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There is something inherently attractive about the narrative of successful nonviolent campaigns against white majoritarian tyranny. What monstrosity it exposes! What heroism it requires! But could it be that white audiences in particular enjoy and enhance that tale, even to the exclusion of less pacifist narratives, because it goes down more comfortably? Are we doing Jackie Robinson an injustice by portraying him more as saint than fighter?
This question haunts my late-in-life experience of reading Baseball Has Done It, a book I wouldn't have even known existed if had I not conducted an Amazon.com search on former Angels outfielder Leon Wagner, one of the two dozen or so players to tell his story within.
Nostalgia, the kind so effectively communicated in The Glory of Their Times, always tells us something about the era in which its produced. That a book inspired by the racist (and also very competitive and complicated) Ty Cobb came out in the turbulent mid-1960s selling a more pastoral vision of the baseball's good old days can no longer, in my mind, be separated from the fact that Jackie Robinson's similar telling of a more contemporary but much less comforting story fell on deaf ears just two years before. And that gap remains today: The Glory of Their Times was ranked 9,449 at Amazon when I checked this morning; the paperback edition of Baseball Has Done It (featuring an intro by Spike Lee) clocked in at 674,347.
I suspect that we still want Jackie Robinson to be noble, not furious, just as we would rather quarantine baseball desegregation to a single event in 1947 rather than examine how ballplayers were still excluded from hotels and restaurants, and subjected to soul-destroying racism, well into the 1960s. When your face is unlovely, it's always more fun to look at old photographs than the bathroom mirror.
Perhaps the most surprising part of Baseball Has Done It is Jackie Robinson's report that during his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1962, "No one mentioned that I was the first Negro in the Hall of Fame, or that another bastion of prejudice had fallen. No one was thinking about such things that day." He says this as a point of pride, that the quality of his performance—the content of his baseball character—was evaluated on its own merits, and found victorious.
On a day where every Major League baseball player will be sporting Jackie's retired number 42 on their backs, while moviegoers flock to see his courage in turning the other cheek 66 years ago, let's hope that soon we will feel comfortable enough to evaluate the entirety of Jackie Robinson's character. Because it's complicated, and awesome.