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Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season

by Jonathan Eig

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating


Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season
April 15, 1947. It was an ordinary day for an ordinary baseball player. It was an extraordinary day for an extraordinary man. Jack Roosevelt Robinson went 0-4 that day, scoring the winning run, but he changed the face of baseball. Some said he changed the face of America.

It is hard to imagine that any baseball player has had more written about him than Jackie Robinson. Poems, songs, movies, short stories, novels, even comic books, have been written. There are biographies of all sorts, most of them falling into the genre of hagiography. Many border on the legendary. There are biographies written for the baseball aficionado, those written for very young children, and those written for young adults.

Now, sixty years later, Jonathan Eig's masterful Opening Day in which he chronicles that historic year when Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball hits a home run. This is the best researched study of Robinson and the best written. Eig relied on "original and contemporaneous reporting. I interviewed all the ballplayers and eyewitnesses I could, but I always double-checked what they told me against newspaper accounts." He "bugged the daylights" out of Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow. This follows the same procedure Eig employed in writing Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig.

Robinson was born in the Deep South, but his mother moved the family to Los Angeles when he was quite small. In 1939 he enrolled at UCLA and became a star in football and basketball while also earning letters in baseball and track.
After service in the army he got a chance to play for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League for the sum of $400 per month. Although he considered himself a "mere dabbler" in baseball, he soon got a chance to play Triple A baseball in Montreal for one of Branch Rickey's farm clubs. The next year, he was in the majors. Even so, according to Eig, he "was not the most talented black ballplayer in the country. He had a weak throwing arm and a creaky ankle. He was short on experience, and at twenty-eight, a little bit old for a first-year player."

But Branch Rickey, who could "recognize a great player from the window of a moving train" according to the sportswriter Jim Murray, saw something special in Robinson. He saw a man strong enough to not fight back when even the most odious opprobrium was heaped on his head. Rickey had found the right man, and all the stories are here. For example, The Dodgers were playing the Reds in mid-May, and the crowd was being particularly abusive toward Jackie. His teammate, Pee Wee Reese, a Hall of Fame shortstop and a Kentuckian, is said to have come over to Jackie and placed his hand on Jackie's shoulder "telling" the crowd they were teammates and effectively quieting the crowd. There is absolutely no contemporary account of this happening. The legend-making stories just moved this grand gesture to the wrong year, wrong ballpark, wrong game. Nevertheless, the legend illustrates a changing mood among most ballplayers.
The old North Carolina leftfielder, Enos "Country" Slaughter, is best remembered for his "Mad Dash" from first to home in the 1946 World Series. But, he is also remembered for stepping on Robinson's leg while trying to beat out an infield hit. It was not enough to take Robinson out of the game, but the intentionality of the act is still debated. Baseball, you see, in the 40s was populated by many Southerners. The Dodgers were no exception and there were many instances of perceived "Southern Values" overriding simple acts of kindness. Players with Southern connections were concerned that their very presence on the field with a black man would hurt them at home.

Eig places Robinson's miraculous season - Rookie of the Year, .297 batting average, 125 runs scored - into historical perspective throughout this entertaining narrative. World War II had ended and men returned to an America in which women were more self-reliant. The moral certainty was such that the Catholic Youth Organization threatened a boycott of baseball because Leo Durocher, the Dodgers' soon-to-be ex-manager, had married the divorced actress Laraine Day. Durocher needed to be punished for his "moral looseness." Black Southerners were moving north in astounding numbers. Northerners were beginning to move into the suburbs. The exodus from Brooklyn onto Long Island, for example, spelled the doom of the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was too difficult to get back to town for a game and television made it easier to stay home and by 1958 Da Bums were in Los Angeles and Robinson was retired after only 10 years in the majors.
Robinson was not just a player, even before his rookie year. He did have a social conscience. In 1944, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, he had been arrested for failing to move to the back of a bus. Court martialled, he was found not guilty on all counts. He was not afraid to speak his mind. In 1946 he had been a spokesman for a number of organizations including a veterans group seeking better opportunities for black veterans. He was always willing to fight for and speak out about civil rights, although in later years some activists (Malcolm X, for example) considered him a sell-out.

This is unquestionably the best account of one of the major milestones of the Twentieth Century. There is so much here that a mere review barely scrapes the surface. Future historians of baseball will have to refer to this book if they wish to write anything about Jackie Robinson's rookie year. The methods Eig utilized have set the standard for future research and journalism. If you have even a passing interest in baseball, you have to read this book. If you want to understand Jackie Robinson's impact on the U.S. psyche from a socio-historical point of view, then Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season is a must read. On April 15, 2007, celebrate the 60th anniversary of that opening day by dipping into this marvelous book.

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