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Contact: Mary Caffrey 609/258-5748
Date: September 15, 1997

Rampersad's Jackie Robinson Offers
Most Complete Account Yet of
Ballplayer's Life On and Off the Field

Campus Panel Discussion to Feature Robinson's Daughter

Princeton, N.J. -- In 1951, four years after he broke Major League Baseball's color barrier, Jackie Robinson put his family on a rickety "colored" bus and headed for a second-rate, all-black hotel in Miami. The Brooklyn Dodgers were under new management, and moving the team headquarters to a posh hotel apparently mattered more than finding a place that would welcome the National League's Most Valuable Player of 1949, his black teammates, and their wives.

Other Dodgers did not protest, and Robinson remained quiet. In Miami and across the South, Jim Crow was part of the landscape, as American as baseball itself.

These day-to-day humiliations, the passivity with which both whites and blacks accepted them, and Robinson's long, slow fight to end them are what shape Jackie Robinson: A Biography, (Knopf) by Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature Arnold Rampersad. Robinson's athletic triumphs, significant on their own, become all the more remarkable when placed in the context of the entrenched racism that surrounded him.

As he started the book, Rampersad read a review in which a critic stated that a life defined by sport is necessarily a limited life. "I took that as a challenge," Rampersad said. "All the research doesn't work unless we integrate it into the lived lives."

This portrait is what Robinson's widow, Rachel Robinson, envisioned when she searched for a biographer as the 50th anniversary of her husband's entry into baseball approached. When Rampersad first heard of the project, he felt it should go to someone who knew more about baseball. But Rachel insisted that this not be a sports biography. "If I had said yes at first I would have had more time," Rampersad says. As it turned out, Rampersad's goal of finishing the book before the end of the 1997 baseball season made Jackie Robinson "the toughest job of my life."

Rampersad, whose previous works include The Life of Langston Hughes , in two volumes, and Days of Grace, a memoir written with tennis star Arthur Ashe, is the first biographer of Jackie Robinson to gain full access to the ballplayer's personal papers, as well as Rachel Robinson's papers. Some of Rampersad's accounts of Jackie Robinson's combativeness, both on an off the diamond, differ from his widow's interpretations. After reading his book, Rachel Robinson feared her husband might seem too aggressive. But, Rampersad said, "Jackie was a fighter."

'Negro Outspoken'

Jackie Robinson does not begin with a description of the ballplayer's entrance into the major leagues. Rather, Rampersad opens with the account of a young man on his way to Cooperstown, New York, in 1962 to see Robinson's induction into the Hall of Fame. Unlike his first day as a Dodger, this was a moment when Robinson was accepted on his own terms; those who voted him into the hall during his first year of eligibility did so despite the reputation Robinson had gained, in his words, as "Negro outspoken."

When it was his turn to speak, he did not hide his joy. "I feel inadequate," he confessed. "I can only say that now everything is complete."

Rampersad notes the three people who were seated with Robinson that day: his wife, Rachel; his mother, Mallie Robinson; and Branch Rickey, who, as owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, launched the carefully conceived plan to integrate baseball. These three relationships, so central to Robinson's life, were nourished by his deep religious faith, a quality he shared with his mother. Robinson's faith, according to Rampersad, was one of the things that convinced Rickey that he had found the right man to be "the first."

"Jack did feel that God was on his side," Rampersad said. Rachel reported that "Jackie believed that he was God's creature, and he saw his opportunities as a way of carrying out God's plan."

Jackie Robinson was 26 years old and well-schooled in Jim Crow when he met Branch Rickey in August 1945. Robinson had grown up in Pasadena, Calif., and, after starring in several sports at UCLA, his athletic career withered. During World War II, he became one of the first black lieutenants in the U.S. Army and had faced a court-martial that stemmed from his refusal to sit in the back of a bus crossing an Army base. He was playing, unhappily, in the Negro Leagues when he caught Rickey's attention. Rickey would learn that Jackie was atypical in many ways: He had a college education. He was politically conservative. He was ready to settle down with Rachel and was strict in his personal habits; unlike many other ballplayers, he did not smoke or drink.

What Rickey was asking would not be easy. Robinson would have to play the best baseball of his life while accepting, without protest, the separateness, taunts, pitches to the head, spiked ankles and rejection by his own teammates. But Robinson believed in Rickey:

He understood that if something wonderful was to happen to him, as was now promised, a white man would almost certainly be central; and Rickey was more than a plausible white man. In their relatively brief meeting, Rickey had probably shown more concentrated personal fury and passion on the question of race and sports than Jack had ever seen in a white man ...

Racism's grip on baseball did not end when Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947. Rather, his rookie year marked the start of a new phase in the struggle for equality. Robinson had to establish himself as one of baseball's premier players before the fighter within could emerge. By any measure, Robinson's career was remarkable: He won the National League batting title in 1949, twice led the league in stolen bases, and led all second basemen in double plays between 1949 and 1952. His leadership of the Dodgers to the 1955 World Series title was a case of sheer will:

Jack's physical gifts were fading, but his passion to win was as intense as ever; with an unflagging stream of chatter, with quips and barbs and taunts and insults, as well as a constant pushing forward of himself to center stage, he urged the Dodgers on.

In Rampersad's treatment, Robinson's evolution into the feisty, outspoken star, and, later, a civil rights activist willing to feud with Malcolm X and the Kennedys, makes sense. Indeed, the reminders that America outside the ballpark remained divided convinced Robinson to use his fame for a higher purpose:

For both Jack and Rachel, as for many black couples, the worst part of Jim Crow was watching it begin to weigh, in one way or another, on their children. ... One evening, as Rachel was putting him to bed after his bath, Jackie Junior suddenly blurted out: "Mommy, my hands are still dirty ..."

Robinson's life after baseball followed many paths. He became an executive with the Chock Full O' Nuts coffee company, which provided him with a steady income, an education in business, and great personal freedom to get involved in politics -- as a newspaper columnist, a fund-raiser for civil rights groups, and, later, as a campaigner for Richard Nixon in 1960. Rampersad traces Robinson's seemingly quixotic political endorsements; in light of his experiences, Robinson's commitment to principle over personality becomes clear. Quick to fight, Robinson was also quick to forgive and to admit when he was wrong. Nixon's embrace of Barry Goldwater in 1964 cost him Robinson's support, while President Kennedy's efforts on behalf of blacks caused this reversal upon his death:

"When the tragic news [of Kennedy's assassination] first hit," [Robinson] wrote in the Amsterdam News, "I gasped with disbelief that here in America in 1963, a President could be murdered simply because he was a man of courageous conviction." Although "this was a man whom I often criticized," Kennedy had "done more for the civil rights cause than any other president."

In his heart, Rampersad writes, Robinson was a liberal Republican; he would find an ideological soulmate in New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and serve as his special assistant. But Robinson felt strongly, as some black political thinkers do today, that blacks could not afford to cast their fortunes with one political party. He was deeply disturbed by the rise of inner-city crime and violence. And he had no use for separatists of his own race who expressed hatred for whites and especially Jews, who had accepted Jackie and Rachel Robinson when they first settled in Brooklyn.

"Stokely Carmichael's version of Black Power," Jack declared on television, "can only get us more George Wallaces elected to office."

As the civil rights movement progressed, Robinson's positions caused some black leaders to label him an "Uncle Tom." Says Rampersad: "He was one of the very few black leaders willing to look squarely at what was going on in the black community."

Both during and after his tenure at the coffee company, Robinson pursued a string of business opportunities; Rampersad said Robinson was especially proud to help found of the Freedom National Bank, which became the top black-owned bank in the United States. While Robinson was up front about his desire to make money, he also hoped that some of his ventures, particularly in affordable housing, would help other blacks. He was not always successful. More troubling was his fractured relationship with his son, Jackie Jr., who had turned to drugs as a soldier in Vietnam. Robinson spent his final years rebuilding his relationship with his eldest son, who beat his addiction only to die in a car accident in 1971, days before Jackie and Rachel were scheduled to host a fundraiser at their home for the rehab center that had guided their son. The Robinsons hosted the event anyway. (After Robinson's death, his daughter Sharon earned a master's in midwifery and taught at Yale; his son, David, moved to Tanzania and now runs a coffee cooperative.)

Rediscovered Hero

Today, Jackie Robinson is a rediscovered hero, not only among African-American ballplayers but also among the public at large. The 50th anniversary season has featured an appearance by President Clinton and the retiring of Robinson's number, 42, throughout baseball. Such an outpouring would have seemed impossible in the 1970s and much of the 80s, when his battles were fresher and less understood. What accounts for the change? Rampersad credits the rich, "quasi-intellectual tradition" of baseball and a press corps that was determined to tell the story. And, said Rampersad, "Jackie was simply a remarkable figure."

In 1972, on the 25th anniversary year of his historic feat, a former teammate prodded baseball officials to honor the ailing Robinson during the World Series. Many were shocked by the sight of the frail, white-haired Robinson, his eyesight ravaged and his legs nearly destroyed by diabetes. Robinson had come reluctantly, but by the time he took the field with Rachel, Sharon, and David, he felt at ease. He would be dead 10 days later. Even then, Rampersad writes, Robinson was a fighter:

Robinson was brief but to the point. "I am extremely proud and pleased," he said. "But I'll be more pleased the day I can look over at third base and see a black man as a manager."

NOTICE TO MEDIA: A panel discussion, "Remembering Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson," will take place Tuesday, September 23 at 7:30 p.m. in McCosh 50. Panelists will be Sharon Robinson, daughter of Jackie Robinson; Branch B. Rickey, grandson of Branch Rickey; and Roger Kahn, authoer of The Boys of Summer.