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One of the things that made the Edmund Morris biography of Ronald Reagan such a disappointment (see Orrin's review) is that we partisans had hoped that Morris would produce one of those rare volumes where the life of a great man would be rendered in equally great prose.  After all, if you're a sufficiently important figure, there will be no shortage of biographies--it seems that half the historians in America are currently working on Lincoln books--but what you hope for is a book that is a sufficient artistic achievement that it will become a must read.  That way, the subject's life story almost covertly stays in the public eye, while the audience is reading the book for its literary qualities. Such, for instance, is the case with Boswell's Life of Johnson where, but for the seminal nature of this work, Samuel Johnson, pithy quotes and all, would be a virtual unknown today.

Jackie Robinson's story is of course so well known to most of us today that such a text hardly seems necessary to preserve his place in history.  But sadly, even many professional baseball players have little idea of what he achieved and it is so intrinsic to the American national character to sort of purge bad memories (like that of the color line which barred blacks from playing major league baseball) that it is easy to imagine that the memory of his accomplishments will diminish rapidly in the coming years.  It would therefore be nice to have a biography of him that would be read compulsively by succeeding generations of Americans and kids in particular in the same way that we all tore through the novels of John R. Tunis (see Orrin's review) and Mark Harris (see Orrin's review) and the very fine Robert Creamer biographies of Babe Ruth (Babe : The Legend Comes to Life) and Casey Stengel (Stengel : His Life and Times), both interesting characters, but certainly less significant historical figures than Robinson.

Arnold Rampersad, who co-wrote Arthur Ashe's moving memoir Days of Grace (see Orrin's review), has produced a functional and authoritative life of Jackie Robinson, but it does not reach the heights one would have hoped.  Indeed, it almost seems as if he found Robinson's story so compelling, which it is, that he tried to stay out of the way of it and let the events speak for themselves.  Thus, while he remains an impartial presenter, perhaps even admirably so, the book ultimately seems a little lifeless.  The best aspect of the book is that it recaptures the totality of Robinson's life--from the influence of his remarkable mother to his early confrontations with racism like his Court Martial and, after baseball, to his groundbreaking career in business and his involvement in politics, both Democrat and Republican politics.  And Robinson is truly a figure of such moral courage and surpassing dignity that the mere facts of his life do make for a worthwhile and edifying story.

This is not a bad book, in fact it's quite good.  It just isn't vital.  If you're familiar with the basics of the story, you won't learn all that much and the writing is not of the quality to make it required reading.  I had the strange feeling while I was reading it, that this was an adult version of the sports biographies we all read as kids (I particularly remember Tom Seaver and the New York Mets).  It's okay as far as it goes; it just doesn't seem to go far enough.


Grade: (B+)


Book-related and General Links:

    -Jackie Robinson (Major League Baseball)
    -Jackie Robinson (The Afro-American Newspaper Company of Baltimore)
    -REVIEW: of    JACKIE ROBINSON: A Biography. By Arnold Rampersad    Robinson biographer keeps focus intimate (TERRY ANDERSON, Houston Chronicle)

    -The Jackie Robinson Society
    -EXHIBIT: Jackie Robinson and other Baseball highlights (Library of Congress)
    -INTERVIEW: Transcript of interview with Branch Rickey by Davis J. Walsh [1955?] (Library of Congress)
    -JACKIE ROBINSON: GOLDEN (Online Newshour, APRIL 15, 1997, PBS)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Teaching With Documents Lesson Plan: Beyond the Playing Field - Jackie Robinson, Civil Rights Advocate (NARA)
    -EXCERPT: The Men who Broke Baseball's Color Line (Excerpt from Harvey Frommer's "Rickey and Robinson")
    -ESSAY: Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson (Harvey Frommer,
    -ESSAY: Celebrating Jackie Robinson (Harvey Frommer,
    -ESSAY: Remembering Irving Rudd (Harvey Frommer,
    -ESSAY: Rickey & Robinson revisited: New book recounts historic signing (Fred Claire,
    -ESSAY: Jackie changed face of sports (Larry Schwartz, ESPN: Sports Century)
    -ESSAY: How Jackie Robinson Desegregated America: Perhaps the least-learned lesson of the saga of Jackie Robinson is that competition can transform self-interest into an engine for racial fairness. (STEVE SAILER)
    -ESSAY: Memories of Jackie Robinson (Sam Person,
    -STUDY PLAN: Baseball and The Multi- Cultural Experience: Jackie Robinson - Document-Based Questions (Doug Kaufman)
    -ESSAY: Jackie Robinson's Sad Song
    -ESSAY: Racism still haunts baseball (BOB NIGHTENGALE, April 13, 1997, The Sporting News)
    -ESSAY: Baseball's Sublime Hero (David Conrads)
    -Jackie Robinson : A 50th Anniversary Tribute (Philadelphia Daily News)
    -ESSAY : A listing of Jackie Robinson books and some tips on where to get started (Edward Moran, Philadelphia DAILY NEWS)