Saturday, February 03, 2007

Jackie Robinson: Demythified?

Having bought into the mythology of Jackie Robinson recounted in Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns, I found "Seven things you might not know about Jackie Robinson" at 6-4-2 particularly interesting.

Following are the seven bullet points; click on the link for details:

1. There never was any agreement between Robinson and Branch Rickey to silence Robinson for the first two years.

2. Robinson's ascent to the majors wasn't considered newsworthy at the time.

3. Jackie Robinson was partly responsible for the creation of Dodgertown.

4. Robinson was also partly responsible for the Dodgers' move to Los Angeles.

5. Robinson had already decided to retire at the time he was traded.

6. He was a Republican and a supporter of Richard Nixon.

7. The side effects of diabetes got him.

The biggest surprise is hearing that the three-year (as I remember from the documentary) gentlemen's agreement between Robinson and Rickey was a piece of revisionist history. A more tentative initial relationship between the two would seem to undermine the premeditation of Rickey's decision to promote Robinson.

Similarly, the documentary examines the newsworthiness of this promotion by emphasizing Kenesaw Mountain Landis' fervent segregationist views, at least regarding baseball. On the other hand, according to the Washington Times article referenced by 6-4-2:

When Robinson broke into Organized Baseball with the Class AAA Montreal Royals a year earlier, not one of seven mainstream New York City newspapers sent a reporter across the river to Jersey City to cover the event. Nor, in that more socially restrictive time, was his major league debut considered a major news event....

For many black fans in the stands, however, Robinson was the man of the hour. Every time he came up, cries like "come on, Jackie -- we're with you, boy!" could be heard.

The issue is contextual; not newsworthy by the yardstick of "mainstream" (i.e., white) newspapers, but certainly significant to the disenfranchised.

(As an aside, while I have no doubt about the emotional devastation the Dodgers' move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles caused to a generation of New Yorkers, I wonder why only 6,702 people attended their last game at Ebbets Field. Could sentiment be outweighing the economic reality here?)

Also debunked is the famous notion that Robinson preferred to retire rather than play for the Giants—another lesson in never letting the truth get in the way of a good story?

In a 1997 interview with Charlie Rose, Jackie's widow Rachel said she was never able to talk to Jackie about death. Diabetes may be his cause of death on record, but who knows how many years Robinson lost to stress?

(Another aside: Rachel always refers to him as "Jack." Who started calling him "Jackie" and was it an attempt to make him more appealing to the general public?)

While not mentioned at 6-4-2, it seems appropriate to mention Robinson's supposed feud with Paul Robeson. From "Honoring Jackie Robinson" by Jabari Asim of the Washington Post:

[Robinson's] declaration of patriotism before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949 rebutted controversial remarks by the equally great singer-activist Paul Robeson, who had argued that it was "unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations." Robinson was vilified in some circles and denounced as a scoundrel who sold Robeson down the river.

Arnold Rampersad, author of the acclaimed "Jackie Robinson: A Biography," writes persuasively that Robinson "had no special desire to join a fight against Robeson." He argues that Robinson, himself a veteran, saw Robeson's remarks as an "implicit rebuke" to "black men from the American Revolution down to World War II" who "had struggled at every point for the right to be warriors in defense of the nation."

Robeson declined to take Robinson's testimony personally. "I have no quarrel with Jackie," he said. "I have a great deal of respect for him. He is entitled to his views. I feel that the House committee has insulted Jackie, it has insulted me, it has insulted the entire Negro race."

The more I learn about Jackie Robinson, the more incredible it seems that his major league debut was only 60 years ago. Two black head coaches in this year's Super Bowl? Definitely newsworthy.

And on the subject of pioneers, Tim Kurkjian at anticipates Hank Aaron returning to the spotlight as Barry Bonds closes in on his home run record.


A Faceless Shin Jin Rui said...

It's probably worth noting that the Washington Times has a pronounced ideological bias. I'm no expert in this matter, and am profoundly influenced by Ken Burns, as well, so I'm in no position to really decry the article. It could all be true for all I know. But the Times has a long track record of playing fast-and-loose with the facts of history - particularly when those facts are of interest to progressivism. That strikes me as important context.

Orel said...

Thanks, I was unaware of that. I also found this at a separate site:

In 1949 the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed Robinson to rebut singer, actor, and political activist Paul Robeson's declaration that African Americans would not support this country in a war with the Soviet Union. In his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, published shortly before he died, Robinson defended his 1949 testimony that he would not desert his country based on "a siren song sung in bass." He disavowed the phrasing, which he then saw as an insult to the older, wiser Robeson, a hero to the people for whose causes he had made meaningful sacrifices.

Bob Timmermann said...

The L.A. papers referred to Robinson as "Jackie" while he was in high school and college (both Pasadena City and UCLA).

For example, a headline on November 12, 1937 reads "Jackie Robinson leads Bulldogs to 12-0 victory over Caltech".

Robinson making the Dodgers team was a big story in the LA Times in 1946 and 1947, which is interesting since the LA Times was an extremely conservative paper at the time. But Robinson was a big college sports hero in the area and sports fans in the area had been accustomed to black starts such as Robinson, Kenny Washington, and Woody Strode.

Steve Sax said...

CalTech was shutout by Pasadena City College? Unbelievable.

Rob said...

Jason -- the Washington Times article reaffirms a story appearing in Glenn Stout's The Dodgers and also in Bums. In other words, Moonie owner or no, the story was valid; the "white press" really didn't pick up on Robinson's promotion at the time.

Robinson was an amazing man, someone unafraid to go his own way on so many things. The HUAC testimony, something I think he later regretted, was just one example. He was, by all accounts, an amazingly courageous man.

Rob said...

Incidentally, the cause of Robinson's death was a heart attack, but recall that diabetes is a leading indicator for circulatory problems in general, which includes heart attacks and strokes, not to mention cancer.

Moreover, Robinson put on weight fairly easily. After his impressive 1947 season, prominent blacks all over the country tripped over themselves to invite him to dinners toasting his success. As a result, he showed up to spring training 20 lbs. overweight, prompting the caustic Leo Durocher to send him out in the field wearing a rubber suit, belittling him for appearing so overweight when he was in shape for Charlie Dressen the year before. It was humiliating for the sensitive Robinson, who never really forgave Durocher (though he was very politic in his later writings on the subject). But the weight gain was a predictor of things to come: later pictures of him show a rather stout man (though not as bad as Kirby Puckett), something that assuredly contributed to his diabetes.

Rob said...

Robinson making the Dodgers team was a big story in the LA Times in 1946 and 1947, which is interesting since the LA Times was an extremely conservative paper at the time.

Reviewing the contemporaneous press clippings out of the Times, all of the reporting was by the AP, though I suspect at that time the Times would still have been relying on that for national news. Some of it was page 2 stuff, but some of it made it to the front page of the Sports section. For instance, on April 12, 1947, it mentions that Robinson went hitless in the first of a three-game preseason exhibition series against the Yankees, but drove in three runs anyway.

(An aside from that same paper: the PCL had already been playing as many as 11 games of their regular season by that time.)

A Faceless Shin Jin Rui said...

Rob: That's some more excellent context for the article - thanks for filling me in on the background sources. Sounds like maybe the sports writers at the Times aren't as sneaky as the front page staff. I've just seen them publish misleading stuff so often (usually by carefully selecting which parts of a story to include) that I've got a hair-trigger when I see them edging toward anything even remotely political. Thanks to both you and Orel for bringing up this article!