New Book Examines Jackie Robinson's Dedication to Civil RightsHistorians in the News
tags: civil rights, baseball, Jackie Robinson
Aram Goudsouzian is the Bizot family professor of history at the University of Memphis. His books include King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution.
By October 1972, Jackie Robinson no longer moved in powerful bursts. His eyes were failing. His hair had gone white. For a quarter-century, Robinson had sought to represent the best of America, and when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 2 of the World Series, he looked worn by the burden.
Yet during the pregame ceremony honoring baseball’s Black pioneer, Robinson crackled with his old energy. After all the tributes, he took the microphone. “I’m extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon,” he concluded. “But I must admit that I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a Black face managing in baseball. Thank you very much.”
He was a crusader until the end. Nine days later, Robinson died of a heart attack. In his final public appearance, he had again spotlighted the biases that plagued the nation, including in sports, and demanded better.
It has been 50 years since Robinson’s death and 75 years since his electric debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, when he became the first African American player in the modern history of Major League Baseball. It is comfortable, perhaps, to freeze our appreciation for him in 1947, when he endured racist abuse with stoic dignity. But the true Jackie Robinson should make us a little uncomfortable. He was a ball of pulsating tension, a man of fierce independence, a voice for genuine freedom. As Martin Luther King once wrote, “He incessantly raises questions to sear America’s conscience.”
Kostya Kennedy’s “True: The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson” is the latest addition to the literature on this American icon. A former writer at Sports Illustrated and an author of books on Joe DiMaggio and Pete Rose, Kennedy brings literary grace to his subject, illuminating Robinson’s sizzling style on the ballfield, his colossal significance in American culture, his complex humanity and his enduring legacy.
Unlike a traditional biography, “True” focuses on four distinct years in Robinson’s life. Kennedy starts in 1946, Robinson’s single season in the minor leagues with the Montreal Royals. He then jumps to 1949, when the Dodger star glowed brightest, capturing the National League’s most valuable player award. In 1956, Robinson retired after a rocky season that included feuds with management and long stints on the bench, as well as glorious glimpses of his unique greatness. The book ends in 1972, with Robinson as a lion in winter, slowly fading, still fighting.