03/29/2007 4:22 PM ET
Beyond the myths of Robinson and 1947
A new look at Reese, Walker, Rickey and Jackie that first year
By Barry Wittenstein / SNY.tv
"Opening Day" was more than the first day of the season: it was an opening of hearts and minds, writes author Jonathan Eig. (MLB)

Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season
By Jonathan Eig
336 pages, photographs, $26.00
ISBN 10: 0743294602
Simon & Schuster (March 20, 2007)

This year, being the 60th anniversary of the integration of Major League Baseball, the country has an historic opportunity to celebrate the honor of Jackie Robinson, as well as to consider the events of 1947.

Author Jonathan Eig has done exactly that in his new book, "Opening Day." Eig not only re-examines the season as it evolved day-by-day and week-by-week, but also examines the myths that have developed overtime -- namely, the roles of Pee Wee Reese, Dixie Walker, Branch Rickey and, of course, Jackie Robinson.

As we approach another historic event in Memphis this weekend -- the Civil Rights Game -- I spoke to Jonathan Eig about Robinson's legacy and how the powerful truth of his struggles put the myths to shame.

Opening Day

SNY: Why did you title your book, "Opening Day," when it is, in fact, about the entire 1947 season.

Jonathan Eig: Well, I think Opening Day, April 15, 1947, is arguably the most important day in baseball history; what happened on that day changed the world. But it did take a whole season for Robinson to prove that he belonged and to thoroughly convince the country that change had come, and that it was time to look at the world differently. But I also liked it because it suggests another meaning: it was the day that minds were opened, it was the day that hearts were opened and once those minds and hearts were opened, people discovered a whole new universe.

The Myths

SNY: Why do you think myths have developed regarding Jackie Robinson's breaking the color barrier? Isn't the truth as interesting?

JE: I think the truth is more interesting, but the myths have taken over to the point where you can't even recognize the truth any more. I think they grew up around the story because the story is so powerful and it meant so much to the country. When it happened in 1947, we didn't have the vocabulary to describe what was taking place. People didn't realize its importance, and you can see that in the fact that nobody covering the game on April 15, 1947, except for the black reporters writing for the black newspapers, made a very big deal out of it.

But the mainstream press, the white press, really had no idea how to handle the story, so they treated it like it was not a story at all. As a result, when people came to realize, years later how important this event was to the country, they had to go back and recreate the story. But in doing so, it became instantly embellished and myths began to grow almost in a biblical way.

SNY: We've all heard the story of Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Jackie and that being a sign of solidarity to the other players and to the league. There's even a statue outside the Brooklyn Cyclones stadium depicting that scene. During the ceremony when it was unveiled, Mayor Bloomberg and others talked about that day in Cincinnati when it "occurred." Or did it?

JE: Maybe. We really don't know. I feel 99% certain that it did not happen in Cincinnati the date in 1947 everybody thinks it did -- as described nowadays in all the children's books and at the dedication of that statue. My hunch is that there were moments that were similar to that in subsequent years. In 1948, Robinson remembered an incident where there was some heckling and Pee Wee Reese came over and put an arm on his shoulder. And there were other incidents in 1949 -- one of them was in Boston and one was in Philadelphia, I believe. People got used to seeing Pee Wee and Jackie together, on the middle of the infield, especially after Jackie started playing second base. But there's no incident like that in 1947.

SNY: Is it easier for the public to understand a complicated issue if it's stated very simply, such as: one guy wanted to be Jackie's friend, the other guy, Dixie Walker, didn't? Without all the shades of gray, one doesn't have to spend time thinking about all the details.

JE: I think that's absolutely the case; we tend to want our stories neat and clean and it's easy to have good guys and bad guys. But the 1940s was so much more complicated than it is today. Unless you grew up in the South, it is so difficult to understand what it was like to be asked to play with a black person back then. And Pee Wee Reese and Dixie Walker had a lot more in common than they did apart, and they both struggled with it. I think that the fact that they both had to deal with it and did manage to deal with it in their own separate ways reflects the power of Robinson's arrival and his influence on those guys and on the country. But you can't say that there is a good guy and a bad guy. Everybody was struggling with this in their own way.

SNY: Hasn't the Jackie Robinson/Reese embrace in 1947 as well as the role of Dixie Walker been written about previously.

JE: Is the question, am I the first to discredit these myths?

SNY: Right.

JE: A lot of these myths have been discussed before; I'm not the first to point out that the Pee Wee Reece embrace probably didn't happen in 1947. But I think I'm the first to look carefully at all of these incidents and to try to separate them and see exactly what we can say where the facts are and where the myths begin. And I'm certainly the first to write an in depth examination of this groundbreaking season.

Brooklyn in the 1940s

SNY: You write that Brooklyn was the perfect place for the staging grounds for this great experiment.

JE: Obviously Cleveland was the second team to bring in an African-American player, but I don't think (the integration of baseball in that city) would have resonated the same way as it did in Brooklyn. Brooklyn was such a melting pot to begin with: people were accustomed to change, nothing stayed the same for very long and it was a whole community full of people who were trying to make better for themselves. Black families were coming into Brooklyn by the thousands right after the war and (the assimilation for the borough) was not always comfortable. But in Brooklyn you had more mingling than you would have had even in another big city like Chicago or Boston. I think that made a big difference because once Jackie showed he could play, he became a Dodger and loyalty to the Dodgers trumped all else; it became bigger than race.

SNY: I especially loved the stories about Gil Jonas, Malcolm X and future Governor Douglas Wilder - as young men before they burst upon the national consciousness in their own right -- and the impact that Robinson had on their lives.

JE: But that was the amazing thing about Robinson's influence and that's what makes it so powerful. He was changing the views of people everywhere in the moment, not just now 60 years later when it's easy to think of him as a civil rights figure. Every time someone went to a ballpark in 1947 and found themselves sitting near a black person for the first time in their lives, and maybe even standing up and hugging them when someone hit a home run, lives were being changed. And that was all because of the power of one person changing the world.

Wendell Smith

SNY: Tell me about Wendell Smith and the role of the black press during this era.

JE: Yeah, Wendell Smith is one of the great heroes of this story. He's well known to a certain extent in that the Baseball Hall of Fame has recognized him. and aficionados of the Negro League and of that period know his name. But I think he's been really overlooked by the mainstream baseball fan; people don't realize just what a huge role he played.

After Jackie's wife, Rachel, Wendell Smith was the most important supporter Robinson had; he did more to shape his image and his legend than anybody. First of all, he started fighting for the integration of baseball well before Robinson was ever signed, and he helped bring Robinson to the attention of Branch Rickey.

Because there was no system to scout the Negro Leagues back then, Branch Rickey just asked black baseball writers who was out there, and it was Wendell Smith who said you ought to take a look at this Jackie Robinson guy. And Branch Rickey said, you mean the football player from UCLA? And Wendell said yeah, he plays baseball, too. Rickey loved the fact that this was a big name, and this was somebody who was already famous from playing football; he saw box office appeal instantly. Of course, Robinson was very well known for his football exploits in college.

Jackie, Buck and the Negro Leagues

SNY: Can you explain your comment that "Robinson fit into the Negro Leagues like a schoolmarm in a brothel"? Are you saying that the Negro Leagues were not a serious league? Why wouldn't he have fit in?

JE: Oh, they were great ballplayers in the Negro League, and many of them took the game very seriously, but there were also instances when games weren't finished. It was a very rough lifestyle, living on the bus at times without even checking into hotels. And Robinson was a guy who was used to being treated better that that.

SNY: Do you think Negro League legend Buck O'Neil has painted a too-positive picture of that time period?

JE: I don't think he painted too positive a picture, but Buck was a Hall of Fame optimist, a man who managed to see the best in every situation. Robinson was the opposite in many ways. Every history of the Negro Leagues that I've read makes it quite clear that the business was not consistently well run. Robinson hated his time with the KC Monarchs and said as much.

Branch Rickey

SNY: Branch Rickey is a fascinating character. What's your general impression of his role, besides from the fact that he helped integrate the Major Leagues?

JE: My favorite line about Rickey was that he was a man of many facets all turned on, as they used to say in Brooklyn. He really believed that he could do all those things, he could change the world, he could stick to his religious values and do the right moral thing, he could change political views on integration, he could change his southern teammates from bigots into more open minded men, he could win the pennant, he could make more money and he could corner the market on black talent. He wanted to do all of those things and the amazing thing is he managed to pull off most of it. He was always a step ahead.

SNY: Did Rickey know about Robinson's refusal to give up his seat on the bus in 1944?

JE: I'm sure he did, yeah. He knew that Robinson was no pacifist, that Robinson was not a guy who just turned the other cheek. Actually, Robinson almost never turned the other cheek in his life, and that's what makes it so interesting that he chose Jackie. Robinson in many ways was the exact opposite of what people tend to think Rickey was looking for. He was a guy who was furious, he was an angry man who thought that he could somehow restrain himself when he was provoked, but he was certainly no Gandhi.

Robinson the Republican

SNY: Robinson became a staunch Republican after his playing days. Why did he go from this apparently trailblazing Communist/liberal to a Republican?

JE: Good question. I think Robinson ultimately was a contrarian who liked to defy expectations; everyone expected him to be this card carrying ACLU liberal. He was liberal in many ways, he did continue to work with the NAACP throughout his life, but he also had some very core conservative values, i.e. that people should work their way up, people should earn their respect and not be handed anything. So I think in some ways some of those Republican values very much appealed to him.

Remembering Jackie

SNY: How many books do you think have been written about Jackie Robinson?

JE: Oh, God, I don't know. But I know that after Babe Ruth he's the second most popular subject for books, and probably in terms of children's books he's number one.

SNY: How much of the current generation do you think understands Jackie's struggle, what it meant to this country and the details of that era?

JE: I think the real essence of the story, the real grit of the story, as often as it's been told in children's books and movies, has been lost to a large extent. We've inflated him to such a preposterously huge myth that we forget that he was just a regular guy, 28-year-old newlywed with an infant baby living in this tiny little cubicle of an apartment in Brooklyn, struggling to represent a whole country full of black people and change the way society looked at integration. I think we've lost track of that along the way.

SNY: What do you think about the Civil Rights game this weekend in Memphis and the role that Major League Baseball has played in celebrating Robinson's career?

JE: I think baseball has been great in the way that they've acknowledged and recognized the importance of Robinson's arrival and what he meant to this country. It's very rare that an organized sport or business of any kind can point with pride to that kind of an influence on society and baseball, more than anything, in the 1940s was such a tumultuous time, baseball came along and showed America the way. I think it's one of baseball's proudest moments and they should celebrate it every chance they get.

SNY: I read an article about Indians pitcher C.C. Sebathia who is quite concerned and outspoken about the lack of black ballplayers in the Major Leagues today. Why do you think this is?

JE: It's very complicated. Football and basketball are a big factor in that there are more opportunities available for black athletes now. Also, there are also more opportunities available to black student athletes and many of them choose to go away from sports entirely because there are better job opportunities outside the game. So there's not that kind of economic desperation that you used to see where Major League Baseball provided one of the few avenues to success for minority athletes.

But in other ways, too, baseball clearly is more interested in, and finds it more economical, developing talent in other countries right now. But it's all supply and demand and I don't think that it's as simple as saying that baseball has neglected its constituency. It's been a case of: the door is open, Robinson opened it and anyone can come in now. I think the area where Robinson would be most concerned today is with the numbers of African-American managers and general managers.

SNY: Many people wanted the new Mets stadium to be called Jackie Robinson Field.

JE: It would have been great, but, as you know, the Mets are not the Dodgers. How about asking the L.A. Dodgers to name their ballpark "Jackie Robinson Field"?

SNY: This is a cynical question, but has Jackie Robinson become a "cottage industry"?

JE: I don't think so. Jackie Robinson is a great story -- a story that delivers new lessons to each generation, and the more ways we can remind people of Robinson's story, the better. But I hope that we'll remind them in ways that are factual and really tell the story as it happened.

Barry Wittenstein is an editorial producer for SNY.tv.
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