April 15, 2019

Everything You Know About Jackie Robinson Is Wrong

This quote, from Jackie Robinson's introduction to his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made, will not be repeated during any pre-game ceremonies in baseball stadiums today. Major League Baseball has always been only too happy to present a highly-diluted version of Robinson that erases his justifiable anger and words of truth from history.

This post's title is only a slight exaggeration.

My partner Laura recently read Arnold Rampersad's Jackie Robinson: A Biography. Rampersad was the first writer to have full access to Robinson's personal papers and the hundreds of letters, including many to his wife Rachel.

In her review, Laura wrote:
I had no idea that Robinson's outstanding baseball career represents only half of his life's accomplishments. His later career as a civil rights speaker, writer, broadcaster, and fundraiser was equally fascinating. Robinson was the first Black television sports analyst, and the first Black vice president of a major American corporation. He helped establish the Freedom National Bank, an African-American-owned bank based in Harlem. He knew and worked with all the great civil rights leaders, actors, musicians, writers, and other celebrated African-Americans of his era. Although he survived many questionable business decisions, he always used his celebrity status to advance the cause of racial justice.
All too aware of the many "Hollywood-type stories of white people liberating people of colour", Laura dreaded "learning some awful truth about Branch Rickey, perhaps that he was not the hero that I thought him to be. [But t]he truth turned out to be even better than I knew."

However ... "I was surprised to learn that almost everything I knew about Jackie Robinson's baseball career was wrong."

Robinson learned his aggressive style of play from the Negro Leagues. ... Wrong.

Robinson's promise to turn the other cheek against the racism he endured on the field lasted many seasons. ... Wrong.

Robinson, a morally-upstanding Christian who did not drink, smoke, swear, or sleep around, was portrayed as a model citizen. ... Wrong.

Robinson's health later in his life suffered because of the abuse he quietly absorbed. ... Wrong.

In fact, Robinson was described in the press as aggressive and out of control for most of his playing career. After his rookie season, Robinson began speaking out - and quickly gained an undeserved reputation in the all-white sports media, who wondered why he couldn't be more like the uncomplaining Roy Campanella. (Though Campy eventually reached the end of his rope, too.)

Jimmy Cannon of the New York Post wrote "the range of Jackie Robinson's hostility appears to have no frontiers. ... He is a juggler of a sort, flashily keeping feuds in motion like Indian clubs." Cannon claimed that even Dodgers fans in Brooklyn were alienated by Robinson's "undisciplined protests".

And there can be no doubt that the umpires in the National League regularly used their power to punish Robinson, making incorrect calls on balls and strikes and on the bases. The only question is to what extent and how did it affect Robinson's career statistics. Thinking about the years before even a crude version of instant replay existed, to say nothing of pitch trackers and super slo-mo, I wonder if any borderline pitches or bang-bang plays at first base went Robinson's way. The discrimination in umpires' calls must have been constant.

MLB continues to whitewash its abhorrent treatment of Robinson in its annual lovefest for #42, presenting and remembering a highly-distorted version of reality. And the sports media has yet to outgrow its blatant double standard when it comes to athletes of colour. To this day, dark-skinned athletes are labelled aggressive and ill-tempered (or just plain angry) while their white counterparts are often referred to as tough, intense, and gritty.


laura k said...

Hey, thanks for the shout-out.

Baseball fans, whatever you think Jackie Robinson went through, however much you know about what he endured -- it was worse. He was so tough and focused to perform as well as he did while under such extreme duress.

And Rachel Robinson! She is often presented as just the head of a foundation. She is a strong feminist and a civil rights pioneer. I'm so glad I learned more about her, I now admire her so much.

laura k said...


Cannon claimed that even Dodgers fans in Brooklyn were alienated by Robinson's "undisciplined protests".

Dodger fans loved Jackie, and they loved being part of history, moving equality forward. By the time the Dodgers left Brooklyn, the whole fan base was alienated and falling apart. But on the whole, Dodger fans always supported Jackie (and Rickey).