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Published: Saturday, 3/24/2007

Opening Day : Fans help tell the story of Jackie Robinson


Publishers are always looking for a hook to hang a new book project on and this one is a natural the 60th anniversary of the integration of Major League Baseball.

Jonathan Eig, whose earlier book, Luckiest Man, was a fine biography of Lou Gehrig, takes on an event that s been analyzed from every angle and freshens it up a bit.

He describes the 1947 season like a baseball fan rather than a sociologist, pointing out that one of Jackie (he preferred Jack) Robinson s overlooked accomplishments was that he excelled at a sport that was not his best.

Robinson was a slashing runner and outstanding track and field performer at UCLA. His football fame gained him a spot on the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Baseball League in 1945 because the color line blocked him from professional football as well.

When Robinson took the field on April 15, 1947, he was not only playing a strange position first base but competing against players far more experienced than himself. Often he found himself in game situations he d never encountered, and often he used his originality and daring to do things veteran players never tried.

Yet, he batted .297, hit 12 home runs and drove in 48, mostly batting second, and stole a league-leading 29 bases. He was named Rookie of the Year, a relatively old one at 26.

Eig says Robinson was the catalyst for the Dodgers unlikely National League pennant, a team of fading veterans and shaky youngsters who responded to his confident and often fearless approach to what had become a staid pastime.

The story of Robinson s selection by Brooklyn Dodger boss Branch Rickey and the heroes and villains of the 47 season is now the stuff of hoary legend. Eig does little to improve on that side of the tale.

It s his accounts of the games and the plays that lift Opening Day above the tried and true, although Eig resorts to some corny 1940s cliches. He enhances the descriptions with eyewitness comments from a wide range of fans, including Douglas Wilder, former Virginia governor, who saw Robinson when he was 16.

The contribution of Rachel Isum Robinson, the ballplayer s gracious and supportive wife, to Eig s narrative is another major one.

Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier is also a critical figure in Robinson s first season as his adviser, ghost-writer of his weekly newspaper column, and strongest advocate in the black media.

Opening Day is a tightly written but comprehensive history of that landmark season and the remarkable performance of its leading man, Jackie Robinson.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bob Hoover is book editor of the Post-Gazette.

Contact him at:bhoover@post-gazette.com.

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