Monday, April 23, 2007

Jackie Robinson, Libertarian Hero!

This week's column was, as usual, "inside baseball," but this time, it was actually about baseball. Did you know that Jackie Robinson's plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame mentions nothing about his race, or his role? (Stan Hochman, of the Philadelphia Daily News, wrote a column about it that I found.) It's just a bunch of statistics about his career. I think that's interesting but couldn't fit it into the column.

The Power Of Faulty Memories
East Valley Tribune, Apr. 22, 2007

Last week, The Tribune joined the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s historic debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The everything-fits-our-ideology editorialists declared Jackie Robinson a great man, but noted that "he didn’t stand alone" because "great moments are rarely solo acts," and "the force of good men’s will" did what "government accomplished only by coercive power." Jackie Robinson, libertarian hero!

The editorial recounted a now-familiar tale of the game at Cincinnati when Reds players "unmercifully heckled Robinson, then turned their venom to Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese." As recounted by teammate Rex Barney in Peter Golenbock’s Bums, Reese then walked over to Robinson and put his arm around him. Barney says Reese’s gesture "drove the Cincinnati players right through the ceiling, and you could have heard the gasp from the crowd as he did it."

It’s a powerful story; Reese, invariably described, as here, as "a Southerner, Kentucky-born," stands up to bigots for his teammate and changes a nation’s heart. There’s even a statue of the incident, dated to May 13, 1947, in front of the stadium where the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league team now plays.

Except the Reese arm-around-the-shoulder probably didn’t happen, at least not that way, and almost certainly not in 1947. It’s a bit of actual inside baseball, but Golenbock isn’t the most reliable storyteller. Consider 7, his new not-quite-a-novel, not-quite-a-biography of Mickey Mantle. Golenbock says that some stories "aren’t confirmable journalistically," but "Mickey’s friends swear that the incidents are true." Well, all right, then! As Newsday’s Neil Best wrote, readers shouldn’t trust Golenbock’s details because "he has a long history of sloppiness with facts even in officially non-fiction books."

Jonathan Eig’s new book, Opening Day, is just the latest attempt to sort through unreliable, decades-old memories. Eig noted that Robinson played first base in 1947; he didn’t move to second until 1948, so in 1947, Reese would have had to stop play and walk across the full diamond to reach first base. Don’t infielders always meet at the pitcher’s mound instead?

Eig also searched for any contemporary accounts of the event, and found none. White sportswriters rarely, if ever, mentioned Robinson’s race or his significance. No white reporter made a big deal of Robinson’s debut, and none of their accounts of the Dodgers-Reds game mention the Reese-Robinson interchange. Black reporters for black newspapers, who extensively chronicled Robinson’s season and his importance, describe the Cincinnati crowd as well-behaved, with no reports of taunts from the crowd or the Reds. Their stories don’t mention what would have been the game’s most remarkable moment.

In Eig’s view, only after people realized Robinson’s significance did they "go back and recreate the story." And memories, which can be fuzzy in the best of circumstances, really become unreliable when people use hindsight to create them.

Robinson’s widow, Rachel, later recalled Reese’s kindness, and Robinson himself described an incident from the 1948 season where Reese did talk with him, quieting some racial taunts. Eig also found reports of some similar-sounding incidents in 1949. But Rachel Robinson herself doubted that Reese would have put his arm around Jackie Robinson; a hand on a shoulder would have been more like him.

The moral isn’t that Robinson wasn’t a great man, or that Reese wasn’t a decent and honorable guy. Eig’s research into the 1947 season shows that much of the time, Robinson was on his own. His teammates hung back until he’d proven he was a great player and it became safe to support him. Like his teammates, people didn’t suddenly change, either. Our decades-old recollections -- with everybody tempted to portray themselves as more decent and color-blind than they actually were -- isn’t a good guide for policy today.

Robinson made his major league debut in 1947, but seventeen years later, lunch counters and schools were still segregated. It took government’s coercive power to make discrimination illegal. It’s certainly pretty to think that a scene that almost certainly didn’t happen suddenly changed the world, but it just wasn’t and isn’t so.

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