Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Book Review: Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season by Jonathan Eig

Reviewed by Jeffrey Caminsky

In our daily lives, we often tend to take the familiar for granted, and mistake what we see around us for the natural order of things. Doing so, we miss not only many opportunities for changing the world for the better; we also miss the chance to bring perspective to the ebb and flow of events, and to understand how the world is constantly changing around us.

Change itself is rarely easy, and it is not always for the better. But sometimes, the painful process of change can reveal what is noble in the human soul. In Opening Day, author Jonathan Eig tells the story of the year that saw Jackie Robinson change the face of Major League baseball-and open doors of opportunity for countless men and women across the country, whose only disability was the hatred and bigotry that arose due to a difference in their skin pigmentation. It is a tale everyone knows, but nobody really understands. And the book is an exquisite and inspiring exposition of how mere mortals can overcome adversity with courage and determination.

The year 1947 found American a different country than it is today. Segregation laws, in place throughout the South, were at odds with the ideals of American democracy, and many returning veterans—Americans who had answered the call of duty to protect their country and all it stood for—found themselves relegated to back doors, segregated slums, and separate drinking fountains, all to indulge the sensibilities of the grandchildren of slave-owners, whose views on racial purity were not terribly different from those who operated the camps and ovens liberated in 1945, which had so shocked and horrified the world.

One such returning veteran was a well-educated and powerfully-built college graduate named Jack Roosevelt Robinson. An athletic standout at UCLA, he excelled in football and basketball, and in a different era would have already been a national sensation with his breathtaking skills and fierce competitive instincts. But this was before the age of fat TV contracts and padded athletic salaries: athletes were not yet media darlings, but were simply considered hired help. And mainstream American sports did not reflect the full spectrum of color. Like American society itself, sports were segregated by race—and baseball, a sport whose culture in post-war America was decidedly Southern, seemed an unlikely place to begin the process of integration. And at first blush, Robinson seemed an unlikely candidate for the job of racial ground-breaker: baseball was not even his best sport.

But Brooklyn was itself something of a melting pot: immigrants of all kinds made it an amalgam of all things American, and the Brooklyn Dodgers-a collection of misfits and oddballs that seemed at once distinctly New York, but typically American-had a visionary owner who was seized by the notion that doing what he knew was "the right thing" would help his team by reaping an untapped reservoir of talent that was being unfairly denied the chance to shine. Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn owner who was determined to break the color barrier, secretly set about scouting the old Negro league for the best players he could find, convinced that the time was right for integrating the major leagues, and that all the players needed was the opportunity to show what they could do. All Rickey needed was the right player.

As the author shows, Jackie Robinson was not the calm, untroubled athlete of myth we see in the history books. He was, instead, an angry man, embittered by the racial injustice around him and fiercely determined to prove himself as a man and as an athlete. He was also, in the end, the perfect choice for Rickey's daring experiment. Proud and defiant, Robinson was tough enough to withstand the pressures that inevitably followed the attempt to break the color barrier. He had, as a captain in the Army, faced a court-martial rather than back down when a white private rudely ordered him to the back of a bus. But when, still unsure of Rickey's intentions, Robinson asked whether the Brooklyn owner was looking for someone who wouldn't fight back, Rickey replied that what he needed was someone "with the courage not to." Though initially unsure of the support he would get from the front office, once Robinson saw the lengths to which the Brooklyn management would go to quell dissent from the southerners on the team over his presence—and that even an early-season slump didn't provide an excuse to have him riding the bench for the rest of the season—he started to relax enough to play his own brand of baseball. It as a style that was fiery and combative, for though he had promised Branch Rickey that he would do nothing to give the bigots and hate-mongers anything to attack, he found that he could release his passions and resentments in the best way possible: by proving himself on the field.

And in the end, Jackie Robinson electrified crowds throughout the country. His exploits on the field did more to open eyes to the wealth of talent that our old attitudes and prejudices were holding back than any number of lectures on human rights the brotherhood of man. And as the season unfolded, all fair-minded men and women-of all races-were captivated by the human drama unfolding before their eyes: a man, with nothing but his dignity and talent, standing tall against hate and intolerance, and leading his team to a championship through his bravery on the field and off.

Tightly written, and woven around the personalities of the participants, Opening Day reads more like a novel than as a biography. Robinson himself is shown not as the saintly figure often depicted in baseball legend, but with all his pride and anger intact. In the end, the story it tells set the foundation for the Civil Rights movement that followed two decades later. It makes the saga richer, more human-and, by acknowledging the struggle between the needs of the moment and Robinson's all-too-human shortcomings, it serves to reveal just how heroic a figure he was. It shows that courage often consists of more than taking a bold stand for principle: sometimes, the most courageous among us are those who refuse to surrender to our emotions, and resist the instinct to lash out at those who taunt us. It is a lesson that would make for a better, nobler world if more of us could follow the lead set by the hero of the story; the world we see today shows just how far short we fall of his example.

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a veteran public prosecutor in Detroit, Michigan, specializes in the appellate practice of criminal law and writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the exciting second volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed The Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

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