Jackie at His Pique

Baseball's ghost of honor this season was Jackie Robinson, and the hundreds of uplifting things the scores of speechmakers said in ballparks from coast to coast about his courage were long overdue. But they told only part of the story. Half a century after Robinson broke baseball's color line, he remains a vivid and vital figure in the history of American culture--not so much because he could smash line drives off the Ebbets Field wall or dared to steal home, but because he refused to keep his mouth shut. After paying his dues, he never again hesitated to defy the white supremacists.

Don't drop your hot dog or spill your Budweiser. The man was a brave pioneer, all right. But the real reason we should honor him this year, and next year, and the year after that, is because his stubborn fire burned so bright, right or wrong.

Among the beautiful reminiscences that have been selected in 1997 as the new and improved Robinson canon, the most prominent has been the story of how he honored his promise to Dodgers chieftain Branch Rickey and remained silent in the face of the bigots' taunts. In the beginning this was true, and in the beginning it was deemed "necessary."

So when the notoriously racist St. Louis Cardinals mercilessly rode Robinson in 1947, he held his tongue. When Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman--the closest thing in white flannels to a sociopath since Ty Cobb pummeled that cripple--worked his players into a Jackie-baiting frenzy, the 28-year-old rookie went about the business of playing baseball, his face a mask of cool resolve. A year before, when Robinson was playing Triple-A in Montreal, some degenerate in a ball cap had thrown a black cat onto the field and hissed: "Here's your cousin!" The man carrying an entire race on his back dutifully looked the other way.

But to canonize the Jackie Robinson of 1947 as a kind of Gandhi in spikes while ignoring the Robinson who re-emerged two years later, is a disservice to history and to the man.

Following his first season in Brooklyn, Robinson was the overwhelming choice as National League rookie of the year and, if anything, the abuse he endured from opposing dugouts (and from certain soon-to-depart teammates) is said to have backfired and actually united the Dodgers in an unlikely cause. The highest expression of this theory lies in a second beautiful story that went circulating this summer--the one about how Kentucky-born Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers shortstop, felt so moved by Jackie's agony that in the middle of one game, he made a show of putting his arm around his black teammate so that others might take a hint.

Little matter that Reese remains suspiciously vague about the details of the incident or that Robinson made no mention whatsoever of it in his premature 1948 autobiography Jackie Robinson: My Own Story.

In any event, Robinson proved his mettle as a ballplayer and a man in 1947, and by the end of 1948 Branch Rickey lifted the embargo on his black star's game-day emotions.

What the assorted eulogists and mythmakers in the ballparks this summer didn't say--probably couldn't say--is that, having kept his vow of silence for two years, Jackie Robinson promptly turned into the Albert Belle of his time. Good for him. Unlike Belle, he earned the right to act out.

Some of the less heroic details emerge in Arnold Rampersand's admiring new 512-page biography, Jackie Robinson. Freed from his shackles (a few of them, anyway) in 1949, Robinson became one of the Dodgers' most vociferous bench jockeys, and he played with an unearthly passion. Before one game in Milwaukee, he fired a ball into the Braves dugout at pitcher Lew Burdette, claiming Burdette had been ragging him. Asked about the incident later, Jackie was remorseless: "I wanted to hit him right between the eyes."

Back in Brooklyn, after the Giants' aptly nicknamed Sal "The Barber" Maglie knocked Robinson and a teammate down with his trademark chin music, Jackie plotted classic revenge. Next time at bat, he bunted down the first baseline, figuring Maglie would have to cover the bag for the toss from the first basemen. Instead, the Barber discreetly backed off from the play, and Robinson wound up leveling the hapless 160-pound Giants second baseman Davey Williams with a massive shoulder block.

When the sullen, universally unpopular Mr. Belle laid a similar haymaker on a Milwaukee Brewers second baseman, the commissioner fined him thousands and the TV hairdos took up their cudgels. Not a word was uttered about history--or Robinson.

Dodgers (later Giants) manager Leo Durocher, always one of the most eloquent observers of the game, summed up Jackie's ferocity this way: "This guy didn't just come to play. He come to beat you. He come to cram the goddamn bat right up your ass."

If only the late Mr. Durocher had been available for a couple of this summer's dewy-eyed Robinson tributes and Number 42 retirements, perhaps the Jackie Legend would have been better served--if the hero not quite so stainless.

In Rampersand's account, as well as several others, the portrait emerges of a player who, having been denied justice for so long, saw a racial slur in every called third strike or take-out slide. Was this paranoia? Some kind of victim complex? It doesn't seem so. The more likely theory is that Jackie Robinson, having borne his early burdens as the major leagues' first black player, was simply returning to his roots. His mother taught him to stand tall, and at Pasadena Junior College, he'd had two altercations with police officers that he claimed were racially motivated. In the Army, he was court-martialed (and cleared of all charges) after rightly refusing to move to the back of a bus.

Apparently a fire burned in his older brother, too. Mack Robinson is said to have been the better athlete, and he finished second to Jesse Owens in the 200 at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But when he came home to Pasadena with his silver medal, Mack discovered that that qualified him to be a city street sweeper. His response? He went to work each day wearing his U.S. Olympic jacket, an ironic rebuke to society befitting Jackie himself.

In the end, what does it say that Robinson always judged his baseball career one of the less important aspects of his life? Or that he titled his later autobiography I Never Had It Made? Or that the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. called Robinson "a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides"? Or that, even after his stock as a civil-rights advocate and black business leader had precipitously dropped, he continued to speak out on social issues?

Why do we demand perfection from our heroes and sacred symmetry in our myths? Who had the gall to put twelve-inch-high Jackie Robinson busts on the market for $29.95? Or to plaster his face on three kinds of Wheaties boxes? What does it say that this summer's outpouring of emotion in the name of Jackie Robinson favors the god but gives short shrift to the man?

It's that thing you put your cereal in. It's the first syllable (more or less) of the owner's name. It's the local obsession that won't go away, even though the team might.

It's Bowl, as in Super Bowl, and there's scarcely a high-altitude human on the street this week who isn't thinking how Biff and T.D. and Shannon and the boys put twenty unanswered points on the board in a season-building second half against New England Monday night, who isn't thinking that the boys are going back to the Super Bowl, who isn't thinking that this time, finally, at long last, the boys are gonna get that donkey off their back.

Do the Broncomaniacs dare to dream anew? Does the fellow without a tendon in his noble right arm dare to consider another January run-in with the goliaths of the NFC? Do the conspiracy buffs dare to believe that Jacksonville or Pittsburgh, just this once, won't be lurking out there on the grassy knoll with their rifles locked and loaded?

What the hell. Salute this.
Your Broncos have won the first set six-love, and if that hasn't aroused the curiosity of assorted Packers, 49ers, Cowboys and Bucs (not to mention the dwarfs of the junior varsity), nothing will. A glance at the standings reveals that this is the only undefeated team left in the league, that maybe navy blue agrees with them, and that maybe, come what may, these guys are willing to do it one more time, to risk breaking our hearts all over again, to finally grab the rings.

"We haven't played our best game yet," 171-yard man Terrell Davis said Monday night.

Glad to hear it. Save the best--for once--for last.


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