Opening Day

This is the Jackie Robinson book by Northwestern graduate Jonathan Eig. Interesting guy, by the way. I saw 42 last year and bought this book shortly thereafter but waited about a year to read it. It’s not affiliated with the movie, that I know of, but it covers roughly the same topic. I loved it.

This book goes through the 1947 baseball season. The season. It’s the second sports book I’ve read in a row about a season. To call it a Jackie Robinson book may be selling it a little short, but let’s face it, Jackie Robinson playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers that year was a big deal by any measure.

It’s difficult to overstate the impact it had on the civil rights movement in general. It’s difficult to overstate just how hard it must have been for Robinson not to lose his cool at least once during the summer. It’s difficult to understate the opposition that Branch Rickey faced in his quest for integration.

Baseball was a southern sport. Very southern:

Big-league culture was so thoroughly dominated by white southerners that even rough Italian kids from northern cities experienced shock and isolation upon arrival. (loc 190)

This is what Jackie Robinson walked into. Our national pastime.

How could any game calling itself the national pastime, they asked, get away with excluding 10 percent of the population? The hypocrisy was so jolting that even the Japanese had picked up on it during the war, showering black troops with leaflets intended to sap their morale. “If Americans are fighting for the freedom and equality of all people,” the propaganda read, “why aren’t Negro Americans allowed to play baseball?” (loc 469)

So when Robinson and Rickey got together in Rickey’s office to sort this thing out, they knew the gravity of the situation. They were up for the task:

It is a testament to Rickey’s sophistication and foresight that he chose a ballplayer who would become a symbol of strength rather than assimilation. It is a testament to Robinson’s intelligence and ambition that he recognized the importance of turning the other cheek and yet found a way to do it without appearing the least bit weak. So long as he showed restraint when fans and players baited him, he could fight like hell on the ball field. No one could fault him for playing too hard.

They pulled it off, but there are so many more characters in this story outside of these two giants. That’s where this book excels. Within the context of the season, Eig goes down the path of coaches, announcers, players, spouses, cities, and fans to isolate and illuminate the effect of this season.

There was Red Barber, the radio voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who struggled mightily when Rickey told him he was bringing a black man to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

He simply stared. He was an open-minded man, active in his church, pleased to use his fame to help raise money for homeless families. But the taboos ingrained since childhood gripped tightly. “He had shaken me to my heels,” Barber recalled.

“Well, I said, I’m Southern. I’m trained. . . . I was a product of a civilization: that line that was always there was indelible. . . . And then—I don’t know why the thought came to my mind—I asked myself the basic question that a human being, if he is fair, ought to ask. How much control did I have over the parents I was born to? The answer was immediate: I didn’t have any. . . . Then I figured out that I didn’t have anything to be so proud of after all, this accident of the color of my skin.” (loc 2160-2180)

There was Wendell Smith, the writer for the Pittsburgh Courier, who chronicled Robinson’s story. Smith was no lightweight and destined for the hall of fame in his own right.

Late in 1938, just weeks after the Nazis attacked Jews throughout Germany in a night of broken glass and bloodshed that became known as Kristallnacht, Smith compared baseball’s segregationists to the Nazis. “While Hitler cripples the Jews,” he wrote, “the great leaders of our national pastime refuse to recognize our black players.” (loc 2464)

Smith rendered every kind of service. He bunked with Robinson; wrote the ballplayer’s weekly newspaper column for him; helped find hotels and restaurants on the road when whites-only businesses turned them away; and turned his own column into a long-running advertisement for the benefits of racial integration. (loc 2540)

Eig incorporated side stories about Rachel Robinson (whom he spent three sessions with), Malcolm X, novelist Robert B. Parker, fellow player Pee Wee Reese, and countless others. He went through detailed accounts of the Dodger’s visits that summer to St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Chicago. He walked you through the streets of New York where three teams, the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers vied for a city’s attention.

It’s an awesome read and I’ll need to be reading more of Eig’s stuff before I die, for sure.