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Jackie Robinson’s Overlooked Chronicle of Racial Integration in Baseball

(Source: Amazon.com)

This past week MLB commemorated Jackie Robinson’s ground-breaking career, with all players wearing his number 42 during Monday’s and Tuesday’s games.  Robinson passed away in 1972, well before I was born (well, a few years anyway) so like a lot of “younger” fans, I only know of his historic contributions to the game and civil rights through second hand accounts.  Since I didn’t live through the 40’s and 50’s, I can appreciate what Robinson represents, but only at a distance – on some level, I can never really “get” Robinson, what he went through, and what that time in history was like.

A couple of days ago, I read about a book that Robinson wrote in 1964 that might help someone like me gain a deeper understanding of him, as well as other ballplayers of color that worked during the desegregation era.  Here is a snippet from the Amazon description:

“Baseball Has Done It is an oral history of baseball and racial integration as told by its greatest players to the man who broke the color line, Jackie Robinson. This one-of-a-kind classic features rare and candid interviews conducted by Robinson with ballplayers who played and lived through the first generation of racial integration in baseball. A who’s who of baseball legends—Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Alvin Dark, Larry Doby, Carl Erskine, Elston Howard, Monte Irvin, Don Newcombe, Frank Robinson and Bill White—share the spotlight with players from the Negro Leagues, baseball executives like Branch Rickey and Ford Frick and Jackie Robinson himself to create a diverse look at the effects of integration on baseball and society.”

Given the subject matter, it’s surprising Baseball Has Done It hasn’t gotten wider attention.  I happened to find out about it thanks to this column by Matt Welch, who describes his experience reading the book relatively recently, which is to say fairly late in his life and almost fifty years after it was first published.

One interesting point Welch makes is that our popular understanding of Robinson may not be accurate.  A movie like the recently released 42 might portray Robinson as more of a “turn the other cheek” guy than he actually was.  The well-known story is that Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey told Robinson he was looking for a player “with guts enough not to fight back.”  But Robinson went through a court martial in 1944 for confronting racism in the military, which doesn’t sound like a guy who wouldn’t fight back.

Welch poses the question: Are we doing Jackie Robinson an injustice by portraying him more as saint than fighter?”

It’s an interesting question, and one wonders if Baseball Has Done It includes any insight into Robinson the fighter.  I just ordered it from Amazon, so I guess I’ll find out soon.