14 May 2003

Rickey and Robinson: The Men Who Broke Baseball's Color Barrier
by Harvey Frommer

"I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back."
- Branch Rickey

Harvey Frommer's Rickey and Robinson, recently re-released in paperback (Taylor Trade Publishing, $18.95), has lost none of its poignancy in the two decades that have elapsed since the first edition in 1982. The new forward by Hall of Famer Monte Irvin underscores the history lesson that none of us should ever forget: Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey made Michael Jordan and Jim Brown and Wilt Chamberlain and a host of other African-American athletic superstars' careers possible.
Sure, the color line was bound to fall at some point, but this story is more than just a case of being in the right place at the right time. As Frommer details in Rickey and Robinson, Branch Rickey spent years planning the 'stunt' he pulled on 15 April 1947. He had a seven-step plan that started way back in 1943, that had been carefully orchestrated, with the player painstakingly chosen, at the expense of great financial and other resources, to maximize the possibility of the Experiment's success.

Frommer's book outlines not just the events of the meeting of these two men, but starts you out with their respective upbringings, their backgrounds and histories, so that the reades has the feeling that he has at least known, if not lived, some of the joys and hardships of these two mens lives even before the events that would forever associate their names int he record books. You get to learn about Robinson's family history in Georgia, and upbringing in southern California, as well as his exploits in collegiate sports and the Negro leagues. You get to learn about Branch Rickey's country bumpkin background, his religious and political convictions, and his achievements in St. Louis before he ever came to Brooklyn. You even get to learn what each of them did after they left the Dodgers organization, how their passions drove them to strive for what they believed in even when most ordinary men would simply have conceded to diabetes, or retirement.

For that matter, you may get a little too much in the way of details. Make no mistake, Frommer's thorough and engaging research is a trademark of his work. His quotes from Rachel Robinson, Roy Campanella, Walter O'Malley, Irving Rudd, Mal Goode, Pee Wee Reese, Monte Irvin, and so many others help the reader to feel like he's getting a first-hand account of the events from those who lived them. Heck, I guess you are. But if you start reading the book hoping only to learn what Jackie's first year was like, you'll be in way over your head. Besides, you should know better than to think that Frommer would leave you with so truncated an account of such a significant occurrence in American History. Shame on you.

The book, as always, is well written. Eloquent without being excessively verbose (I suppose I could learn a thing or two about writing from Frommer myself!), Frommer is nothing if not a great author, and shows no disdain for the vernacular. But he also has a sense of the importance of his subject, and does not leave stones unturned where there are questions. He doesn not play up mythological events (like Reese's alleged gesture of freindship toward Robinson in Cincinnati) and does not seem to take a side on most of the political and personal conflicts depicted in the book. In all, this seems a fair and even-handed account, if not without Frommer's (also trademarked) slant toward new York sports. Can't say that I blame him.

Now more than thirty years after Robinson's death at the age of only 53, more athletes, not just the black ones, would be well served to remember the debt they owe these two great men.

Reading Rickey and Robinson would be a good start.

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