A Super Tuesday with Jimmy Breslin

Super Tuesday became Mediocre Tuesday, or Predictable Tuesday, according to US pundits this week.

Mitt Romney won six states, including the bellwether, Ohio, but impressed nobody, except himself. Rick Santorum took Oklahoma, Tennessee and North Dakota, and came close in Ohio, blessed by evangelical voters, but is nowhere near the Holy Grail. Newt Gingrich easily won Georgia, which was always on his mind, but has no national popularity, just southern hospitality. And Ron Paul kept winning arguments as a libertarian anti-government maverick, but no primaries or caucuses.

Such is the state of Republican politics that even the winners are losers. Mitt is mediocre, Santorum is sanctimonious, and Newt is narcissistic. And Ron Paul has no chance, except as a spoiler, if he decides to run as an independent.

Romney, described as a zombie in a lovely piece by Andrew Sullivan of The Sunday Times (published in The Australian – sorry no link, The Sunday Times pay wall stopped me!), will probably win the nomination, by default, unless a dark horse rides into the Republican Party Convention in Tampa, Florida in August.

All you really need to know about the Republicans at this stage in the long primary season can be read in this editorial in The New York Times: http://nyti.ms/xIfSuw Even Barbara Bush, the former Republican First Lady, says it’s the worst Republican campaign she’s ever seen: http://nyti.ms/ymqHyR

That’s enough on Super Tuesday and the Republicans. Suffice it to say, the primary season will just go on … and on … and on.

Let me tell you about a recent book you probably haven’t heard anything about. It’s a biography of the baseball magnate, Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who brought the first black player into the major leagues, Jackie Robinson, way back in 1947.

Written by the inimitable Jimmy Breslin, legendary columnist, author and Pulitzer Prize winner, Branch Rickey is part of the Penguin Lives series (US) in which the publisher chooses the best writer they can find for a shortish profile (averaging 200 pages or so) of a famous person (Penguin calls it great writers on great figures). For example, Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse, Edna O’Brien on James Joyce and Thomas Keneally on Abraham Lincoln. (Here’s a link to the series: http://bit.ly/wLnACn )

Jimmy Breslin is simply the best person to write about Branch Rickey. Like many great American journalists and authors of his generation, he started as a sportswriter where he learned, as he says in his prologue, “you couldn’t write about a game unless you went to see it.” In typical Breslin commentary, he adds: “These people who try reporting by watching television were killing readers with lifeless stories. It still is like this, except there are many fewer readers to murder.”

The problem with writing a biography of Branch Rickey was that Breslin had only met him once, and many of his contemporaries had died. So he read books on Rickey and Robinson, and did what he always did as a journalist: “Walk the streets, find old addresses, climb stairs, go to a nursing home or a saloon. Find somebody whose grandfather was there. Listen.”

BEATING PREJUDICE WITH PROXIMITY

Breslin listened well. He starts his profile with Rickey’s meeting with Brooklyn banker, George V. McLaughlin, nicknamed George the Fifth because of his regal presence and a liking for a drink of Scotch, to talk about increasing the number of Dodger scouts to find blacks who could play in the major leagues – and handle racism in baseball. McLaughlin got the Dodgers’ directors together for a lunch at the famous New York Athletic Club in January 1943, and Rickey talked about prejudice: “It reflects an attitude of a great many people in this country who don’t introspect themselves very closely about their own prejudices … You can’t meet it with words. You can’t take prejudice straight on. It must be done by proximity. Proximity! The player alongside you. No matter what the skin color or language. Win the game. Win all. Get the championship and the check that goes with it.” Rickey was talking the directors’ language: money.

In another excellent bit of research, Breslin comes up with statements made to a court-martial of the man Rickey had decided would be the first black baseball player in the major leagues, Jackie Robinson. Without this exceptional athlete and man of character, Rickey’s dream of ending racism in baseball would have been shattered. And US Army Lt Jack R. Robinson was charged with conduct unbecoming an officer and refusal to obey an order during time of war – charges carrying a possible long sentence. All Robinson had done was refuse to go the back of a bus, curse at a bus driver for calling him a “nigger,” and refuse to stay in a receiving room when he was arguing his case at the Texas military base. The only thing that saved him, and Breslin discovered this in talking to Robinson’s lawyer, now a 96-year-old just retired lawyer, was that a military policeman guarding the Lieutenant had called him a “nigger.”  This was 1944, and racism in America was still at record high levels. One of the civilian ladies on the bus told the court what she thought of Negroes: “I had to wait on them during the day, but I didn’t have to sit with them on the bus …”

Lt Jack Robinson was acquitted, but it was several years before Branch Rickey’s plan to get a Negro into baseball reached its fruition. He sent his chief scout Clyde Sukeforth to find out more about the court martial and talk to the player. When Rickey learned the trial was about Robinson refusing to sit in the back of a bus in Fort Hood, Texas, he said: “He has spirit!”

But when Sukeforth introduced Robinson to Rickey as “the Brooklyn kind of player,” the Dodgers’ general manager asked Jackie if he was the kind of player with “the guts not to fight back,” and if he was called racist names, what would he do? Robinson answered: “Mister Rickey, I’ve got two cheeks.”

Two cheeks would help Robinson stay in baseball, but getting him there required a New York State law preventing and eliminating discrimination in employment against persons “because of race, creed, colour, or national origin.” The bill was passed with the help of the Republican Governor of New York, Thomas Dewey, who did more for civil rights than the Democrats. And Branch Rickey secured Dewey’s assistance, lobbying other Republican politicians against a formidable anti-black opposition.

Next, Rickey took on the major team owners, the Baseball Writers Association and the media, all of whom were against blacks in baseball, and won.  In April, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black baseball player in the major leagues. And the Rickey test came soon afterwards. In one of Robinson’s first at bats as a Brooklyn Dodger at their home park, Ebbets Field, the manager of the opposing Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Chapman, yelled from the dugout: “Hey, nigger, go back to the cotton field where you belong.”

STAND UP AND HIT

Branch Rickey went down from the stands and told Robinson they had an agreement he was to ignore people like Chapman for three years. When Robinson asked Rickey if he knew what it was like to have somebody doing this to you, the GM replied: “No, you do. And I can tell you precisely what you can do about it. Stand up and hit. Walk up there and listen to none of this and show them what you do with a bat.”

Robinson listened to Rickey and scored the only run of the game and the Dodgers won. The next day, Chapman was at the dugout, and yelled again: “Hey, nigger …” This time, Eddie Stanky of the Dodgers yelled back: “You yellowbelly. You know he can’t answer you. I’d like to see you do it if he was free to fight back.”

The rest of the Rickey story Breslin tells so well, in a style reminiscent of Hemingway, is about how Jackie Robinson becomes a star and heralds the arrival of thousands of African Americans to baseball, along with Hispanics and Japanese and other ethnic groups. Baseball is no longer a white man’s game.

And in his epilogue, Jimmy Breslin brings it all back to politics and the election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States. Marie F. Lewis, a New York City election official, is at the polling place at Jackie Robinson elementary school in Brooklyn across the street from where Ebbets Field used to be, now a housing project, and she is practising her base-stealing moves a la Jackie R. It is election night, November 4, 2008, and the people of Brooklyn are ready to celebrate. I’ll let Breslin take over from here: “… somewhere a television showed Barack Obama and a whoop ran through the corridor of the Jackie Robinson elementary school and the election workers were kissing and Ms. Marie Lewis was swaying and swaggering, her feet remembering the start of the long march that got us here.”

It was a real Super Tuesday for me this week. No, nothing to do with the Republican primaries; it’s when I finished Branch Rickey, and savoured the glow I always feel after reading a book by Jimmy Breslin.

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