“Little tiles make up the big picture.”
So is the quote from former major leaguer Bob Watson that best describes Steve Jacobson’s new book, Carrying Jackie’s Torch.
The 250 pages of the book, comprised of stories from African-American major leaguers not named Jackie Robinson piece together to form a painful reminder of how “all men are created equal” did not apply in this country less than 50 years ago, and how even though we have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, there is still a ways to go.
It’s hard – if not impossible – to pick one player’s story out of the book that stands out, as they all tell an individual take on the same problem. If anything, that is the one problem I found with this book — that it is many tellings of the same story over and over again — but which leads me to back to Bob Watson’s quote.
Jacobson is an accomplished writer, having been a sports reporter and columnist for Newsday for 44 years. His relationships with the players in the book are the foundation of it. However, he stays out of most of the writing – allowing the players to tell their stories.
But in the epilogue, he mentions his surprise at how many players turned down his request to be part of the book. Was it that the memories are too painful to recall? Or as Jacobson wondered, did they deny an obligation to help young people to understand progress and how the struggles of others made it happen?
Often times, the true measure of a book isn’t about what questions it answers; but rather what new questions it leaves unanswered for the reader.
Carrying Jackie’s Torch is a lesson for those not aware of all the other people who helped to change the landscape of professional baseball. As Ed Charles states in the book, “Jackie Robinson integrated the Major Leagues; we integrated baseball.” While you may know of Aaron, Doby, and Brock, you may not know of Grant, Jackson and Ashford, all of whom helped to level the playing field.
If you have an interest in baseball history, particularly oral histories of the integration of baseball, this is a must read. If not, I would gauge its relevance and your potential enjoyment by how much you are interested in the topic. Personally, I am not as much of a historian, so I don’t think I got as much out of it as others would. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it and learn a lot – particularly about how baseball fit into the larger American landscape at the time. I learned more about our country than I did in most of my high school and college history classes.
In fact – I would encourage anyone under age 30 to read this – simply for the exposure to American history. Baseball does not operate independent of the larger society – and this book is a great reminder of that. Especially as we approach the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s major league debut – it is appropriate to look back at the time, traditions, and social attitudes that have changed.
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