Author Peary cites Hall of Famer, his contemporaries to show journey
By Paul Hagen
The fascination with Jackie Robinson started early for author Danny Peary. By the time he was 3 or 4 years old, he was already into baseball cards. His older brother not only collected them but would tell him about the players.
Phil Rizzuto was a great bunter. Ralph Kiner was baseball's big slugger. Jim Fridley was the only big leaguer from their hometown of Phillipi, W. Va.
"And Jackie Robinson was the first Negro ... to play Major League Baseball," Peary said, continuing the recitation. "And the card of Jackie Robinson in 1953 was the No. 1 of the Topps set. So he already was somebody I paid special attention to."
The intrigue with oral histories was sparked years later, by a 1982 Jean Stein and George Plimpton biography of Edie Sedgwick, an American heiress, actress and model who became one of Andy Warhol's Factory Girls.
"It was just from one person to the next, one quote following another. And I thought that was a just a great way to tell the story," Peary said.
Those dual absorptions have dovetailed frequently since, most recently in "Jackie Robinson In Quotes: The Remarkable Life of Baseball's Most Significant Player." As the title suggests, it tells the story of Robinson's life entirely through a collection of some 3,000 quotes from and about Robinson culled from a variety of archives.
Peary, who is also a noted film critic, believes that removing the author's voice and telling the story chronologically allows for an unadulterated examination of a life. And also that Robinson's life, already well-chronicled, is eminently worth examining again.
Here, the approach can be enthralling. Early on, there are quotes about Robinson's earliest brushes with racism, followed by his admission that he could have become "a full-fledged juvenile delinquent" followed by the observation that athletics could be his ticket ... followed eventually by a look at the reality that there didn't seem to be many options for young African-American athletes at the time.
"If that Robinson kid was white, I'd sign him right now," White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes told reporters after his team played a charity game against a team that included the 19-year-old Robinson in 1938.
It wasn't just Major League Baseball, either. Robinson was a superb athlete, but the other major professional sports leagues were either also segregated or barely paid a living wage. Even the Negro Leagues offered a hardscrabble lifestyle at subsistence wages. The juxtaposition of all these factors almost forces the reader to recognize the frustration and feel the discrimination.
Peary's interest in Robinson was further piqued when he wrote "We Played the Game," an oral history that remembered the 1947-64 era through the words of players and managers.
"And when I talked to the white players, I said, 'So, after 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, how was it for the black players on your team?' And they said, 'Oh, fine, there was never any problem after that,'" Peary said. "And I talked to the black and Latin players and they said, 'Well, it's a lot better because of Jackie Robinson. And we wouldn't be here if it weren't for Jackie Robinson. But there are still major problems, not just dealing with other teams and traveling through the South during Spring Training, but the nation as a whole.'"
As much as Peary though he knew about Robinson when he started the project, even he was surprised at what he learned.
"All the burdens he went through being the first black and dealing with all that abuse. I always thought and was always told when he died [at the age of 53] in 1972, the primary reason was the fact of the burden he had as a baseball player," Peary said.
"And what really surprised me doing this book and getting quotes taking me from [his retirement in] 1956 until his death is how that era, when he was a civil rights activist, always involved in politics, was also a burden. As his Brooklyn teammate Pee Wee Reese said, he could never stop fighting. So my big surprise was how that era contributed to his early death equally with what he went through as a ballplayer."
And, yes, an author who makes it his business to curate quotes has his favorites.
• "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."
Peary: "I should mention his main quote, which is on his tombstone. And that's the reason Jackie Robinson refused to stay on the sidelines and just have a regular job. He always involved himself."
• "I never had it made."
Peary: "Which is the title of his 1972 autobiography. He never settled, He never was happy. He was always frustrated and tried to be an agitator for moving forward."
• "Jackie was the only person without prejudice I ever met."
Peary: "That quote from Buck O'Neil, who was his teammate on the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945, the one year that Jackie Robinson played in the Negro Leagues, really gets to me. Considering everything that Jackie Robinson went through in his life -- and this goes all the way back to when he was a little kid, not just when he broke into Major League Baseball -- he suffered great racism. And he spent his entire life showing how black people suffered in what he called the white world. So for Jackie Robinson to have no prejudice is pretty impressive, after going through what he did."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.