“Strength for the Fight:
The Life and Faith of Jackie Robinson”
Gary Scott Smith
The publishing info:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
315 pages; $24.99
Released September, 2022
The publishers website
At Skylight Books
At Diesel Books
“Call Him Jack: The Story of Jackie Robinson,
Black Freedom Fighter”
Michael G. Long
and Yohuru Williams
The publishing info:
Farrar, Straus and
240 pages; $19.99
Released in September, 2022
The publishers website
The reviews in 90 feet or less
Fight on, Jackie Robinson.
Or, Jack, if that’s the best way to reclaim the real man in the 21st Century.
And why wouldn’t it be?
That’s how his name appears on his Baseball Hall of Fame plaque. The nickname is singled out because, well …
That’s just the fact, Jack.
Every year, we wonder what is also left to fight for in trying to find anything — anything — new about the man honored again on this day by Major League Baseball, 76 years after making headlines for walking onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn with a Dodgers’ uniform on, and now honored with everyone in the game sporting No. 42 on their backs?
Maybe we look at this all through the eyes a faith journey.
Or, how a young reader might want to discover his authentic story.
Let’s read two:
In “Strength For The Fight,” Robinson’s new-framed story is part of the publishers’ Library of Religious Biography series. That puts him in the company of other faith-driven bios done iconic figures like Abraham Lincoln, Charles Lindberg, H.L. Mencken, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Merton, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Sojourner Truth, Dwight Eisenhower and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Nice lineup.
What did having a foundation of faith mean to someone like Robinson, in his day or his time?
“Despite many scholarly accounts of Robinson’s athletic career and his important role in the expansion of American freedom, Robinson’s Christian faith has received far less attention than it deserves,” writes Gary Scott Smith, a retired college history professor, writes in the preface. Smith is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), which is known for its its liberal stance on doctrine and ordaining women and members of the LGBT community as elders and ministers.
Smith has done 18 books in his career as an author or editor, and two of them in this Library of Religious Biography series, which tries to see lives through a religious filter and how that was an influence in their broader sense. The authors are also chosen with care for their subjects.
Smith also knows enough to include the fact that “three authors have recently highlighted how Robinson’s faith has inspired him to embrace his excruciatingly difficult role as MLB’s first African American player and supported him during his darkest moments,” and lists the two books, both from 2017: Ed Henry’s “42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story” and “Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography: The Faith of a Boundary-Breaking Hero” by Michael G. Long and Chris Lamb.
Smith responds: “This book reverses the priorities of most books about Robinson. It situates his faith and life journey, along with the story of the integration of MLB, within broader religious and sociopolitical contexts and in the context of the role of sports in American life in general …” From there is a more indepth explanation about how Black churches, Methodism and the Social Gospel movement in America from 1880 to 1925 adds even more background on what Robinson was absorbing from his mother’s faith insistence.
But Smith also has to conclude: “Assessing Robinson’s faith is challenging because he did not speak frequently about what it meant to him, or describe his personal beliefs. He rarely explained specifically how his relationship with God or his specific Christian convictions directed his thinking or inspired his actions.” For reference, Smith notes a piece Paul Putz from Christianity Today wrote in 2017 entitled: “Finally, Jackie Robinson’s Faith is Getting the Attention It Deserves.” It was in reference, again, to the previous two books mentioned that came out that year.
If they covered a lot of this as well, Smith is taking a far more dense, academic approach to this — making it sometimes like trying to digest (insert, well, something very dense that no one will take offense to).
Long was one of three experts solicited by Smith to read his book for content and accuracy, and Long has a back-cover blurb for this that offers: “An insightful and uplifting account … meticulously researched … (it) situates Robinson’s faith in a wider society and culture as no other book does. It’s a significant contribution not only to our understanding of Robinson but also to the growing field of religion and sports.”
Long may be the most prolific of Robinson biographers — he also has edited “First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson” in 2007, “42 Today: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy” in 2021, and “Beyond Home Plate: Jackie Robinson on Life After Baseball,” in 2013. His endorsement in any Robinson endeavor is worth the wait, and weight.
In “Call Him Jack,” aimed at readers ages 10-to-14 in the middle-school range, Long is now attached to another compelling Robinson academic effort that adults as well as those it is intended for can better understand. Now add the voice of Yohuru Williams, an historian, activist and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas.
It’s all far less dense, for starters, because of the audience it is trying to educate.
A review last October in the New York Times notes that “the title of the book highlights the chasm between the real-life Jack Robinson and the Jackie Robinson narrative often celebrated in schools. In the buildup to Robinson’s first appearance in a major-league game, he felt pressured to present himself in a way that would put people at ease: He would have to be ‘Jackie,’ a nonthreatening Black man who would be acceptable to the Dodgers, Major League Baseball and the country.”
“Jackie,” the authors assert, was a persona Robinson wore, one that white America was more likely to embrace. Underneath that, Robinson was a “relentless and uncompromising Black freedom fighter.”
The Times review concludes: “The prose can be a touch stiff at times and there already exists a large body of literature about Robinson, but the depth of research in ‘Call Him Jack’ is remarkable, and the authors effectively re-establish him as a man who tirelessly fought for justice, especially in his life after baseball.”
Even with its target audience in mind, the authors don’t pull punches — instead, they take it as a teachable moment. What did harmful words mean? What was their intent? Did it work?
It pulls excerpts from Los Angeles Times columnists Frank Finch and Paul Zimmerman, laying out the language of the time: “All Jackie did (in junior college) was throw with ease and accuracy, punt efficiently, and run with that ball like it was a watermelon and the guy who owned it was after him with a shotgun.” Seriously.
It also has a clip from the Pomona Progress Bulletin from May 10, 1938, where columnist Dave Meikeljohn writes: “Jackie Robinson … is considered the greatest college baseball player in America today … but he will never play professional baseball in the (Pacific) Coast (League) or major leagues … because he is a negro … if you have race prejudices, we still say it’s a dog-goned shame …”
The depth, and the highlighted sidebars that pop up during the narrative to help explain things such as the Great Migration, the NAACP, or the KKK in Pasadena where Robinson grew up. There’s also one about Theodore Roosevelt, whose last name became Robinson’s middle name, and covers the successes and failures that Roosevelt had as a leader of change with race relations.
They all challenge the reader, young and old, to take a beat, ponder what’s going on in the context of everything, and then discuss things before making any judgement. It is a constant lesson-inspired way of presenting the story, encouraging personal reflection and interaction for discussion.
Such as: The title of the book:
It is also consistent with presenting photographs from year books that show him signing his name “Jack Robinson.”
There are sidebars that also continue to challenge the reader: If the Society for American Baseball Research says Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first in major league baseball to play openly as a black man, why is Jack Robinson credited for being the first Black in the MLB in 1947? How should we describe Jack? There are also exquisite deep dives into local newspapers that pull out things written about Robinson that we’d never seen before. Another is on how UCLA claims James “Cap” Haralson was the first at its school to earn four varsity letters and is in its athletic hall of fame for that. Yet is shows the Los Angeles Times calls Robinson “UCLA’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: Baseball, football, basketball and track.” It asks: What might account for this confusion?
Let’s keep the conversation going. It keeps getting better and better. Jack up the volume.
How they go in the scorebook
The fight continues for shelf space. We have almost 42 book titles now related to Robinson.
Perhaps our favorites, as it relates to this annual celebration:
== “Reclaiming 42: Public Memory and the Reframing of Jackie Robinson’s Radical Legacy,” by David Naze (University of Nebraska Press), 2019
But then there also these in own personal collection (and please point out if anything is missing):
== True: The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson” by Kostya Kennedy (St. Martin’s Press), 2022
== “Not an Easy Tale to Tell: Jackie Robinson on the Page, Stage and Screen,” edited by Ralph Carhart, 2022 (SABR)
== “Before Brooklyn: The Unsung Heroes Who Helped Break Baseball’s Color Barrier,” Ted Reinstein, 2022, Lyons Press
== “Jackie: Perspectives on 42,” edited by Bill Nowlin and others (SABR), 2021
== “42 Today: Jackie Robinson and his legacy,” by Michael G. Long (New York University Press), 2021
== “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson,” by Michael Lee Lanning (Stackpole Books), 2020
== “42 Faith,” by Ed Henry, Thomas Nelson Books, 2017
== “42 Is Not Just a Number,” by Doreen Rappaport (Candlweick Press), 2017
== “Before Jackie Robinson: The Transcendent Role of Black Sporting Pioneers,” by Gerald R. Gems, University of Nebraska Presss, 2017
==“Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography: The Faith of a Boundary-Breaking Hero,” by Michael G. Long and Chris Lamb, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017
== “Jackie Robinson West: The Triumph and Tragedy of America’s Favorite Little League Team,” by George Castile, 2016 (Rowman and Littlefield)
== “Jackie Robinson in Quotes: The Remarkable Life of Baseball’s Most Significant Player” by Danny Peary, 2016
== “Havana Hardball: Spring Training, Jackie Robinson and the Cuban League,” by Cesar Brioso, 2015
== “I Am Jackie Robinson,” by Brad Metzler, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos, Dial Books for Young Readers/Penguin Young Readers Group, 2015
== “Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait,” by Rachel Robinson with Lee Daniels, Abrams Publishers, 2014 updated edition
== “Rickey and Robinson: The True, Untold Story of the Integration,” By Roger Kahn, Rodale, 2014
== “Jackie and Campy,” by William Kashatus, Nebraska Publishing, 2014
== “Beyond Home Plate: Jackie Robinson on Life After Baseball,” edited by Michael G. Long, Syracuse Press, 2013
== “Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season,” by Jonathan Eig, Simon & Schuster, 2007
== “Teammates: How Two Men Changed The Face of Baseball” (on Robinson and Reese), by Peter Golenbock/Paul Bacon, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009 (paperback)
== “First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson,” edited by Michael G. Long, Times Books, 2007
== “After Jackie: Pride, Prejudice and Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes,” by Cal Fussman, ESPN Books, 2007
== “What I Learned from Jackie Robinson: A Teammate’s Reflection on and off the Field,” by Carl Erskine, 2005 (signed) (McGraw Hill)
== “How to be like Jackie Robinson: Life Lessons from Baseball’s Greatest Hero,” by Pat Williams and Mike Sielski, Health Communications, 2005
== “Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training,” by Chris Lamb (Nebraska books), 2004
== “Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball,” by Scott Simon, Jon Wiley & Sons Inc, 2002
== “Jackie’s Nine: Jackie Robinson’s Values to Live By,” by Sharon Robinson, 2001 (Scholastic)
== “Jackie 1947,” by Tot Holmes, 1997
== “Jackie Robinson: A Biography,” by Arnold Rampersad, Alfred Knopf Publishing, 1997
== “The Jackie Robinson Reader: Perspectives on an American Hero,” edited by Jules Tygiel, The Penguin Group, 1997
== “Baseball Legend: Jackie Robinson,” by John Grabowski, 1991 (Chelsea House)
== “Jackie Robinson: A Life Remembered,” by Maury Allen, 1987
== “1947: When All Hell Broke Loose,” by Red Barber, Da Capo Press, 1982
== “First in the Field: Baseball Hero Jackie Robinson,” by Derek T. Dingle (Scholastic Books) 1998
== “I Never Had it Made,” by Jackie Robinson with Alfred Ducket (GP Putnam), 1972
You can look it up: More to ponder
== On the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, the New York Times tells one of its many success stories: Rep. Lauren Underwood.
== From Craig Calcaterra’s “Cup of Coffee” substack post on April 13 (cupofcoffee.substack.com):
=== Can we also address this (from an email via the Dodgers on Friday):
We brought it up last year and will again: When did Jack Robinson wear a white wrist band? How did an illustrator for MLB come up with this depiction? Anyone able to find just one photo of him looking like this? Is this some sort of subliminal messaging? Doesn’t he really look more like Dusty Baker than Jack Robinson?
=== On this day, this is worth revisiting:
=== Also on this day:
Consider visiting Sweet Unity Farms Coffee, established in 1989, by Jackie Robinson’s son, David, on land in Tanzania. From the website: The Robinson family chose to become coffee farmers and part of a community of 3rd generation coffee farmers to better understand the challenges of coffee production in Tanzania and to create a base from which to begin a global coffee initiative. Bricks were formed from the soil on the farm. Homes were constructed. The family was strengthened through the marriage of David Robinson and Ruti Mpunda from the Tabora Region. Food crops were planted to sustain the family during the 4 years required for a first coffee harvest. The long journey towards the dream of a potential had begun.
=== More books to keep on the radar:
== “Black Stats Matters: Integrating Negro League Numbers into Major League Records” by Philip Lee (McFarland, 220 pages, $33.95) is due out in June, sporting a catchy title should get your attention, and then give context as to how statistics from the Negro Leagues are now being integrated into the “official” baseball record books.
What does it mean as a matter of Jackie Robinson’s numbers? His 1945 season as a shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs, age 26, included a career-best .375 batting average (45 hits in 120 at bats during 34 games). When combined into the 11 years he played for Brooklyn (1947-56, age 28-to-37), that raised his career mark from .311 to .313. Robinson also had a league-best four homers and 13 doubles in ’45, which raises his professional totals from 137 to 141 and from 273 to 286.
What else does it mean for Robinson?
The Hall of Famer, as it was once pointed out, is only the fourth-best “Robinson” when it comes to MLB career WAR leaders – he’s 151st all time at 63.8 (61.7 for his 10 years in Brooklyn, plus 2.1 for his one year in Kansas City of the Negro Leagues). That trails Frank Robinson (23rd at 107.2), Brooks Robinson (69th at 78.5) and even Robinson Cano (121st at 68.1).
Even more interesting: Roy Campanella had almost as many years in the Negro Leagues – eight – as the 10 he had with the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1948 (age 26) to his final year at age 35 in ’57 when he became paralyzed in an off-season automobile accident. That meant from age 15 to 23, with the Washington and Baltimore Elite Giants, plus one game with the Philadelphia Stars, he was collecting another 17 homers and 159 RBIs to make his career totals reach 259 (11th all time among catchers) and 1,015 to get past the 1,000 threshold.
As for Willie Mays: His 660 career home runs stays in place – he didn’t hit any during his 13 games for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948 (age 17). His career games played in 22 seasons, however, does go from 2,992 with the Giants and Mets to 3,005, moving him ahead of Cal Ripken Jr. (3,001) in ninth place all time.
== Three more new books about Negro League-based players whose careers are reexamined:
“Fans Called Him ‘Turkey,’ I Called Him Dad: A Daughter Remembers Baseball Hall of Famer Norman Thomas Stearnes,” by Rosilyn Stearnes-Brown (McFarland, 177 pages, $29.95, released in February, 2023);
“Pete Hill: Black Baseball’s First Superstar,” by Bob Luke (McFarland, 226 pages, $35, released December 2022),
“Frank Grant: The Life of a Black Baseball Pioneer,” by Richard Bogovich (McFarland, 287 pages, $39.95, released October, 2022).
== Stay tuned for: “Branch Rickey and the Gospel of Baseball: Righting the Story of America’s Pastime,” by James E. Dillard (McFarland, 192 pages, $39.95, due at the end of July). As we’ve received no review copy or a release, the standard blurb on the publishing website says:
“A teacher and a lawyer before he was a player and a manager, Branch Rickey is best known for his pivotal role in breaking baseball’s color line by signing Jackie Robinson to a Major League contract. Known as ‘the Mahatma,’ Rickey became one of the most influential sports figures of the 20th century by revolutionizing the minor league farm system and encouraging social justice reform on a national scale. This full-length biography chronicles the remarkable six-decade career of the Hall of Famer who transformed baseball and opened opportunities for black and Hispanic players.”
One wonders how “full length” it can be in less than 300 pages. Consider what’s already out there from this publisher alone: From 2007, “Branch Rickey: A Biography” by Murray Polner (280 pages) and “Branch Rickey in Pittsburgh: Baseball’s Trailblazing General Manager for the Pirates 1950-1955” by Andrew O’Toole (223 pages). Add to that: In 2009, the epic “Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman” by Lee Lowenfish (University of Nebraska Press, 688 pages), Jimmy Breslin’s “Branch Rickey: A Life” for Penguin Books in 2011 (160 pages), as well as Roger Kahn’s 2014 “Rickey & Robinson: The True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball” (Rodale Books, 304 pages).
For this latest, we have Dillard, a retired intelligence officer and Lieutenant Colonel with the U.S. Air Force, the CIA, and Defense Intelligence Agency who has dived into university teaching in Maryland in the fields of history, political science, and international relations.