baseball will mark the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the
big league color barrier with commemorations of the man and his legacy. There
is also Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season, a fine
revisionist study by Jonathan Eig, which tells us that Robinson was not quite
what he seemed to be.
For decades the
conventional wisdom has been that Brooklyn Dodgers G.M. Branch Rickey picked
Robinson to break the color barrier because Robinson was married, God-fearing,
college-educated and comfortable with white people. Eig—a writer for The Wall
Street Journal who also wrote The Luckiest Man, an acclaimed biography of Lou
Gehrig—suggests instead that " Rickey wanted an angry black man ... a
dark-skinned man whose presence could be more strongly felt.... Clearly, the
Dodger boss sought a man who would not just raise the issue of equal rights but
would press it."
also explodes myths about Robinson's teammates, who for the most part did not
support him when he first joined the club. One famous incident took place
during Robinson's first trip to Cincinnati in his rookie season, as Reds fans
at Crosley Field besieged him with racist taunts. The story goes that
Kentucky-born Pee Wee Reese left his position at shortstop to go over to
Robinson at first base, and in a gesture of brotherhood, he put his arm around
Robinson and whispered something into his ear, silencing the crowd.
Eig writes that
this probably didn't happen. Almost no one who was present at the game
remembers the scene, and later Robinson placed a similar event, in somewhat
less heroic terms, in 1948. What is certain is that Reese became a sort of
exemplar for right-minded conduct. Eig says it's more likely that Reese and
Robinson became close friends only after the latter moved to second base in '48
and they became double-play partners.
Other Dodgers from
that year have said Robinson taught them the meaning of courage. "But they
made the claims only after Robinson had established himself as a winner,"
writes Eig, "and only after it had become fashionable to support civil
The lesson of
Opening Day is that a good redemptive story isn't always the same as the truth.
But if Robinson was a temperamental man, he's no less a hero for his
self-restraint—and perhaps is even more of one.