Our midpoint in the annual 30 baseball book reviews for the month of April, and the tip of the cap to those in the literary world who annually honor Jackie Robinson, a man who the Society for American Baseball Research refers to as “perhaps the most historically significant baseball player ever, ranking with Babe Ruth in terms of his impact on the national pastime. Ruth changed the way baseball was played; Jackie Robinson changed the way Americans thought.”
The book: “Jackie Robinson in Quotes: The Remarkable Life of Baseball’s Most Significant Player”
The author: Danny Peary
The vital statistics: Page Street Publishing, 432 pages, $19.99. To be released April 19
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com
The pitch: “Without a doubt, the most important person in the history of baseball is Jackie Robinson.”
That’s what documentarian Ken Burns said last January to a group of TV writers in Pasadena when talking about the two-part film he had put together for PBS, which then debuted this week. He likely repeated the line over and over to reporters afterward because it is so concise and headline worthy.
But in an interview posted this week on SI.com, Burns expanded:
“We have turned Jackie Robinson into shorthand for our own wishes and desires when the real person is so interesting and contemporary. Do you want to know him in his full dimension, or would you rather it just be the superficial, syrupy, sugarcoated Madison Avenue version of the past?”
That’s the quote that gets to the heart of this compilation of what could be label “Robinson’s greatest hits.” It points out the inherent flaw in a culled collection of quotes, book excerpts, press releases and interview snippets that attempt to sum up a person’s life, when it really can’t, specifically in this case.
Burns’ “without a doubt” quote is the last of hundreds used in this book by Peary, a longtime writer and researcher who has done books with Tim McCarver and about Roger Maris and Gil Hodges.
In choosing this format to add to the already vast collection of Robinson-related books in circulation, it really is more an amalgamation of all those funneled into one binding.
“The best of” sort of thing. A Cliff Notes for those who need Robinson in palatable reflection, rather than a four-hour Burnsian production.
But then again, this misses too much content about a man who deserves far more depth than just having fortune cookie-clips of his life.
It’s broken down into 13 chapters that related to different parts of Robinson’s life. Much of it is recognizable from autobiographies, like “My Own Story” as told to Wendell Smith in 1948, through “I Never Had it Made” as told to Alfred Duckett in 1972, just before Robinson’s passing. Others aren’t so much quotes as lines from a magazine or newspaper story, even a press release or a wire service report, that have to do with Robinson.
(For all the yarns that Vin Scully has told about Robinson, only one is used — him recalling the time he ice skated in a race against Robinson in the Catskills, even thought Robinson had never put on skates before).
The quote-to-quote puzzle piecing method can be an effective way to learn about Robinson’s life as if you’re “reading” what becomes a print version of a talking-head documentary.
But some seem to be force fed between the lines with strange context. Like:
“Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!” — Neighborhood girl to Jack, 1927
Without proper context to that quote, it seems pretty harsh. As Burns points out in his doc, and has also been chronicled, that quote is a result of a shouting match Robinson had with a neighbor where he also shouted things back at her.
Well over 100 sources are cited for for Peary, including a personal interview himself with Rachel Robinson. But to pad this even further, he occasionally drops in some “JR Notes” along the way to break up the text, such as an explanation as to why Robinson was given No. 42:
“He has previously worn Number 9 with the Montreal Royals (1946) and Number 5 with the Kansas City Monarchs (1945). Some people contended the Dodgers gave him a fairly high number as a rookie to protect him from aggressive reporters who assumed teams gave low numbers only to those players they expected to become stars; others insisted the high number indicated the team’s lack of faith that the new black player would be successful.”
Ultimately does this format work? On a scale of 1-to-42, we’ll give it something high enough to show that we don’t lack confidence in its success, but not too low to wrongly imply it’s a superstar in the making.
The book: “Jackie Robinson West: The Triumph and Tragedy of America’s Favorite Little League Team”
The author: George Castle
The vital statistics: Lyons Press, 272 pages, $24.95, Released April 1
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com
The pitch: Castle, the Chicago-based writer whose work on baseball history we reviewed earlier this month, goes far more than just a cursory rehash of what happened to the all black, Chicago-area Little League team that won the U.S. World Series championship in 2014 (including a win over the Mo’ne Davis team from Philadelphia), lost in the final to South Korea, but later was stripped of its title because, as the headline in Sports Illustrated said, of fraud and cover up.
The feel-good story, some thought to be too good to be true, really was after all based on Castle’s followup.
“At a basic level, kids doing well was simply uplifting, the sugar to the vinegar of so much bad news all summer,” Castle writes on page 37. “The steady stream of bad tidings ranged from shootings, usually accidental, of children the JRW players’ age that continued into the winter in Chicago to the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that also boiled over when the weather chilled. The stirring Little League World Series run had an immediate quick fix on the psyche of an often-wounded Chicago in the last summer of 2014. Blue Mondays got a little brighter.”
Some lawsuits are still pending and the cloud that was over the program may have dissipated. It wasn’t so much a planned scandal as it was getting caught up in the moment. And it continues to be a teachable moment for kids, and adults. In a way, perfect for a Little League named after Jackie Robinson.
The book: “The Hero Two Doors Down: Based on the True Story of Friendship Between a Boy and a Baseball Legend”
The author: Sharon Robinson
The vital statistics: Scholastic Press, 208 pages, $16.99. Released Jan. 26
Find it: At Amazon.com, at the author’s website.
The pitch: Jackie Robinson’s daughter has beautifully written more than a half-dozen titles for kids in the grade 3-7 level, and this latest one is based on a true story.
== “Jackie Robinson: An Integrated Life,” by J. Christopher Schultz, from the Library of African American Biography Series by Rowman & Littlefield Publisher, coming out May 15.
== “Handson Ransom Jackson: Accidental Big Leaguer,” by Ransom Jackson Jr., with Gaylon White (Rowman & Littlefield, 240 pages, $34, coming out May 16.) By the cover, you’d think it might be a “Jackie and Me” tome, but Jackson, an Arkansas native and college football star at TCU who played 10 big-league seasons as a third baseman, came to the Brooklyn Dodgers in ’56 to purportedly be Robinson’s replacement. The two played one year together in 1957, Robinson’s last in the big leagues, and Jackson hit the final home run at Ebbets Field. He followed the Dodgers to L.A. in ’58, played just 35 games and was traded to Cleveland and then back to the Chicago Cubs, the team that had him as a ’54 and ’55 NL All-Star team member. “Randy” Jackson is now 90 years old living in Little Rock, Ark.
More to know:
= A letter written today by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.
= A Jackie Robinson tribute song that Annakin Slayd and Leese Mackey recently released to honor Robinson’s time in Montreal: