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Arnold Rampersad: Jackie Robinson: A Biography

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the integration of modern professional baseball, and the passage of time makes it easy to lose sight of both the importance of the moment and the personal stories of those involved. Which is part of what makes Arnold Rampersad's thorough new Jackie Robinson biography such a captivating read. The integration of athletics is now such a given that it's difficult to imagine it any other way, but the author makes it clear how difficult and influential the transition was, illustrating the struggle the pioneering Robinson underwent in order to make it happen. Born in Jim Crow-entrenched Georgia, Robinson grew up in the (very) relative tolerance of Pasadena, where he established himself as a local sports hero in high school and at UCLA. After a distinguished career in the military, Robinson found himself with a limited choice of professions. By all logic, but by no tradition, a man of his talent belonged in the big leagues. The decision of Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey to bring Robinson to the majors was nonchalantly portrayed at the time, and has been cynically explained by others since, as one made purely out of self-interest (a great player means more wins, regardless of color), but Rampersad makes it clear that there was a good deal more idealism at work. The decision to choose Robinson, however, now seems more inspired than anyone could have anticipated, and in addition to capturing the spirit of the age, Rampersad does an exceptional job capturing Robinson's character. Beyond his athletic excellence, Robinson's dedication and intelligence made him an ideal choice, as did the almost inhuman patience he practiced in the early years. Though not immediately in his nature—as demonstrated by some tumultuous later seasons and his subsequent career as a politically conscious columnist—Robinson's uncompromising restraint is part of what made the Dodgers' experiment a success. But professional baseball was only part of Robinson's life, and, as befits a biography of this quality, Rampersad gives equal time to his subject's life before and after the Dodgers. Robinson's post-baseball career as an opinionated, graying icon is particularly interesting: His passion for civil-rights advances often found him making alliances that now seem wrongheaded—he supported Nixon against Kennedy, for example—but Rampersad elucidates Robinson's logic, even if he clearly doesn't share it. Written in a straightforward, approachable and restrained style that displays a nice sense of character—Robinson's wife emerges as a crucial and equally willful participant—this biography does its complex subject justice, no mean feat given Robinson's towering importance.