Jonathan Eig’s biography of New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig, “Luckiest Man,” was brilliant in the way it drew a reader into Gehrig’s career and his battle against the disease that eventually bore his name.
Eig’s “Opening Day,” about Jackie Robinson’s effort to integrate Major League Baseball in 1947 — seven years before the famed Supreme Court desegregation case Brown v. the Board of Education — is nearly as stellar, even if it lacks some of the poignancy of the Gehrig book.
Eig uses exclusive interviews with Jackie Robinson’s widow, as well as with Robinson’s teammates and opponents to help paint a vivid picture of what Robinson’s first season as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers was like. He also includes the perspectives of “ordinary” people from that time to flesh out the impact Robinson had.
In short, Eig covers all the angles: Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers executive who was the initiator of change; the competitive Robinson, trying to keep his emotions in check and succeed on the field in the face of race-based verbal attacks; those who initiated such abuse, many in the belief that blacks were inferior; the varied reactions of Robinson’s teammates; the black community, which rallied around Robinson by showing up at ballparks and rooting for him; and the Negro leagues, which saw the beginning of their end with Robinson’s major-league success.
Eig also examines the story of teammate Pee Wee Reese’s “embrace” of Robinson during a game in hostile Cincinnati. Eig shows that once again in baseball, the myth is apparently a far distance from the reality.
But even as a myth fades, Eig fills its place with a solid chunk of well-researched baseball history. “Opening Day” belongs on baseball’s top bookshelf, as it is another solid hit by Eig.
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