Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of Jonathan Eig’s Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season (Simon & Schuster, 2007)

May 20, 2007 5:59 pm

Luther Spoehr: Review of Jonathan Eig’s Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season (Simon & Schuster, 2007)

Looking back sixty years at Jackie Robinson, as he takes his position at first base on Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, and breaks Major League baseball’s color line, it is difficult to see him as he was seen at the time, and as he deserves to seen. Our retrospective view is cluttered by landmark events of the civil rights movement that we know will soon be coming: Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and on and on. In standard history textbooks, Robinson’s achievements may be granted a line or two, acknowledged as a prologue of things to come, but (it is implied) relatively unimportant in itself, because—after all—it only happened in the sports arena.

The great virtue of Jonathan Eig’s Opening Day is the author’s ability to look behind the imposing landmarks and portray Robinson’s first day and, indeed, his entire first season as the social and cultural breakthrough that it was. Eig, a Wall Street Journal writer whose previous book is the highly regarded Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, also adds some modifications and nuances to the standard narrative of Robinson’s breakthrough, but the biggest contribution of this energetic, well-written narrative is its placement of Robinson, along with general manager Branch Rickey and the rest of the Dodgers, into the context of the time, when the only standard of comparison was the segregated past, and the future was uncertain.

There is also a literary monument that blocks our view of that day and that season in Brooklyn: Roger Kahn’s iconic, best-selling The Boys of Summer (1971), which focused primarily on Brooklyn’s 1955 World Series champions, has probably cemented the image of “the Brooklyn Dodgers” into place for all time. But Brooklyn’s only championship team--the team of Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo and Pee Wee Reese—was not the team of 1947. Only Reese and Furillo were stalwarts on that earlier squad (Hodges and Snider were just breaking in), and Robinson had been the only African-American player for most of the 1947 season (until joined by Dan Bankhead late in the year). By 1955, two of the team’s dominant stars—Newcombe and Campanella were African-American—and Robinson himself gave way to a young black player, Jim Gilliam, at second base.

So Eig rightly emphasizes just how alone Robinson was on that opening day and how intense the spotlight was, in an era when the NFL and the NBA really didn’t matter and baseball was truly the “national pastime.” Eig is also right to emphasize just how much skill and closely-focused fury it took for Robinson to get through the isolation and the insults. As is everywhere observed nowadays, he paved the way for generations of African-American players to come. But in 1947 he had no way to know for sure that he was doing so.

Over the past quarter-century, as sports history has become an accepted area for serious study, the Dodgers and Robinson have received a lot of attention. To mention only a handful of worthy works: Murray Polner’s Branch Rickey: A Biography appeared in 1982 (and will reappear in a revised edition, published by McFarland, later this summer). In the 1990s, David Falkner and Arnold Rampersad produced biographies of Robinson.

The foundational work on Robinson, race, and baseball, however, remains Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (1983), which sets the standard for precision and thoroughness. Tygiel has donated all of his research materials, including transcripts of interviews, to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Eig is the latest writer to take advantage of them.

Eig relies mainly on primary sources, an approach that reinforces the immediacy of his narrative. Among others, he interviewed Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s widow, and so he is able to portray vividly the young couple’s life away from the playing field, as they lived a claustrophobic existence with Jack, Jr., still an infant, in a tiny apartment on MacDonough Street. Robinson’s sponsor, Dodgers’ general manager (and part owner) Branch Rickey, was a racial idealist, but he was also part preacher, part pitchman, and all pennypincher: he stood quietly behind Robinson in the hard times, but only paid him the minimum, so the Robinsons couldn’t really afford better living quarters.

Eig effectively captures the considerable drama, on and off the field, of the 1947 season, and he also goes out of his way to modulate the melodrama. Traditional villains—notably Robinson’s teammate Dixie Walker and Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman—come across as more complicated than their stereotypes. And traditional heroes—including the Kentucky-born shortstop and Dodger captain Pee Wee Reese—have a few shades of gray in their white hats.

As Eig notes, the famous story of Reese quieting a hostile crowd by walking over to Robinson and putting his hand on his shoulder “has become a sermon, a children’s book, even a bronze statue, dedicated in 2005 at Keyspan Park…seven miles from the former site of Ebbets Field.” Eig devotes much of a chapter (“Pee Wee’s Embrace”) to showing that the incident actually took place no earlier than 1948. But he makes too much noise about his own novelty here: Tygiel has already placed the incident in 1948, and Reese himself never claimed that he deserved any special badge of courage.

Still, Eig’s conclusion about the relationship between Robinson and Reese seems about right: they became close in later years, “but not in 1947. In 1947, [Reese] was an ally, but not a strong one, and certainly not an outspoken one. Rickey and Robinson, in accounts written shortly after the 1947 season, both rated Eddie Stanky as Robinson’s earliest important backer.”

Eddie Stanky’s nickname—“The Brat”—does not suggest a reputation for being enlightened. He played aggressively, trying to grab every possible advantage, however slight, on the field, and his pestiferous style of play may have helped him feel a kind of kinship with the embattled rookie. Given that Stanky played second base, Robinson’s natural position, Stanky’s willingness to support him as a teammate may testify most strongly to Stanky’s own unquenchable desire to win.

No matter how strong their collective will to win, the 1947 Dodgers seemed unlikely to contend for the National League pennant. They had come painfully close to winning the year before, losing out at the end to the St. Louis Cardinals, and if anything they seemed weaker in 1947. Their star outfielder, Pete Reiser, was in the process of short-circuiting his career by running head-on into walls. And they seemed both too old and too young: Dixie Walker was 36 and starting to fade, as were pitchers Hugh Casey and Kirby Higbe, while catcher Bruce Edwards was only 23, and promising pitcher Ralph Branca only 21. Branca won 21 games that year, but remained emotionally fragile, and nobody seemed sure just how unpredictable Joe Hatten won 17.

The difference that meant the pennant, it can be argued, was Robinson. Channeling his anger about the insults and profane abuse that poured from the dugouts and stands, Robinson played ferociously, especially on the basepaths, where his speed and daring were taunts of their own. His statistics—featuring a .297 batting average—were not gaudy, but his 29 stolen bases led the National League, and his 12 homeruns tied for the team lead. And he led the league as well in pitchers distracted, outfielders startled, and infielders frustrated. His aggressive play propelled the Dodgers to the pennant and to the seventh game of the World Series, where (neither for the first nor the last time) they fell to the New York Yankees. For his efforts, Robinson was named Rookie of the Year. Not bad for a 28-year-old rookie, playing his fourth-best sport at a position he had never tried before.

By the end of the season, Robinson was a celebrity, not just a curiosity, and starting to deal with the special kinds of isolation and opportunity that celebrity brings. There were fewer obscenities from opposing dugouts, and, once Larry Doby appeared for Bill Veeck’s Cleveland Indians, Robinson was no longer the only African-American player in Major League Baseball. But the floodgates hadn’t yet opened: in 1949, when Robinson finally let loose verbally against his tormentors and also won the batting title and the Most Valuable Player Award, only three teams had black players. The day in 1971 when the Pittsburgh Pirates, on their way to a world championship, would field a team composed entirely of African-American and Hispanic ballplayers was literally unimaginable.

Eig does a splendid job of highlighting the contingencies of Robinson’s triumph and making clear that it was far from inevitable. Robinson knew that he not only had to make the Dodgers’ roster, but also had to play well, if others were to follow. Partnered with Branch Rickey, he pioneered what Eig terms his own “brand of integration, characterized by patient suffering and a zipped lip,” a brand that could not have been more opposed to his own temperament.

At the same time, as Eig demonstrates vividly and poignantly, Robinson was anything but passive. Despite and because of the uncertainties, he harnessed “fear and fury…all alone, taking his lead from the base, bouncing, bouncing, bouncing…and a nation waiting to see what he would do next.”

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