Book Review: Opening Day

Opening Day
By Jonathan Eig (Simon & Schuster, $26).

Jonathan Eig’s day job is as a writer for The Wall Street Journal, but he is beginning to carve a solid niche as a baseball biographer as well. “Luckiest Man,” his 2005 biography of Lou Gehrig, was an outstanding effort that offered some new insights on the Iron Horse. Now Eig has followed that up with “Opening Day,” which is an interesting read about Jackie Robinson, focusing largely on the barrier-breaking 1947 season.

The book is timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier.

Eig’s biggest challenge is that there really isn’t much left to the Robinson story that hasn’t been told. Robinson himself wrote two autobiographies–one was a quickie that was published while he was still playing–but another was a post-career less rosy-colored account. There have been several exhaustive biographies since then, and Jackie’s wife Rachel has written two books herself.

So Eig doesn’t exactly have many sources to mine to uncover new gems. That wasn’t the case with “Luckiest Man,” where Eig’s access to previously unpublished letters rounded out the story of Gehrig’s illness.

In this case, he turns toward a large number of interviews with Dodgers, other players and fans from 1947, plus research into original accounts from 1947 to try to separate the reality from what became part of the Robinson legend in future years. Among the tidbits, Eig argues quite forcefully that the legendary moment where Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Robinson during a Reds game to quiet an obnoxious crowd didn’t necessarily happen.

As he points out, no newspapers reported it at the time, and the story seems to fit circumstances from 1948 better.

There are several moments like that through the book. Eig doesn’t have the evidence to flatly state that certain moments aren’t true, but he does give evidence when he believes something wasn’t exactly as it seems now.

But Eig’s biggest strength is his easy writing style. He paints scenes with his words in such a way that he manages to put you back in 1947. You understand what Robinson meant to fans at the time, and you begin to get an even better understanding on how Robinson’s personality was well suited for the task.

If you already have several Robinson biographies on your bookshelf, there’s not enough new ground covered here to make you rush to the bookstore, but if you want to learn more about Robinson, Eig’s effort is well worth the read.