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ONE DAY BACK IN 1995, INSPIRED BY THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY of the great St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson, and especially intrigued with Gibson's "wonderful accounts of black-white relations" on the teams, UMass political scientist Jerome "Jerry" Mileur had the notion, of creating a one-semester undergraduate course on race relations, possibly using Gibson's book as a point of departure.
Such a course "might be useful to our students here on campus," thought Mileur, for whom the sport of baseball is a passion. "We've certainly had our problems in the area of race relations," noted the owlish, white-haired professor this winter, leaning back in his small, book-crowded, tenth-floor Thompson office, where baseball memorabilia vie for space with a collection of antique political cartoons. The social dynamics of race are difficult to tackle head on, Mileur observes. Perhaps filtering them through the earthy and familiar argot of baseball could help demystify the subject and engage students in energetic discussion.
HISTORY PROFESSOR RONALD STORY, another ardent fan of the national past time, got very excited, he says, when Mileur mentioned this idea to him. The two quickly hit upon the idea of tying the course into the fiftieth anniversary of the breaking of the major league baseball "color line" by Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The conversation soon spread to like-minded faculty in various disciplines, including sport management professor William Sutton, an affable academic who for years has been teaching a course called Sports and Popular Culture, and William Strickland of Afro-American Studies, an elegant and eloquent historian who has an intense interest in the subject of race in America but only a passing interest in baseball.
As the circle of faculty grew, so did the concept, eventually evolving into a monster, multi-faceted project a "bloody epic," in Story's phrase the Jackie Robinson Initiative of 1996-97. The two-semester megacourse had lots of extra trappings, from visits to campus by elderly heroes of the Negro League to broadcasting and videotaping of classes, from an exhibition of Robinson-inspired art at the Augusta Savage Gallery to spin-off symposia conducted by Story and Mileur at the Smithsonian Institution. In its interdisciplinary scope, in its marriage of pedagogy and popular culture, as great PR for the university and as "a singular experiment in educational technology," Story believes the project as it finally emerged was "a unique and unparalleled phenomenon in the history of American universities."
As the circle of faculty involved in planning the course widened, so did the list of broad topics that "baseball's great experiment" could be used to illuminate, and that Jackie Robinson's story, including his later ventures into business and politics, could incarnate. It eventually would include, to quote from the prospectus, "the evolution of African American institutions, the growth of a mass sports and leisure industry, the transformation of political parties, the shifting aspirations and values of white and black Americans, the expansion of opportunities for excluded groups, the significance of the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War . . . ."
And there was more: the segregated South, the great migration of blacks from the South to the northern major league cities, life in the post-war suburbs as evinced by the Robinson family's experience in North Stamford, Connecticut, where, as is detailed in Robinson's autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Jackie and Rachel Robinson were to struggle, and their children especially were to struggle in the schools, with subtle and not so subtle manifestations of racial prejudice.
The format for the course kept stretching to accommodate the burgeoning content and the growing number of academic protagonists. In the end, it would run in two sections over two semesters. To accommodate all the students who wanted to enroll, it would be broadcast to a second lecture hall over the campus cable network. About 260 students took the course in the fall of 1996, and 240 in the spring. About one-third of these took it "live." There was a "good mix" of students, recalls Mileur, although he and others were disappointed that only a handful of students of color enrolled. One reason, Mileur speculates, might be a general decline of interest in baseball, as compared with other sports, among blacks. If there ever were to be a reprise of this complicated project an unlikely prospect, in his view Mileur says he would lobby for much more emphasis to be given to the vital and growing "Latin connection" in baseball.
ROM THE START , a major goal of the Jackie Robinson Initiative was to take on the sensitive subject of race in terms of common, everyday experience, to avoid the temptation toward academic obfuscation. To this end, close to two dozen prominent guest speakers came to the campus as part of the course. Most were former ball players who had been Robinson's teammates or who had played during his time. Some were veterans of the old Negro leagues. Not a few of them are legends Orlando Cepeda, Robin Roberts, Larry Doby, Don Newcombe, Bill Lee, Joe Morgan, Joe Black.
The professors deliberately doffed their donnish demeanors in deference to these visitors. For some sessions they put on make-up and did their best imitations of talk-show hosts interviewing celebrity guests. Sutton chuckles recollecting his "Oprah class," which he conducted standing kneedeep in the audience. For the students, it "was an opportunity to meet history," an eye-opening chance to hear first-hand accounts of Jim Crow segregation a "foreign concept," says Sutton, to a generation born after the great events of the Civil Rights movement.
Many of the speakers were riveting, say the faculty, none more so than John J. "Buck" O'Neil, a teammate of Robinson's on the old Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League. When O'Neil spoke in Herter Hall, Mileur recalls, the room was so silent that people jumped when a book hit the floor. O'Neil, the grandson of a slave who became the first black coach in the major leagues, combined "soft and melodious" storytelling with brief, powerful moral injunctions. For example, he told the students that while he wasn't sure that he had been able to live up to his own potential, because of segregation, there certainly was nothing barring them from living up to theirs. Leaning forward in his seat on the stage, speaking in hushed, urgent tones, he counseled them to pursue "your God-given talent. Find your field. Find what you can do, and love it."
This extraordinary moment, along with many others, is preserved on videotape. Tapes were made of all the lectures and talks, and videos were made of faculty interviews with many of the guests, including Story's interview with Robinson's widow, Rachel Robinson. All of this material has gone into an archive that is one of the lasting products of the Jackie Robinson Initiative. This spring, Story received a grant from the Five College Multimedia Access Project to develop a Web site based on the materials. Among the many things one could call the initiative, it was a feat of original oral history and an archive in the making.
Rachel Robinson was a critical participant in the project in more ways than one. It was she who opened up to the university her broad network of contacts. Without her blessing on the project, it never would have flourished. In fact it never would have happened, says Mileur. "The key was winning Rachel Robinson's endorsement," he says. "We thought that all along. We had no claim to do anything like this. Robinson had no connection with this university." (He attended UCLA.) "None of us had any connection. I hate the Dodgers," adds Mileur with a chuckle.
Mileur recalls the first meeting he and several of his fellow professors had with Rachel Robinson, a former psychiatric nurse, administrator, and educator who now heads the Jackie Robinson Development Foundation, which provides housing to low and moderate income people in New York City. "Ron, Bill Strickland and I went down to New York to meet her. She brought with her two black academics from New York; she wanted to make sure we were serious about what we were doing, that it was academically solid. She didn't want just another commemoration of him." The meeting lasted two and a half hours and it wasn't clear until the end whether Mrs. Robinson would give the nod.
The three UMass profs came away "in love" with her, says Mileur. "Whatever it is the charm, the magnetism, the command you absolutely fall in love with her," he says. Rachel Robinson, in turn, accepted an honorary doctorate from the university in 1996.
Mileur, who from 1982 to 1994 owned his own minor league baseball team the Holyoke Millers, who eventually gravitated to Harrisburg where they became the Senators is a native of St. Louis and a devoted Cardinals fan. He's also a big fan of Branch Rickey, the onetime Cardinals manager who, later in his career, as general manager of the Dodgers, recruited Robinson and orchestrated the "great experiment." (Among the guest lecturers in the course was Branch Rickey III, president of the Pacific coast League and the great experimenter's grandson.)
Mileur describes Branch Rickey simply "as the most innovative and the smartest man ever involved in baseball." In Mileur's view, Rickey saw the integration of baseball as a means of expanding the pool of talent. "He downplayed a lot of the social do-goodism of it, the moral basis," says Mileur. "He said he was no social reformer, although Mrs. Robinson told us that it was clear in private conversation that this was certainly a factor in his thinking."
In her interview with Story, Rachel Robinson says Rickey and her husband "mirrored each other" in many ways. Both were intensely religious, both were intensely competitive, she said. "They had to have been interdependent," she continues, "to pull this experiment off."
F THE ROBINSON INITIATIVE was successful as an experiment in learning and the professors, reflecting back on their experience, tend to think it generally was one good reason, they leave no doubt in interviews, was Robinson's "prickly" personality, to use Mileur's adjective, and complex moral character.
Jackie Robinson was nearly impossible to classify in political or social terms. He didn't still doesn't fit any convenient stereotype. He was, in Mileur's borrowed phrase, a "race man" totally dedicated to openly opposing any sort of racial discrimination; he was also an anti-Communist, pro-capitalist, anti-Black-Power, Rocke-feller Republican who supported Nixon against Kennedy early on. (He liked Nixon for his broad outlook on international development, particularly in Africa. He didn't like Kennedy, says Mileur with a twinkle, because Kennedy wouldn't look him in the eye.) Robinson was "his own man," says Mileur, and the fact that he can't be snugged into any convenient category forces a second look at the generalizations by which we tend to understand how history is made.
Robinson's personality is as hard to get a handle on as his politics. "Jackie was clearly respected and admired by his teammates, but he was not very close to any of them," says Mileur. "He was not a woolly fellow, was not Hail-Fellow-Well-Met, was not cuddly. He had flaps with Roy Campanella and other black players on the team. His whole background was in racially mixed settings. By all accounts, he hated playing in the Negro leagues. There was too much clowning around for him, and he didn't like the travel and the poor accommodations."
Robinson "had the education and the background and preparation to understand what his significance was," says Mileur. He was also "naturally an aggressive, abrasive, in-your-face sort of guy." And yet, having promised Rickey he would maintain silence for three years in the face of open abuse and acts of hatred, he was also a man with "the willpower, and I think basically the intelligence, to have that command of himself, that strength of character to accept those things Rickey had bound him to."
Historian William Strickland says he accepted his part in the Jackie Robinson Initiative as an intellectual challenge. He admits he had to struggle to come to terms with Robinson the "whole man." He had not previously held a high opinion of the personage who denounced Paul Robeson before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, who attacked the views of Malcolm X in newspaper columns, and who, upon his retirement from baseball, accepted the seeming tokenism of a title within the corporate hierarchy of the Chock Full O' Nuts coffee company.
"I remembered his contretemps with Malcolm," says Strickland. "I was one of Malcolm's young admirers. The image I had of Robinson was that he was consistently on the wrong side of the politics."
Yet as Strickland looked deeper into Robinson's life, he began to see him in another light, as a martyr in his own way to the cause of racial justice. He came to appreciate the toll that Rickey's gag rule had exacted, "the strain leading to his early death" in 1972, at the age of fifty-three.
Strickland also notes an all-too-familiar pattern: When Robinson began to speak out on controversial issues for instance, the Vietnam War he was, like Martin Luther King Jr., "vilified as an uppity nigger." Mileur agrees. "When he ceased to be this guy who just took it, and became himself, he just wasn't widely used in advertising anymore. He was now considered a pushy black."
For Strickland, the tragic aspects of Jackie Robinson began to emerge: "He believed in the American myth about the self-made man, and yet what he says at the end of his autobiography is so telling: `I was a black man in a white man's world. I never had it made.' In the end, he relocated himself back into the mainstream of black experience."
Reflecting on Robinson's experience, Strickland asked questions proportional to the course's epic scope questions his colleagues say they appreciated his raising. Did "breaking the color line" really represent an advance toward a more racially open and tolerant society? Or was it a momentary breakthrough, a brief epiphany, one moment in a "recurring battle for racial justice which must be fought over and over again?" Is there, asks Strickland, "a `tipping' effect? Do enough little epiphanies lead to a lasting epiphany in history?"
Jackie Robinson's story, says Strickland, raises yet another disturbing question: "How does America define black heroism? Enduring injustice without striking back? Is this the limit of what is acceptable to the dominant society?"
Sport studies prof Bill Sutton offers an answer by indirection suggesting what might in fact be most admirable in heroes of all colors. Reflecting on the Jackie Robinson Initiative this winter in his Curry Hicks office, Sutton especially recalled exploring with students a plurality of whom were majors in his department the criteria for distinguishing between a true hero, which he believes Robinson was, and the type of sports celebrity prevalent in today's high-rolling ménàge a trois of sports, media and money. The difference, he suggested, lies in the element of self-sacrifice, in the degree to which the person's actions become "woven into the community, part of the fabric of the community.
"The words on Jackie Robinson's tombstone `The value of a life is measured by its impact on other lives' really struck me as a beautiful thought," says Sutton. "It was so true to the way he lived. He would have lived a lot longer if he hadn't kept things in and taken the abuse. I really hope I made the point to the students, that Jackie Robinson was a self-sacrificing man, and that's why he made a difference."
Sutton, an avid and eclectic reader, mentioned that he likes to quote Shakespeare in class. Asked what Shakespeare quotation might most pertain to Robinson, he paused to think for a moment, then said, "What a piece of work is man."