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13 essays look for the meaning of “42 Today”

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It feels like, every year, Jackie Robinson Day has a new relevance. Does to me, anyways.

Jackie Robinson pictured as a shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1944.
The authors used that homepage photo for their cover, but I think this Monarchs photo is cooler.

“I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world... When I see a car with a flag pasted on it, I figure the guy behind the wheel isn’t my friend.”

These incendiary modern-sounding words were written and stated in interviews by Jackie Robinson, not long before his death at age 53 from various medical ailments (probably exacerbated by stress). They are quoted in Michael G. Long’s introduction to 42 Today, a new essay collection that attempts to examine what Robinson’s legacy means to American history and current culture.

Robinson was a far more complicated individual than the scores of inspirational childrens’ books and two intelligent, if simplified growup movies were able to present. An anti-communist in the 1950s (when anti-Communism was, literally, the rage) and Nixon voter who became disillusioned with the party’s increased reliance on appealing to fearful white voters. A supporter of the civil rights movement who disagreed with some of its most influential leaders. And a much more fiery baseball player than was publicly known at the time or is prominent in his legend today.

Take, for example, the famous statement from Dodgers owner Branch Rickey to Robinson that he needed “guts enough to not fight back.” It’s usually presented as if Robinson is some kind of stoic Western hero who hurts inside at the cruelty but is tough enough never to let it show. Not true. When, in the Army, some jackasses tried to make him sit segregated on a troop transport bus, Robinson told them to eff off with full cusswords (segregation being, technically, illegal in the Army by that date). After two years of taking crud in MLB without responding, Robinson got the green light from Rickey to go ahead and slide cleats-first into any racist jerkmunch who’d done it to him before. And then did so.

Robinson got it coming and going, politically. To cranky white sportswriters like Bill Keefe of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “no ten of the most rabid segregationists accomplished as much as Robinson did in widening the breach between the white people and Negroes.” Yet many in the civil rights movement found the post-baseball Robinson too conservative for their tastes. He knew and admired both Dr. King and Malcolm X, for different reasons, yet often opposed them on strategy (if not principle). A believer in black self-reliance and a successful businessman, Robinson’s backing of Nixon in 1960 cost him his popular newspaper column (Nixon actually had a better track record on racial issues than Kennedy or Johnson by that point). He’d largely sour on the party with Goldwater’s embrace of the racist far-right, yet wouldn’t overtly oppose the Vietnam War.

Because of the collected-essay format (the authors are split about equally between academics and baseball historians), each reader will probably find essays more in their area of interest and ones which are less so. For example, Randal Maurice Jelks’ “A Methodist Life” is probably best suited to those with a fascination about how different religious traditions affected midcentury black American culture (Robinson himself was not particularly observant, although raised in a faith community). The only essay I found amusingly painful to read was George Vecsey’s (yes, Peter’s dad) “Jackie Robinson Ball,” an ode to how modern baseball is all Crap that seems to have landed with the same spaceship bringing Patrick Reusse’s crankiest columns.

I preferred Mark Kurlanksy’s examination of whether Robinson was a true believer in nonviolence (concluding that Robinson admired it on principle, yet wasn’t a strict adherent, saying “I am not, and don’t know how I could ever be, nonviolent. If anyone punches me or otherwise physically assaults me, you can bet your bottom dollar that I will try to give him back as good as he sent.”)

Chris Lamb looks at the differences between how white and black media covered Robinson and baseball’s integration in general; he unearths some real horror from a 1946 New York Baseball Writers’ Association banquet presenting a blackface-performer in Robinson’s Montreal uniform playing a shuffling “yes, massa” butler.

And Adam Amel Rogers, in recapping the history of athletes aspiring to be the “gay Jackie Robinson,” finds this 1975 sports letter to gay magazine The Advocate: “The cop-out, immoral lifestyle of the tragic misfits espoused by your publication has no place in organized athletics on any level. Your colossal gall in attempting to extend your perversion to an area of total manhood is just simply unthinkable.” The writer? Minnesota Twins public relations director Tom Mee. Whee, Mee!

As a historian by education if not employment (my resume will never impress anyone), I was fascinated by Jonathan Eig’s experience interviewing Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, for a prospective book about Robinson’s friendship with Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese. Mrs. Robinson’s “answers came curtly,” Eig writes. When he asks why, she responds, “you assumed that Jack made it because Pee Wee helped. I’m tired of people assuming that he needed the help of a white man to succeed.”

Mrs. Robinson disputes that Reese (or anyone else) supported Robinson at first. She tells Eig that the famous moment in 1947 where Reese put an arm on Robinson’s shoulder in defiance of bigot fans (immortalized in a Brooklyn statue) didn’t happen. Her husband said it did. Mrs. Robinson was 83 at the of of this interview. Baseball players often remember moments from their playing days more sentimentally after leaving the game. Who was correct? Were both? Neither has any self-serving reason to fudge facts. Just another mystery of history.

Incidentally, the 1950 movie where Robinson plays himself is basically public domain, so it’s easily watchable on YouTube for free. He’s pretty decent in it for a non-actor, helped immensely by the great Ruby Dee as Rachel Robinson; her brief scenes reacting to a non-actor as if he belongs in the shot make it so he does belong there.

(Neither the 1950 nor 2013 biopics have my favorite, possibly apocryphal Pee-Wee Reese story, although the latter film has what led up to it. Because of assassination threats, Reese suggested that all the Dodgers wear #42; Robinson supposedly replied that he was grateful, yet noted how it wouldn’t be hard for a sniper to pick him out.)

These essays which affected me most were about all the soul-searching Robinson did and frequent criticism he faced in trying to find his own path towards supporting racial equality. (Naturally, he was outspoken about integration in baseball – especially of coaches and managers; although it would be several years after his death before Frank Robinson broke the managerial color line.) A Minnesota college professor, Yohuru Williams writes a fine one of these, and Sridhar Pappu concludes “Before The World Failed Him” like this:

“And if we must think of his legacy as one of unmet goals, we must then remember him for the goals themselves. It means not remembering the sullen, darkened Robinson, deep in his thoughts and anguish. It means remembering how he was before the world began to fail him.

“Now, there he is, with his young son, David, holding him close. He is not a superstar or spokesman. He is a father, one of thosuands who’ve come to the captal, a city built by slaves. He is simply a man who at that moment has seen, if only for a moment, the world open in ways that he could have never imagined. Today he sees a way for a better future. He hopes he might help lead us to it. Perhaps he still can.”