Sports

The Inglory of Jackie Robinson's Times

Popular new movie fails to resuscitate the sports pioneer's important 1964 book on civil rights and baseball.

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When I was a baseball-fanatic child growing up in baseball-mad Long Beach, California in the baseball-crazed 1970s, there was one book about the national pastime that towered above the rest: Lawrence Ritter's charming, evocative, and profoundly influential 1966 oral history, The Glory of Their Times.

Ritter, an economist at New York University, was moved by the 1961 death of all-time baseball great Ty Cobb to track down as many turn-of-the-century professional ballplayers as he could find to testify about the forgotten sights and smells of a bygone era, in much the same way that the Lomax brothers tracked down American folk musicians in the 1930s and '40s.

The Glory of Their Times has never gone out of print since. There is no list of "best baseball books" that doesn't include it, and rightly so. As the baseball writer Bill James has observed, four of the 22 players interviewed for the first edition—Stan Coveleski, Goose Goslin, Harry Hooper, Rube Marquard—were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame within five years of its publication, despite questionable qualifications (particularly of the latter two) and no prior momentum of their candidacies. Jim Carouthers summarized Glory succinctly and accurately in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2001): "Often imitated, never excelled."

So you can imagine my surprise to discover over the past two weeks a powerful, indelible oral history of baseball that predated The Glory of Their Times by two years. What's more, it was written by a man whose biopic was the number-one movie in America this weekend: Jackie Robinson.

The misleadingly titled Baseball Has Done It was not some kind of gee-whiz celebration of the sport's integration, but rather a forceful attempt to document the human struggles involved in baseball's trailblazing desegregation—through first-person accounts from black and white players and coaches ranging from Henry Aaron to Alvin Dark—and apply the lessons learned to the raging civil rights debate of the day.

Reading the book in 2013 brings not just a sharp slap of a reminder about how disgustingly racist much of this country still was back when my parents' generation was already having children, it also calls into question just why a contemporaneous history of great ballplayers discussing their struggles faded into immediate obscurity while Glory's paean to segregation-era baseball rocketed to instant fame.

"The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue today," reads Robinson's brushback pitch of an opening line. "We Negroes are determined that our children shall enjoy the same blessings of democracy as white children. We are adamant: we intend to use every means at our disposal to smash segregation and discrimination wherever it appears. We are staring into the face of our oppressors and demanding by what right of skin coloration do they consider themselves our superiors."

It's that last sentence that captures Robinson's furious and focused competitive essence in a way that 42, like most understandably worshipful discussions of Jackie's barrier-breaking, can't quite convey. Who the hell are you, he was always demanding to know, to think you are better than me?

Even growing up in the comparatively more tolerant environs of Pasadena, California, Robinson looked at life's various playing fields and made a calculated choice. "When I was about eight I discovered that in one sector of life in Southern California I was free to compete with whites on equal terms—in sports." And oh, did he compete—in soccer, softball, tennis, and ping pong, in addition to the three non-baseball sports he dominated at UCLA: football (where he led the nation in punt-return average), basketball (where he was MVP of the West Coast Conference and two-time scoring leader), and track (where he was the national champion in the long jump).

With all this sports achievement, academics took a necessary back seat. But in some of the book's most chilling passages, this was a rational choice in a country that racist. "My brothers, their friends and acquaintances, all older than me, had studied hard and wound up as porters, elevator operators, taxi drivers, bellhops. I came to the conclusion that long hours over books were a waste of time," he writes. "Those who argue that improved educational facilities for Negroes will solve the civil rights problem fail to understand that unless Negroes can use their education to the fullest extent in competition with whites, the crisis will continue unabated."

The movie, like most accounts, translates Robinson's competitive aggression largely (and thrillingly) through his nerve-rattling exploits on the basepaths. While more than defensible, considering that he was probably the most disruptive baserunner since Ty Cobb himself, the choice reduces Jackie's on-field intelligence to a mix of hyper-athleticism and daring. In fact, he was a much more interesting ballplayer (and man) than that.

When Bill James created the Defensive Win Shares metric a dozen years ago, one of his surprising findings was that Jackie Robinson played historically high-quality defense at not one but three positions: second base, third base, and left field. "If it's a statistical illusion of some kind," James wrote, "it's an illusion that chases him all over the diamond. Never underestimate the power of intelligence, particularly when that intelligence is combined with athletic ability, determination, and a formidable competitive instinct."

Even while starting his career at the very late age of 28 (most Hall of Famers are in the big leagues by 22 or so, and the most common peak ages are 26 and 27), Robinson left massive footprints in the record books. He won a batting title, led the National League in on-base percentage and stolen bases, and finished in the top 15 in Most Valuable Player award voting his first seven seasons. By the new comprehensive statistic of Wins Above Replacement, he was the best player in the Major Leagues in both 1949 and 1951. If you take the five best seasons of every second baseman in baseball history and compare them to Robinson's five best years, only four other players come out ahead. And those were Jackie's only five seasons at the position.

As the Canadian libertarian writer (and baseball fanatic) Colby Cosh observed in a terrific 2007 essay, "After 60 years of Jackie Robinson as plastic dashboard icon, it is hard to envision him as anything but a piece in a racial chess game. How many of the baseball fans reading this could describe his swing, like you probably can for 30 or 50 or 100 present-day batters?"

And it's not just Robinson's actual baseball performance that has somehow received short shrift in the canonization process. It's the fact that his famous marching orders from Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey to turn the other cheek at the torrent of initial racist abuse only lasted two years, and not his whole career. 42, typical of the genre, covers the years 1946 (when Robinson played for AAA Montreal) and his rookie big-league season of 1947, but in doing so it misses both Robinson's contentious court martial of 1944 (when he refused to move to the back of an Army bus), and his first gloves-off season, when he fought abuse with abuse and (perhaps not coincidentally) won an MVP award.

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.