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Author: Alan Lelchuk
Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn
When author Alan Lelchuk relates his father’s conversion of being a Russian immigrant to the new experience of embracing America’s sport of baseball, Lelchuk shows the impact on the Brooklyn community by Jackie Robinson’s heroics on the basepaths.
Lelchuk’s nonfiction appraisal from the book Breaking Ground bears the sub-title of, How Jackie Robinson Changed Brooklyn. The author deals with blending Robinson’s emergence into a white sport, with the way the nation deals with discrimination, to the changes in the Brooklyn community.
Robinson transformed baseball. He became the first African American to enter the white leagues. While the Negro league displayed star players, most Americans remained unaware of their activities.
Robinson changed the role of a weak-hitting second baseman and the tool of stealing bases. In accomplishing those feats, he brought some white players out of their limited view of what black America meant into a realization of the skills of many African Americans.
However, while Lelchuk cites tales of Robinson’s prowess, and fits Robinson’s arrival into the political-social atmosphere of the 1940s, Lelchuk’s focus is scattered and doesn’t really place Brooklyn in the driver’s eat of the book.
Perhaps Lelchuk’s greatest option was to use his father as an example of Robinson’s impact on the Brooklyn neighborhoods. Yet, his father appears way after lengthy tales of Robinson in the game. After the background of America’s lack of using black players. Lelchuk’s accounting of the foresight of Branch Rickey’s advancement of baseball is worth the read. As general manager for St. Louis, he started the farm system baseball now finds necessary. As general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he brought Robinson into the white sport. But the information isn’t about Brooklyn.
Lelchuk had the chance to use his father as a conduit of Robinson’s effect. Tales of his father being an example of the Brooklyn population’s being one third Jewish made a connection between that group and Robinson’s background. Both cultures had suffered by being on the outside and faced exclusion.
His focus could have been the growing connection between his father and his childhood as an example of many families being drawn to Robinson. The visits to local stores and daily activities could have been the tool to drive the tales about Robinson’s skills and how the country was changing. Robinson hovered over them, becoming the binding force.
Yet Lelchuk chose to highlight Robinson’s skills and his effect on the country rather than on Brooklyn.
I expected more information about how Robinson might have changed, even to a small degree, the problems African Americans faced with housing, lack of educational opportunities, and acceptance.
Lelchuk’s portrayal of Robinson as a symbol does stand out. But the comments are hidden throughout the book instead of standing out in key parts. Dr. Martin Luther King’s statement that he would not have been possible without Robinson is dramatic. But how did that symbol of Robinson draw wider acceptance than just rooting for a team player?
Lelchuk mentions Robinson’s Stamford Connecticut home, yet doesn’t say why the player needed to go to Connecticut. Robinson tried in 1956 to find housing in Brooklyn, but was turned down despite his growing acceptance. The process of red-lining by real estate people prevented many minorities from finding housing.
In his book, Places of Their Own, that deals with Robinson in part, author Andrew Wiese tells of the Robinson’s plight. He mentions they would be told a house had just been sold before they inquired. Or that someone had a higher sealed bid. They would also be told a house was taken off the market.
Had we seen such images, we might have found how Robinson changed some of the talk, activity, or perception in community planning.
Brooklyn became a focal point for cultural misunderstandings in the 1960s when the school community activists tried to upgrade textbooks and fix broken windows in classrooms of poor neighborhoods. The problems might have been happening in the 1940s, but Lelcuck doesn’t mention whether Robinson visited schools or had an impact on the system.
Since the 1950s, the Brooklyn community has gone through a transition where gentrification has drawn in upscale people to Park Slope. The Fulton Street Mall presently suffers from the threat of being replaced by big chain stores despite the mall’s being an icon for local community identification.
While Lelchuk relates the story of the Dodger move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, he doesn’t mention Robinson’s impact on how the decision played out. When the owner, Walter O’Malley worked with political decision makers to move the stadium to where the Barclay Center exists today, he was defeated by Robert Moses who eyed a new stadium in Flushing Meadow Park, Queens.
What was the impact of Robinson on Moses? Did any decision maker think about Robinson’s affect on the people and community? Did Robinson’s emergence stir up a new sense from immigrants to have more of a say in community development or local political clubs?
Robinson’s story thrills with the exploits on the field. Lelchuk illustrates that with visual excitement. Lelchuk also takes the reader with him to almost become a fly-on-the-wall of Branch Rickey’s office when Rickey talks to Robinson. And the overriding tones of frustration and hope arise as Lelchuk shows the country’s recognition of Robinson.
But when the book’s subtitle desires to show the changes from Robinson on the Brooklyn Community, the book might have served better to illustrate more on community reactions and personal changes of local immigrants and other black residents because of Robinson.