Every 10 years, we find more reasons to remember Jackie Robinson. In 1987, Dodgers general manager Al Campanis told Ted Koppel on Nightline that even 40 years after Robinson broke the color barrier, blacks still “may not have some of the necessities” to become sports executives. He was forced to resign two days later. In 1997, Major League Baseball retired Robinson’s number in perpetuity around the game—the only honor of its kind in American sports.
This year, 60 years after Robinson became the first black player in Major League Baseball, Jonathan Eig, in his new book Opening Day, examines the landmark year of 1947 and takes a stab at offering us a few more reasons to remember.
Because so much has already been written about him, a biography of Jackie Robinson is a tall order. But this is a different kind of book, one that tries—however awkwardly—to examine the player in his rookie season.
Mr. Eig—the author of a biography of Lou Gehrig—sets out to unwind Robinson legend from Robinson reality, which is really an exciting prospect. But instead of demystifying, Mr. Eig winds up channeling the same affected style that mars so many accounts of sports legends.
There are some bright spots, as when Mr. Eig reveals that Robinson’s supposedly tight relationship with tough-guy Southern shortstop Harold Henry (Pee Wee) Reese wasn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. The story goes that Reese’s embrace of Robinson in his rookie season helped spur a flood of support from other white players. Not so, says Mr. Eig: There’s no documented evidence in Robinson’s accounts, Reese’s accounts or newspaper stories to suggest that they were friends in 1947.
But that’s one of the book’s few revelations. Instead, Mr. Eig retells the old stories with Mitch Albom–style romanticism.
On Ebbets Field: “The ballpark had a sneaky kind of beauty. You turned a corner and there it was. The awning in front reminded you of your favorite soda fountain or candy shop, only this place was so much sweeter.” On radio announcer Red Barber: “Barber’s drawl made baseball more magical, as if the game belonged to another place and time. The heartland had crickets. Brooklyn had Red Barber.”
The descriptions of Robinson himself are just as corny. A player who lends himself so easily to playful characterization is described as a “a human whirlwind” with a “competitive streak as wide as a Pacific sunset.”
The effect is so synthetic. Perhaps Mr. Eig was influenced by the purple prose of the 1940’s baseball writers he had to read in order to draw this text together. But there’s no reason to wax nostalgic when most of his readers never went to soda fountains after school.
Mr. Eig was forced to rely on postwar baseball writers because, well, he was born after the demolition of Ebbets Field. Not that his age is a shortcoming, really. It’s something he could have used to his advantage by offering us a 21st-century interpretation of a 20th-century hero.
Jackie Robinson is especially relevant now that professional sports are moving ever closer to a new, contemporary problem similar to Robinson’s: the emergence of openly gay professional athletes. But that goes untouched in Opening Day, as does any fresh or bold statement that could have been made about that year. We’re left instead with an opening day we’ve seen.
John Koblin is a reporter at The Observer.
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