By Robert B. Parker
Jackie Robinson; Brooklyn Dodgers Baseball
Famous for his Mystery Series set in Boston, Robert B. Parker changes his game and hits a homerun with Double Play. After a half century and almost as many popular novels, the author mixes history and fiction in a classic film noir story from the nineteen forties. His hero, as bleak and sardonic as any macho male from a Dashiell Hammett story, is Joseph Burke, a World War II vet who received the infamous "Dear John" letter from a feckless wife and whose new career as a professional body guard is going nowhere fast. Until, that is, Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, offers him a job protecting Jackie Robinson in his first season as a black first baseman on an all white team.
The book is a fast read, tying together post war racism, small time corrupt gangsters, a big apple Manhattan and the innocence of rooting for the Dodgers. Almost too lean and sparsely written, the first quarter of the story teeters on the brink of parody, but fortunately catches itself with the first meeting of Burke and Robinson in the office of Branch Rickey who tells Robinson:
"You can't ever let down... You're under a microscope. You can't drink. You can't be sexually indiscreet. You can't have opinions about things. You play hard and clean and stay quiet. Can you do it?"
"With a little luck," Robinson said.
"Luck is the residue of good intention," Rickey said.
"He talked pretty good, Burke thought, for a guy who hit .239 lifetime."
Burke and Robinson, thrown together by necessity, fit like glove and ball. Different in race, in education, (Robinson attended UCLA), and in ideals, they share a pragmatic determination and, as with all good film noir heroes, an intrinsic integrity that only the good guys know. Parker's skill in delineating the two men, one fictional and one historical, in pithy humor and solid, believable action, is impressive. It reflects in large measure not only a command of tight plotting and language but also an instinctive knowledge of what to leave out. Few words are wasted in Double Play and it would clearly make a splendid film, preferably, and appropriately, in black and white.
Until Hollywood sees that potential, fans might want to read I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography by Jackie Robinson and Alfred Duckett. The study reminds you of how well Branch Ricky recognized quality on and off the playing field. Robinson details his family affection, his education at UCLA, his abiding love for his wife Rachel, his service in World War II when he was court martialed for refusing to sit in the back of the bus, (he was subsequently to receive an honorable discharge), and his early professional years with the Black League.
Princeton professor, Arnold Rampersad, author of Days of Grace with tennis great, Arthur Ashe, has also published with the cooperation of Rachel Robinson, an excellent and highly readable biography of Jackie Robinson. Rampersad eschews the scholarly paraphernalia of lengthy footnotes and endless conjectures in favor of presenting Robinson as a superb athlete, and a man of ambivalences, particularly on political issues as well as a man often embittered by the hypocrisy and cruelty he met frequently. Nevertheless, Robinson emerges as a man who knows he is walking with historical destiny and is determined to be that marvelous thing, a good man.
Fortunately also, fans can view Jackie Robinson in the springtime of his career, by watching one of the numerous television biographies available. Although not a great film, an amazing piece of Americana survives from 1950 in The Jackie Robinson Story , starring the young player himself and with Rudy Dee as Rachel. Made only three years after his entry into the Major Leagues, the film is as surprisingly blunt and critical of the times as the production values are low and aesthetically weak. The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson is more recent (1992) and sets Robinson correctly into the coming activism of the Civil Rights Movement.
Most effectively, however, the segment on the great player in Ken Burns' brilliant Baseball series is worthwhile. Certainly, Burns - and Parker very succinctly in the novel - give Branch Rickey the accolades he deserved for breaking the color barrier with common sense as well as decency. Moreover, Burns makes it clear what Robinson endured to achieve his stature as one of the greatest sportsmen of the century. In particular, Burns and Parker movingly depict the dilemma of what integration meant to the Black Baseball League and its many fine players. Was the triumph of one young black in a white man's game so valuable that it was worth the risk of the economic destruction of a pastime and career opportunity for so many Blacks? Tragically and movingly the answer was yes.
By Dr. E.D Malpass
Jackie Robinson sliding to base Jackie Robinson safe Jackie Robinson on the field