More than one hundred books, mostly biographies, mark the fiftieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s historic shattering of the color barrier in baseball. The accomplishments of the man and his team, the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950’s, already constituted well-trod ground, having been covered by some of the best baseball writing published in the twentieth century, including Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer (1972), Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment (1983), and Jackie Robinson’s own last publishing venture, I Never Had It Made (1972). The competition is fierce in the Jackie Robinson marketplace, but Arnold Rampersad, author of Jackie Robinson: A Biography, had unequaled access to the baseball star’s private papers and has set the standard for excellence against which all other accounts of Robinson’s life will be judged.
However successful the results, Rampersad is a surprising choice as a biographer of Robinson. Although his two-volume biography of Langston Hughes is the most thorough biographical treatment that writer ever received, Rampersad’s excellent academic work on black writers hardly seems the natural background for a biographer of a sports hero. It is surely Rampersad’s work with Arthur Ashe in producing the tennis great’s touching memoir, Days of Grace (1993), that got the author involved in sports writing. If Rampersad’s academic background shows in his preference for detached fair-mindedness, where a sports biographer might go for gusto and vigor, his subject surely demands the thoughtful, historical treatment Rampersad accords him. The academic formality with which Rampersad views his subject is demonstrated in the minor but telling decision the biographer made to refer to Robinson by his given name, Jack, instead of the nickname, Jackie, with which he entered history. This is a biography by a man who did not know Robinson personally and will not pretend a false intimacy.
The freshest material concerns the details of Jackie’s boyhood, including a portrait of his mother, Mallie Robinson; the family’s migration to Pasadena, California, in 1920; and Mallie’s campaign to make her family welcome there, despite continued racism. When Jackie was a student athlete, baseball was not his first sport: Football was, though he also excelled at basketball and track. After starring in football at Pasadena Junior College and emerging as one of the best college football players in the nation, he was offered money by a Stanford booster to go elsewhere. Jackie played for Stanford’s division rival, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), still a young school at that time. He would letter in four sports and become a sports star who the student newspaper would satirize as Superman. Robinson’s UCLA experience helped shape his future by providing him the experience of being a black star in a majority white school. The shy Jackie developed an ease in dealing with white players as social equals that would later serve him well. Just as important, UCLA was where he met Rachel Isum, the future Mrs. Robinson, in 1940.
A seventeen-year-old set on getting her college degree, Rachel would prove to be every bit his equal. Although the two were a couple for a while before he left UCLA (never finishing his degree), she resisted his entreaties to make a deeper commitment until after she had finished her degree. Although their relationship intensified while he was in the service and she was finishing college, it also endured a lengthy period of estrangement before the couple reunited and married, before the beginning of his experience with major league baseball.
Robinson’s experiences in World War II provide a fascinating preview of what he would endure as the first African American in the major leagues. He was trained as a morale officer at Fort Riley, Kansas—where he served briefly with boxer Joe Louis, a man Robinson would later credit with inspiring baseball to desegregate—at a time when the military, somewhat by necessity, was experimenting with integration. He ran into the limits of Army tolerance when he sat on a bus with a black woman the driver apparently believed to be white, and refused to move to the back. In an incident that showed Robinson’s fierce pride and careful self-control, he firmly refused to back down as increasingly higher ranking officials were called in. In the end, Robinson was court-martialed on charges of willful disrespect and failure to obey the orders of Captain Gerald Bear, who was called to the scene and, as Rampersad reports, made a poor show of himself. Although Robinson was completely cleared of all charges, the experience soured him on the Army and led him to push for a physical disqualification from active duty, which was granted in 1944. Unsubstantiated stories about Robinson’s belligerence began to spread, including a much-repeated false story about him breaking the teeth of a white bus driver in a brawl.
It was after his release from the Army that familiar contours of...
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