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Six Questions for…Jonathan Eig

Jonathan Eig’s, former Chicago magazine writer’s, new book Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season (Simon & Schuster) comes out in April.

Q: Would Robinson have meant as much to America if he’d played for the Sox or the Cubs instead of the Brooklyn Dodgers?
A: He might have meant more. Chicago was the epicenter of black migration in the 1940s. The changes here were so dynamic. And Robinson was the ultimate symbol of the new American way.

Q: “Robinson will not be on trial as much as the Negro fan,” the Chicago Defender wrote. Was this common?
A: In every city, black writers warned fans to be on their best behavior. They were afraid that fans would let [Robinson] down by drinking and brawling. But not once all season did black fans make any serious trouble.

Q: When the Dodgers played at Wrigley Field that year, the turnout was record breaking. Was it because of Robinson?
A: Entirely. I think the white North Siders were stunned to see the sheer numbers of black fans pouring into the friendly confines.

Q: At another game, there’s a famous story about Cubs shortstop Lennie Merullo applying an unnecessarily hard tag to Robinson’s face, even though he said years later, “You had to be careful. You could not start a riot.” What prevented a riot?
A: Fear. The Cubs and Dodgers brawled a lot. Merullo lost some teeth the season prior in a fight. But baseball brawls were one thing; racial brawls were another. Merullo was afraid of being labeled a racist.

Q: The Negro League All-Star Game at Comiskey in 1947 drew almost 50,000 fans, even though Robinson was already in the major leagues. Why was the game significant?
A: It was the swan song for Negro League baseball. Soon, all the best black players would be in the majors. After 1947, the business of black baseball would begin to collapse.

Q: How did Robinson’s courage lead other businesses to integrate?
A: In 1947, many still believed that black people were genetically inferior. A lot of white ballplayers said black ballplayers lacked the killer instinct necessary to compete. Day in and day out for one summer, Robinson destroyed that belief. It was impossible not to pay attention.

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