“Reclaiming 42: Public Memory and the Reframing of Jackie Robinson’s Radical Legacy”
The author: David Naze
The publishing info: University of Nebraska Press, $45, 234 pages, to be released June 1
The review in 90 feet or less
There’s an advertisement/three minute “documentary” called “Impact,” distributed by a well-known beer company that came out recently. The obvious attempt is it is pinning its company to a recognition of the career of Jackie Robinson.
Spike Lee was involved in producing it. Sharon Robinson, Jackie’s daughter, does the narration. So that seemed to make it OK.
Even with the tagline #ThisBudsForJackie. With a reminder that the company is the official beer sponsor of Major League Baseball.
If you haven’t seen it:
It’s very likely we’ll never have that brand of beer in our home cooler, poured in any of our pint glasses and use to toast any historical moment. This “film” clinches it.
It also plays right into the premise that Naze is getting at here with his book that can seem a little too academic for the masses, but will nonetheless state its intended point clear enough.
Naze, the dean of academic excellence and support at Joliet Junior College, calls himself a baseball fan and who is trouble by the premise that we have somehow failed Robinson’s legacy and it’s time to take inventory.
“Robinson’s legacy has forced us to reconsider what racial reconciliation truly looks like in today’s mainstream America,” he writes in the intro. “That is what this book is attempting to do: to reclaim at least some of the details of Jackie Robinson’s life, the details that have been too easily washed away in a culture that seems to be satisfied with the idea that we live in a postracial society.”
Naze chooses to draw a parallel of Robinson to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as pivotal characters in the “genesis of the modern American civil rights movement; both drew the ire of members in both white and black communities as each man attempted to balance the racial tensions.”
The structure of his book from the chapter titles gets the point across clear about what he feels are important touchstones in the Robinson career – all beyond his playing career. He delves into Robinson’s political impact, his clash of values with actor Paul Robeson, the narratives provided in Cooperstown as well as Kansas City where the Negro Baseball Museum sits are exceptional entry points to see not just how the MLB doesn’t want his political past to complicate the current simplistic narrative, but also to realize that “Robinson’s words and actions have been relegated to the past rather than used as a way to activate the future.”
As long as we are at Jackie Robinson Day, Naze look at that celebration alone in his final chapter is worthy of examining here.
Naze says Robinson’s annual day “puts an ‘official’ stamp on this version of history” that chooses to “reflect a process that minimized controversy, privileges white America’s version of baseball integration and invokes a public amnesia about the social consequences Robinson’s historic inclusion had on the Negro Leagues and the black community in general.” The day brings an “iconic status” that comes with “both convenience and controversy as to how that status has been constructed and maintained over the course of the past half century.”
There is a push for reconciliation but fails to “include the irreparable damage wrought on the Negro Leagues as a prosperous cultural institution.”
Media coverage of the events year after year are also worth noting to Naze’s assessment, depending on what dignitaries were involved and what the landscape was of American sports at that time. He also questions then-commissioner Bud Selig’s motives and “authority over Robinson’s legacy and the erasure of the Negro Leagues from the narrative” in 1997 and then in 2004, when the media started to point out that the MLB had been lacking in advancing black players and managers into their front office.
At the time, the late Ralph Wiley wrote for ESPN.com and argued that if Robinson “were around today, I get the uneasy feeling that he would take one look around at the wide, wide world of sports, at what’s been done, and undone, and what’s left to do, and for all his strength, power, versatility, and relentlessness, I believe he’d start to cry. What I don’t know is whether they’d be tears of joy or pain.”
Think of that today, in 2019, 15 years after that Wiley piece linked here.
How it goes down in the scorebook
Sadly, it doesn’t come out a month and a half after it could have made a much greater impact to the masses with the intended message.
And as we noted in an original quick review of this in the L.A. Times, the author’s intent is to specifically examine how Robinson’s life has “been constructed by a mainstream, white and male perspective.” Yet Naze admits he’s viewing this all “through the lens of a rhetorical scholar who comes from an admittedly privileged, white, male perspective.”
So he’s either the best candidate to attempt this, or the most problematic to support his claims.
All in all, he seems efficiently correct in his premise and execution.
Because as one can see (below, another shot of a shelf of books from the Austin Public Library), there are no shortage of books about Robinson’s life and times. “First Class Citizenship” remains a foundation for a book like this for Naze to reference and should also be read by anyone wanting to further their education process. In the entire spectrum of Robinson books, this will likely resonate better with some, but not as much with the masses as it should as not as the MLB narrative continues.
We could toast a glass of beer to Naze at this point, but it would seem far too trivial.
Other new Jackie Robinson-related books of note
The book: “A Fine Team Man: Jackie Robinson and the Lives He Touched,” by Joe Cox
The info: Lyons Press, $27.99, 288 pages, released last February.
The summary: Arriving in time for Robinson’s 100th birthday celebration at the end of January, this focus on how Robinson was a teammate to those who were a grand part of his making the big leagues tries to add more context. The profiles of Rachel Robinson, Branch Rickey, commissioner Happy Chandler, broadcaster Red Barber, scout Clyde Sukeforth, black journalist Wendell Smith, manager Burt Shotton, team captain Pee Wee Reese and teammate Dixie Walker. The later, Walker, is the most interesting in how he intially resisted Robinson’s presence, but eventually worked in the Dodgers’ system helping to develop star African American players like Maury Wills to Jimmy Wynn and Dusty Baker.
The book: “Black Baseball, 1858-1900: A Comprehensive Record of Teams, Players, Managers, Owners and Umpires,” by James E. Brunson III
The info: McFarland, $49, 300 pages, to be released May 28
The summary: It’s been called one of the more anticipated books of baseball history to come out in a while, providing rosters, biographies and other findings about teams such as the Washingtons Mutuals, Philadelphia Pythians, Chicago Uniques, St. Louis Black Stockings, Cuban Giants and Chicago Unions, as well as more obscure franchise like San Francisco Enterprise, Dallas Black Stockings, Louisville Brotherhoods and Helena Pastimes. Waiters and barbers formed the earliest organized clubs and developed local, regional and national circuits. High schools nurtured young players and transformed them into powerhouse teams, like Cincinnatis Vigilant Base Ball Club. Brunson is an art historian who specializes in American Modernism but he has had work published in”NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture,” and “Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game.”
The book: “Tumultuous Times in America’s Game: From Jackie Robinson’s Breakthrough to the War over Free Agency,” by Bryan Soderholm-Difatte
The info: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, $40, 448 pages, to be released June 12
The summary: Plenty of work and research goes into covering a 50-year period between Robinson’s arrival and the strike of 1994-’95, focusing more on how the game struggled with integration through free agency. All sports go through growing pains. Some just do it on a grander stage.
The book: “Black Baseball’s Last Team Standing: The Birmingham Black Barons, 1919-1926,” by William J. Plott
The info: McFarland, $49.95, 325 pages, due out July 28
The summary: A little pricey for the common fan, but a time in history that should be contained in printed text for those who aren’t such scholars to know about and appreciate.
One more plug for S. Preston art
On the graphic artist’s website is a piece for sale that depicts Robinson and his 1947 call-up in a way that can only be explained by looking at the piece: