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A Fine Team Man Book Review

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  • A Fine Team Man Book Review

    Author Joe Cox looks at Jackie Robinson’s life and career by examining the roles played by nine key people involved in the most notable events and controversies from Robinson’s history-making life.

    There are several aspects of this work that justify reading yet another book about Jackie Robinson. Like MLB, which has cherry-picked Jackie Robinson (no thought required there) to be “the face” of the black experience in MLB history to the nearly total disregard for the many others who faced struggles similar to Robinson, many writers provide information (some of it erroneous) merely rehashed from previous works and rarely explore the perspectives and motivations from those other than the Robinsons themselves. In a highly readable text, Cox adds additional depth, insights and viewpoints gleaned from numerous individual interviews, contemporary newspaper sources and books.

    At the time, a common element for those not in Jackie’s family was the cost of lending support to the Rickey-Robinson integration of major league baseball in 1947. Somewhat forgotten today of course is that in the 1940s, anyone supporting Robinson often faced peer social responses ingrained for centuries and in some cases, as we see for some of the people profiled in this book, possessed a personal ambivalence regarding race that was more complicated than its owner could even realize at the time. The chapters on Red Barber and Pee Wee Reese are particularly interesting regarding the complex effects and consequences of learned responses. Joe Cox presents his well-researched personal histories without bias, relating not only the events, but also the effects and consequences of the decisions they made.

    Three of the featured participants I knew relatively little about: Burt Shotton, Clyde Sukeforth and black sportswriter Wendell Smith. Each receives a full treatment, not only for their involvement in Robinson’s life, but also for their non-Robinson accomplishments. The Clyde Sukeforth chapter in particular is important because it reminds us that there are important roles to be played in the game of baseball by people other than players, managers and executives. This chapter will be treat for fans weary of today’s marketing obsessed game where a player can be publicly called out by the commissioner for not promoting himself enough – Cox is writing about real people, not branding icons.

    Cox is very much interested in the motivations that move (or don’t) people one way or the other. With Happy Chandler, Cox examines the motivations and decisions made at the time by one of those figures whose history is so shrouded in ambiguity that widely polarized judgments have resulted regarding his actions. Many of these folks walked a tightrope in these times; Cox examines the common wisdom version of the these events, but provides additional information relating different versions and interpretations of events. To his credit, Cox is never didactic and has no axe to grind. He presents what he knows, provides possibilities for interpretation, but always let’s you make up your own mind.

    The chapters on Wendell Smith, Branch Rickey and Happy Chandler provide interesting events and perspectives related to baseball’s attempts and failures at integration prior to Robinson. Key, of course, is that baseball leadership, including its first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis (who could have made an immediate difference all by himself) failed miserably. In the end it was up to a few tough individuals bucking the enlightened self-interest crowd to get the job done.

    Also interesting is Robinson’s relationships with other black players of the era, some of whom were made uncomfortable by Robinson’s militancy and contentiousness nature. Despite their differences, it is clear that the positives outweighed the negatives for these players that shared a common goal, but in real life (vs. ideology) one does not necessarily worship a hero. Black players at the time (who remembers Gene Baker?) must have had a somewhat mixed view regarding the attention and credit lavished on Robinson, perhaps gratitude mixed with some envy and resentment. If I’m a black American Leaguer playing in the 1940s and 50s, I am probably taking as much crap as Robinson did. Although Rickey’s selection of Robinson was extremely well researched and considered, there was an element of fate regarding Robinson being the first. Cox does not explore this a lot, but there are some stories involving Robinson’s black Dodger teammates. As an aside: It might be nifty if each of the original 16 teams wore the number worn by its first black player on Jackie Robinson day and you know, invite descendants to throw out the first ball, etc. Teams added since 1960 can choose a black player in their own history, perhaps a different player each year. Hey, it’s current MLB players who are always talking about spreading the love. Then maybe the number of black people attending MLB games will outnumber the black people featured in MLB promos.

    The most moving chapter, perhaps, is the last one featuring Dixie Walker. What Walker did when Robinson burst on the scene is examined in terms of what actually happened, the challenges Walker himself faced in the process and the efforts he made for the rest of his life to live a life he could be comfortable with. This chapter puts a cap on a common theme that runs through this book – whatever happened and whatever role you played, if you were a decent human being, you couldn’t help but grow from the challenges presented by Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball.

    This work includes a notes section, a bibliography and an index.

    In sum, a valuable work of social history as much as it is a baseball book.

  • #2
    I read everything that comes out on Jackie Robinson, so I'll read this one too, but I'll probably take it out from my local library. I doubt if there's anything in there I don't already know about.

    I even know who Gene Baker was. He and Ernie Banks came up to MLB together in 1953, the first black players to play for the Cubs. Baker was brought up mainly so no white player would have to room with Robinson on the road.
    They call me Mr. Baseball. Not because of my love for the game; because of all the stitches in my head.

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    • #3
      Baker may have originally made the team so he could room with Banks, but he had a pretty decent career, being an All-Star for the Cubs in 1955. Good contact hitter, .265 lifetime. He got started late (age 28), so was done a few years later, but he did have the good fortune to appear in the 1960 World Series with Pittsburgh, an experience, unfortunately and through no fault of his own, Banks was not to experience. Baker also finished in the top ten for defensive WAR in two of the three seasons he was the regular 2nd baseman for the Cubs.

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