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JACKIE ROBINSON. By Arnold Rampersad . Alfred A. Knopf: 448 pp., $27.50

September 21, 1997|HEYWOOD HALE BROUN | Heywood Hale Broun is a sportswriter and critic

Sometimes while we are singing "John Brown's Body" or burbling over Thoreau's "Walden" or admiring baseball for putting a Jackie Robinson patch on big league shoulders, we forget that we hanged Brown, put Thoreau in jail and gave Robinson a hard time in all the years in which, through baseball and beyond, he fought for the cause of black America.

Arnold Rampersad's "Jackie Robinson," stately in pace and voluminous in detail, is an account of a life of continual combat. One may fault the author for giving us so many high school basketball scores, but one must admire him for the breadth of his research, which creates a detailed portrait of a fascinating, irritating, admirable man.

In the last years of his life, when the adder of hate mail sprang often out of his morning post, he wrote, "I am human, I like public approval as well as anyone else. But if I have to be misunderstood and misrepresented because I follow my convictions and speak my mind, then so be it. . . . In the long run, I'm the guy I have to live with. And if I ever become untrue to myself and to the black people from which I came, I wouldn't like myself very much."

The book benefits from the fact that it was written with the full cooperation of Rachel Robinson, who made available a lifetime of husband-and-wife correspondence and material from other family members, which makes this much more than a black "Baseball Joe" celebrating the statistic-studded years of Jack's baseball life. The fullness of Rachel Robinson's contribution is attested by the fact that she shares the book's copyright.

How easily Jack might have missed the Hall of Fame and ended up instead in the California Hall of Records as a criminal statistic is a grim reminder of how America wastes the resources of its black youth. Kept out of the town swimming pool and the YMCA, sitting in the inferior segregated space at the movies, naturally a rebellious Robinson engaged in enough petty theft and mischief to be well known to the police, but guidance from older men, black and white, pulled him past his dark crossroads where wrong turns lead so many into the oblivion of despair.

Indeed, by the time he got to Pasadena Junior College, he appeared to fun-loving classmates as somewhat priggish in his refusal to engage in collegiate carousing. The energies of the wild boy had been narrowed, possibly by his strong religious faith, into the channel where crusaders swim. At PJC, he began a campaign that was to continue through his baseball days and split him from the black activists, who saw success in a division from the white community and a solidarity within an exclusive black culture.

It had been a custom for black students to gather in the mezzanine at PJC assemblies, and Robinson began urging them to mingle in the total student population, as later when there were several blacks with the Dodger baseball team, Jack would command "Spread out" as they arrived at road dining rooms. Those who urge the "brothers" to bond often called Robinson an Uncle Tom, which will seem a cruel misnomer to anyone who follows the career of dedication detailed in this book.

My own association with Jack Robinson began in 1947 when as a baseball writer for the newspaper PM in New York, I accompanied the Dodgers to Havana for spring training. The Montreal Royals of the International League with which Jack had had a brilliant year in '46 accompanied the Dodgers but, to the dismay of many, Jack had not been added to the Brooklyn roster.

Rampersad is properly admiring of Dodger boss Branch Rickey's pioneering courage in signing what was to be the first black player of the modern era, but he may not have known the immense thoroughness that preceded that first step. Rickey read his way through a library on race relations that included Gunnar Myrdal's massive "An American Dilemma" and St. Clair Drake's and Horace R. Cayton's "Black Metropolis" before he even began scouting. It was because of his research that he chose Montreal because French-Canadians were too busy fighting the English to be hostile to blacks, and for the second tier of black players, chose Nashua, N.H., because there were only 32 black people in a population of 60,000, a number he considered too small to arouse bigotry. It was at this time that Rickey decided that his first candidate should be a college graduate, an army officer, very black and--a test which several candidates sadly failed--not grateful for the opportunity to play with whites.

The Dodgers were mortified to discover that their presence in Havana aroused little excitement because the Cuban League was in the middle of a close pennant fight, and indeed Havana's only interest in the visitors was in Robinson, playing exhibitions with Montreal.

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