In stealing home ( HarperCollins, $24), Jackie Robinson's daughter, Sharon, has written what the book's subtitle suggests is "an intimate family portrait." And the book's cover photo shows the famous father and his beautiful wife, Rachel, holding three laughing children. Inside, however, a far less pretty picture is revealed.
It's not that Jackie Robinson didn't make every effort to establish a happy household, particularly after he retired from his epochal career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was an earnest and caring father. And Rachel was the perfect mother, attentive, affectionate and, when she had to be, stern. How could either of them have known that their lives would become a Danielle Steel novel? That, regrettably, is the way Sharon has written her memoir, sprinkling it with soggy sentences on the order of, "Michael held my hand for what seemed like an eternity and spoke with a deep, passionate voice," and, "Our thirst for politics and each other was insatiable."
Foremost in this litany of disasters was the tragedy of the Robinsons' elder son, who, shrinking from the burden of being Jack Roosevelt Robinson Jr., dropped out of high school, joined the U.S. Army and, while serving in Vietnam, became a drug addict. Jackie Sr. seemed to have been unaware of the seriousness of his son's decline until Jackie Jr. was arrested on drug and gun charges. To his credit, Jackie Sr. took up the boy's cause, and Jackie Jr. did, after a painful struggle, finally kick the habit. Then, in the crudest blow of all, he was killed at age 24 in an auto accident.
Meanwhile Sharon, she writes, married at 18, divorced a short time later on grounds of abuse and, while still in her teens, married again. That union also ended in divorce. It is unclear from the book whether she married a third partner with whom she had a child before she and the man split up. Sharon is a survivor, though, and she is now employed as a nurse-midwife—"ushering," as she puts it, "new life into this world."
Her father lived long enough to see her, at least partially, put her life in order. Then, prematurely aged by diabetes, he died at 53 of a heart attack. "No grave can hold this body down," said his friend Jesse Jackson at the funeral. "It belongs to the ages."
Why this should be so is something Sharon doesn't devote much space to telling us, mainly because she wasn't yet born when her father made history as the first African-American player in the major leagues. But another autobiographer, Negro leagues veteran Buck O'Neil, was acutely aware of Jackie Robinson's significance, as he tells us in his delightful book I Was Right on Time ( Simon & Schuster, $23), written with Steve Wulf and David Conrads. O'Neil was serving in the Philippines with an all-black U.S. Navy stevedore unit in October 1945 when Robinson signed with the Dodgers. "You should have heard the celebration," he writes. "Halfway around the world from Brooklyn, we started hollering and shouting and firing our guns into the air."
O'Neil's book is written in such a graceful, conversational manner that the author, now nearing 85, seems to be sitting in your living room. "You see," he writes, "I don't have a bitter story." Indeed, it is a most happy one, as O'Neil affectionately recalls Negro leagues luminaries such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and John Henry (Pop) Lloyd.
Robinson's signing, though a cause for jubilation, spelled the end of the Negro leagues and created, inevitably, some envy among other black stars, notably the great Paige—who, O'Neil believes, might have had an easier time breaking in than Robinson did. "Satchel was a superstar, and the whole country knew about him," O'Neil says. "People would have seen him as an individual...people saw Jackie as a symbol."
Paige, of course, did get his chance in the majors, in his 40's. And so did O'Neil, first with the Chicago Cubs as a scout—he discovered Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock—and then, in 1962, as the big leagues' first African-American coach.
"I've said it before, I'll say it now, and I'll say it again," O'Neil writes. "I was right on time."