The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson
By Kostya Kennedy
Saint-Martin Press. 278 pages. $29.99
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By October 1972, Jackie Robinson was no longer moving in powerful gusts. His eyes were failing. Her hair had turned white. For a quarter of a century, Robinson had sought to represent America’s best, and when he threw the ceremonial first pitch before Game 2 of the World Series, he looked worn out with the burden.
Yet at the pre-game ceremony honoring the black baseball pioneer, Robinson cracked with his old energy. After all the tributes, he took the microphone. “I am extremely proud and happy to be here this afternoon,” he concluded. “But I have to admit, I’ll be enormously happier and prouder when I one day look at that third base line of coaches and see a black face manage in baseball. Thank you very much.”
He was a crusader until the end. Nine days later, Robinson died of a heart attack. In his last public appearance, he again exposed the prejudices that plagued the nation, including in sport, and demanded better.
It’s been 50 years since Robinson’s death and 75 years since his electric debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, when he became the first African-American player in modern Major League Baseball history. It is perhaps comfortable to freeze our appreciation for him in 1947, when he endured racist abuse with stoic dignity. But the real Jackie Robinson should make us a little uncomfortable. He was a throbbing ball of tension, a man of fierce independence, a voice for true freedom. As Martin Luther King once wrote, “He endlessly raises questions to grip America’s conscience.”
“True: The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson” by Kostya Kennedy is the latest addition to the literature on this American icon. A former Sports Illustrated writer and author of books on Joe DiMaggio and Pete Rose, Kennedy brings literary grace to his subject, illuminating Robinson’s sizzling style on the ballpark, his colossal significance in American culture, his complex humanity and his lasting legacy.
Unlike a traditional biography, “True” focuses on four distinct years in Robinson’s life. Kennedy started in 1946, Robinson’s only minor league season with the Montreal Royals. He then jumps to 1949, when the Dodger star shone brightest, winning the National League’s Most Valuable Player award. In 1956, Robinson retired after a difficult season that included feuds with management and long stints on the bench, as well as glorious glimpses of his unique greatness. The book ends in 1972, with Robinson as a lion in winter, slowly fading, still fighting.
Kennedy’s approach allows him to dwell on scenes, painting lush portraits of telling moments in Robinson’s career. It describes how Jackie and his wife, Rachel, made a living from their time in Montreal, where local fans gave friendship and comfort. He describes how black fans cheered on their hero with deep, almost spiritual pride. He makes the daily indignities and death threats terrifying during spring training in the Jim Crow South.
Some striking passages describe Robinson on the basic paths, showcasing his stunning physique and attacking philosophy. “None of Robinson’s contemporaries has shown the ability to start and stop and start and stop and start again, to push his way past outfielders and potential markers, to shake, to embarrass and escape,” Kennedy wrote. “It sometimes hovered and then exploded. For Robinson, each time on base promised a trial into new possibilities.”
At his best, Robinson dominated every facet of the game. During his 1949 MVP season, he led Brooklyn to the pennant while hitting .342 with 16 home runs, 38 doubles, 12 triples and 124 RBIs. He stole 37 bases, scored 122 runs, had 119 double plays and made 17 sacrifices.
At the same time, Robinson was invested with enormous political importance. More than a celebrity under the magnifying glass, he had to represent an entire race. In 1949, after singer-activist Paul Robeson questioned whether African-American soldiers would fight the Soviet Union, Robinson testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, affirming both patriotism black and speaking out against racial injustice.
Robinson lived in paradox. He was revered as a hero and despised as another second-class citizen. He injected baseball with a bold exuberance, but came under excruciating pressure. His Dodgers proved the success of racial integration, winning six National League pennants but losing five World Series to the New York Yankees. When the Dodgers finally triumphed over their hated rivals in 1955, Robinson watched from the bench, mired in injuries and falls.
Kennedy fleshes out a proud, sincere, and often stubborn man, especially in the final part. There’s sweetness in Jackie’s devotion to Rachel, and there’s tragedy in the saga of her son Jackie Jr., who overcame drug addiction and then died in a car crash. There’s steel in Robinson’s political involvement, which included fundraising for civil rights organizations, campaigns with politicians from both parties, and newspaper columns criticizing anyone who deserved it. . There’s an elegiac quality as Robinson takes his final laps, burying some lingering resentments and affirming his place as baseball’s conscience.
The episodic structure of “True” comes at a cost, as it bypasses some important periods and themes in Robinson’s life. Clearly, Kennedy pays minimal attention to the Dodgers’ 1947 integration. He devotes little space to the futility of the Brooklyn World Series or the franchise’s 1957 move to Los Angeles. Kennedy could also have explained that as one of the most important black Republicans of his time, Robinson held a progressive and patriotic political outlook that got lost in the turmoil of the 1960s.
“True” nevertheless explains Robinson in striking human terms. Throughout the book, Kennedy sprinkles the story of Ira Glasser, a Jewish boy who grew up in East Flatbush and idolized Robinson. Her fandom gave subtle lessons about justice and equality. Glasser grew up to lead the American Civil Liberties Union. “We incorporated more than just his style of play,” he wrote to Rachel Robinson after her husband passed away. “For us, baseball was a metaphor for life.”