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Jackie-R // The whole man

Published Jul. 6, 2006

This wide-ranging collection of material, some of which has never been published before, doesn't shy away from the controversy in Jackie Robinson's life.


Perspectives on an American Hero

Edited by Jules Tygiel

Dutton, $23.95


The Jackie Robinson Reader is an excellent retelling of one of America's most intriguing tales. Edited by Jules Tygiel, a leading authority on Robinson and the author of other critically acclaimed Robinson-based works, these selections of biographical and autobiographical writings provide an opportunity to see how far professional sports have come in their treatment of the African-American athlete.

Tygiel pieces together an expansive collection of thoughts that expound on both Jackie Robinson the hero and Jackie Robinson the man. Starting with Robinson's early beginnings on Pepper Street and ending with his untimely death at age 53, the book's varied contributions, including Robinson's own words, are a balanced and lasting tribute to the first African-American to play in the major leagues.

Tygiel's masterful use of literary resources is what stands out most about The Jackie Robinson Reader. Tygiel shows a knack for presenting the most poignant points of view on Robinson's state of mind during some of the more crucial times in his life. The effectiveness of the collection in this regard can be felt from the start when Tygiel covers Robinson's childhood with an interview by veteran sportswriter Maury Allen with Robinson's surviving siblings. Through details provided by Robinson's sister and brother, we are exposed to the trials and tribulations that a young Robinson had to overcome. This heartwarming and up-close account makes you relive the early mistreatment heaped upon not only Robinson, but also African-Americans in general. Throughout the collection, in fact, the complexity of "Jim Crow" America is broken down to its simplest level, but to his credit, Tygiel manages to convey the idea that no number of words can truly impart Jackie Robinson's effect on race relations in this country.

Robinson touched a wide range of people, and many of their perspectives on the man can be found in this collection. The contributions range from the legendary Branch Rickey's explanation of why baseball's "great experiment" had to take place to sportswriter nonpareil Wendell Smith's account of Robinson's debut in organized baseball. Tygiel also includes an account of writer Nan Birmingham's chance meeting with Robinson on an airplane, an encounter made memorable by Robinson's genuine concern for people.

Before each selection, Tygiel provides a brief introduction. He is also the author of two pieces in the collection, and the co-author of a third. As both writer and editor, he never expounds on Robinson's greatness, but lets Robinson's story speak for itself.

As with most books about famous people, there is a certain amount of hero worship involved in The Jackie Robinson Reader, but Tygiel's effort to stick with the facts is quite evident. There is little attempt to gloss over any controversy. In regards to the now-infamous House Un-American Activities Committee meetings, in which Robinson was asked to wage a heavy-handed attack against African-American activist and alleged communist Paul Robeson, for example, Tygiel carefully and accurately represents both sides of the debate. He includes letters exchanged between Robinson and Malcolm X that touch on the sensitive nature of the Robeson issue. In another selection, Tygiel lets Robinson talk about his controversial support of Richard Nixon in his own words.

By revealing both Robinson's strengths and his weaknesses, Tygiel with The Jackie Robinson Reader has put the legendary baseball player on a playing field of mortality. We see that even our heroes are human. And thanks to his honesty, we learn what Tygiel sees as one of Robinson's greatest assets _ his ability to bring people together.

Carlos Senior is a Times staffer.