Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Jackie Robinson, by Arnold Rampersad

The last of the baseball books I read for my senior research paper turned out to be the best. While I completed the paper in May, I kept many of the books to read. When it came time for us to leave Kansas, I was about a third of the way through this book. The last time I moved while reading a library book, The States Rights Debate by Alpheus Thomas Mason, I just took it with me, and when my mother came to visit three months later I gave it to her to return. (I wonder how large my fine is for that one.) Since I wasn't expecting any of our Kansas family members to come visit soon, I knew I couldn't do that with this one.

Once we got here, though, I checked the book out of the local library and picked up right where I left off. I'm glad I did, because this book was very enjoyable. My wife said to me, "That looks like it would be a hard book because it's huge and non-fiction." (She's not a fan of non-fiction, reading them only when she gets suckered into it by novelized memoirs.) The truth is, though, that it wasn't hard to read at all.

I'd always thought of Jackie Robinson a lot like Neil Armstrong: he was the first man on the moon, but he was just an astronaut, not a champion of moon-people rights. This book taught me how wrong I was to think of Robinson like that. He was very much concerned with civil rights, not just with playing baseball. He agreed to integrate baseball, and suffer with the difficulties that would bring, because he wanted to advance the civil rights fight and his skills were such that he could best do that through baseball.

I've previously read a concise biography of Martin Luther King, written by Martin Marty (seriously), so I knew a little about the split in the civil rights movement towards the late sixties, and the way King was being marginalized at the time of his death. Robinson experienced much of the same, as militant groups like Nation of Islam belittled him and pressed him aside. This book made me more interested in reading a biography of Malcolm X, but I'm not sure I'd get the complete story if I read his autobiography he wrote with Alex Haley.

I also was interested to learn about Robinson's political views. He supported Nixon in 1960 but by 1968 he thought Nixon's election was a threat to American blacks. Robinson was consistent on the issues, but as the parties and politicians shifted around him, he went from Republican to Democrat and back a few times.

Having grown up in Los Angeles, I'm a bit of a Dodgers fan, and I always loved to remind Giants fans that, when faced with a trade to the Giants, Robinson had preferred to retire. The truth, though, is that Robinson had decided to retire from baseball no matter if he was traded or not, and only didn't tell the Dodgers about it before the trade because he had a lucrative deal with a magazine for exclusive rights to the news of his retirement. Today when a ballplayer retires he has to worry about whether to burn his pile of money on the lawn of his Florida mansion or his Arizona mansion, but when Robinson retired, he spent the next 15 years worrying about income.

Rampersad goes a little light on the baseball, treating it like just a job that his subject happened to have, which I actually didn't mind too much. Having already read Brooklyn's Dodgers and The Dodgers Move West this summer, I already knew about a lot of the teammates and important Dodgers events that happened during Robinson's tenure, like the 1950 collapse to Philadelphia, the 1951 collapse to the Giants, winning the 1955 World Series, and losing the 1956 series in seven games. A reader not as familiar with the 1950s Dodgers might need to make occasional reference to a baseball almanac or Wikipedia.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

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