Saturday, August 17, 2013

Jackie Robinson, GI

    Some months ago I reviewed the film 42, which I found very disappointing because the Jackie Robinson on the screen had so little in common with the real man.  Two weeks ago, at the convention of the Society for American Baseball Research, I picked up a copy of his second autobiography, I Never Had it Made, which was published just before his sudden death from diabetes and heart disease (the same combination, as it happens, that killed my paternal grandmother long before I was born), in 1972, when he was only 53.  The book was written with the help of Alfred Duckett, a black journalist and poet who was two years older than Robinson.  Only a few of the books' 24 chapters deal with Robinson's playing career.  It goes in depth into his early life and especially into his very active life after baseball, when he became an executive for Chock Full o- Nuts, a chain of coffee shops, a newspaper columnist, a fundraiser for the NAACP, a political activist--mostly inside the Republican Party--and a banker.  Robinson and Duckett both came from the GI generation, and blacks of that age believed they had to dress, behave, speak and write just as well as the best whites did.  It shows.  The book is incredibly moving and incredibly literate.  It also bears out an insight that has been spreading among students of generations: that generational archetypes show up more clearly among minorities and immigrants even than they do among the mainstream population.

Like so many other memoirs by contemporaries, Robinson's spends a lot of time on people he knew.  They include a favorite older brother who was killed in a motorcycle accident in Los Angeles when they were both quite young; a minister who was the most inspirational figure in his youth; Branch Rickey, of course, who brought him into baseball; Nelson Rockefeller; and many more.  And he treats everyone, black and white, with the same fairness he demanded as a ballplayer.  Like John F. Kennedy (on whom more later), he never forgot than an enemy one day could be a friend the next.  I was particularly struck by his treatment of Dick Young, a most obnoxious reporter for the New York Daily News and a political conservative who began criticizing Robinson privately and publicly when in 1950 Branch Rickey allowed his second baseman to cast off sainthood and be himself on the field.  Young warned him that he was going to alienate a lot of people, as indeed he did.  He alienated so many, as he explains, that in 1962, when he first came up for eligibility for the Hall of Fame, he did not expect to be chosen by the writers.  On the eve of the announcement, Young wrote a column stating that Robinson deserved to be chosen, and that he expected him to be--and the book quotes the column in full.  It's a wonderful column, because Young is in effect acknowledging how much he and Robinson had in common.  Jackie, he wrote, had made enemies, because he always spoke his mind.  "He has the tact of a child," he wrote, "because he has the moral purity of a child."  But Young, another GI, said Jackie would get into the Hall because he deserved to--and he was right.

Robinson's most famous foray into politics occurred in 1960, when he met with both Kennedy and Nixon and endorsed Nixon.  The reason, he explained, was that Kennedy made such a terrible impression on him, failing even to look him in the eye.  There must be quite a story behind this, one which we unfortunately do not know, because rare indeed were the individuals whom Kennedy did not win over in person.  Robinson had some doubts about Nixon but he seemed to have a much clearer vision about civil rights.  Interestingly enough, Dr. Martin Luther King had a similar reaction a few years earlier when he met Nixon: either the Vice President sincerely supported civil rights, he said, or he was a very dangerous man.  Robinson had second thoughts about his choice during the campaign.  After Kennedy helped secure Martin Luther King's release from jail in Georgia while Nixon stood aside, his wife Rachel--a huge figure in the book--tried to talk him into withdrawing his endorsement, but he did not do so.  He was loyal.  By the time of Kennedy's death, Robinson's view of him had changed.

In 1964 Robinson, who lived in Stamford, Connecticut and worked in New York city, was a devoted Rockefeller Republican.  He was shocked by Barry Goldwater's capture of the Republican nomination and appalled by what he saw at the convention in the Cow Palace in San Francisco when delegates tried to boo Rockefeller off the stand.   "The hatred I saw was unique to me," he said, "because it was hatred directed against a white man.  It embodied a revulsion for all he stood for, including his enlightened attitude toward black people. A new breed of Republicans had taken over the GOP.  As I watched this steamroller operation in San Francisco, I had a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler's Germany."  Robinson was standing near the Alabama delegation shouting "Come on, Rocky," during the governor's speech, and a white delegate began moving menacingly towards him.  His wife restrained him. "Turn him loose, lady, turn him loose!" Jackie shouted.  She didn't.

But meanwhile, Robinson details at length the development of his family and his three Boomer children, Jackie Jr., Sharon, and David, and the changes experienced during the 1960s by his wife, who returned to her career in nursing and became an administrator.  A typical husband of his era, he frankly describes his own ambivalence about her desire to strike out on her own, but he accepted it and eventually welcomed it.  He came to understand to an unusual degree how hard it was to be the spouse or child of a celebrity and how much people will do to escape the burden of it.  When a new colleague once asked Rachel Robinson if she was Jackie Robinson's wife, she instantly denied it--and then sought therapy to explore the feelings that had revealed.   Jackie and Rachel were typical GIs in another way: they thought home should be a quiet place where no one raised his voice.  Their Boomer children, like so many millions of others, could not play by those rules.

The life of Jackie Robinson, Jr., was truly tragic.  When he was very young his parents proudly moved into nearly all-white Stamford, Connecticut.  Some of his teachers understood his needs; others did not.  He was an indifferent student and an increasingly troubled teenager who at one point ran away from home to California and eventually, in 1964, joined the Army.  He survived a tour in Vietnam but returned a heavy user of marijuana and heroin.  Eventually he was arrested, but he was fortunate to enter Daytop, an early treatment program for addicts.  His father was never one to shy a way from a problem once it was recognized, and he listened carefully to what the Daytop counselors said and came to understand the background role that parents had to play.  Jackie Jr. kicked the habit and became a Daytop counselor himself.  He testified on youthful drug addiction before Congress and his testimony, a credit to his generation and mine, appears in the book.  He threw himself into raising money for Daytop. Then, one night, returning from New Haven to Stamford on the Merrit Parkway, he lost control of his car--perhaps falling asleep at the wheel--and was July 1971.

The book also explores the generational split within the civil rights movement.  GIs believed that men and women of good will, white and black, could make a better world, and Robinson was appalled by the anti-white and anti-Semitic statements of younger black activists by the late 1960s.  He stood up to them publicly both in his newspaper columns (which I would like to see published as a book) and in broadcast debates.  He also helped start, and then save, the Freedom Bank in Harlem, which nearly went under because of bad management. 

Robinson survived Jackie Jr. for only one year.  He had never smoked nor drank, but he had carried rage around inside him all his life and suffered terrible losses.  His death undoubtedly deprived this book of much of its impact.  It remains a remarkable record of an extraordinary man and the long lost times that he lived in.

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