by Arnold Rampersad
Knopf. 512 pp. $27.50
It is 50 years since Jack Roosevelt Robinson (1919-72) entered major-league baseball. Arnold Rampersad, a professor of literature and black studies at Princeton, has now written a biography that, balancing sympathy and admiration with fairness and objectivity, does justice both to Robinson’s greatness as an athlete and to his role in the struggle for the rights and dignity of black Americans.
Jackie Robinson was indeed a great athlete. Raised by his mother in Pasadena, California, he went to UCLA, where he was a brilliant football and basketball player and a long-jumper who would surely have been in the Olympics had the 1940 games not been canceled by war. In major-league baseball, his eleven-year career with the Brooklyn Dodgers earned him the rare honor of election to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. He batted over .300 for six consecutive years, accumulating a lifetime average of .311. Twice he led the National League in stolen bases. In 1949, when he was named Most Valuable Player, he led the league not only in stolen bases but in batting, scoring 122 runs and driving in 124. Still more indicative of his achievement was his team’s unprecedented success in the years of his fiery play; the Dodgers won six National League pennants and their only world championship.
But statistics, individual or team, are inadequate to convey Robinson’s special qualities on the field. In the words of one of his coaches, quoted by Rampersad, he was “the indispensable man”; his peculiar verve and daring brought delight to the fans, inspiration to his fellow players, and confusion and despair to their opponents. Surely the most remarkable of his talents was running the bases, and no one who ever saw him in this activity will forget the unique sense of excitement he created. Robinson stole home—the rarest and unlikeliest of achievements in baseball—nineteen times in the course of his career, and he was an even greater threat to steal second or third. Whenever he was on base he unnerved the pitcher, the catcher, and the entire infield.
Robinson’s Talents as an athlete—to one sportswriter, he was “the owner of psychic, spiritual force, . . . [the] key guy, the very essence of truculence and heroism”—were a necessary prerequisite for the much greater contribution he made as the man who broke the color line in organized baseball. As Rampersad notes, defying and destroying that particular tradition was more important than it might seem. Not only was baseball the national sport, it was more widely publicized than many another national enterprise, and its heroes helped define what it was to be an American.
The injustice of racial discrimination in baseball was, moreover, blatant. Like most sports, the game of baseball is ruled by a strict code of evaluation: the results go up on a scoreboard for all to see. As baseball fans well knew, there were players in the Negro Leagues like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson who had played in exhibition games against the greatest white players, excelled in the fastest company, and fully deserved a place in the big leagues.
Nevertheless, though the cause was just, the effort would not be easy. In Rampersad’s estimation, credit for the undertaking goes first to Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers and (from the conventional perspective of our own day) a most unlikely candidate for the job. Rickey was a fundamentalist Christian, so pious that he never attended games on Sundays. He was also a conservative Republican and an avid anti-Communist. Throughout the years of the “experiment” of integrating baseball, he repeatedly denied that he was driven by anything higher than mere self-interest—that is, the desire to win games. But the evidence shows otherwise. The road he chose was hard, dangerous, and lonely.
The first and most important step was to find the right man for the job, and in Jackie Robinson, Rickey found someone close to perfect. Robinson had gone to schools and played on teams that were overwhelmingly white, and had gotten on very well. At the same time, he had experienced the prejudice that was the common lot of black Americans, and had passionately resisted it. (In the Army, his response to attempts to degrade and humiliate him had led to a court-martial, at which he was acquitted of all charges.) Above all, he was undaunted. As in some modern version of a Homeric hero—to a student of the classics, the analogy comes inescapably to mind—his distinguishing attributes included good looks, speed of foot, strength, courage, righteous anger, and the powerful drive to achieve the excellence that the Greeks called arete.
In 1946, Rickey signed Robinson to a contract with Montreal, the Dodgers’ top minor-league team, and the adventure began. Rampersad recounts how Rickey prepared his hero:
“I know you’re a good player,” Rickey barked. “What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.”
Jack started to answer hotly, in defense of his manhood, when Rickey explained, “I’m looking for a ball player with guts enough not to fight back.”
Caught up now in the drama, Rickey stripped off his coat and enacted out a variety of parts that portrayed examples of an offended Jim Crow. Now he was a white hotel clerk rudely refusing Jack accommodations, now a supercilious white waiter in a restaurant, now a brutish railroad conductor. He became a foul-mouthed opponent, Jack recalled, talking about “my race, my parents, in language that was almost unendurable.” Now he was a vengeful base runner, vindictive spikes flashing in the sun, sliding into Jack’s black flesh—“How do you like that, nigger boy?” At one point he swung his pudgy fist at Jack’s head. Above all, he insisted, Jack could not strike back. He could not explode in righteous indignation; only then would this experiment be likely to succeed.
In the next few years Robinson would experience most of the abuses Rickey had foreseen, and then some. Many of his teammates were cold to him, while some actually circulated a petition against him and the most popular Dodger, Dixie Walker, asked to be traded. From the enemy dugout, he was exposed to the most vicious taunts. To a man of his ardent temperament, the restraint he imposed on himself must have been superhumanly difficult; but, aided by Rickey, by the Dodgers’ manager Leo Durocher, by players like the shortstop Pee Wee Reese, and, at a higher level, by National League president Ford Frick, he practiced it faithfully until he was firmly established—and, with him, the right of blacks to play major-league baseball on the same terms as whites.
As Rampersad documents, Robinson was part of the golden age of the civil-rights movement, and he was very clear about its goals: “We ask for nothing special,” he once wrote to a white segregationist. “We ask only that we be permitted to live as you live, and as our nation’s Constitution provides.” But in the name of these goals, he was prepared to do a very great deal. Inspired in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s by the nonviolent activism of the younger generation led by Martin Luther King, Jr., he supported the student sit-ins and Freedom Rides even though they made some older veterans of the movement nervous. At King’s invitation, Robinson flew to Birmingham, Alabama, to join the protests against Sheriff “Bull” Connor; while there, he publicly denounced Connor and the Alabama state police and directed harsh words as well toward President John F. Kennedy for declining to send in federal troops.
But even as Robinson’s outspokenness alarmed some, it did not go nearly far enough for others. Malcolm X, for one, attacked Robinson for attempting to defuse rather than to fan black rage. Sympathizing with blacks frustrated by the slowness of progress, Robinson nevertheless stood firm in his integrationist principles, and was prepared to defend “establishment” blacks like Ralph Bunche, then serving as U.S. ambassador to the UN. In the wake of charges by Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell that Bunche had “sold out,” Robinson boldly retorted that “Malcolm is very militant on Harlem street corners where militancy is not dangerous,” but that he lacked “one-twentieth of the integrity and leadership” of a man like Bunche. For this and other, similar statements Robinson would himself be accused of being an Uncle Tom. Undeterred, he went his way, castigating the separatism and violence of the “black power” movement, and castigating as well the anti-Semitism that was its frequent accompaniment.
Robinson’s devotion to his country, a hopeful patriotism that marked the early civil-rights movement as a whole, was part of a broader vision in which the struggle for civil rights in America took its place within the worldwide struggle for freedom. He was, in short, a spirited and consistent anti-Communist. In 1949, the famous black singer Paul Robeson had declared, before a leftist audience in Paris, “It is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against a country [the Soviet Union] which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.” Robinson, asked to give his own views before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, retorted that, if war came, American blacks would “do their best to help their country win the war—against Russia or any other enemy that threatened us.” Years later, in 1967, when such ideas were badly out of fashion, Robinson went so far as to criticize his friend and idol, Martin Luther King, Jr., for the latter’s one-sided attacks on American policy in Vietnam. “Why is it, Martin,” he asked, “that you seem to ignore the blood which is upon [Communist] hands and to speak only of the ‘guilt’ of the United States?”
It is sweet to remember a time when America had leaders of such character and wisdom; sweeter still, that the leader in question was an indomitable hero of the playing field. As the sportswriter Red Smith put it, in sentences quoted by Rampersad, “The word for Jackie Robinson is ‘unconquerable.’ . . . He would not be defeated. Not by the other team and not by life.” We must be grateful to Rampersad’s fine book for reminding us of this man and of the ideas that animated him, for we may never see another like him.