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American Hero : "Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait." by Rachel Robinson with Lee Daniels . Harry Abrams ($29.95; 240 pp.) : "Stealing Home: An Intimate Family Portrait," by Sharon Robinson . HarperCollins ($24.00; 213 pp.)

September 22, 1996|Roger Kahn | Roger Kahn wrote "The Boys of Summer" and "The Era." He covered the Brooklyn Dodgers for the New York Herald Tribune

Jackie Robinson and I became friends in the spring of 1952, friends almost by default. He was 33 years old--already heroic and despised. Walter O'Malley, the president of Robinson's employer, the Brooklyn Dodgers, warned me that "this Robinson is the most shameless publicity seeker I've ever met." Alvin Dark, shortstop for the New York Giants, said Robinson "reminds me of Hitler." The press . . . oh Lord, the armies of the press. There were no women baseball writers in press boxes during the 1950s, nor any blacks. Bigotry--ol' boy bigotry, "That sum-buck is too uppity" bigotry--was the order of that journalistic day.

I loved Jack before I met him. He played like hell, hitting, running, stealing home, sticking his jaw into an umpire's face with no apology for being black, none at all. As Branch Rickey, the former Dodger president who summoned Robinson to destroy apartheid baseball, put it to me across cigar smoke and a rumbling laugh: "That fellow is all adventure on a ball field." Affection for this brave, dashing character flowed from me, while most of the other sportswriters complained that "the guy is hard to like." In that setting and given my background, a close friendship probably was inevitable.

I'd been sent to a mostly WASP prep school in Brooklyn called Froebel Academy. O'Malley, though hardly WASP, eventually became chairman of the board of trustees. His son Peter, a somber bespectacled youngster, appeared a few grades behind me, always looking cleanly scrubbed.

In those distant days before the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was fashionable and the Christian boys in my grade took to calling me "Izzy," their not terribly subtle code-word for Jew. I was the swiftest running back at this school and I thought that if there were any way to escape the anguish of being called "Izzy," it would be to make just the best darn touchdown run. One afternoon I did, and the captain of our team rushed up to me in the end zone, his large Presbyterian teeth showing in a smile. "Nice run, Izzy," he said.

When I told Robinson this story on a slow train ride through Alabama 44 springs ago, his eyes moistened with pain for that wounded little kid. We barely knew each other but, to use George Washington's noble phrase, Jackie Robinson gave bigotry no sanction. He hated anti-Semitism, just as he hated prejudice against blacks--without qualification and from the gut.

So we talked, through that train ride and across the remaining 20 years of his life. He hired me to help him write pieces for a black sports magazine, and when the magazine folded he charged up to the offices and glowered at the publisher until the man wrote me a final check. He held forth on his own fondness for Nelson Rockefeller's moderate Republicanism, and I arranged for him to set those thoughts down in an essay for the Saturday Evening Post.

While I worked at researching "The Boys of Summer," he opened his heart to me on bigotry and baseball, on love and lust and the developing tragedy that was his first-born son. Jackie Robinson Jr. went off to war in Vietnam and came home addicted to drugs. He fought his way through rehab and seemed to be straightening out in 1971, when he lost his life in an auto crash. I helped the stricken family bury their first-born son. Sixteen years later, when I lost a son to heroin, Jack's widow, Rachel, appeared at the memorial service, all poise and grace until she caught sight of my surviving boy. Then the two embraced and wept.

*

I mention these matters to let you know that I bring no pretense of neutrality to Robinson or to his memory. He was a selfless friend and a great man, in the long run cruelly served by the Dodgers and indeed by Organized Baseball Inc. Should Robinson have been allowed to manage in the major leagues? That recurring question is inadequate. I believe Robinson should have been asked to become commissioner of baseball.

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of Robinson's entry into the major leagues--and the 41st anniversary of the Brooklyn Dodgers' decision to get rid of him. O'Malley peddled Robinson's contract to the New York Giants on Dec. 13, 1956, for $50,000 and the rights to a journeyman pitcher. Robinson canceled the deal by retiring. From that day forth, neither the Dodgers nor any other major league team ever offered him a job. He was so hurt by this blackballing--or was it whiteballing?--that he took to telling people that baseball was a boring game.

Now, two new books are appearing to celebrate Robinson. His widow, Rachel Robinson, has written "Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait." The other, by his daughter, Sharon, is titled "Stealing Home: An Intimate Family Portrait." To judge them fairly, you do best to keep the subtitles in mind.

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