The Wikipedia Reading Club: Jackie Robinson

Yesterday, I kicked off the Wikipedia Reading Club with this post on John Adams’ entry.   Click that link to learn more about the Club and how to participate; read on if you already know.

Today, it’s Jackie Robinson.  As a die-hard baseball fan, I know more about Robinson than the average person, I’d bet — I know he broke the MLB color barrier, of course, but I also knew a good amount about the details of his playing career; even the fact that he retired rather than accept a trade to the San Francisco Giants (although I did not realize that he had decided to retire prior to the trade).   Here are a few things I learned; please share your thoughts in the comments, as always.

In junior college, Robinson had a run-in with the police over what he saw as a racially motivated detainment of a friend. Specifically, “[a]n incident at [Pasadena Junior College] illustrated Robinson’s impatience with authority figures he perceived as racist – a character trait that would resurface repeatedly in his life. On January 25, 1938, he was arrested after vocally disputing the detention of a black friend by police. Robinson received a two-year suspended sentence, but the incident – along with other rumored run-ins between Robinson and police – gave Robinson a reputation for combativeness in the face of racial antagonism.

This jumped off the page for two reasons.  First, I thought one of the reasons Robinson — beyond his supreme talent for baseball — made for a great candidate to break the color barrier is because he was one to turn the other cheek; it turns out, I was entirely wrong on that point.    Rather, Branch Rickey and Robinson had to come to an informal agreement that Robinson would turn the other cheek in spite of his history of doing the opposite; I see this as a major testament to Robinson’s will and fortitude against hate that I can’t even imagine.

Second, six years after he debuted, the Yankees were still an all-white ball club.  They had a guy named Vic Power in the minors was was destined to get a call to the bigs.  But the Yankees, allegedly fearing Power’s temperament, kept Power in the minors for the 1953 season — they did not even extend him a Spring Training invite.  Again, allegedly, the organization did not want Power to be the first African-American Yankee, instead preferring Elston Howard to take that honor.  With Power clearly Major League ready but Howard needing time in the minors — the team was converting him to play catcher, the Yankees traded Power in December of 1953.

Given the amount of time, detail, planning, and consideration of off-field behavior that the Yankees required in order to put an African-American in pinstripes, I’m surprised to read that, by present-day indicators, Robinson had a checkered (albeit nearly certainly justified) off-field resume.

World War II cut Robinson’s career short — his football career, that is.   Ted Williams is one of my favorite players, ever.   In 1941, he hit .406 — the last player to break the .400 barrier.  The next year, 1942, he won the Triple Crown.  In 1946, he was second on batting average, home runs, and RBI, but lead the league in runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and won his first MVP award.  In 1947, he won the Triple Crown again.  1948, he lost a few games due to injury, but still finished third in MVP voting.  And to top it all off, he returned healthy in 1949 to win a Triple Crown a third time, his second MVP award, and, for good measure, lead the league in doubles, too.

From 1943-1945, during the prime of his career, he served in World War II.  Yet when he retired in 1960, he did so with 521 homers, then good enough for third all-time behind Babe Ruth (714) and Jimmie Foxx (534).  Imagine how great Williams may have been if he hadn’t lost that time to the War.  (He also missed time to a tour of duty in Korea.)

But for baseball fans, what WWII taketh, maybe  it giveth back?  Robinson was destined to play football — baseball was his worst sport as a UCLA student — but the war cut his football career short.  And then, I learned…

Robinson ended up on the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs because of the above two things.  When serving in the military, Robinson refused — in Rosa Parks’ style — to move to the back of a bus.  After a few twists and turns with many refusing to take action, Robinson was brought before a military tribunal charged with two counts of insubordination.  He was acquitted by an all-white panel, and soon after transferred to Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky.  There, he’d meet a former Monarch player who convinced him to push for a spot on the team.

The first team to give Robinson a tryout was also the last Major League team to integrate.  The Red Sox, in case you wondered.

The team was feeling pressure from local politicians to desegregate, so they brought in Robinson — but it was a dog and pony show.  Even at the tryout, Robinson was the subject of racial epithets, even though the tryout was closed to the public — that is, the slurs were coming from the mouths of people in Red Sox management.

Robinson was the first African-American vice president of a major corporation.  He retired from baseball in January of 1957 and joined Chock full o’Nuts, as what sounds like vice president of human resources — where he remained until 1964.

Politically, he was independent and active. Robinson endorsed Richard Nixon in 1960 — over JFK. He supported JFK afterward, and saw Kennedy as a civil rights leader.  Four years later, Robinson backed Nelson Rockefeller in the primaries against eventual Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, but after LBJ prevailed in the general election, Robinson supported him more than one would think, writing to Martin Luther King Jr. in support of Johnson’s Vietnam War plan.  Coming full circle, Robinson supported Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey in 1968 — versus Nixon.

I enjoy the nuanced political stance, especially given the leverage Robinson certainly had in the America of the 1960s.   I also can’t help but notice that he backed the loser three times in three election cycles — but I’m not sure what that means.


Your turn.  Read Jackie Robinson’s Wikipedia entry and leave your thoughts in the comments.  And then start your own Wikipedia Reading Club meeting!

The Wikipedia Reading Club

A few weeks ago, Joe Posnanski penned a great column about the etymology of the phrase “begs the question.”  In it, he recalls mentioning the name Amelia Earhart to a colleague and is “stunned” to learn that the colleague has not idea who Earhart is.  Posnanski explains: “[She] was the woman pilot from Kansas who disappeared over the Pacific Ocean while attempting to fly around the world.”

And then he admits that maybe he shouldn’t have been stunned about his colleague’s ignorance.  After all, the sentence I just quoted “more or less exhausts [his] entire catalogue of knowledge about Amelia Earhart.” Mine too — in fact, I did not know she was from Kansas.

John AdamsThat same day, former president John Adams came up in a conversation with a friend.  We were talking about Liz Cheney’s objection to American lawyers representing Al Qaeda members, and Adams — who represented British soldiers (successfully!) charged with crimes stemming from the Boston Massacre — naturally came up.  We both knew who he was, basically — the second President of the United States, a Boston patriot, even cousin of Sam Adams.  But beyond that?  Nothing.  Not even enough to fill a top 10 list.

I figured that needed fixing.  I wasn’t going to go read David McCullough’s 752 page book on Adams, but I wanted to get more than just a glib understanding of his impact on the American Founding.  I read Adams’ Wikipedia entry that evening on my commute home, and found a few things surprising.  But with no one to discuss them with — my friend was happy with his glib understanding — the learnings fell silent.   I wished, quietly, that others had also read the article with me, and shared their top takeaways.  Kind of like a book club, but for Wikipedia articles.

So, I’m starting one here, and hope you’ll do the same on your blog, Facebook page, twitter account, etc.   Here’s how:

1) If you’re interested in the topic (this time, John Adams), read the Wikipedia article and post your takeaways in the comments.  Think of it as a book club, hosted at my place.  I want to know what you learned, what you think, etc.

2) Start a Wikipedia Reading Club meeting on your own blog.  Pick a topic that you think you should know more about, but don’t.  And do what I’m doing, below.  The source need not be Wikipedia, either; for example, if you wanted to know more about Cookie Monster, you might suggest reading both his Wikipedia entry and his Muppet Wiki one.

3) Share your participation in this Club meeting and others on your blog, Twitter feeds, etc. I’ll be sharing my participation in this Wikipedia Reading Club meeting announcing it on Twitter (maybe with a #WikiRC hash tag) and by commenting here.  If you start your own WikiRC around an article of your choosing, let me know on Twitter, by leaving a comment here, by emailing me, etc.  And if I join your meetings, I’ll be tweeting and commenting there, too.

Now, to John Adams:

The fundamental structure of the U.S. Congress was much more radical than I thought. And I thought it was pretty radical.  In elementary school and beyond, I (and most Americans) were taught that the core debate of the Constitutional Congress was one of states rights versus a strong federal government.  One of the big concerns was that large, populous states (e.g. Virginia) would have more influence than smaller ones.  The solution was a bicameral legislature, with one house giving each state equal representation as to any other (the Senate) and the other (the House) tied to population.   Seems reasonable — but it’s now how Adams saw a bicameral system operating.   He noted “that social classes exist in every political society, and [believed] that a good government must accept that reality.”  In his eyes, the elite would be one house, the commoners the other.   Given that this theory was propounded by a Founding Father and the 2nd President of the United States, it should go without saying that it was considered.  Imagine how different America, and probably the world, would be had the Continental Congress adopted Adams’ ideals.

Adams was an accidental, “electability” candidate for President — and won.  Obviously, I knew he won.  The first part caught me off guard, but it explains a lot.  Coming into this, I knew more about Alexander Hamilton and even Aaron Burr than I do Adams — and neither of them were ever elected President.   Now I understand why.

In 2004, John Kerry grabbed the Democratic nomination for President, over the much more passionate and interesting Howard Dean.   Dean rallied the base and to a large degree teed up the issues for both the primaries but did came in third (!) at the Iowa caucuses mostly because he was widely regarded as a bit crazy and divisive.  Kerry, on the other hand, had a reputation for being “electable” — not someone you’d vote for, not someone you’d vote against, but certainly, if enough people disliked George W. Bush, someone who could win by default.  Adams seems to be that type of candidate.  The Federalists were more passionate about Hamilton, but wanted to make sure Thomas Jefferson lost.  Hamilton was toxic to enough voters as to make him a non-option, so the Federalists went with Adams.  And, unlike Kerry’s Democrats, it worked.  The second President of the United States was a default candidate.  Sad, but apparently, true.

In the late 1700s, Britian and France were at war.   American political parties were divided as to whom to support.  The war I knew about, albeit glibly.  I also knew that for the most part, the United States stayed out of it.  But this line absolutely floored me: “Adams’s term (1797–1801) was marked by intense disputes over foreign policy and a limited naval war with France. Britain and France were at war; Hamilton and the Federalists favored Britain, while Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans favored France.

The default rule of neutrality made a ton of sense for early America.  Isolated from Europe and a very young nation, the cost of war and the time lag made it incredibly cumbersome.    But I never thought “who should we support” was contentious.

Take modern day America.  Since World War II, has there ever been a deep divide about who the U.S. should support?  Perhaps Israeli/Palestinian relations come close, but even then, both major parties back Israel.   My knowledge of the history of American foreign relations is lacking, I guess, but I can’t think of a single example where two major powers were at war and the U.S. couldn’t decide what side to be on.  I’m flabbergasted.


Your turn.  Read John Adams’ Wikipedia entry and leave your thoughts in the comments.  And then start your own Wikipedia Reading Club meeting!