Day 15 of 2021 baseball book reviews: It’s Jackie Robinson Day, and his core relevance in a BLM-injected society may be more needed than ever

“42 Today: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy”

The editor:
Michael G. Long
Forward by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon
Afterword by Kevin Merida

The publishing info:
New York University Press
Washington Mews Books
256 pages
Released Feb. 9, 2021

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At The Last Book Store in L.A.

“Jackie: Perspectives on 42″

The editors:
Bill Nowlin
Glen Sparks
Len Levin
Carl Riechers

The publishing info:
Society for American Baseball Research
324 pages
Released March 19, 2021

The links:

The reviews in 90 feet or less

In the second chapter of the new Tom Callahan book, “Gods at Play: An Eyewitness Account of Great Moments,” the author writes about being at Game 2 of the 1972 World Series and finding Jackie Robinson was on the field.

Robinson was 53 “but looked 73,” Callahan writes, “white-headed and virtually blind from diabetes. Nine days later he had a heart attack and died. …

“I followed Jackie as he was led into the Reds’ dugout and up the ramp to the clubhouse, where Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times was standing.
“ ‘Jackie, it’s Jim Murray,’ he said.
“ Aw Jim, aw Jim,’ Robinson said. ‘I wish I could see you again.’
“ No Jackie,’ Murray said. ‘I wish we could see you again.’”

Each year, it’s our hope to see another new book or two that puts Robinson in greater context, knowing so much has already been committed to ink and binding that the challenge becomes greater over time. The books then get the spotlight on the annual Jackie Robinson Day in April.

In 2021, does the angst of our current life and times make Robinson even more relevant as an historical marker?

“Legacies are never easy to describe with accuracy and certainty,” Michael Long writes in the introduction for “42 Today.” “They’re like moral character – best viewed from many different angles, in historical context, and over a long period. Like studies of character, explorations of legacies also lead to a culminating question: Is there anything that ties the different parts together? In this case, is there a unifying element in the various legacies that Robinson left us?”

If one writer/author/historian can only take Robinson through his prism of expertise, why not try more than a dozen?

In the leadoff spot, if anyone could be best suited for the role, it’s Long, an associate professor of Religious Studies and Peace and Conflict Studies at Elizabethtown College, a few hours West of Philadelphia. He’s at the top of the lineup based on three previous notable works on the subject that we have previously reviewed and endorsed:

== “First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson” in 2007
== “Beyond Home Plate: Jackie Robinson on Life After Baseball,” in 2013
== “Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography,” with Chris Lamb in 2017

Dedicating this book to Rachel Robinson, Long’s non-sabremetic approach really is about numbers – those he calls “esteemed contributors … filmmakers, writers, journalists, scholars and activists …  (who add depth and nuance to the Jackie Robinson that our culture has unjustly frozen in 1947.”

Seventeen voices are assembled, with Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, who did the three-part, four-hour Robinson bio project for PBS in 2016, using the forward to re-emphasize Robinson’s “meaningful change” by trying to “remember him in full.”

Divided into four parts, Robinson’s childhood and Methodist upbringing is understood by ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant and African American studies professor Randal Maurice Jelks. The real estate for more filtering of Robinson’s baseball career goes to retired New York Times columnist George Vecsey along with writers/authors Jonathan Eig, Mark Kurlansky, Chris Lamb and David Naze. Robinson’s civil rights and politics journey in post-baseball is framed by authors Sridhar Pappu and Gerald Early as well as professor/author Yohuru Williams, who also is VP of Public Education and Research at the Jackie Robinson Foundation. It is buttoned up with Robinson’s impact on the culture of America by writers Peter Dreier (about other famous firsts), historian/professor Amira Rose Davis (on women’s athletics) and Adam Amel Rogers, who oversees research on entertainment and media impact society at USC’s Annenberg Norman Lear Center (on gay athletes). Kevin Merida, the current Editor in Chief at ESPN’s The Undefeated, does the afterward.

All of this is time sensitive as well.

Exhibit A would be Chris Lamb on “The White Media Missed It,” focused on how white sportswriters “responded with big headlines but said little of substance beneath them, instead going quite silent about it so it could impede integration without appearing to challenge the liberal consensus. There’s even a newspaper clip documenting how the New York Baseball Writers’ Association “spoofed the sensitive subject” or Robinson by having a writer appear in blackface for a skit that depicted Robinson as a butler to Commissioner Happy Chandler.

Naze, who in 2019 wrote the compelling argument in an entire book about the misrepresentation of Robinson in modern times called “Reclaiming 42,” which delves into how the MLB has co-opted his name and made it so easy to celebrate his number that it becomes marginalized, revisits that theme in a chapter called “On Retiring 42.” On Jackie Robinson Day, Naze defers to a suggestion by another writer, Jeff Snider — put the MLB-wide retirement of No. 42 “on its head” by taking it off the walls and banner and putting it back into circulation.

“That number sitting among so many other retired jersey numbers, lying static, isolated and inactive, loses its power … Robinson’s 42 has been put on a shelf to be dusted off and rolled out for a celebration every April 15. While that’s a meaningful commemorative gesture in its own right, it’s only one day per year … What if we reactivated 42, allowing it to breathe life into his legacy again?”

Today, why not have that be a theme of discussion.

And also look back at how Robinson’s life has been dissected in the past to where we are today.

That’s where the latest heavy-duty SABR-created paperback, “Jackie: Perspectives on 42” folds in nicely with “42 Today.”

From the introduction:

Our thought in assembling this book was not to take a particular tact, or drive any narrative, but simply to collect a number of articles and essays that appreciate various aspects of the life and accomplishments of Jackie Robinson.”

SABR enlisted 54 of its members to do the 75 pieces just for this book, in concert with the group’s 50th anniversary, “to bring together a book appreciating the career and the life of this exceptional man.”

There are personal reflections from writers such as Larry Lester, whose website address ( honors Robinson because of the impact of seeing him in person as a political activist in 1960.

With a plethora of notes, sources and sincere gratitude, the two chapters that jumped out to us as something going beyond the norm were both by Ralph Carhart, whose book, “Hall Ball,” we were pleased to review last year.

His profile of Rachel Robinson documents many of the things she has been able to achieve since her husband’s passing in 1972 – nearly 50 years now, as she nears her 99th birthday in July. Later, Carhart’s overview of how Robinson has tried to be portrayed in TV, movies and stage plays came with the realization that it deserved its own book that will cover this as well as a much deeper look at the media of children’s books, fiction and the artistic desire to portray Robinson on many levels in culture. “Not an Easy Tale to Tell” is due in Spring, 2022, in time for the 75th anniversary of Robinson’s landmark 1947 season.

How they go in the scorebook

Another daring and success steal of home-spun narratives. After the umpire’s call and no doubt endless video reviews, we see that authors taking a knee off to the side, with a confirmed call of safe.

The news that keeps wrapped around us today continues themes of racial inequality, Black Lives Matters, law-and-order rhetoric, the purpose of a meaningful protest led by sports figures (Colin Kapernick, the NBA and WNBA, Mookie Betts and the Dodgers) and more inequities based on color of skin and poverty levels when it comes to COVID vaccinations and treatment.

What Would Jackie Robinson Say? What Would Jackie Robinson Do?

What would he say about the MLB’s decision earlier this month to move the All-Star Game out of his Georgia birthplace in protest of the state’s new voting regulations?

You’d likely be unpleasantly surprised to see things he said and did and stood for, not just when he broke the MLB color barrier in 1947 but also in the life as a businessman and activist from 1958 to his death in 1972, that are reference points today.

Robinson, if not all of us, becomes the sum of all his parts, and Long can take that condensed journey having already fleshed out much of these divisions in the past. It’s heartening to see this compelling group of essayists make this project happen in this time period. Converting Robinson’s messages into today’s media, and not exploiting it through commercialism or a way to serve one’s purposes, continues to be the bedrock of the Jackie Robinson Foundation. This book fits that narrative.

And by the way, if you’re going to support a local bookstore with this purchase, consider heading over to Vromans, in Robinson’s hometown of Pasadena. The store should be throwing a parade for him on this day and giving out maps to the home nearby where he grew up in and all the other Robinson-related landmarks in the city.

Our author Q&A

An exchange we had with Michael Long on “42 Today” and beyond:

Q: How do you see this Robinson book integrated into the array of titles about him already out there in the publishing world over the decades? Is it the format as a bottom line that gives it a new fresh look? Also, how do you see it in the context of books you have done and edited about him as well, focusing on his social justice and religious-based life? Is this a natural progress in what has been done?

A: Compared to most other books about Robinson, ours is unique in that it offers a deep exploration of Robinson’s legacy in not just baseball but also in the Black freedom movement, politics, religion, and the wide world of other major sports.

In this sense, 42 Today is an organic progression from my previous work, where I’ve sought to unfreeze Robinson from 1947, the year he courageously “turned the other cheek” when cracking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

Many of us in White America have frozen Robinson in 1947 because he seems so safe and unthreatening. The Robinson of 1947 doesn’t argue with us, let alone hit us. But restricting Robinson to that year does a grave injustice to a man whose righteous anger about racial injustice fueled work far beyond the baseball diamond.

The story of Jack Robinson is not just about 1947 but also about his fierce fights for Black freedom before, during, and after his baseball career, fights in which he did not always turn the other cheek. 42 Today shows that Robinson was far more than the safe, smiling first baseman in 1947—he was also a fearsome and feared freedom fighter in various fields.

Indeed, unlike many other books, 42 Today also uniquely reveals the extent to which Robinson was devoted to achieving first-class citizenship for Black Americans.  

Our book refuses to see Robinson as merely a Hall of Fame baseball player. Of course, he was exactly that, but he was also an “informal civil rights leader,” as Rachel Robinson puts it, and we delve into that aspect in great detail, exploring the faith that fueled his activism, his alliance with Martin Luther King, Jr., his rocky relationship with Malcolm X, and his lambasting of Muhammed Ali for refusing to serve in the U.S. Army. Robinson was also quite the political player, aligning himself at various points with Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Nelson Rockefeller. And as he did so, he also broke barriers in the world of business, banking, and broadcasting.

42 Today is part of a recent wave of attention to Robinson beyond the baseball diamond. Even a cursory look at recent articles on Robinson will show that there’s increasing interest in his religion, politics, and civil rights. I should probably say “renewed interest” because during Robinson’s lifetime many people paid attention to his words and deeds about these issues. It’s important to remember here that for many years Robinson was sort of similar to Oprah—when he spoke, people listened.

Q: With all that’s going on in today’s world — Black Lives Matter, Colin Kapernick, etc. – is Robinson’s legacy always worth using as a starting point to add context for those who may think that’s ancient history – and extract words he once used and see how they’re relevant still today? (One of them in particular I noticed was a clip from the Ken Burns’ documentary which I recently rewatched: Robinson was talking about how the phrase “law and order” was really just code for keeping Blacks down, and then hearing the past president often using “law and order” as his mantra for dealing with protests .. yet I never saw anyone making that connection in the media).

A: Many of Robinson’s words are as relevant today as they were when he spoke them.

He constantly criticized Major League Baseball for not hiring Black managers and executives. Last year, there was only one Black manager among all MLB franchises.

Like the Black Panthers, Robinson lambasted police brutality against Black people. The Black Lives Matter movement can easily turn to Robinson’s words and actions for inspiration in their ongoing fight for peace with justice.

Robinson derided the Republican Party as “the white man’s party,” and lamented its refusal to court Black voters and support Black-related issues. If the Republican Party ever wants to be inclusive, it would do well to resurrect Robinson’s sharp critique of its past racism.

Robinson assumed that flag-waving white Americans were not his friends—that they were uncritical supporters of “law and order” and of the white backlash against the Black civil rights movement. Liberals and progressives continue to allow conservatives to hijack the flag for their “law and order” approach to such issues as immigration, police brutality, and urban uprisings.

Robinson built a bank in Harlem so that Black residents could access capital at low-interest loans, the type unavailable to them in white banks. Racism in the banking industry is alive and well.

Robinson said he could not stand for the national anthem because he knew he was a Black man in a white world. Colin Kaepernick knew the same thing, and so do countless other protesters for Black justice, especially the female athletes who were recently called “f—— n——” by a sportscaster who saw them taking a knee for Black justice during the playing of the national anthem.

The list goes on.

Q: Even if we assume there isn’t much more about Robinson to write about, is there? As long as we continue to frame him in the context of modern issues and almost, What Would Jackie Robinson Do?

A: As long as there is racial justice in baseball and far beyond the diamond, there will be more to write about Robinson. Martin Luther King, Jr. described Robinson as a “sit inner before the sit ins, a freedom rider before the freedom rides.” King rightly understood that he and civil rights activists stood on the broad shoulders of Jack Robinson, and he even turned to Robinson for inspiration at various points in the civil rights movement. We can do the same – turn to Robinson for instruction and inspiration – every time racism rears its ugly head in the public square, which is every day, right?

Q: Is there a book out there to do on Rachel Robinson? Or Rachel and Jackie, as Jonathan Eig suggests?

A: It wasn’t just Jackie who endured every racist taunt and jeer imaginable. Rachel did, too. It wasn’t just Jackie who turned the other cheek in 1947 and who later straightened his backbone and asked for a better contract, better calls on the field, better treatment from managers and umpires and other players. Rachel did all this, too. She and Jack also worked closely together in raising countless dollars for the civil rights movement through their “afternoons of jazz.” Jackie and Rachel were teammates in the battle for first-class citizenship, and her story is every bit as colorful and compelling as Jackie’s. When we add in her career as a psychiatric nurse and as the founder of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, we can easily see that if she doesn’t deserve her own biography, no one does.   

Q: What is the importance of dedicating the book to Rachel?

A: Our books about Robinson are the result of Rachel’s breathtaking generosity in sharing Jackie’s papers and her memories of him and their time together. So much of what we know of her late husband is due to her willingness to share him with us. Dedicating the book to Rachel is simply a recognition of our indebtedness to her and a small way to thank her for her immense generosity.

Q: How did you pick the writers for the essays, and then work out what they would focus on?

A: I wanted an all-star team of writers who’d already recognized that Robinson was a complex man, far from two dimensional, and that his legacy was complex. I knew most of the contributors through their work on Jackie Robinson, the excellent documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, or through their earlier writings and scholarship. What I didn’t know was how receptive they would be to my invitation to contribute to a book about Robinson’s legacy. Editing a collection of other writers can often be a lot like herding cats, but these writers were easy to gather and organize as a team. I asked some of them to select topics they’d already addressed, and I pitched other topics to writers based on their fields of expertise. It’s easier to attract someone’s interest if you don’t pitch them something from left field.   

Q: Were there writers you would have loved to include – living or dead – to do an essay for this? Including Jackie himself?

A: Yes, I would have loved to include an essay from Rachel Robinson. She’s spoken quite a bit about her husband’s legacy, and it would have been wonderful to include her perspective in this book. But she’s of a certain age now, and to the best of my knowledge, she’s no longer granting interviews, let along writing essays. I also would have appreciated an essay by President Barack Obama. There’s a direct line between Robinson and Obama, and I know the former president deeply admires Robinson. 

Q: For the 2021 Jackie Robinson Day, MLB missed the April 15 moment because of COVID rescheduling but marked it on Aug. 28 — tying it to the date in 1945 when Branch Rickey met with Robinson to tell him he’d be making his way to the majors. It also tied to the date in 1963 when the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom occurred and Robinson attended. In “42 Today,” what do you take away from David Naze’s essay related to the annual Jackie Robinson recognition? Would you recommend people go back to Naze’s book, “Reclaiming 42” for more context? (We reviewed that one in 2019)

A: Here’s my take on last year’s Jackie Robinson Day (an essay on Aug. 23, 2020 in the Los Angeles Times headlined “Jackie Robinson didn’t just break barriers. MLB should honor his radical activism too”

Q: Which essay did you glean new information from?

A: Jonathan Eig always teaches me something new, and I gleaned new information about number 42 in his essay. I didn’t know that 4 and 2 were available that year, that 42 was an undesirable number, and that only one player, Johnny Van Cuky, had a higher number (43). Jonathan helped me understand that the number didn’t make Robinson; Robinson made the number. We didn’t know 42 as a significant number before Robinson, but we sure as hell know it now.

Q: Here’s a little bit of a slice of today’s media using Robinson as a prism, and we were interested in your take-away:

The ABC show “Blackish” had an episode in February (Black History Month; Season 7, Episode 11 called “First Trap”) that focused on Rainbow Johnson becoming the first Black female partner at her hospital, and the “burden” that came with that.
There’s a scene at the end where she is lamenting with her husband, Dre: “Did you know that when Jackie Robinson retired from baseball, that it was only six percent Black. And it’s only seven percent Black today? … Jackie Robinson died at 54. And for what? So he could get a couple more Black players in the league? Can you imagine what he could have done if he wasn’t so focused on breaking barriers?”
Dre: “Sometimes being first feels like the weight of the world is on our shoulders.”
Bow: “We’re conditioned to work 10-times harder to succeed. Is it all worth it for six percent?”
Dre: “Maybe Jackie Robinson made baseball a ‘little Blacker’ but his sacrifices were felt throughout sports and the world. Maybe a person’s impact can’t be broken down into numbers. The burden (for your “first”) has to be shared with your black colleagues and white colleagues.”

As I’m trying to unpack that, it seems missed his civil rights and political activism in his post-career, and how Blacks did peak at 18 percent in 1981 but there has been a stead decrease since then because of the Latino influence and Black athletes focus on other sports …

But in essence, what do you think about this filtering of Robinson’s life in this context on as prime-time TV show in trying to take away some positivity from it?

A: I really appreciate the episode’s effort to see Robinson’s legacy beyond Major League Baseball. It’s at least partly true that the inclusion of players of color in professional golf, football, basketball, soccer, and even hockey is a result of Robinson’s cracking the color barrier in baseball. So, like the writers of this particular episode, I agree with the problem of restricting the effects of Robinson to the baseball diamond.

I also admire the character’s questioning of whether the sacrifice of being “first” is worth all the pain and suffering that comes along with the pioneering role. Robinson struggled with the same question, and there were points in 1947 when he felt like tanking “the great experiment.” But he made a conscious decision to stick with it — for himself, Rachel, and Black people across the United States. Did he think that it was worth it? Robinson was deeply frustrated with the lack of racial progress as he life drew to a close. But I think he had a sense that his sacrifice was worth the progress that had taken place.

In his last autobiography, Robinson praised Arthur Ashe, Curt Flood, Archie Moore, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell — all of them players who were deeply indebted to Robinson. There’s a great photo of Robinson with tears in his eyes at a tribute for him sponsored by Sport magazine. He was touched especially by Bill Russell’s tribute to Robinson and the sacrifice that made it possible for him to be an NBA star. When I see a photo like that, I have a sense that Robinson felt it was all worth it.

Q: How we should share in trying to make things better for everyone in a Black Lives Matter world we ‘re in now?

A: Rachel Robinson puts it best when she says that we can honor Jack’s legacy by joining the fight for racial justice wherever we are.

More to cover

== Among the other recent Robinson-related books:
* Due out in mid-May: “Beyond Baseball’s Color Barrier: The Story of African Americans in Major League Baseball Past, Present and Future,” by Rocco Constantino (forward by Luis Tiant) (Rowman & Littlefield, 232 pages, $32).
* “Black Ball 10: New Research on African American Baseball History,” edited by Leslie Heaphy, released March 19, 2021
* “Jackie Robinson: A Life in American History” (Black History Lives series),” by Courtney Michelle Smith, released March 31, 2021
* “The African American Baseball Experience in Nebraska: Essays and Memories,” edited by Angelo J. Louisa, released Jan. 17, 2021

== The Tulsa Drillers have a plan to put up a Robinson mural soon. Tulsa-born, African American artist Chris “Sker” Rogers and Denver-based artist Thomas “Detour” Evans will collaborate on the project.

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