How often do you think of Jackie Robinson? Once a year, on April 15, when MLB celebrates his pioneering debut? Maybe briefly during the month of February, when the United States turns its attention to Black history?
When you do think about Jackie Robinson, what do you think of? A smiling, passive man, enduring the heckles and harassment of thousands so others like him could have the same chance? Perhaps Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal in 42?
What if, like so many things in life, we need to reassess our conceptions?
In 42 Today, an essay collection edited by Michael G. Long, the enduring notion of Jackie Robinson in our public consciousness is challenged again and again, to great effect. How often we think of Jackie Robinson, how we honor him, even the things we know about him are all put under the microscope and — under scrutiny — it forces the reader to confront his or her own conceptions and misconceptions of the man that was Jackie Robinson.
Whether you consider yourself a baseball scholar or not, 42 Today has something to teach you. With 13 essays as well as a foreword by Ken and Sarah Burns and David McMahon and an introduction by the editor, there is no shortage of information about the man’s life, some well known and some obscure. In addition to correcting the errors in what we know about Robinson, there is also detail of how Robinson and his legacy affected groups beyond the typically male-dominated realm of baseball fans.
First and foremost, the essays put Robinson in his proper place as an activist. He was only for a short period of time the passive man, practicing the turn-the-other-cheek acts that Branch Rickey needed him to be. For almost all of his life, he was outspoken, he was a civil rights leader, he was deliberately not the quiet and unassuming barrier-breaker that was safe for the white world to accept. And the picture of Robinson that emerges, the depth of his belief in Black equality and battle for the empowerment of Black people, is beautiful.
The essays show how Robinson — in his role as the man who dismantled segregation, as a community member, as a businessman, as a political activist — always cut his own path while doing everything he could to help those around him. In thought-provoking writings on his religion, his politics, his home life, and his baseball life, the essays bring about a vivid portrait of a man who had a deep impact on life in America. And the essays illuminate the ways he continues to affect our lives, based on his treatment of women, and Black women in particular, and how his pioneering spirit continues to be an example for marginalized groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community.
Though not a lengthy compilation, 42 Today offers a wealth of information and viewpoints. Its breadth is remarkable, and the assorted authors do a commendable job of taking on Robinson’s life and intentionally not repeating what the reader already knows. If there is one criticism I could make of the book, it’s that — for all the diversity of viewpoints offered — only one essay was written by a woman. Though Amira Rose Davis’s essay is indispensable to this collection, it would have been nice to read more from a woman’s perspective, as there are certainly many other ways Robinson’s life and legacy have affected women in America. But that could be an entire volume unto itself, and the works collected by Long in 42 Today come together to create a brisk, important, and timeless work on one of baseball’s immortal souls.
I recommend 42 Today highly to anyone interested in Black history, Jackie Robinson, American culture, or baseball in any way. The book is available now via NYU Press, and available for purchase online or via your local bookstore. For more about the book, check out my interview with Michael G. Long, linked here.