book showed me in a moving and well-told fashion how much more there is to admire about the man, for his strength of character and pride, and his efforts to help his race after he left baseball. This author wrote another biography about another hero of mine, Arthur Ashe. Arthur Ashe strikes me as a warmer and more likeable man, but nothing he went through compares to what Jackie Robinson suffered to break the color barrier in baseball. ( )
  burnit99 | Feb 16, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679444955, Hardcover)

In baseball and beyond, 1997 has been the year of Jackie Robinson, the 50th anniversary of his obliteration of the game's color line, and a time to reflect on a marvelous man whose heroism and decency cut far beyond the foul lines. Arnold Rampersad, a Princeton professor who's edited the poetry of Langston Hughes and the essays of Richard Wright, and collaborated with tennis great Arthur Ashe on his powerful memoir Days of Grace, steps up to the plate here with the first truly comprehensive Robinson biography. It's an important accomplishment, ripe with historical and social insight without losing sight of the human being at its core. Thoroughly researched--Rachel Robinson gave the author access to her husband's personal papers--and filled with fascinating new detail, the book, like its subject, consistently takes the extra base, thrilling with its overall skill, depth, and perspective.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:22 -0400)

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The extraordinary life of Jackie Robinson is illuminated as never before in this full-scale biography by Arnold Rampersad, who was chosen by Jack's widow, Rachel, to tell her husband's story, and was given unprecedented access to his private papers. We are brought closer than we have ever been to the great ballplayer, a man of courage and quality who became a pivotal figure in the areas of race and civil rights. We follow Robinson through World War II, when, in the first wave of racial integration in the armed forces, he was commissioned as an officer, then court-martialed after refusing to move to the back of a bus. After he plays in the Negro National League, we watch the opening of an all-American drama as, late in 1945, Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers recognized Jack as the right player to break baseball's color barrier - and the game was forever changed.Jack's never-before-published letters open up his relationship with his family, especially his wife, Rachel, whom he married just as his perilous venture of integrating baseball began. Her memories are a major resource of the narrative as we learn about the severe harassment Robinson endured from teammates and opponents alike; about death threats and exclusion; about joy and remarkable success. We follow his blazing career: 1947, Rookie of the Year; 1949, Most Valuable Player; six pennants in ten seasons, and in 1962, induction into the Hall of Fame. But sports were merely one aspect of his life. We see his business ventures, his leading role in the community, his early support of Martin Luther King Jr., his commitment to the civil rights movement at a crucial stage in its evolution; his controversial associations with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Humphrey, Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, and Malcolm X.… (more)

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