Day 1 of 2022 baseball books: 75 years in, retelling Jackie Robinson’s true-blue story finds a reason and a season

“True: The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson”

The author:
Kostya Kennedy

The publishing info:
St. Martin’s Press
278 pages
Released April 12, 2022

The links:
At the author’s website
At the publishers website

The review in 90 feet or less

So what would Jackie Robinson do …

  • If he knew tonight’s annual tribute to him at Dodger Stadium wasn’t easily available to fans in Los Angeles, who are likely to settle in, flip on the TV and get blindsided by the fact this all exclusively on the Internet, streaming on their smart phone via something called Apple TV+ ? You mean … That’s it?
  • If he saw the MLB image of him created for this occasion depicted him wearing a white wrist band? How did that subliminal piece of design work its way in? Really, who is this, Dusty Baker?
  • If he was informed the first 40,000 who come to the game get a “free” Jackie Robinson jersey. That is, if they’ve already paid for an inflated ticket that starts at $50 and goes to $1,250 (the range given on the team’s website). That also grants the ability to whomever has this entry pass to slip on the shirt and take a selfie next to the Robinson statue in the center field plaza. (Actually, could any of this be worse than when a beer swill company hijacked his ghost for a sketchy 2019 campaign that claimed to pay him “honor”)?
  • If he was asked to write the forward to a few more books written about him that strategically align with the diamond anniversary of the first time he stepped on an MLB diamond?

Given, the first three things connected to tonight’s Dodger Stadium activity almost wasn’t going to happen. The prolonged labor strife that was said to have wiped out the first week of the season was ready to chew up more of the schedule before the realization that it wasn’t a great PR move to have April 15, 2022 slip past everyone as collateral damage.

But now 50 years after his death, and 75 years after his MLB debut, these “WWJRD” are worthy asks. It is echoed in the words colleague Ron Rapoport wrote for the L.A. Times this week, an essay headlined: “Baseball reveres Jackie Robinson, but Robinson didn’t revere baseball. Here’s why”

So the feel-good institutionalization of the annual Robinson tributes has led me to a conclusion that might be uncharitable, but here it is. Baseball is lucky that Robinson died at the young age of 53 because to him the self-satisfied celebrations of Jackie Robinson Day would be just another example of white America’s patronizing indifference to the struggle of Black America.

It has to be said.

(Also consider Nancy Armour’s piece in USA Today: “MLB behind the times 75 years after Jackie Robinson breaking color barrier” and Tyler Kepner’s piece in the New York Times: ” ‘This Is American History’: The Hall of Fame reconsiders race” with Dave Winfield and Ken Griffey Jr. among the advisers on a permanent exhibit that re-examines the contributions of Jackie Robinson and others.)

Still, one can’t ignore this anniversary, and another opportunity to open up the Robinson-related lens for scholarly interpretations, public reflection and, of course, some shared profits along the way.

Thankfully, it is with a regal prose and elegance storytelling that Kostya Kennedy, the former Sports Illustrated senior scribe, comes up with a new framework for interpreting Robinson’s impact and legacy. Don’t expect a sweeping start-to-finish narrative here. Those have been done over and over, some exceptionally wall. With all the options to pick from, Kennedy may have leaned into his previous books on the historical importance of Joe DiMaggio and Pete Rose and set himself a path to choose a quartet of pivotal years in Robinson’s life:

1946: Post Negro League, pre-MLB, Robinson’s only year in Montreal, trying to prove he belongs in this grand experiment, worthy of a call-up for the ’47 season in Brooklyn. It is here where Kennedy himself is asking “what if” questions about Robinson — what if the Dodgers brought him during the ’46 pennant race, as they lost the NL pennant to St. Louis by two games and lost many one-run contests down the stretch? It could have happened.

1949: His MVP season in Year 3 of his playing career: 156 games, .342 average, 37 stolen bases, 6 home runs, 12 triples, 38 doubles and 124 RBI. It led to a movie made about him — starring him. More on that below.

1956: His final season. It was just a year after Brooklyn won its only World Series title. Incredibly benched by manager Walter Alston for that ’55 Game 7, Robinson is dealing with major health issues, and the team is hinting on packing up for a move to L.A. Change is difficult. His final hit was a game-winner in the bottom of the 11th inning in Game 6 of the ’56 Series against the Yankees, clinching a 1-0 win, forcing a Game 7. His final at-bat was a strike out to end that contest. Still, it necessitated one last burst of speed. The Dodgers trailing trailing 9-0, the strike-three pitch got away from Yogi Berra. The catcher forever linked to Robinson’s most dynamic World Series moment — a steal of home in Game 1 of the ’55 Series — retrieves the ball and throws to first to pull down the curtain.

1972: Robinson’s final year on the planet, which includes his number 42 retirement in a ceremony at Dodger Stadium.

Not a true biography, this “True” bio project format is necessitated by the reality there is an overwhelming amount of material to re-digest. The interesting aspect to see what Kennedy took from previous works, what he left aside, and what new angles, tidbits and conclusions he could inject from his own research and interviews. He manages to fulfill the learned readers’ desire to be educated and entertained without feeling he’s watching another re-run.

The context of the book’s title is also explained on an otherwise single blank page before the chapters unfold:

Kennedy’s engaging paragraphs start on page 3 with his description of Robinson’s batting stance:

He held his hands high, though not extravagantly so, and he gripped his bat all the way down on the end of its handle, his left pinkie wrapped loosely around the knob. He would wag the bat — 34 inches, 35 ounces, of blond ash — straight up and down, a short range of motion on either side of a 45-degree angle to the earth. Robinson kept his arms back and away from his body, as if, perhaps, he were about to squeeze something waterlogged that might drip on him. He did not waggle his fingers or work his palms on the wood. His grip was firm and constant. He was a right-handed batter, and extremely dangerous. … (He) was not quite rigid at the plate — there was too much warm flesh, too much life cursing through him for that. But he was solid standing there, exceptionally solid, and not likely to be moved. A sculpted pillar. … A football player’s cruel, purposeful body draped now in the thick, loose-fitting flannel of his Dodger grays.”

Think of that next time you see an actual Robinson statue of him in the batter’s box.

Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson poses in his batting stance.

By page 133, Kennedy is describing a 38-year-old Robinson in his final year as one who “swung a lighter bat … same length, slimmer handle, a concession to the passing years. Robinson’s body had thickened, his added weight distributed through his chest and belly and hips, rendering him, on the basepaths and even in the field, a rumbling mass. … (Robinson) was a 100-watt bulb suddenly throwing off 25 watts’ worth of light.”

As noted in a Washington Post review, Kennedy created more “vivid passages” of Robinson, such as this about how he danced on the basepaths, an athletic ability cultivated by his days of football, basketball and track at UCLA: “None of Robinson’s contemporaries displayed his ability to start and stop and start and stop and start again, to jink his way past fielders and potential tags, to rattle and embarrass and elude. He would hover at times and then explode. For Robinson, each time on base promised an essay into new possibilities.”

Afterward, Kennedy gives us “The Afterlife” chapter, allowing him to explore Rachel Robinson’s preservation of the Jackie image, and a review of the 2021 Jackie Robinson Day afterglow. It includes these paragraphs:

“People have asked me, ‘What would Jackie say about all this and this period of time?” said Yohuru Williams in the summer of 2020. Williams is the distinguished chair and professor at the University of St. Thomas and served as the Jackie Robinson Foundation’s chief historian from 2012 to 2014.

“Honestly, I don’t know. You couldn’t pin him down. I see that as a point of genius in his personality … Jackie had was on his own journey to what he believed, an independent broker.”

Author Q&A:

Koysta Kennedy was kind enough to answer our questions:

Kostya Kennedy during an interview with Seth Meyers in March, 2014 (NBCU Photo Bank)

Q: As you did due diligence on the books that have written about and by Robinson over the last several decades, what made you go forward with this way of framing his life as we are processing this all over again 75 years after his MLB debut?

A: I’d been thinking about the book, and collecting material and ideas, for years. The framework presented itself. I was drawn to a narrative that could be focused and accessible without being overly narrow. Looking at distinct periods felt like an effective way to show the changes and evolution in Robinson’s life and the environment. Michael Apted’s “Up” films came to mind. The four “seasons” are metaphorically the spring, summer, autumn and winter of Robinson’s public life. I felt that each of the years, 1946, 1949, 1956 and 1972, had plenty of unexplored territory.

Q: Was the process of doing this similar to how you accomplished “56: Joe DiMaggio” in more than 10 years ago?

A: Some similarity in the sense of my preparation and then embracing what I hoped was a new and potentially revealing approach.

Q: About the title “True” — there is the stark white page at the start with a lone paragraph that explains about Robinson was being “true” to his convictions and contradictions. That is such an eloquent way of summarizing him as well as other influential people in history. How did you arrive at this marvelous phrase? Did he pull it off? And do we get that most of the time in how he is portrayed in literature, film and other media? 

A: Across the different and unique periods in Robinson’s life, there was one through-line, and that was the way he held to his own mission and intentions and standards. That really struck me the more time I spent with his life and his environment. I do think he maintained that. While I had of course read and seen a lot about Robinson, that aspect of him had not made itself clear. For me, it was a point of discovery.

Q: Of all the resources you tapped into, which ones became most valuable? What former players and those in the baseball world who you were able to speak with shed some more light that you didn’t expect might? How did you find Ira Glasser and how much do you treasure his input in your storytelling?

A: So many valuable resources, including the people I was able to speak with from old Montreal and Brooklyn. From the baseball world, Bob Aspromonte, (former Long Beach Press Telegram beat writer-turned-Dodgers GM) Fred Claire and the late Joe Morgan were among the perhaps unexpectedly illuminating voices. Many years ago I wrote a Talk of the Town piece for The New Yorker for which I went to a Mets game with Ira Glasser, then the head of the ACLU and William F. Buckley Jr. the conservative public intellectual. Since then I’ve known about Glasser’s relationship to Robinson. Exploring that, as well as that time in Brooklyn with Ira and some of his contemporaries for True, was an absolute gift.

Q: What is the benefit of having someone like Rachel Robinson still here to protect and help shape his image?

Perhaps this $285 Jackie Robinson “limited edition” bobblehead listed on by a company in Menlo Park isn’t endorsed by the family?

A: It’s an enormous and essential benefit and has been over the 50 years since his death. The best example of how she has furthered his legacy is the Jackie Robinson Foundation that Rachel founded, and which has had such an important impact on the lives of so many young people. She’s been there to help make sure that things such as baseball’s annual Jackie Robinson Day and the development of various tributes have been treated and executed at high standards. Let’s just say that there’s a reason there has never been a Jackie Robinson bobblehead giveaway night. And that reason is Rachel Robinson.

Q: Do you now have a favorite Robinson book from the past you appreciate more?

A: There’s some really excellent work out there that I greatly admire and appreciate. It’s hard to single anything out.

Note: On page 254 of his book, Kennedy sites an essay by Yohuru Williams that is “among the highlights of the excellent 2020 essay collection, ’42 Today,’ edited by Michael G. Lang.”

Q: Going forward after this process, what different appreciation do you have for what Robinson did, and how he did it, and if you sense there were many things along the way that could have tripped him before 1947 even arrived?

A: Consciously or not, we sometimes have this sense of history as having been inevitable — it had to happen that way. But of course we know that’s not true, So many things could have happened to derail Robinson’s course before 1947. A different player could have had the opportunity. Jackie could have retreated or simply wanted to step aside under the intense pressure. From a baseball standpoint, even as great an athlete as he was, there was no guarantee he would succeed under such extraordinary circumstances. And, especially given the way he was often targeted by opposing pitchers and by players in the field, he could have gotten injured.

Also note: Kennedy has a Q&A with C-SPAN that aired last Sunday. He did an event at the National Archives Museum in Washington D.C. on Wednesday:

Update: Kennedy also has a conversation with Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf posted May 3 at this link, and below:

How it goes in the scorebook

A true-to-42 keeper. Every true literary outlet in our universe should want to use it as a springboard toward further examination of this moment in our history.

Such as Kirkus Reviews, which sizes it up as a “sturdy combination of sportswriting and social history.” In the San Diego Union Tribune: “The book is best when it mentions what is going on in Robinson’s life in one breath and American society in another.” The L.A. Times’ entertainment section also has a book excerpt.

David M. Shribman writes in the Wall Street Journal: ” ‘True’ pays homage to a beautiful game that now — between truculent owners and players, a series of strikes, a surfeit of strikeouts, and an obsession with home runs — seems on the verge of ruin. Where have you gone, Jackie Robinson?”

If we were challenged to pick from the nearly three dozen books dedicated specifically to Jackie Robinson we’ve accumulated over the years – although if we added in those targeted for kids, we’d probably land so close to 42 in total that it shouldn’t be a surprise at this point — the ones we’d be most apt to quickly collect and rescue from imminent damage and harm would include (in no particular order):

== “First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson,” edited by Michael G. Long, Times Books, 2007
== “42 Today: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy,” by Michael G. Long, NYU, 2021
== “Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography: The Faith of a Boundary-Breaking Hero,” by Michael G. Long and Chris Lamb, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017

== “My Own Story,” by Greenberg Press, as told to Wendel Smith, 1948, and “I Never Had It Made,” by Putnam, as told to Alfred Duckett, 1972
== “Jackie Robinson: A Biography,” by Arnold Rampersad, Alfred Knopf Publishing, 1997
== “Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy,” by Jules Tygiel, 1983
== “The Jackie Robinson Story,” by Arthur Mann, The Big League Baseball Library, Grosset & Dunlap, 1951 first edition (a hardcover reprint of 1950 paperback)
== “Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait,” by Rachel Robinson with Lee Daniels, Abrams Publishers, 2014 updated edition from 1996; with “Stealing Home: An Intimate Family Portrait by the Daughter of Jackie Robinson,” by Sharon Robinson, Harper, 1996
== “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson,” by Michael Lee Lanning, Stackpole Books, 2020

“True” is apt to have a long shelf life as well and easily makes this lineup.

Yet, the roster may never be complete as, year by year, we find more happening in the world and are compelled to ask ourselves: What really would Jackie Robinson do, say, think or give some context – imperfect or not? This again proves his spirit remains true in our pursuit of truth and accuracy.

You can look it up: More to ponder

== For all the attention Kennedy’s “True” will logically this Robinson season, it still seems to filter back to: What are we to believe to be true, and not-so-true, of all the media entry points given to the man’s life and times?

When taking a full-on view about how Robinson’s story has been delivered on multi platforms over the decades, consider this full dive into that phenomenon by the Society of American Baseball Research with “Not an Easy Tale to Tell: Jackie Robinson on the Page, Stage, and Screen”, edited by Ralph Carhart, with associate editors Bill Nowlin, Carl Riechers and Kate Nachman (127 pages, $26.99, released March 31, 2022).

Carhart also writes the introduction and a Q&A with Sharon Robinson. More essays on a couple dozen examples of media platforms are produced an eclectic group of SABR members — from 23-year-old screenwriter Pat Ellington Jr., Negro League Baseball Museum curator Raymond Doswell, The Baseball Reliquary Facebook curator Steve Butts, real estate investor Ray Danner, history professor Leslie Heaphy and retired UPS carrier Carl Riechers.

Artist America Martin has an ink-on-paper portrait of Robinson, from 2021, at the JoAnne Artman Gallery in Laguna Beach for $4,500.

Carhart, author of the extremely well received “The Hall Ball: One Fan’s Journey to Unite Cooperstown Immortals with a Single Baseball” (McFarland, 2020), expands on the chapter he did by the same name on this subject last year in “Jackie Robinson: Perspectives on 42” which we generously reviewed.

Carhart points out how as Robinson’s name, image and likeness have been up for all sorts of perusal from the obvious (biographies, movies, TV, documentaries, children’s books) to entertainment (Broadway musicals, song, art) and the sometimes bizarre (fiction writing and comic books). Not to mention Robinson’s own Ruthesque foray into acting, radio commentary, newspaper writing and even vaudeville singing.

It has created so many representations of Robinson, Carhart notes, “taking him beyond his true, complicated personhood and elevating him to an inspirational symbol … (In this book) not only does it separate the fact from fiction, but it looks at why that fiction was created. It also posits the idea that sometimes the fiction is just as important.”

So that explains why Robinson shows up in an episode of HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” here?

To that point, an historical and hysterical characterization of Robinson (by Chris Redd) was even used in the cold open of the recent “Saturday Night Live” as the NBC show did a riff on new Supreme Court justice Ketanji Brown Jackson having a “seat at the table.”

For better or worse, Robinson was talked into going Hollywood with his own story when he played himself in the 1950 film “The Jackie Robinson Story,” right after his MVP season.

Consider that in the New York Times’ review, Bosley Crowther writes “true-life story of … the first Negro in the major leagues” fits the pattern of “prejudice in the villain role … a frank and familiar pursual of the old pluck-and-luck routine, with the hero smacking a grand-slam off Jim Crow in the ninth.”

What seems to save it is the fact Robinson plays himself “with manifest fidelity and conspicuous dramatic restraint” and “displays a calm assurance and composure that might be envied by many a Hollywood star.”

The review also mentions: “There is the memorable scene in which Jackie, playing with Montreal, is jeered by a crowd of razzers who toss a black cat on the field.” Did that actually happen? If so, it’s not part of Kennedy’s chapter on Robinson’s ’46 season in the city, where some, he writes, wondered if Jackie and Rachel were actually Dutch Indonesian instead of African American.

In “Not An Easy Tale,” Tom Lee, an attorney in Nashville and a United Methodists preacher, points out in a piece rich in footnotes how much of that film was — if there is irony in his phrase — whitewashed of real historical documented facts.

He comments about how African-American journalist Gerald Early called it, in 1997, “not a good film.” The Daily Worker called it “not only misleading but dangerous.”

Lee concludes: ” ‘The Jackie Robinson Story’ is a bad movie because the hero does not fight his fight. In the end, a Black man is hired out, made a means to White person’s ends. The film sends Robinson on an errand for a White status quo.”

== Three more new titles to consider tracking down to add to any JRobinson collections:

= “History: Jackie Robinson,” a $14.99 magazine by Meredith Premium Publishing/Tandem Books Inc., from the editors of the History Channel. Essays are written by Phil Taylor, Daniel S. Levy, Martin Stezano, Alyssa Smith and Bill Syken.

= “Before Brooklyn The Unsung Heroes Who Helped Break Baseball’s Color Barrier,” by Ted Reinstein (Lyon Press, $29.95, 253 pages, released in Nov, 2021). An excerpt from page 212 after covering the life and times of such notables as Moses Fleetwood Walker, Bud Fowler, Josh Gibson, writers Ida B. Wells and Lester Rodney, and many others:
“Wearing No. 42, as he strode out to his position at first base amid the din of cheering fans, of broadcasters announcing history, and of exploding flashbulbs capturing it, there were also two inaudible sounds: of a wall falling and of a cheering that could not be heard with the ear, only with the heart. It rose from those not presently physically, but spiritually, those who could not be seen but were there just the same.”

= “Strength For the Fight: The Life and Faith of Jackie Robinson,” by Gary Scott Smith (Eerdmans, $24.99, 320 pages, due Sept. 13, 2022). From the publisher’s blurb: “Faith was a key component of Robinson’s life, but not in the way we see it with many prominent Christian athletes today. Whereas the Tim Tebows and Clayton Kershaws of the sports world emphasize personal spirituality, Robinson found inspiration in the Bible’s teachings on human dignity and social justice. He grew up a devout Methodist (a heritage he shared with Branch Rickey) and identified with the theological convictions and social concerns of many of his fellow mainline Protestants — especially those of the Black church. While he humbly stated that he could not claim to be a deeply religious man, he spoke frequently in African American congregations and described a special affinity he and other Black Christians felt for the biblical character Job, who had also kept faith despite suffering and injustice. In his eulogy for Robinson, Jesse Jackson described Robinson as a “co-partner of God,” who lived out his faith in his civil rights activism, both during and after his baseball career. Robinson’s faith will resonate with many Christians who believe, as he did, that “a person can be quite religious and at the same time militant in the defense of his ideals.”

= ESPN2 (tonight, 7 p.m.) goes head-to-head against the Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson video-streamed celebration by carrying UCLA’s baseball game at Jackie Robinson Stadium against Stanford with Jason Benetti and Doug Glanville on the call. We appreciated when Glanville spoke with us in 2017 about his Jackie Robinson-related moments in time.

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