Jesse Owens's real name was not Jesse. The 10th and last child of dirt-poor Alabama sharecroppers, he was christened James Cleveland Owens and known as J.C. until, when he was nine, his family moved to Cleveland. There, on his first day at school, he was asked his name and responded "J.C." in a thick drawl unfamiliar to his teacher, who put him down as Jesse. It stuck.
When Owens attended Ohio State in the early '30s he regularly won three or four events at nearly every OSU, AAU and NCAA event, but he was barred from living on campus because he was black. He was also barred from the local restaurants and all but one of Columbus's movie houses.
Such facts are just a small part of what distinguishes the new Owens biography, An American Life, by William J. Baker (The Free Press, $19.95). Rarely has a subject been so well served. The book benefits both from diligent scholarship and from the insights that spring from the writer's genuine empathy with his subject. Baker is a professor of history at the University of Maine, but he grew up in Rossville, Ga., within sight of the Alabama and Tennessee borders, and his mother was born, as Owens was, in northern Alabama.
Baker has beautifully re-created Owens's career and makes Jesse's inconsistent and often contradictory behavior more understandable. Though Owens suffered greatly from racial bigotry all his life, he never became the militant leader other blacks had hoped he would. And while Owens's accounts of his track triumphs often varied widely in details, Baker has set them straight.
On May 25, 1935, at a Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, Owens broke three world records and tied another within a single hour, perhaps the greatest feat in track history. Nevertheless, he is best remembered for his achievements at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he won four gold medals and tied or set four Olympic and four world records. Baker tells us that the cinder track there was rain-soaked and heavy and that runners dug their own starting holes with trowels; there were no starting blocks to provide leverage for fast getaways.
We also learn that elaborate plans were made to celebrate the homecoming of America's newest heroes, especially Owens. And yet on the day Owens arrived in New York, his mother, father and wife—invited to participate in the celebrations—were refused admission to the first four hotels they tried because they were black.
For the clarity with which he has evoked America in the '20s and '30s and, especially. Hitler's Olympics—a task requiring volumes elsewhere—the reader is in Baker's debt. Track and field's premier athlete finally has a monument worthy of him.