Civil Liberties

When Jackie Robinson Fought Back

A new movie elevates the trailblazing ballplayer's nonviolence over his furious competitive spirit.


By now, even most non-baseball fans know the basic storyline of Jackie Robinson, the man who in 1947 broke through the color line of Major League Baseball.

A gifted athlete, college man, and fierce competitor, Robinson was chosen to be first through the racial barrier (though not the first black man in pro ball; that distinction belongs to the 19th-century catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker) in part because he was smart enough to heed Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey's instructions to greet the inevitable abuse—death threats, beanballs, a constant barrage of hideous insults—by turning the other cheek. "I need a player with the courage not to fight back," Harrison Ford, playing Rickey, explains in the new film 42.

It's the movie's signature line, and the foundation upon which baseball has erected an unwieldy, self-congratulatory myth, now celebrated each April 15 by having every Major League player wear Robinson's otherwise retired jersey number 42. (In the movie's cheesiest moment, future Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese tells Robinson, "Maybe someday we'll all wear number 42.") There is something irresistibly heroic about successful nonviolent campaigns against majoritarian tyranny, whether at the ballpark or lunch counter. By publicly absorbing violence, martyrs simultaneously hold up a mirror to society while embodying the ideal of an "acceptable" minority: noble, intelligent, and physically non-threatening.

But in our zeal to turn Jackie Robinson into Martin Luther King Jr., we are scrubbing from history his much longer career as baseball's Malcolm X—a righteously angry, relentlessly self-reliant activist and social critic. Robinson played with pacifist handcuffs for only his first two years in the big leagues. From 1949 to his retirement after the 1956 season—and then after his playing career was over—Jackie Robinson fought back.

The fighting version of number 42 was not remotely as popular as the saint. But it's a much more accurate picture of a complicated and interesting man. If baseball, let alone society, wishes to confront head-on the pathologies behind segregation and the fortitude required to overcome institutional racism, then it needs to grapple with the whole, thorny competitive spirit of Jackie Robinson, not the easy-to-digest, sepia-toned myth.

As Branch Rickey himself recalled in 1963: "He was direct, aggressive, the kind that stands up when he is faced with injustice and will hit you right in the snoot." So much for turning the other cheek.

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

Ritter, an economist at New York University, was moved by the 1961 death of 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 John and Alan Lomax tracked down American folk musicians in the 1930s and '40s.

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

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

The misleadingly titled Baseball Has Done It was not some kind of gee-whiz celebration of the sport's integration. It was a forceful attempt to document the human struggles involved in that monumental project, through first-person accounts from black and white players and coaches ranging from Branch Rickey to eventual homerun champ Henry Aaron to accused racist Alvin Dark. Robinson's explicit aim was to apply lessons learned from baseball to the raging civil rights debate of the day.

Reading the book in 2013 doesn't just deliver a sharp slap of a reminder about how disgustingly racist much of this country still was within recent memory. (Black players still routinely faced "whites only" public accommodations in Florida during the 1960s, for example.) 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 ball rocketed to instant fame.

"The right of every American to firstclass 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 competitive essence in a way that 42, like most worshipful treatments of the man, can't quite convey. Who the hell are you, Jackie was always demanding to know, to think you are better than me?

Growing up even in the comparatively more tolerant environs of Pasadena, California, Robinson looked at life's various unfair playing fields and made a calculated if depressing 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).

It is a stunning mix of athletic accomplishments, even without the baseball (which was, after all, his fourth-best sport in college). As Colby Cosh wrote in the National Post in 2007, "Add it all up, and who can present a resume that remotely compares? Bo Jackson? Maybe, if Bo had been a Hall of Fame infielder instead of a mediocre outfielder, and had been capable of playing in the NBA and had been Carl Lewis in his spare time."

Mythology requires passing over whole swaths of the Hero's Journey, so you can almost understand why 42 and similar vehicles pass over Robinson's monstrous and wide-ranging competitive record. (Although it should be noted that his first biopic —1950's The Jackie Robinson Story, which actually starred Robinson himself—spent a good deal of time on those formative UCLA days.) But a very funny thing has happened along the way to number 42's canonization: He has become underrated as a baseball player.

When Bill James, the godfather of baseball "sabermetrics" (or "analysis," if you prefer) created a new statistic called Defensive Win Shares a dozen or so years ago, one of his surprising findings was how phenomenal a defender Jackie Robinson was. People generally know that Robinson was the most disruptive baserunner since Ty Cobb, stealing home a record number of times (even in a World Series game!), leading the league in stolen bases, and generally terrorizing pitchers and catchers alike. Indeed, baserunning is his skill most on display in 42. But James found that 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," he 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."

Most Hall of Fame players get their start by age 22. Because of discrimination and World War II, Robinson broke into the big leagues at 28, which is even older than the statistical peak years of 26–27. Yet he still managed to win a batting title, lead the National League in on-base percentage, win a Most Valuable Player award, and finish in the top 15 in MVP voting seven seasons in a row while leading the Brooklyn Dodgers to their most celebrated era. His career on-base percentage, the single most important offensive statistic, is 38th all-time. He is without a doubt one of the best five second basemen ever to play major-league baseball.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Robinson's MVP year, 1949, was the first season that his boss Branch Rickey lifted the rule about turning the other cheek. "From that moment on," Robinson writes in Baseball Has Done It, "I defended myself against anti-Negro insults with all the force at my command." As Martin Luther King gave way to Malcolm X, Jackie was no longer so embraced by white audiences. "What's made you change your attitude, Jackie? I liked you much better when you were less aggressive," he reports hearing from a (white) umpire in 1954. "I'm not concerned with your liking or disliking me," Robinson responded. "All I ask is that you respect me as a human being."

For a half-decade beginning in the liberty year of 1949, Jackie Robinson was not just a great pioneer and an all-star talent, he was the very best player in baseball, according to the newfangled valuation statistic Wins Above Replacement. Finally provided a level playing field where he could vent his emotions just like any other ballplayer, Robinson strode the baseball world during the time of Ted Williams and Stan Musial and Yogi Berra and beat them all at the National Pastime. It wasn't about showing up; it was about kicking ass.

This is the Jackie Robinson you only catch fleeting glimpses of in the mythological literature. 42 takes place entirely from 1946 to 1947, so we miss even his contentious and telling court martial in 1944, in addition to the glory years when he took off the gloves. As the leftist sports writer Dave Zirin recently pointed out, "Imagine if Spike Lee had chosen to tell the story of Malcolm X by only focusing on 1959–1960 when he was a leader in the Nation of Islam, with no mention of his troubled past or the way his own politics changed later in life."

If baseball cares as much about Jackie Robinson's history as it noisily professes, the sport and its fans owe it to both themselves and the subject of their adulation to delve into the whole man and competitor, not just the transitory figure who suffered unholy abuse. And maybe they need to ask themselves why they can still recite passages from The Glory of Their Times by heart but have never heard of Baseball Has Done It.

Nostalgia always tells us something about the era in which it's produced. The kind so effectively communicated in The Glory of Their Times, inspired by the racist (and also very competitive and complicated) Ty Cobb, came out in a turbulent mid-1960s riven by questions of race. Americans were much more ready to read about the pastoral, bygone good old days than wallow in the contested difficulties of the present. Lawrence Ritter let good-natured old-timers wax about country hayseeds and train-jumpers; Robinson was using his oral history to, among other things, sharply criticize the game's best player, Willie Mays, for not speaking out about race.

Freezing Jackie Robinson in 1947 amber also lets baseball—and society—off the hook for all the governmental and private racism that was still actively poisoning the country two decades after Branch Rickey's great experiment. Better to remember that one magical year than dwell on all the different southern minor leagues that were still being integrated 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 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. Maybe one day that can again be true.