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The Fire Within
Farrell Evans
April 16, 2007
Jackie Robinson's temper emerges in a new bio
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April 16, 2007

The Fire Within

Jackie Robinson's temper emerges in a new bio

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THIS SEASON, 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."

Eig's research 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 rights."

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.

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