The book: “Beyond Home Plate: Jackie Robinson on Life After Baseball”
The author: Michael Long
The vital stats: Syracuse University Press, 248 pages, $29.95
The pitch: When you can come up with a fresh take on Jackie Robinson’s life story, one that’s been told so many ways by so many people, you race toward it in kind of the same way Robinson once took off from third base in a steal of home.
The official release today of “Beyond Home Plate” is what Michael G. Long, an associate professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Elizabethtown College, pitches from a rather simple angle, but it’s astonishing this material hasn’t come out before.
Long’s previous edited book on this subject, “First Class Citizen: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson” in 2007 — which coincided with the 60th anniversary of his breaking the color barrier — is the perfect primer for what “Beyond Home Plate” is trying to achieve. The more depth and breadth that can be presented about Robinson’s post-playing career pursuits, starting in the late ’50s and through his passing in 1972, the better we have an understanding that he just wasn’t a baseball crusader, but more along the lines of another UCLA alum, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who considered Robinson his hero).
Aside from the most compelling cover graphic on a book you’ll see on the shelves, what Long arranges here are columns that Robinson wrote for the New York Post and, after he left to work for Richard Nixon’s 1960 campaign, the New York Amsterdam News. Most are in the late ’50s after his playing career ended, but they eventually cover a 10-year-plus period, very poignant as they pertain to the volatile periods of the 1960s that saw civil rights in the forefront of the news, as well as the implications from the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
So maybe all those years hanging out with future Hall of Fame writer Wendell Smith rubbed off on Robinson? Or it seems more work could have been done for the Daily Bruin in his day.
Long divides the works into subjects that cover baseball/golf, family/friends, civil rights, peace with justice and politics. He admits none of this would have been possible without the help of Rachel Robinson, who not only gave permission but helped with early versions of the book and made suggestions.
Maybe in the new movie “42” (which was the box office’s biggest draw this past weekend), you can see Robinson’s actions speaking louder than his words. But here, Robinson’s voice in the printed word defines himself — he’s neither a Republican nor a Democrat but only interested in getting the work done. It reveals how he started off not a big fan of President Kennedy and became involved in helping President Nixon based on his actions rather than his words. His political philosophy was spelled out in the phrase: “It is not good policy for any minority to put all their eggs in one political basket.”
Long writes in the intro: “Robinson was really his own man — his own black man — and he was dedicated … to the cause that was near and dear to his heart: First-class citizenship for African Americans and other minorities long banished from the white corridors of power in Congress and the White House and on Wall Street and Main Street.”
Robinson’s attention span is “breathtaking” and “provocative,” Long admits, and he best edits to the core of Robinson’s arguments in the pieces that relate to King’s ideals. His views of the Vietnam War are most conflicted, considering his son, Jack Jr., went off to fight in it, and came home a drug addict.
But there’s also an eclectic arrangement on his thoughts on the day about people such as Ella Fitzgerald, Fidel Castro, Duke Ellington or Dwight Eisenhower. There’s even one special written about Rachel, whom he calls the most important person in his life.
The column that packs the biggest punch may be his last, where, after suffering a heart attack in 1968, he tells everyone he’s not doing down for the count. He’s even feistier, complaining about Nixon’s re-election and the “lily-white nature” of the GOP convention that “will come back to haunt it.”
“The Republican Party has told the black man to go to hell. I offer them a similar invitation.”
Treasure the message, and applaud Robinson for taking to journalism to keep his voice vital. You’d think he could get the same points across today in a world of Facebook or Twitter, but it would only trivialize what he was trying to achieve, even if it did reach the elite masses who had the time and finances to maintain such a platform. Think of all those, even today, who can’t afford such a luxury and continue to consume news from the purchase of a 50-cent newspaper (let alone be the one delivering it to your porch at 5 a.m.)
Hopefully, there is an affordability for those considered to be on the margins to get a copy of this book, even if in a public library. For a book of this size, it packs a treasure in it’s message. We leave the best explanation again from Long:
“The example Robinson sets through these columns — a passionate life full of righteous anger and bigheartedness — could not be more refreshing than it is in this Age of Athletes Gone Bad, a time when many athletes are notoriously known for shooting one another, abusing drugs and people, or dedicating their lives to consumption upon consumption. … The world needs more Jackie Robinsons.”
More to know:
== Long blogs about his book on the Huffington Post and in USA Today.
== A review of “Beyond” plus other Robinson-related material in the Newark Star-Ledger by Chris Lamb, a journalism professor at Indiana University-Indianapolis and author of “Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training”