Book Reviews

Book Review – Jackie Robinson: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad – Much More Than Just a Baseball Biography

For some iconic figures in history, they are very well-known for one aspect or event in their life, and little is said about what their accomplishments were outside of that one thing. Such was what I knew about Jackie Robinson. I knew plenty about his breaking the racial barrier in major league baseball, but little about his life outside of that, nor his life beyond those events.

Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Jackie Robinson paints a much fuller and more complete portrait of the man and the legend. Not only was Jackie Robinson: A Biography an education about the subject of the biography, but it was also quite illuminating on the subject of race relations in this country. I learned quite a bit about some very prominent names in my native New York City that I had heard when I lived there, but never quite knew why their names were bantered about so much or why they had a street named for them.

Rampersad starts before Jackie was born, giving the background of his family in their rural Georgia home where they were oppressed by the local white population. The strength his mother possessed to essentially move her family out of that environment to California and achieve what she did is inspiring alone. The details of his family life before his ground-breaking career as a Brooklyn Dodger serves as the foundation for much of what drove him then and throughout his life.

For anyone who thinks the breaking down of racial barriers came out of nowhere in the 1950s and 1960s, Rampersad goes a long way to dispelling the myth. Using documented stories out of the time period as well as interviews with those who were there, Rampersad manages to convey in this biography just how fractured race relations were in this country and how subtle inroads were being made throughout the 1930s and especially the 1940s when the country came together in World War II.

That’s not to say everything was sunshine and roses. Many people know the story of Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus, but how many know that Jackie Robinson faced a court-martial over refusing to do the very same thing? Prior to that, he was also a star athlete in California, along with his brother, Mack. The sibling rivalry was not always friendly and Rampersad does a fair job detailing how the younger brother’s accomplishments ate away at their relationship.

Rampersad is fair in his writing. He doesn’t take a particular opinion of a situation and writes everything toward getting his readers to come to the same conclusion. Rather, he presents conflicting testimony by eyewitnesses to events and lets the reader come to their own conclusions. He might state that in general one person’s description of an incident is backed by other known facts about the people involved, but otherwise, he remains quite neutral in how he writes the biography.

This is especially important once Rampersad moves to Robinson’s breaking the racial barriers in major league baseball. There’s no doubt Robinson faced acrimony and resistance on many fronts. However, as the years went on, it’s understandable that many of the players who might have given Robinson a good deal of difficulty would prefer to forget that time of their life. It’s also highly possible that incidents that were just a normal part of the game took on a new light in the tense atmosphere that Robinson’s presence created.

Jackie Robinson: A Biography is written to allow for varying viewpoints on many fronts. Rampersad doesn’t shy away from the fact that Robinson might have taken things personally that weren’t always meant that way. He allows for the fact that Robinson might have also brought on some of the problems he faced himself. The book is written in the most neutral of tones, with enough depth and details that the situations and events come to life all over again.

Rampersad had unprecedented access not just to the people who knew Jackie Robinson, but also to letters he wrote to friends and family. This was important in his career after baseball. I had no idea of how involved Jackie Robinson was in race relations in the 1960s or his unwavering support for the Republican Party and politicians such as Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller. Rampersad doesn’t pass judgment on this unwavering support but presents the facts that led Robinsons to make his decisions and lets the reader come to their own conclusions about the situation.

Robinson’s family life suffered due to his many commitments and the drive to advance the cause of African-American citizens during this time. Although his wife Rachel was a strong presence that bound them together, his children were faced with a largely absentee father even after his baseball career ended.

Jackie Robinson: A Biography also makes another point about major league baseball players I’d noticed in a recent documentary about Mickey Mantle. The players weren’t paid a great deal, especially in comparison to how the baseball players of today were paid. Most of them made money once they had achieved notoriety by advertising various products or lending their name to various business ventures. Some were successful, some not so much. Despite the ever-present concern for finances, Jackie Robinson always seemed to be concerned with the social impact of what he did as well as the financial.

The depth of Jackie Robinson: A Biography is what makes it more than a cursory read about the integration of major league baseball. One could still argue over whether this was as pivotal to the civil rights movement as it has often been portrayed, but after reading the book, Jackie Robinson was much more pivotal beyond just his role in breaking the color barrier in major league baseball. It’s a fascinating read not just about what happened at Ebbets Field, but also for an inside and detailed look at a turbulent time and subject. I highly recommend it as reading for its details beyond the ballfield as well as on it.

Besides just being about Jackie Robinson, this book also reads as a narrative of the civil rights movement, detailing what led to certain fractures between various noted figures as well as the various organizations and their splitting apart or coming together. Rampersad makes the book about much more than just baseball or Jackie Robinson and does so quite well without straying so far from his initial subject that it feels like he’s writing an entirely different narrative.

Robinson walked a path that had him working alongside people in various economic, ethnic, religious, and racial groups, something he championed throughout his life although the cause of the black man in America was foremost in his mind. Still, he recognized that people needed to work together and not just within their own group. He died relatively young, mainly from the toll his work took on his body and the complications resulting from diabetes. How I wish he could have lived to see just how far we’ve come since he first walked out onto the ballfield in Brooklyn.