The seasonlong appreciation of Jackie Robinson, sparked by the 50th anniversary of his entrance into the major leagues, is almost over. After this year, players will no longer wear patches commemorating Robinson's breaking of baseball's color barrier, montages of him in action will air only rarely on stadium video screens, and the Wheaties boxes he now adorns will be gone from the shelves. The year has, however, yielded enduring markers of Robinson's legacy: His uniform number, 42, has been retired by baseball, a Brooklyn-Queens thoroughfare has been anointed Jackie Robinson Parkway, and Arnold Rampersad has produced a tome.
Long and dense, Rampersad's book is a must for any serious sports library, even one that contains the many Robinson biographies that have preceded it. Well-indexed and adhering strictly to the chronology of Robinson's life, the book succeeds on the strength of Rampersad's exhaustive research.
But Jackie Robinson is not a work of literature. Rampersad, a Princeton professor and the author of the Life of Langston Hughes and, with Arthur Ashe, Days of Grace: A Memoir, evokes little emotion, and he never gets to the heart of whatever it was that drove Robinson in his remarkable crusade against racism. He also writes some surprisingly clumsy sentences ("By this point, Jack and Rachel were now living in Brooklyn itself"), and stretches of the book fall flat.
Robinson's splendor and courage as a ballplayer gave him the prestige to become a powerful voice in the civil rights movement, and the most intriguing part of the book follows Robinson from his retirement from the Dodgers in 1956 to his death in '72. In his fight against segregation Robinson, at times a close adviser to Republicans Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller, was one of the few blacks to publicly feud with liberals such as John F. Kennedy and the radical Malcolm X. "I am not in a popularity contest," Rampersad quotes Robinson as saying.
Robinson is a pivotal historical figure. Rampersad's tour de force of research is essential to understanding what the man meant to America.