Book Review:

"A Hero for Everyone"

I recall the day when I went to check out about a half-dozen books on Jackie Robinson, and the lady stamping my books looked at the name on my library card and said, "Figures, all of youse is just nigger lovers." This was not Mississippi, but nice Jewish and Italian Bensonhurst.

Reviewed by Joseph Rosenberg

Jackie's Nine: Jackie Robinson's Values to Live By

written by Sharon Robinson
Scholastic, 2001

On August 25, 1945 a scant three weeks after the atomic bomb destroyed the city of Hiroshima, Jackie Robinson sat down in an office at 215 Montague Street in Brooklyn, NY and signed a contract to play baseball with the Montreal Royals, liberating a nation divided by pigmentation from its own horrific past.

This book, written by Robinson's daughter, is a simple primer of the values this man lived by in his too-short life: courage, determination, teamwork, persistence, integrity, citizenship, justice, commitment and excellence.

Every chapter explains how each of these values was a part of the author's and her father's life, using as examples events or writings from other people Ms. Robinson considers heroic. Although aimed at young adults, the book's 181 pages have a message for anyone who seeks meaning from a less-than-ideal world.

At first Jackie Robinson's courageous efforts as a baseball player were like a paper-cut on the segregated, bigoted American psyche. As his career progressed and the African-American athlete became accepted by his peers, the press and the public, the paper-cut became deeper and deeper, until at last Martin and Malcolm and their followers shamed the white establishment into making the lovely words of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the rest of the Constitution into a reality.

Jack Roosevelt Robinson started a process that still evolves and resonates in our lives.

I grew up in Brooklyn, and my first memories as a Dodger fan are of rooting for them in 1950, when they lost out on the last day of the season to the Philadelphia Phillies. The next year, when I was 9, I started going to the public library and began taking out books on baseball and my hero, Jackie Robinson.

I recall the day when I went to check out about a half-dozen books on Robinson, and the lady stamping my books looked at the name on my library card and said, "Figures, all of youse is just nigger lovers." This was not Mississippi, but nice Jewish and Italian Bensonhurst. Somehow, I felt like I was not fitting in.

Later, as an adult, I read in Roger Kahn's books how in the very conservative Dodger clubhouse, Jackie Robinson warmly greeted Edward R. Murrow, another hero, while owner Walter O'Malley openly wondered why such a "pinko" was in his house.

Now revisionists say that Branch Rickey just signed Robinson so he could line his pockets with revenue from African-American fans and that Robinson himself was a chronic malcontent. The truth is that Rickey sowed the seeds of his own demise in a power struggle with Walter O'Malley, who forced him out of the Dodgers in 1950 because O'Malley implied Rickey destroyed the status quo of baseball and angered its establishment.

After two years of silence, the same man who battled the US Army about a seat on a bus, who was an All-American football player, basketball and track star, showed that he could fight back and hold his own with anyone.

I recall seeing him recently on an old episode of "Happy Felton's Knothole Gang," a show that aired before Dodger home games. There, some kids catch and throw, and the best get to play catch with a favorite Dodger. In this episode, a young Italian kid won the right to chat up Jackie Robinson and asked him a complicated question about the infield fly rule. With a slight smile on his face and in a "man to man manner," Robinson answers the question, looking the kid and the camera right in the eye.

In the same forthright manner, I remember Robinson explaining in 1960 why he backed Nixon, and later how he was interested in Black enterprise, and finally, in his last appearance at the 1972 World Series, saying he'd be really satisfied if he saw a Black face in the third base coaching box.

I believe it was Rickey Henderson, in many ways a poster child for the immature, unaware athlete, who, when asked about Jackie Robinson, answered that he was nothing special, that he was doing what a Jackie Robinson was supposed to do.

No, Rickey. You are wrong.

I remember Jackie Robinson following Bobby Thompson around the bases in the Polo Grounds in 1951, making sure he touched every one. I remember him stealing home in the 1955 World Series, the only game the Brooklyn Dodgers won against the lily-white Yankees. His autobiography, exerpted in this book was titled I Never Had it Made.

And I remember reading about an old bearded man in Ebbets Field one day shouting, when Robinson delivered a game-winning hit, "Yankel, Yankel, atta boychick, mein hero!"

Kids like me worshipped the Dodgers, the Willie Mays/Monte Irvin Giants, the Larry Doby/Satchel Paige/Luke Easter Cleveland Indians.

It is a shame the institution of the Negro Leagues was destroyed by baseball's integration. But many good institutions like black-only academies were harmed by the growth of integration.

Some Englishmen said the leaders of WWI were forged on the playing fields of Eton. The values of a progressive post-war America were formed on the hard chairs of Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds and other places where we were exposed to people like Jack Roosevelt Robinson, and the values he has come to represent.

They called Jackie Robinson "Ty Cobb in Technicolor," but to me Cobb was just a monochromatic, self-absorbed egoist compared to the self-sacrificing, most important athlete of our times, Mein hero.


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This story was published on June 5, 2002.