We Would Have Played for Nothing: Baseball Stars of the 1950s and 1960s Talk About the Game They Loved (Baseball Oral History Project)
Simon & Schuster, 2008
336 pp., $25.00
It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over: The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book
Basic Books, 2008
480 pp., $15.95
We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball
Jump At The Sun, 2008
96 pp., $19.99
by Michael R. Stevens
The Story That Numbers Can't Tell
Several of the other interviewees gave interesting, even moving snippets on Jackie; Robin Roberts, in selecting the best players he saw at every position during his long stint as the Philllies ace, notes as an aside: "Jackie? I wouldn't pick him at a position. I just want him on my team. He could play wherever he wants." Carl Erskine, another Dodger teammate, mentions his awe when, after pitching against the big–league club in an exhibition game while still a minor–leaguer, he was approached in the dugout: "And a voice said, 'Where's Erskine?' And a guy said, 'Hey, Carl.' And I said, 'Yeah?' And I saw it was Jackie Robinson … . And he came and shook my hand. And he said, 'Son, I hit against you twice today. You're not going to be in this league very long. You're going to be with the Dodgers soon.' Well, by mid–July, I had won fifteen games in Fort Worth. I was called to the Dodgers. And when I went in the locker room early to get a locker, I was there by myself. When the regular Dodger bus came and the guys were coming in, Jackie was the first guy to my locker. He shook my hand, again, and he says, 'I told you, you couldn't miss.' " Such fraternal, even paternal, kindness reveals an angle on Robinson that we haven't often seen.
Intriguingly, perhaps the best black ballplayer of the generation that followed Jackie's retirement, and the man who eventually broke the next color barrier by becoming the first black manager—namely, Frank Robinson—reveals in his interview that Jackie Robinson's courage was not only inspiring, but perhaps inimitable: "Jackie Robinson meant, at that time in 1947, that if I had the ability to play Major League Baseball, or professional baseball, that I could have the opportunity. That's what it meant at that time. I think Jackie Robinson's contribution to baseball was tremendous, there's no doubt about that. But I think his contribution off the field, in our society, was even more because I think he brought his country together at that time with his baseball play in the way he conducted himself. People said, 'Well, could you think you could have done that, what he went through?' I said, 'No way.' There's no way that I could put up with it and then do what he did. I don't know how he did it, but he was the right man."
Two of the most interesting interviews came from players who battled Robinson tooth and nail through a decade of National League pennant races: the Giants' Bill Rigney, more famous later on as a manager than he was as an infielder, and the Braves' pitcher Lew Burdette. Rigney offers the counterpoint to Branca's account of the 1951 Giants–Dodgers death–struggle. Branca emphasizes the sign–stealing scandal, corroborated a few years ago in the Wall Street Journal, which may or may not have tipped off Bobby Thomson on the inside fastball he drove out of the Polo Grounds, winning the pennant for the Giants in the most dramatic fashion possible. Rigney remembered Robinson mocking the Giants earlier in the year, through the thin clubhouse wall at the Polo Grounds, and there is a bit of a vengeful tone when Rigney recounts the result of the Giants' charge at the end of the season: "when we got on to Ebbets Field that day, Mr. Big Mouth, Jackie, was in the batting cage hitting … and I said, 'Jackie, turn around, you'll never guess who's here.' And he wouldn't turn around. That was the first play–off game." Yet, when Rigney reflects back on his whole career, he finishes with this confession: "I thought one of the worst things I did or one of the things I didn't do—and I regretted all my life—is that that opening day in the Polo Grounds on the eighteenth of April in '47 when Jackie Robinson hit his first home run, I didn't walk over to him and say, 'Hey, I'm Bill Rigney. I just want to shake your hand and wish you the best of luck because it's not going to be easy for you, but I wish you the best,' and leave it at that. And I regretted it all my life that I didn't do it, because I knew I was too late, you know, after I got to know him."