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Review: "Opening Day"

In his new book, Jonathan Eig maintains that while he was making history in 1947, Jackie Robinson "caught glimpses of his impact on the community," and that Robinson and his wife "had only the vaguest idea of what was happening...They sheltered themselves, as if the burden were great enough without firsthand knowledge of its precise weight."

It couldn't have been otherwise. Nobody knew the "precise weight" of what Robinson was accomplishing at the time. Branch Rickey, who signed Robinson to his contract with the Dodgers, did not even know the extent to which the owners and general managers of the other Major League teams would follow his lead. Nobody knew how many business owners and other employers would hire black workers for the first time after seeing Robinson succeed in Brooklyn. Who could have counted the number of citizens who'd be inspired to seek their own opportunities after Robinson had seized his?

Though Opening Day is ostensibly the story of the 1947 season, Eig recognizes the importance of placing the integration of Major League Baseball in a historical context. He also takes on some of the myths that became part of the Robinson story long after '47. For example, he maintains that the image of Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese crossing the infield to put his arm around Robinson on a day when opposing fans were sounding especially racist is probably invention.

Lots of the Dodgers and most of Brooklyn's opponents were less than praiseworthy in their reaction to Robinson's arrival, but the story was not without lesser champions. Burt Shotton, the manager who took over the ball club when Leo Durocher was suspended for the year, faced an extraordinary challenge. As Eig puts it, "there was no blueprint for the job ahead." Yet Shotton "stared out placidly from behind his wire-rimmed glasses and made clear that he saw nothing to get excited about." Wendell Smith, the black journalist whom the Dodgers hired to room with Robinson and write about him, was also operating without a blueprint, and companionship and journalism weren't his only responsibilities. When word would come that the hotel where the Dodgers would be staying while playing in St. Louis or Cincinnati wouldn't admit Robinson, it was Smith's job to find them both some place else to stay. In the face of insults and worse, Smith quietly fulfilled his responsibilities and wrote about Robinson's challenge in ways that helped Robinson and prepared the way for the black players who'd follow him.

Eig's achievement is that he balances his account of the daily struggle that Robinson endured with a contemporary look at what his achievement has come to mean. Though the story of Jackie Robinson has been told many times, Eig's book is a worthy and entertaining addition to the collection of accounts of baseball's most significant season.

This program aired on April 11, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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