There are few Americans who cannot tell you at least something about Jackie Robinson. His story has become ingrained into our cultural awareness through countless books, magazine articles, and songs detailing his heroic integration of the National League and his subsequent brilliant career. There are statues of his likeness, schools and streets bearing his name, and a plaque in baseball's Hall of Fame. He has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and there are plans for a Jackie Robinson Museum in New York City. He slides home triumphantly on a 33¢ stamp, and he even starred in a movie about his life. Thirty-five years after his death, Jackie Robinson is everywhere.
As we commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, it wouldn't seem that there would be a need for another book. Thankfully for baseball fans everywhere, Jonathan Eig thought otherwise. Only two years after producing his award-winning Lou Gehrig biography, Luckiest Man, Eig returns with another outstanding effort in Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season. It should be added to your reading list right now.
As suggested by the title, Eig's angle here is to focus on that historic season stretching across the spring, summer, and fall of 1947. By narrowing the view to this pivotal campaign, Eig reminds us of what we already know about Robinson while shedding light on aspects of the story that haven't been told, skillfully integrating the narrative of the baseball season with stories reflecting the social importance of Branch Rickey's "Great Experiment."
The author's stated ambition is to demythologize the story of Robinson's struggle, and he clearly achieves this goal. More importantly, however, he gives us a more detailed picture of the man before he became a legend. Leaning heavily on newspaper reports of the day and interviews with Robinson's wife Rachel and others who experienced the events of 1947 firsthand, Eig tells the story from a fresh perspective, free of the weight of the past sixty years.
Certain stories which we have come to take for granted might have been exaggerated -- or even concocted. Most notably, teammate Pee Wee Reese's famous embrace, meant to show support for Jackie in the face of abusive fans in Cincinnati, doesn't seem to have happened, at least not in 1947. Also, the threatened league-wide boycott which was rumored in the early days of the season appears to have been all smoke and no fire.
In debunking these myths, however, Eig does nothing to diminish the enduring power of Robinson's legacy. Instead, he actually strengthens it by detailing the enormous breadth of Robinson's influence, even in the early days of his career, and this is where the book shines. We have always known that as great a ballplayer as Robinson was (1949 NL MVP, 1955 World Series Champion, baseball Hall of Famer), his social and historical significance is much greater. Eig emphasizes this by telling the stories of individuals whose view of the world changed by watching Jackie's struggle. There was the white high school student who would eventually question the absence of black students at Stanford University, the black prisoner who would become one of the nation's most contraversial civil rights leaders, and the factory owner who saw Robinson's arrival in Brooklyn as a signal that he should integrate his business as well.
As triumphant as Jackie's rookie season was, Eig reminds us that he was far from the only hero. Branch Rickey took a considerable financial and social risk in pushing for integration, and Rachel Robinson was the rock that Jackie needed during his difficult year. The black press, especially Wendell Smith, served as shepherds for the entire integration process.
Jackie Robinson touched people then, and continues to be an icon today, almost fifty years after he hung up his cleats for the last time. So when you're finished reading stories this week about Major League Baseball's various tributes to Jackie Robinson, do yourself a favor and check out this book. You owe it to yourself -- and to Jackie -- to see where it all began, back when 42 was just another number.