Stealing Home: Scoring for Racial Justice

Jackie Robinson By Arnold Rampersad Alfred A. Knopf, $27.50Stealing home, probably the most daring, aggressive -- even arrogant -- move a baserunner can attempt was Jackie Robinson's signature play. In a comprehensive new biography by Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson, the former Brooklyn Dodger and the first African-American in the major leagues is portrayed as a complex, contentious and courageous individual who dashed into the midst of America's mid-century racial turmoil and scored for racial justice. In doing so, he risked the enmity of umpires, club owners, fans, opposing players and even his own teammates.The grandson of slaves, Robinson's story is inextricable from the story of American racism. Throughout, Rampersad situates his subject within the larger currents of society, delineating the barriers Robinson had to hurdle to succeed. He was born in Georgia -- then the most violently anti black state in the Union, according to Rampersad -- in 1919. Before he turned 2, his mother Mallie took him and his siblings and moved to the more benign environs of California. Benign here is a relative term; Pasadena was a segregated city. Although the racism was less violent, the indignities and restrictions were rife. Only his athletic prowess and the help of some key mentors enabled Robinson to navigate the minefield awaiting a proud young black man.Still, baseball's color bar potentially cost Robinson years of his career. Playing with a Pasadena youth team against the Chicago White Sox in a 1938 exhibition game, Robinson starred. White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes said: "Geez, if that kid was white I'd sign him right now." While contemporaries like Ted Williams, Ralph Kiner and Bob Feller started their brilliant careers in the majors, Robinson was left behind. Jim Crow also disrupted Robinson's promising military career. When he refused to move to the back of a bus, it sparked an incident that culminated in a court-martial. The trial would end in Robinson's exoneration but it contributed later to his reputation as a troublemaker.That Jackie Robinson resented segregation was one of the factors that recommended him to Brooklyn Dodgers' general manager Branch Rickey. More important, though, were the scouting reports that Robinson possessed all the skills to excel in the major leagues. Rickey recruited Robinson on the condition that the ballplayer face the inevitable challenges with Gandhian active nonviolence.Clay Hopper, Robinson's first manager in the Dodgers' system and a Mississippi plantation owner, opposed his signing but followed orders. Early in the 1946 season, Hopper -- who was eventually won over by Robinson or, more likely, Robinson's leading the team to the league championship -- said to Rickey: "Do you really think a nigger's a human being?"Exhibition games in southern cities were canceled on the orders of authorities. Robinson was not allowed to stay at the same hotels as the white players. When it became clear that he would be promoted to the major leagues in 1947, several Dodgers circulated a petition to keep him off the club. The revolt was quickly squelched by Rickey and manager Leo Durocher. Early in the season, Philadelphia Phillies players -- led by their Alabaman manager Ben Chapman -- directed a torrent of racial abuse at Robinson. A plan by St. Louis players to strike rather than play the Dodgers was suppressed by league president Ford Frick. There were hate letters and threats of violence. But Robinson persevered, becoming the Rookie of the Year. Two years later, he would be named National League Most Valuable Player.After the first season, Robinson was less inclined to tolerate mistreatment. He challenged umpires and he criticized baseball administrators. His outspokenness extended beyond baseball. Robinson vigorously supported the growing civil rights movement. At the same time, he supported Republicans like Richard Nixon although he turned on them when he believed they were too accommodating of white resistance.In much the same way that Martin Luther King, Jr. is hailed for having a dream while his political and economic radicalism go generally unremarked, Robinson is celebrated for braving the abuse of his first season without fighting back. His willingness to turn the other cheek, however, lasted little more than a season and a half. After that, Robinson popped off with the best of them.The halo around Robinson now obscures the fact that he was a controversial and prickly player in his day. This was not all -- or even mostly -- his fault, of course. He was a lightning rod for the resentment of bigots. But Robinson wasn't one to suffer fools or knaves gladly and he encountered plenty of both within the baseball community and without. Shortly before his death in 1972, Robinson was invited by baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn to throw out the first ball of a World Series game to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his arrival in the majors. Defiant to the end, he used the occasion to criticize baseball for having not yet hired any black managers. Published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Robinson's breaking of baseball's color barrier, Jackie Robinson is a compelling antidote to the saccharin sanctification of Robinson and major league baseball's self-congratulatory excesses.

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