Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Jackie's Bat

Since it is October, and the playoff have begun (our house is rooting for the Rockies, since they have several former Express/Astros players that my sisters also know), I thought I'd do reviews on a couple more baseball books. The first one is Jackie's Bat by Marybeth Lorbiecki and illustrated by Brian Pinkney.

Jackie's Bat is the story of Robinson's first season, in 1947, with the Brooklyn Dodgers through the eyes of a fictional bat boy in the Dodgers' clubhouse. This book doesn't speak today's PC language - I think it stays true to what it was like back then, long before the term "African-American" was conceived.

A new player comes in.
I ain't ever seen him play,
but I've heard all about him.
He's Jackie Robinson.
He looks around for a locker,
but there aren't any more.
I do what the manager told me
and point to a folding chair and a nail on the wall.
I don't think any other player had to start with a nail.
But Robinson ain't like any other player-
not in either of the leagues.
He's colored.
In spring training, a bunch of the guys on the team
said they didn't want to play with him.
But old "Leo the Lion" Durocher
just chewed their rear ends
and said Robinson was staying.
Anyone who didn't like it could leave.
No one did.

I ain't leaving either.

Robinson looks at me.
"Hey kid," he says, all smiles and friendly-like.
I don't know what to say.
Pops says it ain't right,
a white boy serving a black man.
So I turn and get to work.

The bat boy admits he cleans all the players cleats until they shine. "All except for number 42's." Before Jackie plays in his first game, the bat boy sees "a mob of colored fans waiting for Robinson", and he seems surprised because "He hasn't even done anything yet!"

Jackie asks the bat boy his name and then asks for a pen, but a fan offers one up while the Joey pretends not to hear the request. He goes about helping the other players but avoids Robinson.

The players are announced and the fans all cheer.

But when Robinson's name
comes over the loudspeaker,
the Negroes jump to their feet,
waving signs like crazy.
You'd think President Roosevelt
came back from the dead.
But they're not the only ones excited.
Everybody wants to see
if Robinson can really play ball in
the big leagues.
Even Pops!

After the game, Jackie speaks to Joey, first commenting that Joey missed his cleats... Then:

"You know, Joey," he says, putting a foot on the bench,
there's people out there who don't
treat me as a man 'cause my skin is black."
His voice is strong, like a line drive.
I don't say nothing.
My eyes are looking at everything but his eyes.
"You know what I've found out about them?"
he asks, almost like I was a friend
he was telling a secret to.

"No," I say.
Normally I'd say "No, sir" to a player.
I couldn't say it now, but I do look up.
I expect his eyes to be angry.
He just looks tired and sort of let down.
"They don't know what a man is," he says.
Then he pulls himself tall and walks away.

Joey worries Jackie will tell the manager he hasn't been doing his job, and he'll get fired, so he cleans the cleats, "but they don't shine."

Jackie gets 5 hits and a home run against the New York Giants, and even Joey cheers. Robinson gets fan mail, but Pops tells Joey that Jackie won't make in "the big leagues," but Joey's not so sure about that.

On the road, Jackie is the target of derogatory comments from the players on other teams:

"Why don't you go back to the cotton fields?"
"They're waiting for you in the jungles, black boy."
A bunch of the players aim their bats at him like guns
and shout the n-word.

I can't believe it!
This is baseball, for crying out loud.

Through it all, Jackie just plays ball, but he makes his first error. The next game, it continues.

But then, at the start of the third game,
our second baseman, Eddie Stanky,
stands and roars, "You yellow-bellied cowards, why don't you yell at somebody who can answer back?"
Everybody knows Robinson promised
he won't make no trouble-no matter what.

Then another Dodger hollers, "If you guys played
as well as you talked, you'd win some games!"

"Yeah!" I shout like the rest. "Shut your faces!"

Jackie suffers a batting slump. On the first of May, he gets a hit. After the game, Joey congratulates Jackie, but feels like Jackie looks at him like he's one of the hecklers.

Jackie isn't living on easy street yet.
Pitchers aim for him-he gets hit six times.
Runners slide into first and try to spike him.
On the road, he can't stay
at the same hotel as the rest of us,
or eat with us, or use the swimming pool.
Letters start coming in so full of hate
the police have to guard him.

If Joey weren't seeing it all for himself, he wouldn't believe it. Jackie gets on a streak, with doubles and homers, and stealing bases so much the pitchers can't pitch for trying to watch him. Joey is doing his best for Jackie, "but I still feel like we're in two different dugouts, and I'm the one who put us there."

The season takes the Dodgers to St. Louis, with the Cardinals only four and a half games back. The Cards resort to dirty tricks to try to get to Jackie.

It's the eighth inning of the last game.
One of the Cardinals hits a foul.
Jackie leaps from first to catch it.
Jumping Jehoshaphat, he's going to crash
into the dugout!
Then suddenly Ralph Branca, our pitcher that day,
is in the air like Superman.
As Jackie catches the ball, Ralph catches Jackie!
Holy Joe! A white man holding a black man!
That takes the gobble out of the Cardinals' turkeys!
The batter's out,
and we go on to win the game 8-7.

The Dodgers win the Pennant, "and Jackie is the first ever Rookie of the Year! September 23, 1947, is Jackie Robinson Day at Ebbets Field."

Joey gets there early because he wants to speak to Jackie before going to sit with Pops.

A bunch of colored boys yell to me from the fence:
"Could you give something to Jackie for us, please?"
A boy about my age hands me a package
and a homemade card.
Jealousy rips through me.
I wish the present was mine.

Joey gets up the courage to interrupt Jackie with all the reporters and gives him the gift. Jackie opens is to find a Louisville Slugger with a wood-burn that reads "OUR MAN JACK". Jackie tells him thanks. Joey wants to take credit, and to apologize for how he's acted.

But then the words come tumbling out:
"It's not from me, Mr. Robinson. I wish it was."
I'm so nervous I think I'm going to pee.
"It's from some other boys," I add.
"Here's their card."

My eyes go to the floor.
I want to melt into the floor like the witch in Wizard of Oz.
"I don't have any bat to give you," I mumble,
"but I want you to know
I got what you mean about what a man is."

Jackie then tells Joey he looks good because he maintained his composure and the Dodgers won the pennant, but someday he's not going to play well, and he'll start defending himself from the hecklers: "What'll you think of me then?"

It's a test, Joey realizes, and he knows it's deserved: "Well, you didn't take nothing from me before," I say, "and slumps and Dodgers go together-they don't mean nothing."

A laugh erupts from him at that,
and I can see in his eyes
that I just grew a few feet.
He offers me his hand to shake-
one Dodger to another.
When I grab it,
I feel the tight grip of a friend.

The Afterword gives more details about Jackie Robinson's life. There is also a Note from the Author, noting that while Joey is fictional, the things he sees and hears are true. "These descriptions and quotations are all based on historical accounts." On the back cover, Rachel Robinson, Jackie's wife, has a note which concludes "Congratulations... for celebrating Jackie's life and legacy so beautifully."

While the book is recommended for ages 5 to 8, because of the sensitive topics addressed in the book, you should make the judgement about whether or not your kids (either your children or your students) are mature enough to deal with them. Beyond the portrait of life for a black man in pre-Civil Rights era America, this book can be used to teach other life lessons: how should you treat someone that you've just me and decided you don't like? what is it like when you are confronted with your own wrong-doing? if you realize you have treated someone poorly when they haven't deserved it, what should you do? I think this is a great book, and would be a wonderful addition to your children's book library, especially if there are baseball fans around.


CyberPastor said...

My Cardinals will not repeat :-( but I still love playoff time!!! And the story of Jackie Robinson is one of the best in sports history. Thanks for sharing this.

CJ said...

Thanks for the review. It's interesting that you posted this when you did. I'm currently reading John McCain's new book and he mentions Jackie Robinson in there too.

Miss Ladybug said...

I bought it a while ago - at least a year ago - but I liked what it had to say, especially about how far we've come.

Anonymous said...

Its a very good book but be prepared with an age-appropriate answer when your child asks you what the "n-word" means.

Miss Ladybug said...

It's not like they used the other "n-word"... I think that is very easy to explain: it is the word that used to be used to describe African-Americans (and, some of today's kids find the term "black" offensive, as I learned first had while student teaching in a 3rd grade classroom that was exclusively minority, except for me and my cooperating teacher)... It's a history lesson.