Jackie Robinson as Man and Hero

By Early, Gerald L | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), April 16, 2013 | Go to article overview

Jackie Robinson as Man and Hero


Early, Gerald L, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Famed African-American ballplayer Jackie Robinson is not a stranger to the Hollywood biopic. Before the just-released "42," Robinson was the subject of the 1991 film, "The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson," and in 1949, he played himself in the modestly budgeted "The Jackie Robinson Story."

The fact that Robinson was the subject of a biopic after only two years as a major league player was not lost on his highly jealous white peers, who could only dream of having a film made about their lives. Coupled with the extensive coverage given to Robinson's life in Ken Burns' epic documentary "Baseball" (1994), where, as Burns told me, Robinson was the hero of his film and the integration of baseball the dramatic dnouement of the film's narrative, Robinson is permanently etched in the national memory.

The great collegiate athlete was special the moment he signed his contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945. He was made for the tragic and absurd grandeur of his moment.

In addition, Robinson wrote three autobiographies during his life, "My Own Story" (with black sportswriter Wendell Smith, 1948), "Wait Till Next Year: The Story of Jackie Robinson" (with black newspaperman Carl Rowan, 1960) and "I Never Had It Made" (with Al Duckett, 1972). Robinson also wrote a valuable book, mostly composed of interviews, about the integration of baseball called "Baseball Has Done It" (1964).

To be sure, Robinson was aware of his own mythological status as a racial pioneer, which he thought he could put to good use as he was a fervent supporter of the civil rights movement. His wife, Rachel, had an authorized biography done by Arnold Rampersad in 1997, the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Robinson taking the field as a Brooklyn Dodger.

Despite all of this, the question remains: Who was Jackie Robinson? With major league baseball trying so ardently to hide its hideously racist past under the twin klieg lights of nostalgia for some golden age of whiteness and the glorious heroism of Jackie Robinson, it is very possible that who that man was will blur into a labyrinth of myths not unlike those that shroud Lincoln. The myth of St. Jackie who lived selflessly and died prematurely for our racial sins may ultimately be a huge disservice to the man and to our nation.

Robinson was a prickly, intense, highly competitive man. He understood that he was a hero to blacks but he did not enjoy it or even particularly like it. Robinson's toughness, his supreme egotism as an athlete (even his black teammates complained about the fact that Robinson felt he was better than anyone else), his undaunted racial pride that he wore like a chip on his shoulder, made him ideal for integrating baseball and Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, who signed Robinson, knew this. …

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