"Jackie Robinson," by Arnold Rampersad. Knopf. 512 pages. $27.50.
In this 50th anniversary of the season that he broke the color barrier in major-league baseball, Jackie Robinson hovers in the national psyche as an immense icon. Two icons, actually - first, as the winsome young Apollo-in-ebony striding, to jeers and cheers, onto Ebbets Field in 1947; later, as the elegant white-haired executive of Chock Full o' Nuts.
In this stately biography, Arnold Rampersad, a Princeton professor and path-breaking biographer of such notable black Americans as Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and Arthur Ashe, shows Jack Robinson to be a far more complex man than a mere "role model" - a somewhat demeaning term, when you think about it, like the "credit-to-his-race" which the great athlete was routinely called at the outset of his blazing career.
This is an authorized biography, hence predictably adulatory in tone. Still, Rampersad reveals a man whose great talents were always endangered by a lifelong impetuous and tempestuous nature. Born in a sharecropper's shack in Georgia, abandoned by his father in his infancy, raised by a mother who toiled long hours for low wages, Jackie came perilously close to becoming just another crime statistic as he grew up in tough times in Los Angeles.
Even as an Army officer he was court-martialed for being "uppity." He was rescued from failure and obscurity by Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who was to become Jack's consummate father-figure - an improbable bonding, since Rickey was a conserative, manor-born white man in the age of Jim Crow.
Jack's career in major-league baseball was briefer than we realize, just 10 years, during which he amassed a record that was not quite so good as that of Cobb, Ruth or DiMaggio, but certainly good enough to get him safely into the Hall of Fame. After that he made a career in business which, to put it bluntly, amounted to subsidized jobs relegating him to the role of a shill or front-man.
He also plunged into politics in ways that can only be called chaotic and confused, and which ultimately would earn this towering figure only the scorn of the young black militants of his day as an "Uncle Tom." His commitment to racial equality and uplift never faltered, but the fact remains that throughout life, Jackie Robinson was a tragic hero, a prisoner of race.
We also forget that he died at the age of 52 - mercifully, because had he lived but a few weeks longer, the strong legs which made him the Rookie of the Year in 1947 would have been amputated to stave off the ravages of diabetes.
Such a biography has an inevitable pitfall: The early parts of the book often become impenetrable thickets of sports trivia. But the perceptive reader will quickly develop an eye for scanning the stats - essential in any definitive sports biography - in order to get on to the compelling latter portions of the book.
Among the most fascinating aspects of this work is the peripheral biography of Robinson's devoted wife, Rachel, the stabilizing anchor in Jack's troubled life. Rachel never tried to check her husband's rash forays into the treacherous worlds of business and politics, but neither did she go along with his more harebrained machinations. Even today, in her eighth decade, she remains active in the living memorial she created, the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
Ray Jenkins was editorial page editor of the Evening Sun until 1992. Before his retirement he had worked for newspapers for 40 years. He is a lawyer, was a Nieman Fellow in 1964 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1955.
Pub Date: 10/12/97