How non-fiction altered my life
As I write this, I’ve just seen 42, the Jackie Robinson story. If I’d have been alive at the time, I’d have been a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. I’ve seen pictures of the famous rotunda in Ebbets Field, and my mouth dropped open when I saw the outside facade at Ebbetts for the first time in the movie. Relative to today’s parks, Ebbets Field would be considered a dump. But as someone who can name every starter on the ’55 Dodgers World Series winners (the ’53 team was actually better), Ebbetts Field is like a sacred place to me. My wife said my mouth hung open at that shot.
It didn’t hang open during the rest of the movie because I knew the story. Jackie Robinson went to UCLA where he was a star in multiple sports. He was in the Army and was almost court martialed. He played in the Negro Leagues and was hand-selected by Branch Rickey, then played a year in Montreal. Rickey selected Montreal because it wasn’t in the South and it would help Robinson ease into what was coming next.
I knew the story of Leo Durocher and his torrid love live with Lorraine Day, though his suspension was more related to gambling than the CYO’s issues with his marriage to Day.
I knew the story of Ben Chapman, the idiot manager of the Philadelphia Phillies and his obscene treatment of Robinson, and of how he requested a picture with Jackie under pressure. I know the story of Kirby Higbe, whose 22 wins helped rescue the Dodgers from obscurity, and how he was traded to the Pirates after refusing to play with Robinson. And how Pee Wee Reese publicly put his arm around Robinson at a game, which made things a little easier because Reese was from the south.
I know that the question where Jackie Robinson asked Rickey whether he wanted a man who was too weak to fight back and Rickey answered that he wanted a man who was strong enough to not fight back.
And I know that, if anything, the movie glossed over the amount of hatred and vitriol Jackie Robinson faced. By the time he retired–rather than being traded to the Giants after the 1956 season. Diabetes was already eating at him. I know he died in 1972 at the far-too-young age of 53. Officially, he died of a heart attack. Unofficially, it’s surmised he died because of the accumulated weight of the abuse he took when he integrated baseball.
A little less than a year and a half after Robinson’s death, I know that Henry Aaron received death threats because he was about to break Babe Ruth’s home run record, and the Aaron’s wife held her breath when two white men ran onto the field after Aaron homered of Dodgers pitcher Al Downing. It wound up that they were congratulating him.
I know all this because of the non-fiction I’ve read. It’s the non-fiction that makes Jackie Robinson the closest thing I have to a sports hero. It’s the non-fiction that let me know that the Boston Red Sox might not have broken generations of their fans’ hearts if they’d been a little less bigoted and signed Willie Mays to play the outfield next to Ted Williams, rather than passing on him and not fielding a black player until Pumpsie Green in 1959.
It’s the non-fiction that made me understand the men who were idolized all over the country–guys like Aaron and Willie Mays and Bob Gibson and Frank Robinson, still had to stay at separate hotels for far too long.
Sure it’s just baseball. But that baseball shaped a lot of my views of people, and who helped me see that guys like Aaron and Reggie Jackson and Eddie Murray and Dwight Gooden were just gifted ballplayers, and that the color of their skin didn’t change that. It’s the non-fiction that made me decide I didn’t want to be like Ben Chapman when I grew up.