Arnold Rampersad has written a brilliant and eloquent biography of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play a major professional team sport. His deeply moving book commemorates the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s first taking the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers that spring of 1947. Jackie Robinson: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, $27.50, 494 pages) is both a baseball book, and the full story of the man’s life, with all its physical and political courage, and its measure of tragedy.
Rampersad places Jackie Robinson in an evolving line of images of strong black manhood, beginning with Joe Louis, moving on to Jackie, and onward to Malcolm X. Each was a reflection of his time and what would be allowed, Rampersad says. This new biography is likely to inspire admiration for the richness of its texture and the excitement of the heartrending story it tells. At a time when racism remains a crucial issue in American life, this book is also likely to generate debate.
Reminiscences by some of the key players in the Jackie Robinson drama will be shared at a free event at Princeton University in conjunction with the book’s release. Remembering Branch Rickey & Jackie Robinson is a program organized by Rampersad, with Branch B. Rickey, grandson of former Dodger owner, Robinson’s daughter Sharon Robinson, baseball writer Roger Kahn, and moderator Sean Wilentz at Princeton’s McCosh 50, on Tuesday, September 23, at 7:30 p.m.
For Rampersad, Robinson is nothing less than an authentic hero: no black American man had ever shone so brightly for so long as the epitome not only of stoic endurance but also of intelligence, bravery, grit, and physical power, he writes. He compares Jackie to the slave revolutionary Nat Turner and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the steel-driving John Henry and the roustabout Stagolee.
Jackie Robinson becomes a national treasure in this magnificent biography which brings tears to the eyes from that heartbreaking moment when Dodger owner Branch Rickey asks Robinson, Do you know why you were brought here? This is a book about America’s struggle for democracy and equality as much as it is the gripping story of the integration of its favorite pastime, the game of baseball.
Arnold Rampersad, professor of literature at Princeton, became in 1991 a MacArthur Foundation fellow, those prizes popularly known as genius grants because they are awarded to outstanding achievers purely on the basis of merit and future promise. He lives in Princeton with his wife Marvina, who is director of Princeton University’s writing program, and their son Luke, age 9. His stepdaughter, Anikah, is a senior at George Washington University. They share their home with a cockatiel named Ghost.
In a recent interview in Princeton, Rampersad described how he came to the story of Jackie Robinson having already completed biographical works on W. E. B. Du Bois and the poet Langston Hughes. He is also the author of Arthur Ashe’s Days of Grace: A Memoir.
Rampersad says he had been considering writing Colin Powell’s autobiography (eventually done by Joseph Persico). That it fell through was just as well; Rampersad smiles wryly when he adds that it seemed inappropriate that with Powell’s advance of $6.5 million, the agent should be making more money than the actual author of the book. Rampersad acknowledges the limitations of biography. If historians see biography as an imperfect instrument, he argues, nonetheless it’s an important one. All history is imperfect, Rampersad rightly suggests.
It was Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel, who came to Rampersad with the idea for this biography, one which, coincidentally, he had already discussed with his editor at Knopf, Jonathan Segal, who had approached Mrs. Robinson years before about just such a book. At first Rampersad demurred, believing a Jackie Robinson biography should be written by someone with greater understanding of the intricacies of baseball. But Rachel Robinson quickly said, It has to be about much more than baseball. She agreed with alacrity when Rampersad imposed that condition so essential to credible biography: independence. She would have no right to approve the final manuscript. With full access to Robinson’s papers, Rampersad, astoundingly, completed this project in two years, with one year devoted to the actual writing. With the goal of finishing the book in time for the 1997 anniversary observance, he describes the project as the toughest job of my life.
At the same time, Rachel Robinson was so open when they would meet, sometimes three times a week, at the Jackie Robinson Foundation offices in New York, and her character and determination were so impressive, that Rampersad reports working with her was one of the great experiences of my life.
He discovered, inevitably, the psychological damage endured by Robinson, the result of the anger he had promised Branch Rickey he would suppress; he had always been a tightly wound, intense person. The stress took its toll; Jackie Robinson died at 52 of complications of diabetes. Reading Rampersad’s descriptions of how Robinson was mistreated so horrifically, by fans, by opponents, and by many of his own teammates, and of the ghastly physical and psychic toll on the man, Rachel Robinson became distraught.
Why do you have to mention this incident? she asked Rampersad one day. She expressed concern that Jackie seemed so combative. Rampersad says he had to include such moments and he did. Both during his lifetime and after it, myths perpetuated by both whites and blacks flourished about Jackie Robinson. Some said, with little evidence, that he was violent, and aggressive, and raged out of control. (Jackie did refuse to sit meekly at the back of a segregated bus in an incident that led to an Army court martial). He became both his admirers and his detractors, Rampersad discovered. The author’s task was to sort through the rumors to create a semblance of the truth.
Having grown up in Trinidad, Rampersad never saw a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball game. He received his BA and first MA at Bowling Green State University in 1976 and earned his master’s and Ph.D. at Harvard in 1973. With academic appointments at University of Virginia, Stanford, Rutgers, and Columbia, he joined the Princeton faculty in 1990 as director of the program in American Studies. When superstar Cornel West was bid away from Princeton to Harvard in 1995, Rampersad replaced him as director of the program in African-American studies. This directorship is now occupied by history professor Nell Painter.
Research on the new book began when Rampersad went out and talked to former Dodger greats. Carl Erskine was forthcoming, those with grievances against history, like big Don Newcombe, less so. Not wanting to appear too close to the revolutionary Robinson, even in the 1990s, Larry Doby, the first black to play in the American League, refused to be interviewed.
Jackie Robinson is a big book, replete with fascinating social history, not least how, as late as the 1920s, in the Jim Crow South, police intimidated blacks to prevent them from migrating to other areas of the country so as not to lose their source of cheap labor. The evocation of life in those times for a black in Pasadena, California, is fascinating. Two sons of John Brown, the abolitionist, had settled there. Jackie’s hardworking, visionary mother became a maid. A teacher declared that Jackie’s likely occupation would be a gardener!
Rampersad soon realized that there was a greater seamlessness between Robinson’s baseball life and the rest of his life than people assumed. He moves from the story of star athlete Jackie, (at UCLA he earned letters in four sports baseball, basketball, football and tennis) to the life of the man after baseball. Jackie’s courage in entering the major leagues is placed in the context of an era when the NAACP had trouble desegregating swimming pools in California!
Every biographer sooner or later meets unanswerable questions. For Rampersad it was the source of Jackie Robinson’s puritanism, his abstemiousness, no less than his fierce will to win, the resilience which meant that the pressure and the taunts only made him compete harder, play better. For those who don’t know Robinson’s story Jackie Robinson is must reading. It is tragedy with a happy ending as Robinson takes the field, the first black man in the major leagues, having survived even a last-ditch petition circulated among Dodger players not to let him come up. At the Brooklyn Dodger games we see, in Rampersad’s words, his calibrated recklessness, his cheeky challenge to the white pitchers, the insolence of his baserunning, the guttiness of his base hits, the violence of the long ball.
Yet Rampersad has not written hagiography, the life of a saint. Robinson, Rampersad reveals, didn’t always tell the truth, and he could be a prima donna and even a hot-head. The book is so cool, an editor at Knopf was heard to remark, surprised by Rampersad’s willingness to criticize his subject at moments. After baseball, thrust into a role as spokesman for African Americans, Robinson sometimes faltered. He took a job as vice-president of personnel with Chock Full O’Nuts clearly designed to exploit him and to forestall the unionizing of the workers.
A religious zeal which found expression in anti-Communism temporarily blinded him and he testified before HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, against poor Paul Robeson, legitimatizing thereby that despicable enterprise. Yet Robinson was enraged by police brutality at the Peekskill event where Robeson was to perform and later regretted his testimony.
We also discover a Robinson groping for direction. Courageously he testified against baseball’s reserve-clause system which had been challenged heroically by Curt Flood. When the NAACP dragged its feet on civil rights, seeking a more militant approach, Robinson allied himself with Martin Luther King’s SCLC. After supporting Richard Nixon for years, he changed his mind. When I see a guy with an American flag decal, Robinson concluded, I know he’s not for me, a remark which raised eyebrows. His efforts for poor blacks predated the Civil Rights movement.
Tellingly, Rampersad reveals the wider consequences of the integration of baseball, which included the Chase Hotel in St. Louis finally admitting black Dodger players in the spring of 1954, a month before the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. As Rampersad writes passionately, At whatever cost to his happiness, he would continue to scream when he felt pain, lash back when unfairly attacked, shout the truth in the face of power. Rampersad’s Robinson is always pushing against injustice, nudging the door to equality open, and he wasn’t afraid to be right.
At Princeton, Rampersad says his academic stock has dropped since he began to write about athletes. It’s as if Jackie Robinson’s story were about his slides into home plate rather than the profound, as Rampersad puts it, fulfillment of prophecy that was not so much personal to Jack as rooted in the promise of racial history that blacks would one day be free, that the grand national ideals of equality and democracy would one day be writ so large as to include the grandchildren of slaves of whom he was chosen to be the living embodiment.
What’s your next book about, Charles Barkley? one snide, obviously envious colleague asked.
I won’t become immobilized by what my colleagues think, Rampersad promises. He is committed to writing about African-American lives because clearly I’m more needed. African Americans, he notes, have excelled in two areas, sports and entertainment. Who’s next? Rampersad smiles as he ponders who has supplanted Malcolm X to become today’s most inspiring black figure. Bill Cosby? Michael Jordan?
Since all of his subjects have been men, Rampersad is attracted to the idea of writing a biography of a woman. He approached fellow Princeton University faculty member and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison who turned him down. In Jackie Robinson, Rampersad reveals himself to be that rarest of biographers, one both passionate and honest. Morrison might do well to reconsider.
Joan Mellen’s most recent book is the dual biography, Hellman and Hammett (HarperPerennial). She teaches creative writing at Temple University.
Remembering Branch Rickey & Jackie Robinson, Princeton University, McCosh 50, 609-258-4270. Free. Tuesday, September 23, 7:30 p.m.
Other Rampersad appearances include: Louise Collins Show, Encore Books, 609-252-0608, Monday, October 6, 7 p.m. The Arts Council of Princeton Jackie Robinson Gala, Nassau Inn, 609-924-8777, Sunday, October 19, 6 p.m. And a reading at the Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-8777, Tuesday, October 21, 8 p.m.