April 15, 1947, marked the most important opening day in baseball history. When Jackie Robinson stepped onto the diamond that afternoon at Ebbets Field, he became the first black man to break into major-league baseball in the 20th century. World War II had just ended; democracy had triumphed. Now Americans were beginning to press for justice on the home front— and Robinson had a chance to lead the way. But his biggest concern was his temper, and playing well, despite race-baiting by segregationists.
Jonathan Eig, author of Opening Day: the Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season— in addition to publishing three nonfiction books— writes a monthly sports column for Chicago magazine.
Q: You’re a Chicagoan— home of the White Sox, the Cubs, the Bears, the Bulls, and the Blackhawks. You’ve also written a biography of Al Capone. Has living in the Windy City influenced your career as an author?
Some cities inspire storytelling more than others, I think. I lived in New Orleans; that’s a great town for storytelling. I also lived in Dallas. I don’t think I’ve ever read a great book set in Dallas. But Chicago is a wonderful town for writers. The city itself is such a strong character— big, strong, dirty, corrupt, wild. Sounds like a description of Al Capone, actually. If you live in Chicago long enough, you want to write about it. But there’s another way Chicago shaped my career. Moving here (from Dallas) felt like making it to the big leagues. But Chicago seemed not so intimidating as New York. Here, I had the opportunity to meet and get to know writers I greatly admired (including Joseph Epstein, Leon Forrest, Alex Kotlowitz, and Robert Kurson), and to seek their counsel as I began trying to write books of my own.
Q: Capone is an unusual choice for a biography: he beat several men to death with a ball bat (was it the sports connection that attracted you?). Seriously, why Capone when you’ve written about giants of character such as Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig?
I wanted to write a Chicago story, and I wanted to write a story set in the 1920s. I considered Louis Armstrong and spent some time researching his life. Then I decided to check out Capone. Capone knocked off Armstrong. Why? For starters, I was surprised to see that most of the Capone biographies failed to give me a real sense of the man’s personality. They were so enthralled with his crimes that they neglected to establish his character. That made me curious. Who was the real Capone? Then, in the course of my preliminary research, I started to discover great troves of research materials that had been untapped by previous writers. I thought I had the chance to add considerably to the public understanding of this fascinating criminal. More important, I thought I had a great story on my hands. Capone surely led one of the greatest of all American lives. His story is the American Dream gone bad— and it went bad in large part because of a wildly ridiculous law called Prohibition. So, while I would have preferred to stick with the good guys, Capone was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Q: You’re a young author. When you pick up a biography written by your parents’ generation, do you detect differences of style and approach?
Not sure I qualify as a young author, anymore, but thanks. The art of biography has changed, I suspect, as readers have changed. Readers seem to crave memoirs these days. They want to get inside their subjects’ heads and read their thoughts, the more sensational the better. There’s a danger there for biographers who might be tempted to make biography read more like memoir and explore a subject’s thought and feelings rather than actions and words. Also, modern readers want more slickly produced entertainment. There’s a danger there, too, for biographers who might be tempted to take liberties in creating scenes that may or may not have occurred. That said, I’d put the biographers of my generation up against those of my parents’. Except for Leon Edel. No way I’m picking a fight with that guy.
Q: Examining in-depth, as you have, the lives of Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig, did they have traits in common— outside of athletic ability— that made them great players?
Robinson and Gehrig shared that trait so commonly found in great men: Fire. They burned to prove themselves. Robinson burned in large part because he was poor and black. Gehrig burned in large part because he was poor. How many great American lives were made great by the desire to overcome poverty? No doubt quite a lot. But Robinson and Gehrig shared other traits. They were both raised by strong women, and they both carried with them a powerful determination to impress and do right by those women. Both felt a sense of inferiority—Robinson because society imposed on African-Americans at the time a sense that they ought to feel inferior, and Gehrig simply because he was a shy, thoughtful, and insecure man in a business full of brawlers and braggarts. I think the two of them would have found much to discuss had they ever met.
Q: In writing your biography of Robinson, you had to address the all-important issue of racism in major league baseball— in fact, throughout the country at that time. How do you treat something as indefensible as race-baiting without taking the moral high ground and passing judgment on bigots?
I was born too late for the Civil Rights movement. So, to me, it seemed difficult to understand the kind of blatant racism someone like Robinson faced. But when I began researching this book and interviewing some of the men who openly challenged Robinson’s right to play in the big leagues, I was surprised to find myself empathizing with them to a great extent. Not that I condoned their behavior, but, after talking to some of these men, I certainly understood it. Bobby Bragan, a member of the 1947 Dodgers, told me he was raised by white supremacists and taught that African-Americans were inferior, dirty, and possibly dangerous. When black men and women came to his house to cook or clean, they entered only through the back door and called him “Mr. Bobby.” How was he supposed to go home and tell his friends that he was sharing a shower with a black man? How was he supposed to tell them that the black man was a star player on the Dodgers and he, Bobby, was sitting on the bench? Okay, now I could understand why he initially fought Robinson’s promotion to the team. Now I could understand the race baiting. People were threatened. They saw life as they knew it being blown up. They saw the rules of society changing. That’s scary. That’s normal behavior. It’s a writer’s job not to make judgments but to explain as fully and complexly as possible. Simplicity is easy. Nuance is hard— and much more interesting.
Q: When Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey interviewed Robinson for a spot on the team, which would make Robinson the first black player in the majors since the 1880s, he told Robinson he wanted a Negro ballplayer with “guts enough not to fight back.” Was Rickey an advocate for social change, or was he thinking like a smart businessman who knew talent when he saw it and didn’t want his investment wrecked?
Yes. Rickey wanted to have it both ways. In Brooklyn they used to say he was a many of many facets (pronounced “faucets”), all of them turned on. He wanted to change the world. He also wanted to make money. He also wanted to acquire cheap but talented players so that his cash-starved team might compete with the Giants and Yankees. Like so many great American innovators, Rickey was driven by greed, ego, and a desire to make a difference in the world.
Q: Robinson was eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame for the first time in 1962. He told voters he wanted them to consider only his on-field qualifications, not his impact on American culture. Why?
Because Robinson was a prickly guy always looking for an argument. In truth, Robinson would have been a borderline case for the Hall of Fame based only on his numbers. His career was too short, and his numbers were good, but not spectacular. Anyway, it’s impossible to judge Robinson only by the numbers, because the numbers were produced under such extraordinary conditions. I’m a pretty fair writer, but I don’t think I’d write very well with a gun to my head. Robinson played several seasons with the equivalent of a gun to his head— and he played brilliantly.
Q: You’ve published three biographies and are starting your fourth. What phase in the process is most enjoyable? What’s the least?
I enjoy all the phases of my work: The initial research when I’m just getting to know my subject, just begin to piece the story together in my head; the first days of writing, when I think I’ve mastered my subject well enough to begin putting a few words on the page; the middle period, when the story is unfolding before me and going in directions I hadn’t anticipated; and the final surge, when my research is complete and I can power through the last chapters to an ending I know and love. Ahhh… Sounds so simple, so gratifying, doesn’t it? If only. The part I like least is the period between books when I don’t know what to write next, or if I’ll ever come up with an idea worthy of becoming a book, or if there will be any bookstores left by the time I think of a new topic. Idea hell, I call it. If there were a way to avoid it, I would. Perhaps someone reading this will send me ideas for my next three books and I’ll be good to go for another decade! But what about after that?
Jonathan Eig will present the life of Jackie Robinson as part of the Chappell Great Lives Lecture Series, Thursday, February 16, at 7:30 pm in Dodd Auditorium at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.