Book Review: Opening Day

For the last several years I’ve had the pleasure of teaching American history courses. On the first day I’ll give a handout with basic questions on it to help me get a feel for the students. One question: “What historical figure(s) do you consider to be a personal hero?” Only six names are guaranteed to be mentioned every semester: Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, FDR, JFK, Rosa Parks and Jack Roosevelt Robinson. No sports figure, not even Muhammad Ali, is as highly regarded as #42 from the Brooklyn Dodgers.

As any good baseball fan knows, this year marks the 60th anniversary of major league baseball’s integration. Seven years before the Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education verdict against Jim Crow, Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, refuting MLB’s diseased gentlemen’s agreement that forced “separate but equal” leagues. The publishing industry has noted this anniversary with a spate of new books on the national pastime’s integration as both After Jackie and Carrying Jackie’s Torch focus on the struggle for integration in the years after Robinson’s breakthrough.

Alternately, Jonathan Eig, the esteemed author of a well-received biography of Lou Gehrig focuses specifically on Robinson’s story. His book, Opening Day, marks the first major effort to write a full-length book on that most historic season. Admittedly, former Dodgers announcer Red Barber wrote a book on 1947. Alas, that tome serves as an example of how those closest to historic events can have the hardest time gaining proper perspective on the unfolding events. For Barber the real story of the year was the dueling relationship between Branch Rickey and Larry MacPhail with Robinson’s rookie season playing a secondary role. Jules Tygiel’s majestic Baseball’s Great Experiment remains the one volume history of baseball integration, but while Robinson’s rookie campaign serves as the heart of the story, it doesn’t make up the entire body. Robinson’s own autobiography also obviously covers broader group than the one season.

Eig does a masterful job filling this void. For this book, Eig has spoken to virtually every remaining witness from 1947 he could get a hold of, most notably multiple interviews Robinson’s widow, Rachel. He also plowed through all previous books that touch on the matter and checked archives and other appropriate sources.

The interviews are the heart of this book, and the stories he’s culled from individuals serve as the engine that drives “Opening Day.” For example, Eig tells of a white 17-year-old student named Gil Jonas who had never had an in-depth conversation with a black person before 1947. He interviewed Robinson for his school newspaper, asking strictly baseball questions, never even thinking to wonder about any broader significance of Robinson’s appearance in the starting lineup.

Attending the game after the interview, Jonas witnessed one of the most infamous events of the season as Phillies manager Ben Chapman led his club in some vicious and openly racist bench jockeying of Robinson. The event sparked an awareness of American racism for Jonas. He later helped lead a drive to integrate Stanford University and went on to become one of the leading fundraisers for the NAACP. Most tales aren’t that dramatic, but each chapter has some interesting memories from some individual somehow touched by Robinson’s rookie season.

While stories like that abound in this work, the most important stories center on Robinson himself. Eig tries to the give the reader a sense of what the experience was like for Robinson, especially his turmoil early in the season before he’d fully proven himself in the majors. He gives details of Robinson’s personal life, such as the difficulty the Robinsons had in finding adequate housing in the largely segregated neighborhoods of New York where the exploding black population caused a considerable housing shortage.

Unlike most books that focus on a single season, the games themselves are a secondary concern. Eig makes sure the reader knows how the Dodgers did, but that’s not the point. Even Robinson’s own athletic achievements are slightly off-center. What matters is how Robinson holds up under the incredible demands placed on him and how his achievements affect those around him. The book primarily focuses on the first six weeks of the season when Robinson proved he could play. By the time June arrives, Eig is most of the way through his narrative. The rest of the regular season goes by in a blur until the World Series, where Eig gives considerable attention to the specific games.

The story of Robinson’s season is well-known. After Leo Durocher and Branch Rickey squelched a threatened preseason mutiny, Robinson made the team and played well the first few games. However, he entered a prolonged slump in late April that caused some to question if he should be in the starting lineup. His teammates, while generally not openly hostile to him, initially were uncertain how to handle playing with a black man on their squad, leading Robinson into personal isolation. The racial taunts of Chapman, and a legendary planned strike by the Cardinals (legendary in both its fame and likely casual relationship with the truth) helped dramatize Robinson’s circumstances causing public denouncements of his detractors. He burst out of his slump, hitting well the rest of the year. Most of his teammates acclimated themselves to an integrated environment. He still had to suffer the indignities of segregated hotels in some towns, the jeers of racist fans, and on field incidents such as Enos Slaughter’s apparently intentional spiking of him at first base, but he knew the great undertaking had proven to be a success.

Eig does an effective job culling over the occasional controversies that marked the season trying to determine what really happened. When a disputed event happens—such as the Cards’ “strike,” Slaughter’s spiking of Robinson, and others—Eig investigates the evidence on all sides of the matter, and avoids to any conclusions that the information will not support. Some proof that St Louis players had a petition existed, but that story seems considerably overblown.

His carefulness to avoid overleaping the evidence gives him considerable credence when he declares that maybe the most famous single moment of the season
Pee Wee Reese’s legendary embrace of Robinson, did not occur. Not in 1947 anyway. It did happen the next year in Boston, but he notes that the several sources that place it on Brooklyn’s early 1947 series in Cincinnati all came about years after the fact. The actual accounts from that series noted nothing unusual about the heckling or Reese.

He theorizes that people later placed this great moment of Americana a year before it actually happened because hazy memories telescoped the actual events. Though Reese and Robinson became very close, that did not happen until Robinson moved to second base in 1948. While Reese was never hostile to Robinson, Eig reports Reese was “one of the boys” in 1947. Though Tygiel also placed the Reese incident in Boston in ’48, he had not worked to debunk the Cincinnati story.

Eig makes a crucial observation about what sort of player Rickey wanted to integrate the game. The legend truthfully tells us that during the historic meeting between Rickey and Robinson, the general manager badgered Robinson about how he would react to the stress and derision thrust at him, before telling Robinson he wanted someone who had the guts not to fight back. Eig flips this classic anecdote on its head writing:

Thus was born one of baseball’s great legends. The story of the meeting between Rickey and Robinson has been told in countless media, passed down through the generations, shined up and smoothed over so that has become one of America’s great fables. But in one important way, the accounts are often misleading. Rickey didn’t choose Robinson for his ability to turn the other cheek. Had Rickey wanted a pacifist, he might have selected any one of half a dozen men with milder constitutions than Jack Roosevelt Robinson’s.

Rickey wanted an angry black man. He wanted someone big enough and strong enough to intimidate, and someone intelligent enough to understand the historic nature of his role. Perhaps he even wanted a dark-skinned man whose presence would be more strongly felt, more obvious, although on this point Rickey was uncharacteristically silent. Clearly, the Dodger boss sought a man who would not just raise the issue of equal rights but would press it.

It is a testament to Rickey’s sophistication and foresight that he chose a ballplayer who would become a symbol of strength rather than assimilation. It is a testament to Robinson’s intelligence and ambition that he recognized the importance of turning the other cheek and yet found a way to do it without appearing the least bit weak.

In his book Red Barber saw Robinson’s prior acts of militancy—including surviving a military court martial for daring to stand up for his rights in WWII—as strikes against Robinson that Rickey was willing to overlook. I think Eig makes a better point. If he wanted someone with an amiable disposition, Roy Campanella would have burst the color line.

One fascinating theme in “Opening Day” dealt with the silencing or marginzlization of Robinson’s detractors. The Dodgers’ infamous preseason rebellion was silenced by one Durocher tirade and a few one-on-one meetings between Rickey and the ringleaders. Dixie Walker, whatever his personal feelings, never antagonized the rookie. One day’s worth of criticism in the media of Ben Chapman caused him to back off his loutish behavior. The supposed strike by the Cardinals collapsed with even greater ease. While I by no means seek to deny the very real obstacles, hassles, and vicious incidents hurled at Robinson—ranging from beanballs, to catcalls, and even to death threats—even racist ballplayers did not want to go on the record as defenders of white superiority. They folded surprisingly easily.

A striking contrast exists between 1947 and how previous generations of white ballplayers had publicly treated blacks. When nineteenth century catcher Fleet Walker became the first black in MLB, Tony Mullane—his team’s star hurler—intentionally crossed him up by throwing pitches Walker had not called for. Nineteenth century superstar Cap Anson once infamously threatened to yank his team off the field rather than play an exhibition games against the integrated opposing team. Back then few wanted to defend integrated ball, let alone the racial equality it implied.

Can you imagine Cap Anson backing down as easily as Ben Chapman did? What would Ty Cobb do if he were in Dixie Walker’s shoes? Decades of America slowly (painfully slowly) tiptoeing away from its worst racist tendencies combined with the experience of the Great War made society far more receptive to Rickey’s plans and Robinson’s bravery. Alabama native Eddie Stanky was far more willing to play with a black man than Midwestern farm boy Anson or Irish immigrant Mullane had been. Jackie Robinson was certainly the right man for the historic assignment, but it was the right time. The nation was ready for this change after World War II. It sure as hell wasn’t easy, but Robinson faced a more promising situation than Fleet Walker had.

Overall, Eig has written a fascinating and very readable book about a highly important topic. While there is always a large number of enticing new baseball books available every spring, this belongs near the top of the to-read list of anyone interested in the game’s integration.

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