The Jackie Robinson Reader:
Perspectives on an American Hero
Edited By Jules Tygiel
Review by Mark Hughson
Most of my baseball book collection focuses on the unsung hero. The no-counts, the underdogs, and players that make the Hall of Very Good, rather than the museum in Cooperstown beckon me from the shelf. Partially this is because of my typical venue for acquiring books (garage sales), and part is due to my affinity for the unknown. I’d much rather read about Rocky Colavito and Whitey Herzog than oft-told tales of Babe Ruth and Pete Rose.
The Jackie Robinson Reader, a collection of writing on the title hero, proved to be an exception to the rule, and a good one at that. First of all, the format was perfect—Jackie Robinson’s rise to stardom was controversial, bearing a significance that went beyond the baseball diamond, and everyone had something to say about it—so why not give them all a voice and collect everything in a single, handy volume? Furthermore, my desire for obscure baseball personalities was sated as well, since there are chapters from Brooklyn Dodgers radio announcer Red Barber and talent scout Clyde Sukeforth.
Tygiel does a good job presenting Robinson from all angles: student athlete, army lieutenant, husband, ballplayer, father, businessman, and political activist. Robinson’s impressive college career (leading UCLA to a football championship) and turbulent military stint (his desire for racial equality almost got him dishonorably discharged for insubordination) just whet your appetite for what you know is to come.
While his historical rookie year is covered at length, the lead up is what makes it an exciting biography. His year with Brooklyn’s farm team, the Montreal Royals, is perhaps the most intense of all, with cops barricading stadiums in the south, and ballplayers everywhere harassing him at every at bat. It’s crazy to think Robinson survived, let alone led the team to a Little World Series win. Branch Rickey’s grand schemes, secret plans, and all around insane genius as a baseball businessman is always a ride as well.
While most of the attention is rightfully focused on Robinson’s actions—or inactions in many cases—it’s interesting to follow the reactions as well. Teammate Pee Wee Reese was a supportive, stand up guy from the get-go, while Phillies manager Ben Chapman was a racist scumbag in ’47 and continued to be so for several decades.
Overall this book is a thorough look, pulling in a variety of authors, scenesters, and magazine articles, as well as writings from Robinson’s family and the man himself. A report from the undoubtedly segregationist Major League Steering Committee is reprinted, as are open letters/tongue lashings from Malcolm X. This book was published in 1998, so there probably has been and will be more to write about Jackie Robinson as time goes by, but if you want a well-rounded primer, look no further.
Mark Hughson is lives in Syracuse, NY and roots for the Oakland A’s. He will probably watch the new Jackie Robinson movie, but will be thinking about old baseball books the whole time.
God, Forgive These Bastards—Stories From the Forgotten Life of Georgia Tech Pitcher Henry Turner
By Rob Morton
Review By Mike Faloon
I really enjoy wondering whether or not something is a put on—having to figure out what’s real and what’s not. When it’s done well. For every Andy Kaufman, there’s a dozen Joaquin Phoenixes.
We don’t get many experiences like this in the world of sports; it’s not a place that welcomes ambiguity. Sports traffics in binary code—you win or you lose, you’re a hero or you’re a bum. There’s seldom need to puzzle anything out. God, Forgive These Bastards, however, is mostly grey area. It isn’t quite on par with Andy Kaufman’s more ridiculous stunts, but it is full of compelling stories—often funny—told by a well-rendered character. Whether or not the events described actually took place is beside the point.
The book opens with author Rob Morton waiting for the bus in Portland, Oregon. He’s accosted by a homeless man, Henry Turner. The two later become friends. According to Turner he grew up in Georgia, split for Ohio, then drifted to Portland. Along the way he blazed a trail that is equal parts comical, criminal, and unconscionable. And he always had my ear. The balance of God, Forgive These Bastards is a “best of” Henry’s stories as retold by Moron. It starts with the alcohol-soaked Turner family history, then goes onto Henry’s short-lived college baseball career (pitching a two-hitter on speed), and later stealing a ’68 Firebird and cracking wise on Paul McCartney’s Wings. Think Kenny Powers of Eastbound and Down or Talladega Nights and you’ll have a sense of the tone. But at the same time when chapter four takes an In Cold Blood turn it’s not altogether surprising. There was something festering beneath the surface with Henry all along.
The stories just get more specific from there—moving in with a crystal meth making roommate who’s in cahoots with the mayor, landing in the psych ward. At the same time there are shifts in Henry’s voice, his phrasing becomes more poetic as the book goes on. I began to wonder how much was true, how much was invention. Then I kept reading and cared less about the fiction/non-fiction divide, though not completely. I did indulge in some cursory fact checking, but that was only after finishing God, Forgive These Bastards and letting the stories resonate for a day or so. It turns out that Henry Gray Turner, Henry’s alleged great grandfather, did fight in the Civil War and Jim Luck really did coach the Georgia Tech baseball team in 1979. But if Rob Morton’s primary purpose was pulling a hoax he’d have double checked the name of Georgia Tech’s teams. (He uses Wildcats. They’re the Yellow Jackets.) He’s come up with a clever device to frame his stories and not only did I enjoy them as they unfolded, I’ve since relished coming up with my own theories as to which bits are pure invention, which are accurate retellings, and which are composites.
(Note: The book also comes with a concept album performed by Morton’s band, the Taxpayers.)
Mike Faloon is co-editor of Zisk and the recently-published anthology Fan Inference: A Collection of Baseball Rants and Reflections. He contributes to Razorcake and Roctober and writes the on-line music column “Are You Receiving Me?” (gometric.typepad.com). He lives with his family in Patterson, NY.