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Jackie Robinson: A Biography

de Arnold Rampersad

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284270,736 (3.96)3
The extraordinary life of Jackie Robinson is illuminated as never before in this full-scale biography by Arnold Rampersad, who was chosen by Jack's widow, Rachel, to tell her husband's story, and was given unprecedented access to his private papers. We are brought closer than we have ever been to the great ballplayer, a man of courage and quality who became a pivotal figure in the areas of race and civil rights. Born in the rural South, the son of a sharecropper, Robinson was reared in southern California. We see him blossom there as a student-athlete as he struggled against poverty and racism to uphold the beliefs instilled in him by his mother--faith in family, education, America, and God. We follow Robinson through World War II, when, in the first wave of racial integration in the armed forces, he was commissioned as an officer, then court-martialed after refusing to move to the back of a bus. After he plays in the Negro National League, we watch the opening of an all-American drama as, late in 1945, Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers recognized Jack as the right player to break baseball's color barrier--and the game was forever changed. Jack's never-before-published letters open up his relationship with his family, especially his wife, Rachel, whom he married just as his perilous venture of integrating baseball began. Her memories are a major resource of the narrative as we learn about the severe harassment Robinson endured from teammates and opponents alike; about death threats and exclusion; about joy and remarkable success. We watch his courageous response to abuse, first as a stoic endurer, then as a fighter who epitomized courage and defiance. We see his growing friendship with white players like Pee Wee Reese and the black teammates who followed in his footsteps, and his embrace by Brooklyn's fans. We follow his blazing career: 1947, Rookie of the Year; 1949, Most Valuable Player; six pennants in ten seasons, and 1962, induction into the Hall of Fame. But sports were merely one aspect of his life. We see his business ventures, his leading role in the community, his early support of Martin Luther King Jr., his commitment to the civil rights movement at a crucial stage in its evolution; his controversial associations with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Humphrey, Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, and Malcolm X. Rampersad's magnificent biography leaves us with an indelible image of a principled man who was passionate in his loyalties and opinions: a baseball player who could focus a crowd's attention as no one before or since; an activist at the crossroads of his people's struggle; a dedicated family man whose last years were plagued by illness and tragedy, and who died prematurely at fifty-two. He was a pathfinder, an American hero, and he now has the biography he deserves.… (mais)
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“Jackie Robinson, Negro outspoken.” That’s how the first black man allowed to play twentieth-century major league baseball identified himself. Ask me and I’ll say, modern American sport can’t pretend to have existed until the day he took his position on the field wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform.

Robinson’s life became important beyond sport because his emergence in the white major leagues served as a symbol for the fight against policies supporting racial segregation. Arguments for those policies were weird. An example: Pasadena, the city where Robinson grew up in California, claimed that its municipal pool had to be segregated because “swimming offered the opportunity of certain intimacies like marriage and the races should be separated.” If one wished to support a claim that white folk are too witless to be equal, this would be a good start. After years in court Pasadena lost that fight. The city’s reaction was to close the pool and thereby prove that no court could prevent it from serving all its citizens badly.

Author Arnold Rampersad is good at backgrounding Robinson’s athletic history with the events and social currents of the time. He excels at describing Robinson’s life after baseball, especially when detailing Jack’s activity in Republican Party politics. Richard Nixon and Robinson got on well for many years although JR eventually turned against him, exasperated by the Nixon we all know about today. I would like to have learned Robinson’s opinions about the “Great Society” programs instituted during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, programs which changed the U.S. political landscape and became a source of some policies still spurring resentment among substantial numbers of white people, but this isn’t discussed.

Some of the book’s statements aren’t accurate, as when Luke Easter is called a young player (Easter was 34 as a rookie). That’s a minor error but here’s one that isn’t. When discussing one of Robinson’s teammates, Rampersad states that “In 1947, refusing to play with a black man, [Bobby] Bragan was traded…from the Dodgers.” No, he wasn’t. Bragan did request the trade for this reason but the Dodgers kept him. In getting this wrong, the author misses a nice chance to illustrate Robinson’s positive impact: Bobby’s attitudes changed because of Jackie, and years later the great Henry Aaron, in his autobiography, would speak warmly of Bragan’s tenure as manager of the Braves.

Quibbles aside, Jackie Robinson: A Biography is an essential book for fans keenly interested in baseball of the 1940s and 50s and it will profit readers wishing to learn more about how the politics of color changed during Robinson’s life. He was a man whose dynamism transformed events on the baseball diamond. Energetic in retirement despite deteriorating health, he endeavored as businessman, columnist, civil rights lobbyist/spokesman, family man, and faithful husband to transform others’ lives off it. ( )
  dypaloh | Nov 25, 2019 |
Jackie Robinson has been a longtime hero of mine for his heroic pride and stoicism as he became the first black man in the major leagues (this century, at least. The 19th century had black players in the majors). But this book showed me in a moving and well-told fashion how much more there is to admire about the man, for his strength of character and pride, and his efforts to help his race after he left baseball. This author wrote another biography about another hero of mine, Arthur Ashe. Arthur Ashe strikes me as a warmer and more likeable man, but nothing he went through compares to what Jackie Robinson suffered to break the color barrier in baseball. ( )
  burnit99 | Feb 16, 2007 |
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The extraordinary life of Jackie Robinson is illuminated as never before in this full-scale biography by Arnold Rampersad, who was chosen by Jack's widow, Rachel, to tell her husband's story, and was given unprecedented access to his private papers. We are brought closer than we have ever been to the great ballplayer, a man of courage and quality who became a pivotal figure in the areas of race and civil rights. Born in the rural South, the son of a sharecropper, Robinson was reared in southern California. We see him blossom there as a student-athlete as he struggled against poverty and racism to uphold the beliefs instilled in him by his mother--faith in family, education, America, and God. We follow Robinson through World War II, when, in the first wave of racial integration in the armed forces, he was commissioned as an officer, then court-martialed after refusing to move to the back of a bus. After he plays in the Negro National League, we watch the opening of an all-American drama as, late in 1945, Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers recognized Jack as the right player to break baseball's color barrier--and the game was forever changed. Jack's never-before-published letters open up his relationship with his family, especially his wife, Rachel, whom he married just as his perilous venture of integrating baseball began. Her memories are a major resource of the narrative as we learn about the severe harassment Robinson endured from teammates and opponents alike; about death threats and exclusion; about joy and remarkable success. We watch his courageous response to abuse, first as a stoic endurer, then as a fighter who epitomized courage and defiance. We see his growing friendship with white players like Pee Wee Reese and the black teammates who followed in his footsteps, and his embrace by Brooklyn's fans. We follow his blazing career: 1947, Rookie of the Year; 1949, Most Valuable Player; six pennants in ten seasons, and 1962, induction into the Hall of Fame. But sports were merely one aspect of his life. We see his business ventures, his leading role in the community, his early support of Martin Luther King Jr., his commitment to the civil rights movement at a crucial stage in its evolution; his controversial associations with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Humphrey, Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, and Malcolm X. Rampersad's magnificent biography leaves us with an indelible image of a principled man who was passionate in his loyalties and opinions: a baseball player who could focus a crowd's attention as no one before or since; an activist at the crossroads of his people's struggle; a dedicated family man whose last years were plagued by illness and tragedy, and who died prematurely at fifty-two. He was a pathfinder, an American hero, and he now has the biography he deserves.

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