Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Book Review: True (2022)

By Kostya Kennedy

It was particularly appropriate - and perhaps a little scary - to read this book shortly after the mass shooting in Buffalo that killed 10 African Americans.

As you might know, it was a typical Saturday afternoon, and people were shopping for the week's food as usual. Then a gunman, who had driven about 200 miles, opened fire. Our city may have had worse days, but none come to mind. 

The shooter was an 18-year-old supporter of white supremacy concepts. He thought that shooting random African Americans would somehow help his cause. In other words, the victims' only crime was to have dark skin.

That was Jackie Robinson's problem too. There hadn't been someone who looked like him playing major league baseball in the 20th century. When he arrived, some people chose not to play on his team, others on other teams offered vicious taunts at him, and fans sent hate mail to him and his team. 

Have we made much progress since 1947? It's easy to think about such matters while reading Kostya Kennedy's fine book on Robinson, "True."

Many of us already know Robinson's story. He was a superb all-around athlete who was picked by Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers to break a color line in organized baseball that had been around for more than 50 years. Robinson signed shortly after the end of World War II, and after a year in minor league baseball spent a decade in the major leagues. Breaking that barrier was never easy, and it took a toll on him. But with the help of wife Rachel, who might be as classy a person as anyone in public life, Jackie survived and thrived. 

It's easy for a writer to fall in love with Robinson. His story is so obviously one about good versus evil, the long man fighting ridiculous odds to bring justice to his profession. Plenty of trees have come down to tell the story. I even contributed a few to the pile when I wrote a short biography designed for school children.

It's easy to wonder at first if we need another biography of Robinson. Kennedy, though, is a good enough writer to make it work. He takes an interesting approach by concentrating on four different years of Robinson's life. There's 1946, where Jackie got some baseball lessons playing in Montreal of the minor leagues. Fast forward to 1949, when Robinson was at the height of his baseball powers. Then there's 1956, when those powers were fading and he was headed toward retirement. Finally comes 1972, when Robinson is slowed by various ailments and dies in the 25th anniversary year of his debut. If you want to call these years the spring, summer, fall and winter of his baseball life, you wouldn't be wrong.

This is a tough assignment for Kennedy, and it might not have worked so well with another, less skilled writer. He has to tell the tale of a man's life, but forces himself to concentrate on four particular years while not completely overlooking the rest of his life. Luckily, Kennedy is good enough to pull it off. The author did a ton of research into the book. I usually become suspicious when a biography has some sentences about what the subject was thinking at a particular time, and there's some of that here. However, Kennedy's version of events comes across quite plausibly, and reads well. He may be a little less than objective about Jackie and Rachel along the way, but that's understandable.

The epilogue also is worth noting, because it brings us up to date on Robinson's influence. Pioneers in almost any field, particularly athletics, pick up the nickname of "The Jackie Robinson of (Blank)." The name still has relevance to us, 75 years after his first at-bat for the Dodgers.

Other biographies of Robinson might work better for those who want the complete story. But "True" works quite well for those who are new to the subject and want to learn what the fuss is about. Take it from a guy in Buffalo - it's still very relevant.

Five stars

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